As an avid fan of coffeehouse culture, let me say a few things about this issue regarding the Starbucks incident that ignited in social media and mainstream media early this week. Read about that USA incident here.
This assessment in the Washington Post asks a good question: Who’s a patron and who’s a trespasser? And who gets to decide? Because clearly, that is the initial reason why the Starbucks manager in question called the police on two men who entered their premises,
occupied a table, and didn’t buy anything. Since the men are black, people were quick to raise the race card on this one. White people came to the defense of the black men, also raising the race card on the police, saying that if they were the ones who went there and sat around without buying, they won’t be shooed away. A video of the transaction went viral, ending in the two men being escorted out of the café in a calm manner, but handcuffed.
As an Asian traveler who has experienced going to the USA, I immediately noticed many dining habits that were different there than in the Philippines. Off the top of my head, here are a handful:
Bawal iwanan ang kalat ng pinagkainan. Simply stated, you can’t just leave your food trash after eating. There’s a reason why the garbage bins are clearly identified in fast food chains in the US. You’ll be the one to dispose of your trash after eating. But here in the Philippines, they hire staff to do this thing. It’s not only us who do this. I also noticed this practice in Hong Kong, where the staff who’s assigned to clean up your mess are clearly of senior citizen age. I think that’s also HK’s way of employing older people, so maybe that’s a good thing.
Bawal hindi mag-tip! Now this one boggles my mind. Tipping should be an option, always. All around Asia, I saw that this is the norm. But in the US, it’s mandatory, and there’s even a calculator for you to arrive at the proper tip! I bought one of those disposable handphones to use there during my stay, and it has a built-in tip calculator feature. I also know of one incident that happened to a friend, where their party was chased by the waitress because they didn’t leave a tip. Yeah, the US is serious about this, folks.
Ikaw ang magbabalot ng sarili mong take-out. My very first experience of dining in the US is right off the San Francisco airport, when my US citizen sister brought me to a 24-hour Ihop. And when I can’t finish my very American sized servings, I asked for it to be wrapped for “takeaway.” (No, my fellow Pinoys, they don’t use the term “takeout” there like we do.) And when the wait staff arrived, she brought us the paper bag and the plastic box to put our food in, but she didn’t do it herself. I notice them do the same thing in another eatery. But in other eateries, though, they were the ones who wrapped our food for us (maybe because they had more intricate ways of food presentation, which requires an intricate way of packing — my theory, because this happened in finer dining places).
Bawal ang umistambay. I guess this is the golden rule of all golden rules, spoken or unspoken. We have this term in Filipino called “istambay” which I assume was derived from the term “standby.” Istambay is when you hang out in a place for a long time, without doing much. So this means, if you’re in a restaurant or fast food chain, you can’t just stay there for a long time, even after you have already eaten in that eatery. And Americans won’t be shy on letting you know that you have to leave when you’re done.
I experienced this when I was in New York. My friends and I were looking for a good and cheap place to eat on Fifth Avenue or thereabouts. We stumbled upon this Hispanic eatery, can’t remember if it’s Cuban or South American. But the place felt familiar because their dishes were displayed on a long counter, much like our carinderia style of eateries here at home. Plus a bonus is that the food resembled familiar fare, maybe due to the shared Hispanic heritage we have with the makers of this cuisine. So we three Pinoys in Nooyawk ordered hefty lunch dishes, paid, and found our table in the farthest corner of the place, and happily stuffed ourselves.
It’s no secret that we Filipinos love to eat. But we also inherited this bad side of dining from our Spanish conquistadores of yore, specifically the talking-and-hanging-out-after-eating-while-staying-at-the-table side. I tell you, we can hang out for the same amount of time it took us to eat the food — or longer! So if we eat on an average of like 15–20 minutes, we can also stay and hang out there on the table after eating for a good 15–20 minutes more. But something in the servers’ eyes behind the counter told us that maybe we should vacate already. The woman was giving us some kind of dagger stare, as if shooing us away. Given that the place was not packed anymore (it was already past the 1pm lunch hour rush), but she still glowered at us because we weren’t leaving yet, even if we were finished. And that was when it hit me: “No loitering” is a serious sign we should respect in establishments that put them up. This eatery didn’t have the sign, but it’s clear that that’s the unspoken golden rule there. So even if we were still so full, we tried to move and walk out.
Now if you apply this to the two men who sat there in Starbucks and ordered nothing, just waiting for their business associate to arrive before ordering, then that’s technically “making istambay.” It’s my first time to hear, through this incident, that Starbucks has a number code for their restroom use. Here in the Philippines, the restrooms in Starbucks branches are just free for anyone’s use. It’s up to you if you’ll buy or not. People don’t generally mind this, if you just go in to use their restroom (I guess we Pinoys are kinder that way? Maybe.). So this is one issue that got my attention here. (I tried the Starbucks branches in the US, too, but I didn’t have to use the restroom, so I skipped discovering that info back then).
I know it’s such a tricky thing to discuss this issue coming from just one perspective (as a paying customer) without involving the culture of the place, the neighborhood where this took place, the attitude of people towards races in that country in general (and its history), and similar incidents like these that happen in that city/state. But coming from the point of view of a paying customer, it might be just a simple issue that was blown out of proportion by the framing of it.
For a paying customer, it might indeed be irritating if you see people just sitting there, without ordering anything, occupying space, when you can’t find any for yourself, and you ordered to sit and eat there. This has happened to me several times, not only in Starbucks but in other places as well, both here and abroad. There are establishments who have stricter rules about this, and implement them widely. You can approach the staff and ask for assistance on looking for a table for you, meaning you’re indirectly telling them to shoo away the people who are just “making istambay” there. Some of my friends, who are bolder, directly confront the tambays themselves. Sometimes I don’t want to confront, mainly because I don’t know the whole story of the people who are there, without food or drink on hand, and they might just be like these two guys waiting for their associate to arrive before ordering. It’s truly easy to jump to conclusions about a situation, that’s why I just don’t.
But again, if the waiting has been taking a while, say for 10–15 minutes maybe, it might be more proper to just order something smaller, more affordable. Or if they can’t afford it, or the other party is paying, then maybe it’s better to just wait outside the establishment, and enter it together, if everyone’s already present. Sometimes I do either of the two, when I’m waiting myself. More often than not, I try to buy something small, to earn my rightful place to occupy a table there and sit, and wait. For me, this is the proper thing to do. So I completely understand the shop staff who was bothered by the “istambay” mode, especially if they have observed that the men in question were already there for quite a while without ordering. (But I have to admit, calling the police on them was just OA, man. Too much.)
Also, this is the policy of the store, and if we don’t like it, then we take our business elsewhere. I’ve also walked away from establishments before that don’t treat customers rightfully. We still need to be aware that whenever we enter an establishment, we will be subjected to and bound by the rules of their place. I would understand that it will be an assault to one’s identity if they singled that identity out as a reason for shooing away people.
Here in Metro Manila, we in the LGBT community have specific experiences of being shooed away from establishments who undoubtedly discriminate against us based on our identity. For example, a transwoman who’s dolled up for a night of partying suddenly gets prohibited to enter a club because she didn’t “follow the proper dress code.” And when asked, the establishment said that the dress code is “dresses for women, pants for men.” And the transwomen were being misgendered as men, so they’re seen as “trespassers” of this dress code.
Nearly two decades ago, I was also taken aback when this small, independent café near my university denied my friends’ initial negotiations of holding an event in their place. The café is run by older feminists whom we know are also lesbians like us, and we wanted to hold a special event there for our student lesbian organization. But our officers reported to me that the owners specifically said that they didn’t want their café to be “associated with people like you,” meaning lesbians. They were quick to shut out the pink peso by members of their own community! Boggled the mind, man. That was just doubly sad. But of course, this incident spread like wildfire within the lesbian and NGO community — majority of whom are patrons of the place — so of course the owners retracted and had another dialogue with us. We ended up holding the event there, with many guests as paying customers, and they didn’t complain about “people like us” anymore.
Now those incidents are clearer assaults against one’s identity, especially the trans experience, and it’s clearly discriminatory. But if the Starbucks men were singled out because they’re black (and black men make the staff nervous), and that fact was made obvious by the one who called the police, then that’s a clear case of discrimination. But as the facts of this case trickled out slowly, I don’t think that that specifically happened. But then again, there’s that thing we have to account in here again, the things I mentioned above (i.e. the general attitude towards black men etc.). That’s why this is such a tricky case to discuss without putting disclaimers or without sounding like a simple Starbucks apologist.
Simple rules of business, I suppose. That’s still the bottomline here. I have avoided many a resto in my life since they have such practices I don’t agree with, so maybe we could just do the same. Or maybe we also have to be more mindful of our behavior when in private establishments, or simply do the “more proper” thing to do. And this is not just exclusive to Starbucks, but applies to all eateries out there. But yeah, I agree that wait staff also need to be educated more about how they would treat and regard certain types of people (black men in the USA, or LGBT patrons here in the Philippines). Or maybe just apply one basic umbrella concept for everyone: proper customer service. Both customers and staff need to meet in some form of middle ground, always.