Paying at Meals in China

‘I’m paying for this meal’, I say.

‘No I’ll pay’, says another.

‘Actually, I will pay’, says a third.

‘I am serious’, I say. ‘I insist on paying’.

And so it goes on, through a long ritual dance of protestations, loud assertions, absolute rebuttals. I can never win these arguments, especially when I am accustomed to a situation where the word is final. Indeed, I am used to a quiet statement before the meal begins when one person makes it clear that he or she is paying. That is that, and the meal proceeds.

But not in China, where it would be all too easy for me never to pay for a meal at all – an attractive proposition for one who is ‘careful’ with his money. The fact that I am a foreigner and therefore a guest weighs against me paying even further. No matter how much I assert that I am the one with more money, that it is well overdue for me to pay for a meal, that the person or people in question are guests, my word does not carry much weight. In fact, no one’s word carries much weight.

Instead, the deed is what counts. Protestations at the table may be loud and impassioned, but they signal not so much the desire to pay but the need to assert a complex mix of messages: one’s gratitude for the meal, one’s ability to provide for others, simultaneous respect for the rest at the table and one’s assertion of superiority. Yet, when the actual moment of payment arrives, the real negotiation begins.

The one who has protested most loudly on the need to pay may move over to the counter (for one usually pays at the counter). However, he or she may pause and stand back a little from the counter. Or they may fumble for a while in a handbag or a pocket for the money. The delay may take many forms, but the moment of delay is a crucial signal. Do I stand back even longer, thereby signalling that I seriously expect the other to pay? Or do I step forward quickly with the money already in hand? To be able to do so entails preparation and quick moves. I must admit to being a slow learner, for even at this moment I can be caught off guard.

‘But I said I would pay’, says the other while procuring some cash and handing mine back.

‘No, no’, I say, handing his or her money back and pushing mine into the hand of the cashier.

‘But you are my guest’, she says. ‘I insist that you should not pay’, he says. ‘It’s my honour to pay’, she says.

So the ritual continues, while I quietly ensure that my money actually goes into the till or cash box. Now it is time for a couple of final and fading assertions. But the deed has been accomplished and the act has spoken louder than the word. Or rather, the ritual dance of word and deed is over. Until next time.

2014 March 027a

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