Western eyes (9): Cheque please! Why you may have to fight to pay the bill in China

Western Eyes (9): Cheque please! Why you may have to fight to pay the bill in China, CHINA, CHINESE SOCIETY, CHINESE COMMUNITY, SHOCK, SHOCKING, CULTURE EXCHANGE, CULTURAL EXPERIENCE, MUSIC, CHINESE TRADITION, MARRIAGE, MEETING FRIENDS

Western Eyes (9): Cheque please! Why you may have to fight to pay the bill in China

“Aren’t we going to ask for the bill?” I asked.

“No,” She replied, “I’ve already paid, let’s go.”

I was shocked. Though I’d lived in China for over 6 months, this was the first time I’d been to dinner with a Chinese friend, and the first time ever someone had paid for the bill behind my back. But it wouldn’t be the last time.

As you may or may not know, in China when eating out at a restaurant, it is more usual for one person to pay for the entire meal, regardless of cost. The person who pays is usually the person who invited you out to dinner, but even then I’ve seen Chinese people spend over 30 minutes arguing over the receipt while the poor waitress looked on helplessly. It can also happen if you’re considered to be a ‘guest’, which applies to most foreigners in China I’ve had people pay in advance, pretend to go to the toilet, or wait till I’ve gone to the toilet then sneak in a payment, which is what happened in this case.

It especially came as a surprise as my friend was quite westernised: she spoke fluent English, was into American and British TV and music, and spoke of a longing to live in Paris. I wondered, was it that she didn’t know how westerners usually deal with the bill, or that she believed that as we were in china, I should adapt to Chinese culture? I would never dream of going to dinner with a group of friends, only to have one of us pay for everyone.  

In Britain, as a woman you may be used to your boyfriend grabbing the bill on the first few dates, but once you’re an established couple, it’s much more customary to start splitting bill. Of course, I’ve had guys pay for my dinner and buy me drinks before, but there’s always a part of me that’s felt uncomfortable about this situation. “I’m an independent woman with my own job,” I think, “I can buy my own things!”

But this mind-set is not prevalent in China. I would never think to argue with someone over the bill, nor would I expect someone to pay for me. So this puts me in an awkward situation when eating with Chinese people – do I stay quiet and politely accept the fact that they’ve paid, or do I out up a fight! I don’t feel comfortable doing either, which usually mean I end up bringing out my purse as a gesture, hovering for a moment, before my friends “Ganbei!” the rest of the beer and signal for us to leave.

Splitting the bill has become more common in China amongst friends, however, and is known as AA. It’s seen as a more modern and equal way of doing things, especially on events such as Single’s Day, where groups of women will get together and usually split things evenly. However, China is still a culture where a man is expected to have a good job, a car and preferably a house before getting married, so getting the man to foot the bill is not uncommon in modern Chinese dating. 

But don’t let your guard down! You won’t always be seen as a ‘foreign guest’ in China and, once you become good friends with someone, they’ll start expecting you to pick up the bill from time to time too! But be warned, you may still have a fight on your hands.