Chinese check fighting

One of the time-honored traditions passed down from generation to generation among my Chinese ancestors and peers is showing generosity by paying for the meal. I’m not all that good at it, even thought I saw it modeled and demonstrated by my generous Dad on many occasions when we’re doing a meal with family friends or even strangers. My own preference is to go dutch, or I’ll just pay for the meal without putting up the fight. A little more subtle, much less showmanship. The whole ritual goes far beyond just paying for it, it’s the banter and jibe that goes with it about why one has to pay for the meal too.

So last night, I’m meeting up with some old friends here in Dallas. They have 2 boys and we have 1. This was the first time that all 7 of us have ever gotten together in person. This was a special reunion over Tex-Mex, and we invited some other old friends along too. Since he’s a lawyer, he advised me to not mention him by name, with a subtle jovial subtext that he could very well serve me a cease-and-desist or slander or defamation if I put him in too bad of a light. Let me move on to the punch line.

Our waitress gave us separate checks based on our family units. I was about to put my credit card to my check, and my friend pulls on the check, wrinkling it up, and almost tore it up! I usually don’t think so well in the moment, but this time a new thought came to mind. “Hey, this check isn’t on my tab!” A moment of relief and release came upon my dear friend. I’ve found a loophole in the ritual. No need to fight for the check when it’s generously covered as a business expense. (on a separate occasion, then, the fight was over who had the bigger per diem.)

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  1. Victim says:

    Ok. let’s get this in writing. The next time dinner is not on an expense account, there shall be no fighting over the check. It will be on me. Please reply to this comment with your acknowledgement.

    We can fight over the check on your blog and not embarrass ourselves in public. There should be a whole on-line community/service to handle this sort of transaction or dispute resolution. You could take a small cut of every dispute resolved in this forum!

    Another BIG Idea.

  2. Joe Suh says:

    This time-honored tradition is by no means exclusive to Chinese Americans! My Korean ancestors have great showmanship as well. We have mastered the art of making embarassing scenes at restaurants, in the ironic name of saving face. Best known methods and practices of this ritualistic check fight include handing the waiter your credit card immediately after ordering. Or using the company business expense per diem as a trump card (or pretending like you have a company card!)

  3. Elijah says:

    I decided a few years ago to completely ignore this tradition. If someone offers to pay for dinner, I graciously accept the free meal without a fight :). This has caused some people to get a little uncomfortable, because they expected the “face” from winning the “pay for the meal” tradition. But heck with it. If someone wants to pay for the meal, I just smile and say, “thanks”.

  4. Ken says:

    When we were living in Taiwan, my family once took a friend out to dinner. It was not an expensive place, but since she was a single student I assumed that I would pick up the tab. I was ready to pounce on the check, but it never arrived! When I asked the waitress, she said that our friend had already paid the check when she had excused herself to go to the restroom. She took “grab the check” to a whole new level.

  5. Peter Ong says:

    on my birthday when i was a teen my dad and uncle had dinner and they fought for the check standing up…they somehow fell and was rolling on the floor to the dismay of the whole restaurant (thank goodness that it was a Chinese restaurant…if this was a diner, someone would have called the cops)…alas my dad came up with the check and paid for it as my uncle was bewildered…when I got home I asked why do they do that…he responded, “to save face…” and I was like…”rolling on the floor not losing face?” strange brew…very strange brew indeed…

  6. David Park says:

    Nice! I like how your “victim” goes toe-to-toe with you online as well! That’s awesome.
    Yeah I’ve definitely fought the good fight. Although I think it’s less about face and more about giving/receiving. I’m trying to learn to be good at both.

  7. djchuang says:

    Victim, I’ll shake hands on that. Next time you can treat, with no fighting or theatricals involved. My next scheduled visit to Dallas is January 8-11, 2007, so you can start saving up. 🙂

    Joe, while the tradition of check-fighting is not limited to Chinese, as I’ve also noticed it among Koreans, I believe there are some stylistic differences. From my limited experience, Chinese like to be theatrical with an audience at the table, while (the few) Korean who’ve beat me to the check are more pre-emptive: when I don’t see the check, it got taken care of en route to an alleged comfort break (restroom stop).

  8. joey says:

    Victor!

    Hahas, I remember the day before I left for college, my friends and I went to have dimsum in Chinatown. As we started to wind down, everyone was staring at each other and it came to my thought that they may possibly pay for me since I’m the one leaving for college. A flag wave of the receipt called a waitor over as he quickly calculated our bill. With the speed of a cheetah, I quickly grabbed the check from his hands with lightening speed and raced to the cashier to pay.

    Other thoughts: have you ever encountered the situation where the person really did want to pay but were at dismayed with the other person didn’t even make the gesture of trying to fight for the bill?

  9. Steve says:

    There are other twists out there now – such as handing your credit card to the host(ess) when you arrive first and telling them that the bill goes on that card and none other. Problem is: the older generation has gotten wind of this trick and now either arrive first or invoke “seniority” to get the staff to swap out the cards. Then you also have my brother who can always manage to persuade the host(ess) to take his card instead. I think he promises to put on a bigger tip. My take: thank them sincerely for their graciousness and use it as a chance to marvel about grace.

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