Napkins, Please


I’d like to think of myself as sophisticated - as a citizen of the world. “I’ve traveled,” I tell myself, “I’m cultured. I live in New York City, after all.”

But I’m Western. Very Western. Very American. And nothing reminds me of that like travel.

Take something as simple as napkins, for instance.

When I picture a paper napkin (do it with me if you like), there’s a little variation in size (cocktail or dinner?) and thickness, but all the napkins in my imagination are more substantial than a Kleenex and less sturdy than a paper towel. Right? Even the cheapest of napkins you’d get at a hot dog stand fall into this wide category. Except not in SE Asia. No sir.

At least not at the establishments I frequented on my visit to Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam last month.


What's missing?

I wasn’t pursuing fine dining. I attempted to eat where the locals ate - at the mom and pop places on every corner.

Here’s what I found: a napkin in Asia is not a napkin at all.

Most establishments would have a little dispenser, right next to the condiments of something that at first glance looked like it would hold napkins. But no, it contained a paper substance that resembled, or often was, one-ply toilet paper. So thin as to be translucent and often in a long roll you had to tear off. What? Why? This stuff is too flimsy to clean up a true mess or sit in your lap. It disintegrates on contact. But bring some with you along to the bathroom because you might be confronted there with a toilet a few inches off the floor and nary a paper product to be seen. Only a little hose, if you know how to use it. Otherwise, drip dry.

In Vietnam I found they use a slightly different, though equally less satisfying, napkin substitute. The wet wipe. Not a tiny packet like you’d find accompanying the heavy duty paper towel at a rib shack in Texas for post brisket cleanup, but rather a full-on moist towelette. They are more like something you’d wipe a child’s butt with but more watery. These, it seems, are really for pre-meal clean up not actual in-meal napkining. They are far too wet to put in your lap and end up sitting on the table slowly leaking water throughout the meal. Usable only in the most dire of circumstances because then your hands are all wet.

Are SE Asians are just a lot less sloppy eaters than we are? If that’s true, I salute them.

I, on the other hand, and for the sake of all around me, require a straight-up napkin. Preferably something to go in my lap. Possibly even more than one if a drippy curry is involved. Maybe for my next SE Asia visit I’m just going to take a roll of Bounty with me. That would work. I'm sure all six feet of me and my very absorbent paper towels won't stand out. Not at all.