What paper napkins tell us about a country

One way to understand the level of development of an economy is by the availability of paper napkins and/or tissues in local restaurants.

When I had lived in Seoul in the late 1980’s, it was really difficult to get decent-sized paper napkins at local restaurants. If lucky, you would be given a small single-ply piece. Please understand that Korean food can be very messy to eat with the red sauces. I remember my American female  friends treating soft tissue from the states like they were strips of gold. Now, napkins and tissues are relatively abundant in Korea.

Even in the UK back in the 1990’s, I remember my wife complaining about the lack of quality paper napkins at some restaurants. Things have improved a lot since then. Of course, at nice restaurants you  would get the cloth napkins there.

Now, as I visit Vietnam frequently, I’m usually in search of bigger-sized paper napkins (unless at Western style restaurants). What Vietnam restaurants do, however, is provide pre-packaged wet towels. This is very convenient given the tropical weather. These are placed in front of you but if you use them, you are charged extra for them. So, technically there still aren’t good free paper napkins.

Of course, this is all from an American perspective, where we consume an embarrassingly disproportional percentage of the world’s natural resources. Go to any fast food restaurant and watch people grab handfuls from the unlimited supply of napkins, much of which is never used before being thrown away.

I once heard a story while in Korea about a man who would use a paper napkin and then put it back into his pocket. This was truly a frugal man who would re-use his napkin again.