Thursday, January 24, 2008

Chinese people LOVE me! (15)

"Chinese people love me because...... I don't mind letting them pay for everything."

Actually, of course, I do mind: I was brought up to pay my own way, always contribute my fair share, not scab off other people. I get very uncomfortable when Chinese friends - or even business hosts and employers - are always trying to put their hand in their pocket for everything. But you have to let them have their way.

This cultural imperative about treating people is particularly prevalent in regard to meals: whenever a group of people is eating together, it is a deep-rooted tradition that one person should assume responsibility for paying for the whole shebang. Going Dutch is an outlandish concept here. Now, in a run-of-the-mill Chinese restaurant, the whole bill is rarely going to be a crippling amount, and I - and many other foreigners here - will sometimes volunteer to settle up, to avoid embarrassing less affluent Chinese friends. At other times, we may surreptitiously divvy up the bill between us, omitting to ask our Chinese companions for a contribution. However, if one of the Chinese asks to pay, you really can't oppose the idea - it's a face issue for them.

Perhaps this convention is finally beginning to weaken a bit with the younger, more 'Westernized' generation. A translator friend of mine told me that she was once out with a group of Chinese buddies, all louche young writers and musicians, who had ordered a little too freely in the restaurant, and when the uncomfortably large maidan appeared at the end of the meal, it was mournfully circulated around the table, with each of the guys in turn theatrically frowning and shrugging and then jokingly passing it on to one of his friends, saying, "Oh, you can have the face on this one!" I wish I'd been there. I don't think that kind of playful sending up of ingrained traditions is very common as yet.

And this isn't just confined to meals: there's a prevalent notion that if you're trying to impress someone, you should pay for everything. I've had Chinese clients showing me around their schools and colleges who were embarrassed if I tried to buy so much as a can of coke for myself during my visit. This is particularly true of dating: girls are supposed to be able to go out without even 5 fen in their purse; guys are expected to pay for absolutely everything. The Feminist Revolution hasn't gone that far in China yet.

I recall once I had asked a pretty English girl I'd just met if she'd like to accompany me and a couple of my Chinese students on a Sunday morning tour of a great open-air fruit & veg market I'd recently discovered. The students had an English-speaking exam coming up imminently, so it was a valuable extra opportunity to practice for them; and it would be, I hoped, a nice low-pressure, not-really-a-date kind of first date with the English girl. Alas, the latter part of the plan didn't work out too well: it was a bitterly cold day, and she got snuffly and grumpy, decided to go home before lunch. We saw her off at the subway station. I thought I had been duly - but not excessively - concerned and affectionate; solicitous about her health, apologetic that it hadn't been such a great excursion for her. But the two Chinese girls with me were horrified. As soon as she'd left, they began to berate me.

"We thought you liked that girl?"

"Well, er, yes, I guess. I've only just met her, you know."

"Then how can you treat her so badly?"

"What do you mean? I was trying my best to be nice."

"Why did you not pay for her subway ticket?"


"Her subway ticket! You let her buy it for herself!"

They were outraged. They thought I deserved to spend the rest of my life alone. I tried to explain to them that, for an English girl, having me determinedly interpose myself between her and the ticket window and insist on treating her to a 3kuai ticket (that was about 25p in UK terms at the time) would be, er, creepy. But they wouldn't have it.

That girl never warmed to me anyway. I don't think it was the subway ticket incident that did it.


Anonymous said...

haha, that's a great story about the subway ticket.

and yes, the younger, "westernized" generation hasn't figured out the wonders of going dutch... though the westernized half generation does flit in an out of "face" and dutch depending on the circumstances, as in the crowd they are dining with... or at least this is the result of my experience and the pointed questions I've asked colleagues.

i'm also very conscious about not letting others pay for me, so it's something I've worked at since I was a child (I have specific memories of being 10 years old and accepting an invitation to go to a farmer's market with my aunt... I sat my older sister down and asked her what I should do if my aunt insisted on paying for me... my little 10 year old self was really worried about it.)

anyways, going dutch is one of the best gifts to the going out culture that the West has to offer. Paying for others is now limited to specific circumstances that mean something (a thank you for that favor lunch, a it's been ages since I've seen you dinner, or even a gosh i just want to let you know I'm glad we're friends coffee) and that's just perfect.

Anonymous said...

"and yes, the younger, "westernized" generation hasn't figured out the wonders of going dutch"

oops, I meant to say they HAVE figured it out...

Unknown said...

I'll confess to be hideously old fashioned, then. I tend to pick up the check without thinking about it. It is standard with the people I go out with here that one person pays - as we go out together a lot, it rotates round, so no one tends to get too badly burned.

The British Cowboy said...

Damn it - why did that post under my real name?

Froog said...

Yeah, well, we do the same here too, Cowboy. Except that you're rarely talking about there being less than 8 or 10 people at the table, and often twice that many. I think that would give you pause even in the States.

And you do it - we do it in the West - out of a desire to be nice, a desire to be generous, a desire to show off our wealth sometimes, maybe; here in China that do it out of an obscure sense of necessity, and in the belief that they will be somehow humiliated by having anyone else offer to pay.

It is pretty fucked up sometimes.

Froog said...

And I think, in these modern times, even trying to give your date her taxi money home (unless she'd asked for it or you knew she was running short) would seem pretty patronising. Insisting on giving her a couple of bucks for the Metro would be..... creepy?

Anonymous said...

Depends on so many things. The same person might feel differently in different situations and with different men trying to do the same thing. Me -a girl- knows that cercumstances, age, age differences, places, deapth of relationship and the moment, and last but not least, the ammont of money the MAN has, can be varying factors which make the girl feel comfortable or un-comfortable having them pay for her.

The richer the man is, the easier it is to let him pay. The older he is as well as being wealthy, the easier it gets to let him pay. The more galant he is about the paying part, the less creepy it gets.

But depending on nationality and culture, these factors can change. Also depending on what kind of a relationship there is between the man and the "girl".

I have got a book called "The sexual contract". Worth having a look.

Upbringing and culture determin how people allow themselves to feel comfort or discomfort about such situations.


Froog said...

Yes, yes, men do still often expect to pay - are expected to pay - for most things on dates.

But a subway ticket?? I can't see that ever happening in the West - unless you're taking a journey together, of course.

Similar thing here with your business host getting all uptight if you pause to talk to a roadside merchant about a bottle of water or a can of Coke, and butting in to insist on paying the 1 or 2kuai for you. It's awkward, intrusive, unnecessary.

The British Cowboy said...

I wasn't (and wouldn't) suggest you should have paid the Metro fare, Froog.

I was commenting more generally on the troubles I have gotten into recently. Including a somewhat drunken conversation with a friend/date that went something along the lines of "I'm not trying to sleep with you, I would pick up the tab if I was out with a guy too, well maybe I am trying to sleep with you, but the tab isn't part of that..."

Froog said...

Ah - 'digging a hole'.... but doing it nicely. Well done, Cowboy.

Was this the 'singer' that we haven't heard anything of since New Year's Eve??

The British Cowboy said...

Actually, and please don't think badly of me for this, it was the singer's best friend.

I may be going on a date with the singer tonight.

Froog said...

I might think badly of you if you browbeat them into performing lesbian shenanigans together for your perverted enjoyment, videoed it, and then immediately posted it on YouTube.

I might enjoy it, guiltily - but I would think badly of you for it.

But there's no chance of that, right?

Best of luck tonight with the 'singer'.

I thought you were going to pick me up on the quotation marks. Are you not a Citizen Kane fan?

The British Cowboy said...

Actually no. Horribly, horribly overrated movie.

So Tulsa whines and gets her promised post done immediately. I remind you it has been aeons since you promised to write on Hogans and... NOTHING.

What does she have that I don't? On second thoughts, don't answer that one...

Froog said...

I told you, the Hogan's post is gestating. I don't want to do a rush job - it's far more important than all that 'dating advice' nonsense.

I refuse to rise to your Kane bait. You are a philistine, of course, but this is not news.

Tulsa said...


I think your inclination to pick up the tab falls under my acceptable moments as described here:

"Paying for others is now limited to specific circumstances that mean something (a thank you for that favor lunch, a it's been ages since I've seen you dinner, or even a gosh i just want to let you know I'm glad we're friends coffee) and that's just perfect."

Letting others pay for you is totally okay in many many circumstances, but in developing countries, it's so strongly tied to "face" and the reality of an average white collar salary of RMB5,000 (that's USD685) that I completely understand why Froog says expats feel obligated to pick up the bill.

And yes, expat money is money, too. It's hard-earned and doesn't grow on trees and many are paid in RMB at a fraction of Western average salaries (so it's not like all expats are rolling in money), but still, most expats are only paying for themselves and can afford a splurge and picking up the bill. Whereas, locals often are earning to support spouses and children and grandparents and parents, and pay off that mortgage, etc.

So, anyways, kudos to you for picking up the bill for dinner with the Singer's Best Friend (not judging) and I hope she let you pay. Your scenario is toootally different than ours. And so the rules are different.

p.s. I do not whine.

Anonymous said...

Cowboy!!! Shame on you!! I'm Earthling, a girl, and I think it's very bad of you to be dating two friends seperately. Someone will get hurt, unless what Froog suggested happens. So you better put your cards on the table for them both and ask them if they are up for it. Otherwise, choose one or the other and stop contacting the other. You don't need to tell them what you've been doing, just stop dating one of them. This is not at all an order, just a suggestion so that no one gets hurt.

Good luck, and keep paying, I'm sure you can afford it.

The British Cowboy said...

In defense of myself, everything has been totally above board, and I am not 'dating' either as such.

The British Cowboy said...

And apologies to Tulsa. I did not mean to imply you whined. Well, apart from accusing you of it directly, that is. I think more I should have implied you used your feminine wiles to get your way. :-)