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Wednesday, November 10, 2010


The serviette index

At the moment I am in Cambodia, a country considered to be one of the least developed in Asia.

Prior to coming here I was in Malaysia. While I was in Melaka there was a celebration because the state of Melaka had achieved developed status. One English-language newspaper had a supplement celebrating this occasion. A whole page was devoted to listing the criteria by which Melaka could be compared with developed countries and found to also be developed.

There was one criteria that I believe was missing. That is the serviette index.

In Asia, dining out is the norm. More often than not it is cheaper to dine out than to eat at home. So why go to all the trouble of preparing a meal? I'm not suggesting that everyone always dines in classy restaurants. Most people don't. They buy street food or something that is just one step above that. The food is still good. But you're not paying for classy surroundings. In Malaysia there are food courts, independent of malls, that sell a wide variety of foods at reasonable prices. This is where many Malaysian people eat on a daily basis.

Until my recent visit, I've had three years of spending very little time in Malaysia. Prior to that I'd stayed in Malaysia for months at a stretch. What I noticed on my return was that most of these cheaper eating places, including many restaurants, no longer provide serviettes.

OK, let's get this straight. You don't get a real serviette in any but the more expensive restaurants and there you still do. In the others, the cheaper restaurants, the food courts and the street establishments, you used to get tissues. They do the job. You finish the meal and you need something to wipe your mouth and fingers. A tissue is all you need. There used always to be a plastic box of tissues on the table and you helped yourself.

They're no longer there.

I asked my friends, 'Has this changed or is my memory deceiving me?'

My friends told me that in recent years tissues have gradually disappeared from the tables of all these cheaper eating places. You need to bring your own.

There is one place in Melaka where I used to eat regularly when I stayed there before. The first night I went there on my return the woman who ran the place didn't seem to recognise me. But the second night she seemed to be staring at me a lot. When I went to pay my bill she said, 'How come you not come long time?'

This place is the exception. They still have proper paper serviettes. Not tissues but real serviette-sized thick folded paper for wiping your face and hands. But they don't leave it on the tables. They have it on the counter.

At this restaurant I recognised a guy, about my age, who seemed to eat there every night. He stares straight at me every night but can't so much as nod. And this guy, I noticed on several nights, goes to the counter and casually takes a bundle of serviettes, folds them and puts them in his pocket. Perhaps it's because of people like him that the other places have stopped providing tissues.

But now back in Cambodia everywhere I eat, even the cheapest street stalls, they always provide a box of tissues. If there was a serviette index for measuring development, Cambodia would be considered a more developed country than Malaysia.

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