Creatures Of Our Cultures

One or sep­a­rate bills?”, the wait­ress asks us. She has a slight Japanese accent, but aside from her raven hair, her fea­tures are dis­tinct­ly Occidental.

One please”.

We’re treat­ing, Jeff”.

Nope. You guys are in my town.”

What does that have to do with any­thing?”, they ask, and threat­en to leave if I pay. It does noth­ing to con­vince me or change my con­vic­tion.

You guys are a lot more behaved than when I was your age”, says the man sit­ting next to us.

Thumbnail: Teppanyaki Flare 

When the bill comes around, we wrench the tray from each oth­ers hands.

Must be odd”, the man whis­pers to his wife, who’s laugh­ing at us.

But it’s not odd to me. It’s the Chinese way. Like hav­ing too much food when you’re host­ing a par­ty because to run out is the ulti­mate embar­rass­ment.

To me, it’s odd when some­one does­n’t offer to pay.

The same way it’s odd to hear North American peo­ple com­plain about their jobs. To the Chinese, a job is how you take care of your fam­i­ly. It does­n’t mat­ter that it’s mind­less, stress­ful, or hard phys­i­cal labour. You’re just hap­py to have that oppor­tu­ni­ty. All my Canadian Chinese friends feel the same1.

This is how we were raised. It was­n’t a rule that was spo­ken. We learned it by watch­ing our par­ents, who would clip coupons for gro­ceries, only buy clothes on sale, re-use paper by writ­ing over again with dif­fer­ent coloured inks, but go out to feast with ten peo­ple then fight to pay the bill. Sometimes, they’d even get up to find the serv­er to make a pre­emp­tive, sur­rep­ti­tious pay­ment. Occasionally there were spilled drinks and soiled clothes, as the fight became phys­i­cal2. I think it’s nice part of the cul­ture to be so adamant about friend­ship and com­pa­ny.

And I’m glad to be a part of it.

  1. Aaron is prob­a­bly one of the few peo­ple I know who under­stands. He’ll fight with me, not just over a bill when eat­ing out, but for movies, gro­ceries, and oth­er sun­dries. []
  2. I remem­ber a child cry­ing once, a rel­a­tive of a rel­a­tive, think­ing the par­ents were argu­ing with anger. []


  1. that was a plea­sure to read, if only because i am now imag­ing in my head var­i­ous aun­ties and uncles duelling it out and spilling the sauce over every­one and every­thing.

  2. oh, that’s handy to know. I had a meal with some­one who slipped out to wash­room and paid for the bill on her way back to the table. (We had­n’t got to the point of fin­ish­ing eat­ing.) I had no idea she did it or why. I saw it as pow­er / con­trol dynam­ic. (She’s not Chinese but could be dif­fer­ent cul­ture of mon­ey.)

  3. @fathima — In addi­tion to the pang of pride, see­ing it hap­pen is rather humourous. :)

    @Pearl — Now you know that it’s polite to fight over the bill. I have a Chinese friend who would eat out with his Caucasian friends and always offer to pay the bill. His friends would always accept. My friend even­tu­al­ly curbed his offers when it was obvi­ous they did­n’t under­stand the sub­tle cul­ture dif­fer­ences.

    In a sense, the fact that your friend paid for the bill on the way back was a pre­emp­tive act to avoid a scene, and she was assum­ing that you were going to fight to pay it as well.

  4. Interesting. It might be a way to deal with eat­ing with my folks then. In that case Dad and I always strug­gle over who pays the bill. If I go preemptively…hm.

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