Many of the biggest surprises you’ll encounter in China will occur at the dinner table. Because meals and food are so important to business or social connections in China, I’ll write several articles based around food etiquette, and I want to start with the biggest shocker of all, the fight for the bill.
Particularly if you do not speak Chinese well (or not at all), this could create immense confusion (best-case scenario) or else an irreparable misunderstanding and fear (worst case scenario). Let me explain:
As you are eating out in a restaurant in China, you will witness adult men yelling and sometimes pushing or arm-wrestling (at least it looks like arm-wrestling from a distance) around you. Many people who witness this for the first time are legitimately scared.
Actually, these people are fighting for the right to pay the bill! Like many shocking activities you will witness in China, this phenomenon is a direct result of 面子, or “face.”
If there are multiple families at the table, usually the father “represents” his family in the struggle for the bill. He will fight with the other fathers or other representatives until one person outlasts the others and is allowed the privilege of paying. These fights are often very loud and active, and very much public. If there are several business executives, then the event may turn into an all-out brawl. Each person must show sincere desire to pay the bill. When you can’t understand Chinese, it sounds like perhaps someone is accusing another of kidnapping his only child, followed by the accused counter-accusing the attacker that he kidnapped his only child! They will all shout (and out-shout the shouter), and can appear to be very upset.
If you could understand what they are saying, the entire exchange becomes quite comical from a western perspective. they simply yell back and forth several variations of the phrase “I’ll pay for it.”
How could this be? Wouldn’t it be much much easier to just decide ahead of time who was paying? Why not just split the tab equally? Or have each person pay for what he or she ate? Well, far more important than the $100 or $500 (or more) that the meal costs, is the value of being the big daugg. The person who pays should be the most wealthy, or should be the leader of the group in some way.
How should I react when people at my table start fighting over the bill?
Even if you don’t want to pay the bill (many people don’t,) you should put up a fight for the bill. Don’t worry, you won’t win. Even many of the people around you that look very sincere in their efforts to pay at their tables actually do not want to pay. They are content to put up a good fight, and then shower the winner with praise and gratitude. It took me years before I was able to successfully pay for my first meal. But you should put up at least a little bit of a fight. At the very least you should offer to pay twice. Again, there is virtually zero percent chance of “winning” this fight and actually having the right to pay.
When you “lose” the fight, do what the Chinese do; generously shower praise and gratitude on the winner. This strokes their ego and gives them face.
There is only one scenario that can be more vicious than multiple businesses executives trying to impress each other at the same table. This happens when an engaged couple has a dinner to allow both sets of parents to meet. At the end of that dinner both fathers will engage in a serious struggle for the bill.
If you do want to pay the bill, simply excuse yourself during the meal to “use the restroom.” Go to the counter and pay the bill ahead of time. You should realize though, that doing so may very well cause your Chinese friend to lose face, so be careful with this.
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