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The International Writers Magazine: Asia Life

The Chinese Calculator & the Coupons of Death
Antonio Graceffo
I was living in a Chinese neighborhood, outside of Kuala Lumpur while doing some martial arts and filming work with my master. Morning, I would normally take my breakfast at the Mamak, a 24-hour cafeteria, run by Muslim Indians. But, the previous day, I got myself into a shouting match with a waiter, and was now banned from eating there. So, unless I wanted to eat noodles or rice for breakfast, I was relegated to eating at McDonalds.


Five thousand miles from home, I was eating at McDonalds. This was my way of exploring local culture and cuisine. How much more American could I be?

I told Sheung Di, my Chinese friend and cameraman, “Every time I go for breakfast at McDonalds there’s a line out the door. It’s like trying to get into a rock concert.”
“Yes, they’re having a promotion.” He said, without a second’s hesitation. “And all of the Chinese families are going there with coupons they downloaded from the website. Looking for bargains is like a sport for us Chinese.”

The next morning, when I returned to McDonalds, I realized what Sheung Di has said was true. All of the people in line had coupons that they had printed out. It took more than thirty minutes to finally get to the counter and place your order. During that time, the conversation revolved around these coupons.
“Are you sure you can use photocopies of the coupon?” One woman asked her friend.
“It doesn’t say we can’t.” The second woman responded. She was holding two of the photocopies like her life depended on them.
A fiftyish, Cantonese woman in line behind me asked, “Do you have a coupon?”
“No, I guess I’m part of a small minority of people, paying cash.” I joked.
“We’re all paying cash.” She quipped. “But we’re smart enough to use a coupon and get free food.”
I was about to take offense, when she asked, “Would you like a coupon?”
“Sure.” I said, getting excited. She handed me the paper and I realized why people were going nuts with these things. It was good for two free Big Breakfast sets, with any five Ringit purchase (5 Ringit = $1.60). Those sets were huge, and they cost ten Ringit each. So, for a five Ringit purchase they got twenty Ringit of food for free.

Like I said, at first I got excited, but then the reality hit me. I don’t need two Big Breakfast sets. All I needed was my sausage McMuffin and a cup of coffee. I handed the coupon back to the lady. “Thanks, but although it’s such a great deal, I don’t see what I could do with a total of three breakfasts.”

“You could give them to me.” She said simply. I imagine that was her plan all along. “They only allow us two coupons per person.” She added. This explained why people were borrowing children to take through the line with coupons. Of course, this meant that this woman was already getting the two breakfasts, which she was forced to buy, in order to use the two coupons so she could get the four free breakfasts. Apparently, six breakfasts wasn’t enough for her. She needed me to get her two more.

“Do you eat hash-browns?” She asked me.
“No, I don’t, but they’re part of the sausage McMuffin set.” I answered.
“You don’t have to buy that one. It’s seven Ringit. Instead, you should buy the value set, which still has the sausage McMuffin and coffee, but no hash-browns. It’s only five Ringit.”

That made sense. This woman’s greed was starting to eat at me (pardon the pun), but now she was saving me money. Maybe it was a good thing I met her.
“You sure do know a lot about McDonalds.” I complimented her.
When I ordered my value breakfast and handed the guy the coupons, he responded, “Sorry boss, you cannot use this coupon in connection with any other special offer. So, you have to buy the full breakfast combo, for seven Ringit, to use this coupon.”

I was already embarrassed to be part of this coupon fiasco. And this was just prolonging it. I almost told the woman to give up and let me eat in peace. Instead, however, I said, “That’s fine. Just give me the full set.”

The response of the Cantonese woman was infuriating. “Why are you requiring us to buy a full breakfast set?” She shouted at the poor worker. “It doesn’t say that on the coupon. It just says, ‘Any five Ringit purchase.’ There is no further restriction.”

 Looked at from a certain angle, she was right. The coupon did say ‘Any five Ringit purchase’ but, it just didn’t feel right to argue and fight this much to gain two Ringit. The unwritten rule of coupons has always been, that you can’t combine two special offers. So, I wouldn’t try to use a special promotion cheap-meal to enact a coupon for free meals. On the other hand, McDonalds is a huge, faceless corporation. Why should I care if someone imposes on them with coupon abuse?

I guess it wasn’t really the corporation I was trying to save, but the worker. Most of the fast food workers in Malaysia are ethnic Malays who earn less in a week than I get for my daily per-dium allowance. I always feel bad for minimum-wage workers in rich neighborhoods, where they must be made acutely aware of how poor they are. Every country I go to, part of the economic analysis that I do is my “work-to-burger ratio.” This ratio asks, how many hours would a local worker have to put in, to be able to eat the product he is selling? In Thailand, for example, a Starbucks employee would have to put in five hours to drink a venti ‘coffee of the day,’ which is one of the cheapest drinks you can get. In Vietnam, a barista at Highland coffee would have to work almost an entire eight-hour shift to drink a single café late. In Malaysia, a McDonalds employee has to put in about three hours to buy a Big Mac meal.

Across Asia, rich people are known for treating low-level workers terribly. Singaporeans in particular have a reputation for not tipping and for being extremely demanding customers. Rich Malaysians seem to follow suit. Americans, on the other hand, in spite of all of the other accusations; that we are fat, stupid and don’t speak foreign languages, Americans are known for being the best tippers. That may be because most of us have stood on the other side of that counter, and slug fast-food for peanuts. In the book, “Grinding it Out” McDonalds founder, Ray Krock, said that 18% of Americans had their first job at McDonalds. While that may seem a bit high, even if they didn’t work at McDonalds, most Americans have worked in minimum wage or fast-food jobs while they were in high school or university.

In Asia, on the other hand, if you’re rich enough to go to university, you usually won’t work until you graduate, at which point, you will go directly into the professional job that you trained for.

I worked at McDonalds once, back in 1986, and lasted exactly four shifts. The job was so awful, I didn’t even go back to collect my paycheck. It’s horrible, hot, sweaty, hectic work. There’s always a line out the door. You’d be surprised how many customers treated McDonalds like a real restaurant and want special orders or weird combinations of sauces and seasonings, all of which have to be done by hand. A McDonalds shift is incredibly taxing. Orders are constantly coming in. While you’re waiting on customers or working the till, you have multiple products cooking, all of which finish at different times. Alarms go off, and you have to drop what you’re doing, run back and pull up your fries or flip your hamburgers. Sometimes, when it was time to flip the burgers, I would see that the chicken nuggets or some other product were fifteen seconds from being finished, so I would stay there and wait. Then the manager would yell at me, “Never stand or lean. At McDonalds, there‘s always work to be done. And you need to use every minute of your time.”

I guess the corporation was worried that if I waited fifteen seconds for the nuggets to come up, they wouldn’t get four-dollars-and-fifty-cents worth of work out of me every hour. Eventually, I protested by complying. “During the fifteen seconds until nuggets come up, I will go clean the parking lot.” I told the boss. I went to the broom closet, grabbed a broom, made it two steps toward the door, and the timer went off. So, I dropped my broom and ran back to pull up the nuggets.

“Fries down!” someone on the front line yelled. And I dropped a basket of fries. Now, I had one-and-a-half minutes till the fries were ready but forty seconds left on my burgers. “I think someone should clean the roof.” I told the manager.

The manager was so blinded by corporate-speak he never saw that I was just taking the piss out of him and the whole system he represented. “I like your enthusiasm.” He said. “But we have to work within the confines of the time allotted.”

“Are you saying cleanliness is not important?” I asked, as if I were about to call Ronald McDonald and report him.
“No, no, I’m not saying that.” He stuttered, narrowly averting disaster. “I am just saying we have to give fast, clean, efficient service to the customers, because this is the strength of McDonalds.”

He was a company man, who had drunk deeply of the drug-laced cool-aid until he finally said, “Now, I love the dear leader.”

The final blow to my McCareer came when I was assembling a Big Mac. Each Big Mac was meant to receive two pickles. The pickles came from a small tray, on the assembly table, and the rule was that you couldn’t refill the tray till every pickle had been used. This is actually a really important health policy, because if you keep adding fresh pickles to old pickles, you don’t know how old the food is, and you may inadvertently poison the customers.

The manager was watching me, as I grabbed two pickles and threw them on the burger. I was about to wrap it up, when he yelled at me. “Don’t you see that one of those pickles is smaller than standard size?” He admonished.

Actually, I had noticed that, but wasn’t sure if it mattered. So, I opened the burger and threw on one more, standard-sized pickle.

“A Big Mac is supposed to receive two, not three pickles.” He shouted. “I think we need to send you back to training.”

Keep in mind, this was my fourth day at work. By ‘training,’ I think he meant the first twenty minutes of the first day. I had already been through Army boot camp. It wasn’t like he was threatening to send me back there, like “Oh, man, training was so grueling! I never want to relive that hell. It was the worst twenty minutes of my life.”

So, the threat was lost on me. What wasn’t lost, however, was the insult to my intelligence. I only put the extra pickle because the first pickle was too small.

So, I removed the substandard pickle and was about to throw it in the trash.

“What are you doing! Don’t ever throw food away.” He yelled. “At McDonalds, you need to always be thinking about how to earn money. The company is here to make money, and that should be your goal. Always thinking, ‘how can we make more money’”

“And the company will give some of this money to me?” I asked.
My obvious question hit him like a left jab, and the manager was rocked on his feet. But he regained composure after a standing-eight-count. “Yes, they give the money back to you in the form of a salary.’
“You mean the four-dollars-and-fifty-cents an hour that I get?” I asked.
“Yes, exactly. Where do you think that money comes from? So, you need to think of ways to help the company earn more money.”
“But they’re already paying me four-dollars-and-fifty-cents, without me thinking of anything. What’s in it for me if the company earns more?”
“Pride.” He said.

Ah yes, pride. Every morning, when I put on that uniform I felt pride coursing through every fryer-induced zit on my face. I was representing a long and glorious corporate tradition. And just knowing that our sales were higher than Burger King made me border on arrogance. And, don’t forget, I also got four-dollars-and-fifty-cents, which came out to $3.90 after taxes. And you could almost get a Big Mac meal for that.

“So, what should I do with this small pickle?” I asked, returning to Earth.
“Put it back in the pickle tray.”

I worked around that small pickle, while I made up the rest of the Big Macs. Finally, I reached a point where the only pickle left in the tray was the small one. And of course, more Big Macs were being cooked. This meant I needed to refill the pickle tray. But I wasn’t allowed to throw away the small pickle. I also wasn’t allowed to put it on a burger.

It was like a scene out of Kafka. I had the line workers yelling at me because Big Mac production had fallen behind. But, the manager wouldn’t let me take new pickles till the old ones were used. And, I wasn’t allowed to use the small pickle.

The stress caused by that one undersized pickle was too much for me. I snapped, and walked out. Sadly, I never found out how they resolved the small pickle incident. For all I know, to this day, that particular McDonalds, hasn’t been able to sell any burgers, because of a twenty-five year old pickle clogging up the works.

That story ran through my head at the speed of light. When it ended, I heard the Cantonese woman still yelling at the Malay worker. The one plus was that his English was pretty minimal so, he understood the tone, but not the content of her tirade.

I turned to the Cantonese woman and in a stern voice said, “You’re getting twenty Ringit of food for a purchase of seven Ringit. Let it go!” of course, my statement wasn’t exactly true, because she wasn’t spending seven Ringit. I was. So, why did she even care?

That evening, when Sheung Di and I were driving to our filming location, I recounted the whole story. At the end, I added one more detail that had occurred to me during the intervening several hours, “At no point did she offer me one or any part of the free breakfasts. She never said to me, ‘here, I’ll pay half of your seven Ringit breakfast, and you let me get the two free breakfasts. In her calculation, I wasn’t entitled to anything. She wanted me to do all of the work but get none of the profit.”

Sheung Di just laughed. “That is what we call the Chinese calculator.”

© Antionio Graceffo April 1 2011
Brooklyn Monk, Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. He is the author of the books, “Warrior Odyssey’ and “The Monk from Brooklyn.” He is also the host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” which traces his ongoing journey through Asia, learning martial arts in various countries.

Warrior Odyssey, the book chronicling Antonio Graceffo’s first six years in Asia is available at The book contains stories about the war in Burma and the Shan State Army.



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