Fighting For the Bill- A Chinese Tradition

Recently after having lunch with some Chinese friends they tried to pay the bill even though we had invited them out for the meal.  We actually got into a little tussle about it.  We teased our friends they should stop being so Chinese and let us pay the bill. Although I know it’s a stereotype I have to say that after living in a Chinese country for six years it was my experience that Chinese people do like to fight over who pays the bill. 

When I taught in Hong Kong one of my journalism students wrote a very funny story about her family’s fights over paying the bill at a restaurant. 

The article headline was Paying the Bill and the piece was written by Joanna Ip. 

Dinners with my extended family are amicable and jovial – but everything changes when it’s time to pay the bill. Suddenly, encouraging smiles twist into feral grins and affectionate looks are replaced by glinting, calculating glances. Every adult surreptitiously slips out hundred-dollar-bill-laden wallets as they eye the unsuspecting waitress carrying the prized bill. And then its pandemonium! My eldest aunt grabs the bill, only to have it snatched away by my fourth aunt, while my uncle strides up to the pair with an authoritative, outstretched hand and my grandmother shouts at the top of her lusty lungs for the bill.

When I was young, I remember riding in a taxi with one of my mother’s friends who had to get out of the taxi at an earlier stop. The second before her departure the friend quickly dropped a hundred-dollar bill into the driver’s hand. My mother’s adrenaline rocketed sky-high as her shrill voice began a long list of polite objections. She rudely yanked the money out of the driver’s hand and attempted to shove it into her friend’s clenched fist. There was a brief yet fierce scuffle as the two women struggled over the money. Our friend finally climbed out of the taxi and slammed the door in my mother’s anguished face. However, in a brilliant stroke of sheer genius, my mother cracked open the taxi window, defiantly tossed the hundred-dollar bill onto the filthy road, and ordered the taxi driver to zoom away. My mother had emerged victorious.

I will be the first to admit some Chinese customs are just plain weird, but this one trumps all. Why is it that all Chinese adults rush to pay the bill? According to American TV shows and movies, many people strategize how to avoid paying their share of a bill! Chinese people however are offended if they can’t pay.

To come up with an explanation we must consider the origins of the Chinese mindset. Ever since the Han dynasty, social hierarchy has meant the world to the Chinese people, and showing proper respect to elders includes not bothering those respected men and women with personal requests for help. To ask others for assistance shows weakness due to an inability to fulfill personal duties. This attitude reflects the Chinese desire to retain dignity by always wanting to appear strong and independent, a noble intent despite ignoble consequences.

So the next time those claws and fangs come out at the end of a peaceable Chinese family dinner, just remember that behind those bloodshot eyes and glinting, razor-sharp nails beat considerate hearts that only want what is best for loved ones. “The War of the Bill” is really an assurance that you come from a caring family where everyone wants to do their duty. 

Other posts about living in Hong Kong……..

Christmas in Hong Kong

Typhoon

Chi Lin Nunnery

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Filed under China, Culture, Family, Food, Hong Kong

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