The Asian Polite Fight
You’re sitting in a restaurant, surrounded by members of your extended family. A cousin had just came back to Singapore for a visit with her new family, so of course the family gathers for a meal. You chat with your cousin, make funny faces to your new niece. Everyone orders a ton of food, catches up with each other and has a good time. Nearing the end of the meal, one /of your uncles silently gets up from the table. You assume he’s just heading for the bathroom and dismiss it. But then your father gets up too. They both head for the counter but come back in shock.
“Oh, the bill’s already been paid.” my cousin says.
And so the battle begins.
In most asian cultures, offering to foot the bill towards the end of a meal is a common practice. In South Korea, for example, age is highly respected and is reflected here. At a dinner gathering, be it a work party or a family event, the eldest at the table almost always pays. Just like how the youngest is always the one who grills the meat, or pours the soju. Age and seniority play a big role.
In chinese culture, the hierachal family structure sees breadwinners or elders providing for everyone else and putting food on the table, as a show of their love for their family. Sometimes they feel that as the elders or breadwinners of the family, they have a duty to pay for the food and let everyone enjoy their time.
Insisting to pay for a meal may also stem from the culture of giving, as a means to treasure and remember the relationship. This is something quite foreign to western cultures, where diners usually go dutch, no strings attached. There isn’t any lingering obligation or desire to pay for your friend’s meal. In many asian cultures, paying for the meal is deemed a way of showing care. It may be less intense now with the popularity of going dutch, but the fight still exists.
However, there have been numerous times where these polite fights actually do turn into, well, something a bit more similar to actual fights. In my family gatherings, for example, these polite fights can sometimes turn into a bit of a pride thing, something the relatives do to “save face”. There exists an element of stubbornness in this fight culture that’s supposed to be about caring for others. In pressing on with our desire to pay, these “polite fights” can sometimes turn very much into pushing money into the waiter’s face and not listening to each other. The words are polite, but the gestures clearly aren’t. And so it slowly veers towards becoming a battle for pride, instead of caring for your loved ones.
You might have wanted to pay for the meal since you just got a raise and want to treat your family. Or sometimes, well, you just felt like it. But pull out your wallet in front of everyone and the fight begins.
How far are you willing to go?