Sometimes, total strangers can make your day. Three random Chinese dudes did me the honour today.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been volunteering over at Annalakshmi’s, the Indian restaurant at Chinatown. The place works on a simple concept – eat whatever you want, pay how much ever you like. It sounds bone-headed, and would probably fail miserably if executed in India, but here in Singapore it works wonders. Especially on foreigners, who (poor souls) have no clue how much these things are likely to cost in normal restaurants and so end up erring on the side of caution and paying rather generously. I’m sure the place gets its share of miserly hogs too, but I doubt it tips the scale much.
Anyway, the place is run almost entirely by volunteers, and relies almost entirely on word-of-mouth to “recruit” these volunteers. People sign up to help whenever they’re free, and amazingly enough, sufficient numbers of people turn up every day to keep the place going. Volunteering is roughly divided into two branches in terms of place of work – “floor” and behind the scenes. The floor people take the orders, the BTS people make the food and arrange it appropriately and the floor people take it out to the customers and serve them. It all sounds simple enough, but when the place starts filling up, things can get pretty crazy and downright chaotic.
But no matter how crazy the day gets (the large crowds are fondly called “Friday crowds”, no matter what day of the week it is), it’s all worth it. At the end of the day, you go home with 3 things – a free meal (which, ironically, feels well-earned), the satisfaction of having spent your time and energy productively and the happiness of having fed a few hungry stomachs.
I was stationed behind the scenes on my first day of volunteering and that’s where I stayed from then on, but I’d always had the desire to see what it’d be like to be on the floor. The stories the floor people told us during our 3 o’ clock lunches (which we’d have after all the customers had left) would leave me curious and longing to experience it first-hand. I got the opportunity to serve somebody one day, but the guy was so busy chatting with his colleague seated opposite him that he barely acknowledged my presence. I’d not expected anything different, but the incident somehow dampened my fervent wish to be on the floor, at least for a good while.
Somewhere deep down, I must’ve still wanted to give it another shot because as soon as I saw the opportunity present itself again today, I went into overdrive. As we were wrapping up with lunch, 3 young Chinese fellows came into the restaurant and took a seat at one of the tables. I shot an expectant look at our head volunteer/co-ordinator, a look she correctly interpreted as “Can I, can I, can I, pretty please?” She gave me an amused nod and I skipped off with the order pad, extremely happy and nervous.
To be honest, the dudes didn’t do anything extra-ordinary. They were pleasantly chatty, and inquired a bit about the menus (the general onion/garlic queries). I recommended some stuff to them, they agreed. They gave me their orders, I went BTS and got their food ready. I went back to serve them and they received the food well, commenting on how good it looked/smelled, etc. I smiled at them, told them to enjoy their meals and then left them to their food. Normal stuff, right? For some reason, it got me ecstatic. The minute I was out of earshot, I started “Yay!”ing. They’d asked me for advice! I’d recommended stuff! They’d listened to me! They’d smiled at me! They’d been polite! I was jumping around the place for at least an hour after that, I was that overjoyed.
On the way back home, I wondered what had gotten me so ecstatic. Had it just been the polite smiles and the pleasant chit-chat? It must’ve been, because the fellas hadn’t done anything else, really. I’d always known instinctively to be nice, polite and cheerful to waiters/waitresses, but today it hit home how important it really is. People take it for granted that since they’re paying for their food, their words of appreciation aren’t needed. They couldn’t be more wrong. Sometimes, the odd kind word makes all the difference. They probably don’t even realize it, but just by observing the codes of conduct, the Chinese dudes totally made my day.
So the next time you go to a restaurant, or buy food from the stall owner at the local food-court, smile. Be pleasant. Throw in an appreciative word or two. Take the time to look up when your food is brought to you and say a cheerful “thank you” to the waiter/waitress. When you find your food particularly appetizing, send a word of appreciation to the chef slaving away behind the scenes. It won’t cost you anything, but it’ll mean the world to them. We’re all human beings, we thrive on pats on the back and the occasional kind word. It seems redundant to even say this, but it’s surprising how many people take this stuff for granted. The message is simple, really. Treat the people who serve you right, and they’ll serve you right too. That’s all there is to it. Take it from someone who’s been on both sides of the counter.