I got into it today with a Chinese waitress. I sat down with a friend to lunch and everything but the main dish and our tea arrived on time. My friend’s tap water I had to ask for twice. The soup arrived when we were ninety percent finished. The bill came out to £8.80, and we gave her £10.40 (Me, I wanted £1 back exactly). She didn’t come back to our table with the change. My friend got up to go use the loo, so I suggested I’d walk over and ask for what was owed. The waitress stood by the side of the counter, and when I said, “May I have my change please?” she shook her head and pointed at a tin holding tips.

Did I feel inclined to tip her? No. I felt the quality of service didn’t warrant it, and it’s not required to tip in England, although culturally, it’s becoming more American here to imply gratuity. But you still have a choice to exercise, and it wasn’t stated as a requirement on the menu.

I said, “May I have my change please?”

She said No.

I said, “May I have my change please?” After living nineteen years in the States, and it being socially implied that one must pay tip, I felt entitled to exercise my option to tip people here in London. Coming to America from Australia, where you only tipped it you felt as if that person had served you well and done you a great service, it had proved a rude awakening to adjust to U.S. standards.

I said, “May I have my change please?”

She stood her ground and said No, emphasising her objection with her hands.

I repeated, “May I have my change please?”

Again, she replied in the negative and gripped the counter top.

I stood there, with the entire room of six other tables with people eating, and my friend behind me fading into silence. The waitress and I looked into each others’ eyes, as I said again:

“May I have my change please?”

She wouldn’t budge on her answer, gesticulating with her hands. Rather than lose my patience, I kept repeating my request, my mind one-track. I didn’t even recall the world around me as we engaged in this verbal locking of horns.

I said, “May I have my change please?”

I don’t know how much time passed, although my friend later told me, “That went on for at least five minutes! Geez!”

I’m certain the rest of the customers were watching us intently, but the room had faded to black. The universe disappeared. I kept repeating in the same polite monotone voice, “May I please have my change?”

“May I please have my change?”

“May I please have my change?”

Not sure why she chose to hold out on me, I nonetheless felt for this woman. It’s not easy making a living in a foreign country, surrounded by a culture not your own. It’s not easy living in a big city, and feeling buffeted by the elements, and the number of people. Still I was entitled to getting my money back.

I repeated, “May I please have my change?”

My eyes darted up and caught the clock on the wall. One forty five p.m. I had to be down at my practice room soon to set up for a 3pm appointment.

I said, “Sorry, but I need to get going, so may I have my change please?”

Finally she relented, her jaw working, as she walked behind the counter, counted out £1.60 from the register and placed the coins, not in the palm of my hand, but flat on the counter top. I picked them up, said, “Thank you”, spun on my heel, not caring nor considering if my friend was behind me. As the door shut, I heard the waitress cuss in a Chinese dialect. It wasn’t Cantonese or Mandarin, as those I would have understood, but I’m pretty sure it had something to do with my mother.

Erica, soon to be 35, London, UK