China Swooped: When Friends Get the Bill

paying in china

The last time I was in China, fall 2008, I had a part-time internship with the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, a think tank in Shanghai. Towards the end of my internship, my boss invited me to lunch with him and someone he wanted me to meet. The someone was Bin, the daughter of his good friend. Bin had recently graduated from university in Shanghai and was working for a travel agency that arranges tours for foreigners – mainly businesspeople – in Shanghai. She travels frequently and was hoping to someday go to the USA

She ended up being a really sweet girl, and helpful in that Chinese way that just eclipses what recent American acquaintances will typically be willing to do for one another. When my dad came to visit that year she arranged for herself and a friend to bring me to the airport in her friend’s car so I could pick him up, and later on she and her colleague brought us to a nice restaurant for Shanghainese food. We kept in touch sporadically since then – a Facebook message here (though that ended when the Chinese media censors blocked Facebook in China) or an email there, but with both of our busy schedules we never seemed to have time to meet up.

Last October, when I was working at the World Expo in Shanghai, my father once again traveled to Shanghai to visit me. This seemed like the perfect excuse to make time to get together with Bin again. We invited her to dinner at one of my dad’s favorite hot-pot restaurants in the hip Xintiandi area, an expensive, high-class spot with crystal chandeliers and luxurious decor. It was great seeing her, sharing stories about Expo and our families as we stuffed ourselves on mushrooms, squash, shrimp, greens, lotus root, rice cakes, wintermelon and lamb cooked right before our eyes in a boiling pot of soup.

After we’d fully gorged, when we were about done with the meal, Bin said she had to go to the restroom and left the table. While she was gone, my dad tried to fetch the waitress and pay the bill directly, so as to avoid any question of Bin contributing – this was going to be our treat. So I went and asked the first waitress I saw for the check…but when she came to the table, instead of presenting us with an expensive bill, she said that Bin had already paid for the whole meal!

When Bin got back, we protested that it was too expensive and she shouldn’t have paid. She’s young and doesn’t have enough money to be treating us to expensive dinners! But she just explained that since we were guests in China she should pay, and maybe if she ever comes to the US we can take her out to dinner then. In response to our repeated, embarrassed thank-yous she instructed us to stop thanking her because we are her friends and it’s not about the money.

In many ways, Chinese peoples’ conception of friendship is so different than ours in the US. I’m still trying to put a finger on why. In some sense I suppose I can say that they are much more demonstrative in taking care of their friends than we are. You aren’t just a friend to your friend: you try and give them the best to show them how much you care about them. You help them when you can, you pay for them, and it’s understood that they will do the same for you. Of course, the dynamic is different for me because I am a foreigner trying to make and keep Chinese friends, but I think my generalizations still stand. At any rate, I learned something very important that night – about friendship here in China, and about just how quick I need to pay the tab.

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