Paying For Dinner: Etiquette Based on Chinese Culture

Whenever my family and I went out to eat when I was younger, it was common for us to frequent Chinese restaurants, as that was what we were most familiar with. Along with the usual clamor of the other patrons’ chatter and the clinking of plastic chopsticks against porcelain china were the arguments over paying for the meal, something that I didn’t think much of at the time. These insistent words exchanged over the bill were simply part of the norm.

However, I didn’t realize why it was so important until a dinner eaten out between my family and family friends, when a tired, younger me had asked my parents why couldn’t the other party just pay. I had been cranky, and sitting through their heated discussion meant that I had to stay at the restaurant longer, so I had snapped. To me, it made sense for our family friends to pay—after all, didn’t that mean we were saving money? I will never forget how appalled my parents were at my question and the sudden silence that arrived at the round cloth-covered dinner table.

I was scolded afterwards, as what I had asked was rude. It was instilled in me that paying for the bill was polite and just part of another unspoken rule of manners that I still hadn’t quite fully grasped yet.

So, my younger self had accepted that simply offering to pay was an obligation. However, as I grew older, I realized that this train of thought wasn’t acceptable because I didn’t know the reasoning behind it, so my parents explained in more detail when I questioned about it further.

For our family personally, we insisted on paying primarily for two reasons. For one, footing the bill was how we were showing our appreciation to the other party. The second reason was that it insured that we wouldn’t owe them anything. Showing our gratitude was important, especially toward elders. As for not wanting to be indebted, this was to prevent a development of “IOUs” coupled with an inherent desire for not wanting to be dependent on others. These were the basic reasons behind my family’s insistence on paying for meals.

In the case of my family insisting to pay for our family friends, we weren’t just offering to pay on our personal feelings of obligation but also because of the etiquette that was part of the Chinese culture. The primary reasoning behind my family insisting on treating was that, typically, host families pay for the meals of their guests. These family friends were visiting from out of town, ergo, according to the culture, my family had more obligation to pay.

There were certain specifications of when it was and wasn’t appropriate to pay for the meal.

  • People who came from out of town to visit friends or family were not supposed to pay, as it was the host family’s responsibility to provide for their visitors.
  • Guests who weren’t directly involved with whatever main meal or event were not expected to pay.
  • An explicit offer from someone offering to treat also meant that the person invited was not expected to pay.
  • Younger people who were clearly recognized as younger were also not supposed to pay; the ones with more seniority were expected to cover the bill because of that obligation of needing to provide for others.
  • Paying for meals was more acceptable when the ones paying wanted to celebrate, show appreciation, apologize, or ask for a favor.

However, even if someone was being treated to a meal, just accepting the treat wasn’t as gracious as insisting on paying too. This was because offering to pay itself was an act of politeness.

The convoluted etiquette for something that seems so trivial actually has a longer history than I expected. These very specific unspoken rules of paying for meals had apparently derived from the act of gift-giving, which is very important in Chinese culture. The act of gift-giving is a primary way of retaining relationships. The exchange of gifts comes from the concept of “reciprocity,” where one act of kindness shown by one person will be shown back to them in turn when it is appropriate.

Such a case was recorded of the Tang Dynasty when a scholar gifted an emperor a rare gift. The takeaway from that tale is that the thought behind the gift is what’s important, but this is also evidence of how long this tradition of gift-giving has lasted.

In essence, paying for meals is another form of giving gifts, which is a way the Chinese maintained relationships and a sense of pride. Even though I am Chinese American, learning about this act gave me more insight on the intricacies of the Chinese culture because I had grown up my whole life in America, which holds very different values from Asian societies. As someone part of both cultures, I get the opportunity to learn about and live through both. Yet, because I’m part of both, it is important that I know when I can completely foot the bill, or when I can split the bill.

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Paying For Dinner: Etiquette Based on Chinese Culture

Whenever my family and I went out to eat when I was younger, it was common for us to frequent Chinese restaurants, as that was what we were most familiar with. Along with the usual clamor of the other patrons’ chatter and the clinking of plastic chopsticks against porcelain china were the arguments over paying for the meal, something that I didn’t think much of at the time. These insistent words exchanged over the bill were simply part of the norm.

However, I didn’t realize why it was so important until a dinner eaten out between my family and family friends, when a tired, younger me had asked my parents why couldn’t the other party just pay. I had been cranky, and sitting through their heated discussion meant that I had to stay at the restaurant longer, so I had snapped. To me, it made sense for our family friends to pay—after all, didn’t that mean we were saving money? I will never forget how appalled my parents were at my question and the sudden silence that arrived at the round cloth-covered dinner table.

I was scolded afterwards, as what I had asked was rude. It was instilled in me that paying for the bill was polite and just part of another unspoken rule of manners that I still hadn’t quite fully grasped yet.

So, my younger self had accepted that simply offering to pay was an obligation. However, as I grew older, I realized that this train of thought wasn’t acceptable because I didn’t know the reasoning behind it, so my parents explained in more detail when I questioned about it further.

For our family personally, we insisted on paying primarily for two reasons. For one, footing the bill was how we were showing our appreciation to the other party. The second reason was that it insured that we wouldn’t owe them anything. Showing our gratitude was important, especially toward elders. As for not wanting to be indebted, this was to prevent a development of “IOUs” coupled with an inherent desire for not wanting to be dependent on others. These were the basic reasons behind my family’s insistence on paying for meals.

In the case of my family insisting to pay for our family friends, we weren’t just offering to pay on our personal feelings of obligation but also because of the etiquette that was part of the Chinese culture. The primary reasoning behind my family insisting on treating was that, typically, host families pay for the meals of their guests. These family friends were visiting from out of town, ergo, according to the culture, my family had more obligation to pay.

There were certain specifications of when it was and wasn’t appropriate to pay for the meal.

  • People who came from out of town to visit friends or family were not supposed to pay, as it was the host family’s responsibility to provide for their visitors.
  • Guests who weren’t directly involved with whatever main meal or event were not expected to pay.
  • An explicit offer from someone offering to treat also meant that the person invited was not expected to pay.
  • Younger people who were clearly recognized as younger were also not supposed to pay; the ones with more seniority were expected to cover the bill because of that obligation of needing to provide for others.
  • Paying for meals was more acceptable when the ones paying wanted to celebrate, show appreciation, apologize, or ask for a favor.

However, even if someone was being treated to a meal, just accepting the treat wasn’t as gracious as insisting on paying too. This was because offering to pay itself was an act of politeness.

The convoluted etiquette for something that seems so trivial actually has a longer history than I expected. These very specific unspoken rules of paying for meals had apparently derived from the act of gift-giving, which is very important in Chinese culture. The act of gift-giving is a primary way of retaining relationships. The exchange of gifts comes from the concept of “reciprocity,” where one act of kindness shown by one person will be shown back to them in turn when it is appropriate.

Such a case was recorded of the Tang Dynasty when a scholar gifted an emperor a rare gift. The takeaway from that tale is that the thought behind the gift is what’s important, but this is also evidence of how long this tradition of gift-giving has lasted.

In essence, paying for meals is another form of giving gifts, which is a way the Chinese maintained relationships and a sense of pride. Even though I am Chinese American, learning about this act gave me more insight on the intricacies of the Chinese culture because I had grown up my whole life in America, which holds very different values from Asian societies. As someone part of both cultures, I get the opportunity to learn about and live through both. Yet, because I’m part of both, it is important that I know when I can completely foot the bill, or when I can split the bill.

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