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Hostile Hospitality

Not long after I came to China I realized that what I considered fighting was actually part of Chinese hospitality. People would publicly argue over who paid the bill at restaurants, escalating to pushing and pinning each other's hands down. Aside from the forcefulness that we wouldn't consider polite in the West, winning meant you get to pay for the meal. Whereas bets in the West always state that the loser pays.

In China it seems paying for others shows your position, being able to take care of others makes you appear more financial stable and respectable. Allowing someone to pay for you without a fight can make you seem either greedy or as if you accept this lower position in the relationship.

In the US, I would not allow my guy friends to pay for me when hung out. To do so would make the outing seem like a date and I may feel indebted to the guy. But in China it is not even an argument; the man is always expected to pay. If a woman tried to pay for her male friend it would be a major blow to the man's ego. I’ve also been in teacher groups where at the end of the meal the men decided to split the bill but specify each woman should pay a set price and the men in the group will pay a higher price, for example if the bill is 75rmb each split evenly the group will announce the men pay 100 and the women pay 50.

Age also comes into play as the elder person in the relationship is in a higher position and should pay from the younger. This can be a complicated situation with adult children. The children are old enough to take care of their older family members but still seen by the elders as a child. Or another aspect could be that the elders see accepting payment by someone younger as if they are admitting they are growing old.
These are my understandings based on the instances I've experienced and of course these are generalizations and every situation is different. The Chinese new year preparation has provided me with several prime examples, two of which I will share here.

A neighbor came to visit my Chinese family during supper time and a small struggle ensued to persuade him to stay and eat with us. The neighbor refused and started to walk away but was pulled back by a firm tug on his arm by my bother in law. This refusal seemed to be very slight and just a form of manners as both men were about the same age and economic level. Later after the meal the neighbor started to leave again as my father in law brought out some wine and cigarettes. At this the neighbor began to fight more forceful to refuse. My father in law’s sense of hospitality and pride is very strong even though he himself lives a rather humble life. My father in law physically blocked the neighbor from leaving including pushing, forcing him back into him chair, and finally holding him down by his shoulders. I was shocked to see the seemingly fragile man fight with so much force.

Another example was with my husband’s aunt who had prepared a hongbao, “Lucky money,” for us although we hadn't expected it and weren't prepared to give her anything in exchange. My husband is usually a very quiet and calm man, but this situation was one of the few times I have ever heard him raise his voice! He caught her wrists and forced them back. She fought just as hard and the second he released one hand she sneakily threw the hongbao in his shirt pocket. After some verbal rebuttal he slipped the package back into her apron and instructed me to “run away!” The entire walk down the driveway our aunt continued shouting from the door step while my husband called back and both ending in laughter.
When I asked my husband to explain why he was so harsh with his aunt he replied rather simply, "I'm good to her, this is China!" As foreigners looking in we can only smile, and sometimes shake our heads.

After being in China and getting used to what I originally called, “Hostile Hospitality,” I have learned to play the game as well. My American friend and I often shock and amuse the locals by physically fighting over the bill. I recently had a moment of pride when I leveled-up my hongbao game and felt one step closer to life as a native. My secret weapon: Wechat.

Wechat is the Chinese version of the Whatsup app, but so much more. You can use it to pay at stores, order delivery, and even send hongbao. The Hongbao. “Lucky money” is often used in place of gifts but can be sent digitally over Wechat with your custom title and special message.

After a sneaky move my friend paid the bill while I was in the bathroom giving me no chance to fight for it. To exact my revenge I later sent a digital hongbao, she opened it only to find the exact amount she had just paid for our meal and the message, “It’s on me!”
Wechat has level the playing field.


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