More Trash Means More Jobs

After eating all Chinese food for about a week, my family was delighted to stop into Starbucks in Hangzhou. (Funny how a familiar corporate logo can engender feelings of fondness.) We had the following conversation:

> Me: You don’t need to gather up the trash. They’ll clear the table when we leave.

> Mom: But the trash can is just right there.

> Me: Still, you don’t need to do it. It’s their job. You don’t want to take away their job, do you?

> Mom: I’m just going to throw it away.

> Me: If everyone did that, people would be out of jobs. To ensure these people’s jobs, I think we should give them more work by throwing all our trash on he ground.

(Yeah, my mom learned to ignore my comments long ago.)


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. John, you are absolutely right. It’s true everywhere I imagine, certainly in Australia. Plus, there’s nothing worse than spending all day at work with nothing to do.

  2. I dissent.

    1) Even – or probably: especially – people in menial 500-kuai-a-month jobs need to get some respect now and then.

    2) Just as importantly: you entire premise is off the mark. More efficiency in the economy leads to more, not less, jobs and affluence in anything else than the shortest of terms.

  3. Herringbone Says: June 9, 2007 at 12:25 am

    Are you being serious, or were you just acting like a dick for the sake of it? Even if you ignore the fact that creating useless work can only ever have a negative effect (look up the “broken window fallacy” on whatever online reference source isn’t blocked this week), it’s just plain rude – both to the cleaning staff and to your fellow customers who have to put up with your litter until someone comes along to clean it up.

  4. ambrose Says: June 9, 2007 at 12:30 am

    I make sure my three-year-old always picks up after himself at Starbucks here in China, even when he protests, “But they can pick it up.” Someday we will have to move back to the US, where we will always be responsible for our messes.
    One time I was at a Starbucks in Shenzhen (okay one I visit almost daily) with my son and I struck up a conversation with a Chinese-Canadian family. The couple had both grown up in Vancouver and attended college in Seattle. Even though they were ethnically Chinese and spoke Mandarin, they had some difficulty adjusting in their eight years living in Shenzhen. When Starbucks arrived in China, they told me that they were ecstatic. The husband said to me, in all seriousness, “There’s something about seeing a Starbucks that makes you feel safe.”

  5. Herringbone,

    Hmmm, I’ll have to go with “just acting like a dick for the sake of it.”

    I’m a horrible person.

  6. There’s an interesting (and audacious) parallel with the condition of the elderly people when the family decides to bring them to some old people’s home.
    Of course it creates jobs and makes your life easier but it’s not the best social behaviour.

  7. jon byrne Says: June 9, 2007 at 3:15 am

    John , personally i think that you are right to leave the rubbish , the staff are paid to do a job and why not let them do it . Maybe they dont like the fact that you leave the rubbish maybe they do , who’s to say ? Maybe your actions could have been the catalist that spurred them on to find another that they might find more rewarding . Of course if we all took the HERRINGBONE veiw ( useless people doing useless job’s ) and did not leave rubbish , then maybe their boss could get rid of them and save a fortune in wages over the years . and heres the good bit of “THE HERRINGBONE THEORY ” the boss could then go out and spend the money he has saved , on things he likes and so aid the economy .” Ahh but what of the sacked worker” i hear you cry , “dont worry ” i would say , because according to a person known as HERRINGBONE they were useless workers doing a useless job anyway,,,sod em . I think with an attitude like yours herringbone you’ll go far . just one question though , are you being serious or just being a dick for the sake of it ?

  8. John also stomps on flowers and kicks puppy dogs. He main currency is pain.

  9. Rachel Liter Says: June 9, 2007 at 6:11 am

    You people just don’t understand the culture. They don’t care if you’re trying to appear responsible by picking up your own crap. In western society we’re taught to do that, but to them it’s their job and what right do you have to take that away. When in Rome people!

  10. Funny, the other day Ruth sent me a list of 301 Things “You Know You’ve Been In China Too Long When . . . ” and this EXACT thing was one of them! Only it was, you leave your tray on the table in McDonalds because you don’t want to deprive someone of a job. (My favorite on the list, by the way, was “You know you’ve been in China too long when the footprints on the toilet seat are yours.”) Anyway . . . it’s their job and they don’t mind. One day last year my husband went with me to Jusco and he was astounded at the number of employees. He excused himself for a minute, came back, and said, “I counted 329 employees, and that doesn’t include any people in the back where I couldn’t see!” Yeah, I think they like their jobs. In fact, an expat manager for a huge multnational told me that labor is so inexpensive that each brand name in Jusco can afford to have a dedicated employee stand beside their product and hawk it, (which is why shopping in China is so noisy)! I do try to have some standards, to be respectful of the people cleaning up and not leaving messes that are totally gross. My kids seem to have no problem shifting back and forth between the cultures, where Starbucks is concerned, as we tend simply to “do as the Romans do.” What they really suffer from, when they’re back in the USA, is when they have to clean their own rooms . . . poor darlings! 😉

  11. I heard the same argument in Britain, actually, although I think that attitude is slowly changing with this generation. Any Britains out there to comment?

    Here (Singapore) some places require you to clean your own place (school canteens, etc.) and others make it impossible for you to (hawker centers). With Subway, McDonalds, and Starbucks, it’s right in the middle (they put a trash can there, but don’t encourage you to use it.)

  12. I remember having this EXACT conversation with you almost four years ago. However, I still throw out my own trash at fast food joints, but for you John, I glare at the cleaning person on the way out.

  13. It all depends to what extent you, as a foreigner in China (if that’s what you are), want to make yourself conspicuos and the object of attention.

    If the normal behavior in this context is to leave it on the table, then that is what is normal in that place, in that culture. If you want people to turn and look at you and wonder what the weird foreigner is up to, then bus your own table.

    Who knows why, but in Taiwan the North American conventions are observed by customers in the North American-derived places like Starbucks and 肯德雞. It is considered inconsiderate to leave trash on the table as you leave. I suppose it is just another of the many examples of the differences between culture and social conventions in the two countries.

    The local norm that I myself flagrantly violate in Taiwan is walking across the street at a normal pace, on the designated striped cross-walk, when I have the green walk signal. Pedestrians here are expected to dodge in panic and leap out of the way of cars turning right at full speed. I have to pretend I don’t see them, otherwise they do come extremely close before stopping and giving me an angry glare.

  14. Shanghaios Says: June 9, 2007 at 10:26 am

    Interesting questiion indeed. Obviously, this situation in the Starbucks is a pretty “safe” one wherein you don’t really harm people by leaving your trash. But do you also throw you trash on the street, out of the bus/train-window, in the yellow-mountains, etc. because otherwise the guys cleaning up these places would turn unemployed as well?

  15. When in Rome people!

    So I’ll just spit, litter, cut in line, scream into my mobile phone and pick my nose with my frighteningly long pinky nail while twirling my facial mole hairs like the other Romans do…? Yeah, that’s the ticket!

  16. makes me recall my last time in McDonald, the cleaning stuff (an old woman) was standing next to us, in a complete daze, repeating mopping the same table for 30 mins.
    so i guess they are forced to be nonstop since they get paid (or the boss is watching’em? ). whatever they do, some must be pointless.

  17. ambrose Says: June 9, 2007 at 12:48 pm

    Well, the when in Rome argument can work for adults, but those of us with children who might have to move back to the US someday have to teach them to pick up after themselves, put la ji in la ji tong, use the toilet and not the street, and say please and thank you to everyone, and especially to those who make less then 1000 RMB a month making coffee or jiao zi.

  18. rachel liter Says: June 9, 2007 at 1:19 pm

    “So I’ll just spit, litter, cut in line, scream into my mobile phone and pick my nose with my frighteningly long pinky nail while twirling my facial mole hairs like the other Romans do…? Yeah, that’s the ticket!”

    What does those nasty habits have to do with doing someone else’s job?! Great comparison moron.

  19. rachel liter Says: June 9, 2007 at 1:22 pm

    Clean your crap if it pleases you. I guess you don’t get ticked when someone tries to do your job carun?

  20. Wow canrun, you just managed to insult 1.3 billion people in one long bitter sentence. For your sake I hope more creepy old men twirl their mole hairs just for arrogant and disrespectful jerks like you. God smiles everytime you cringe.

  21. I’d rather be the jerk because of cleaning up after myself than be the jerk for not cleaning up after myself.

  22. hmmm…I just finished working in a Chinese barber shop for a month, and I can’t say that I believe that there is much of a correlation between people hired and work which actually needs to be done.

  23. I don’t believe that picking up your own garbage falls under rules of morality or decency. In his book “Fast Food Nation,” Eric Schlosser discusses in depth how fast food companies have ingeniously shifted the work from their employees to the customers. This translates to millions of dollars per year in savings for the fast food giants, and it is so subtle that we have been trained to think of ourselves as “jerks” for not cleaning up after ourselves when we are the paying customers.

    By the way, according to his message on google talk John is getting married today…恭喜恭喜

  24. If I go to a real restaurant in the US, I don’t go to the back afterwards and clean my dishes. They have people who clean up for you, it’s their job. It’s not rude, lazy, or messy. It’s just the normal expected behavior.

    Similarly, in Chinese McDonald’s I don’t pick up the mop and clean up after my dirty shoes.

    Is it economically inefficient? Well if it saves time for customers who earn more than 12 kuai/hour (or however much McD workers make), I think it makes economic sense.

    And all congratulations to Mr. John!

  25. pharmine Says: June 9, 2007 at 11:20 pm

    When I traveled to Taiwan and had supper at a fast-food restaurant, I handed my plate to the cleaning staff after I finished eating. She said “xiexie” and there was no problem.

  26. For the most part, I still clean up after myself when I go to McDonald’s or KFC. A lot of the time when I do, one of the cleaning ladies or men will come and take it out of my hands even if I am standing right in front of the trash can and finish the job for me. They always smile at me and tell me not to worry about it. Every once in a while though, I’ll leave my trash on the table because there are throngs of people to walk through to get to the trash can and I don’t feel like pushing and shoving. I think the mentality of “it’s someone else’s job” contributes to so many people throwing their bottles, tissues, and other trash out on the sidewalk as they go about their daily lives. That is just my opinion though. Maybe I’m wrong.

  27. Though I have never been to china, I did at one time work fast food in the US. We had a couple customers who always left their trash on tables and it was such an annoyance. They always seemed to leave when we had a line at the registers and someone would have to run out and clean up . Even if people do throw their trash away It takes so little time that I would think that there are still tables to wipe down, floors to mop, etc. Things I have problems with are ATM machines, self check outs, automated customer service phones , and things like that.

  28. Why behaving like this?
    I simply cannot understand!!!!

  29. So I’ll just spit, litter, cut in line, scream into my mobile phone and pick my nose with my frighteningly long pinky nail while twirling my facial mole hairs like the other Romans do…? Yeah, that’s the ticket!

    I do all that while I lay on the horn of my moped while revving down residential areas at midnight….everyday. It ain’t an easy life I live.

  30. My best friend always insisted that it was helping the poor to leave empty beer cans, tea bottles and other recyclables along the side of the road, in parks or wherever he happened to finish them.

    I’m a bit skeptical about the world running out of work, but I’m sure I’ll convince my mom of the virtue in protecting jobs through laziness next time she comes out to visit, too.

  31. Do people here also insist on tipping 15% at their local Kung Pao chicken joint? That’s how it’s done in the US, after all. Anything else is just being cheap!

  32. @Jeff:

    Hear, hear!

    May I also suggest the Belgian (a.k.a. ‘Rhineland’) way: negligable tipping but on the other hand decent state-enforced minimum wages – with good social security. And oh: a culture where bartenders and waiters are generally respected.

    Full disclosure: I worked my way through college as a bartender and stayed in that profession for years after, basically because I liked it.

  33. The fact that large corporations are saving money by having the customer do the work is a seemingly valid reason for leaving the work to the paid workers. However, many fast food places, like McD’s, are franchises owned by small business people, not ultra-rich tycoons. Either way, you aren’t sticking it to the big corporation by leaving a mess, you are just giving a poorly paid worker a little more work to do. Also the analogy of customers not mopping up behind the counter isn’t directly related to the mess the individual creates, while the garbage on the table is.

    Where is the boundary? What if you drop something on the floor? Do you not pick it up? What about out in the parking lot or on the sidewalk that belongs to the restaurant? Can you just throw your garbage down there as well?

    Haven’t alot of places had to actually hire more people just to do the garbage policing outside because people are dirtier?

  34. For those who clear their own trash in American restaurent, will they do the same when they have meal in Chinese, French, Italy restaurent

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