I think all Americans have at least one extremely unpleasant memory of splitting the check at a restaurant with friends. Let’s face it: in the states, when you go out with a group of friends and the check comes at a restaurant, it ain’t a pretty sight. You whip out a pen and a calculator, ready for the math to begin. You beg the server to swipe six separate cards, since no one ever brings cash anymore. You start fighting over who should pay for the appetizer, based on bites taken.
While Venmo and other money transferring apps have alleviated some of the headache, there is no denying one fact about splitting the bill in America:
It’s a goddamn mess.
Splitting the Bill in Japan
When I first arrived in Japan, many Japanese friends instantly tried to treat me and pay for all my meals since I was a “guest” in their country. I would swipe away the bill and say “no!” and insist on splitting the check, but they wouldn’t have any of it.
After going out the second or third time with a few of these friends, they finally consented… and thus I learned the word 割り勘 (warikan), which literally translates to: “split the check.” Or to more accurately fit it to the scenario… split the check… equally.
In America, we literally keep tabs on who will pay for what. If Joe drank two beers and I only drank one–then hell be damned if we split the check evenly and I contribute to his extra beer! We pay for what we consume, fair and square, and that’s all there is to it.
In Japan, the check is almost always evenly split. I’ve once went out with a group of 20+ people where some people drank a lot (including yours truly), while others with alcohol allergies or DD duties didn’t touch a sip of booze. Despite this, however, the bill was split completely down the middle. I felt guilty that the guy who only drank oolong tea for three hours paid the same price as me–the girl who had two beers, a few shots of sake and a highball. Yet he still paid the bill without complaint and a warm smile. You could tell he was used to it.
The check is evenly split for one core reason: to keep the “wa,” or harmony, within the group. In Japanese culture, bickering over a few hundred yen (the equivalent to a few dollars) is seen as petty, sours the mood, and makes you look like a penny-pinching-jerk. Plus, doing excruciating calculations at the end of a meal puts “meiwaku,” or burden, on everyone.
Even when I had one-on-one dinners or drinks with my buddies, I ‘warikan’d the bill right down the middle (if the bill was really skewed in my favor, I’d offer my friends a couple hundred yen–which they’d almost always politely decline). In fact, I grew to love the even-split system. No more doing math on the back of receipts. Bickering over who ordered what drink or ate how much of an appetizer. Swiping ten different credit cards to pay our weird meal split.
I thought Japan was easy, but then I went to China.
How to “go dutch” in China
The concept of splitting the bill is so foreign in China, they don’t even have a Chinese word for it.
“So Mary, I heard in the US you always ‘go dutch’ when you pay the bill,” my friend Chen said to me once while we were eating dinner.
“You know, split the bill.”
“Oh–right–that phrase is a little old fashioned, but you mean split the check, right? How do you say it in Chinese?“
“This ‘going dutch’ thing is starting to catch on with young people in China. We call it ‘AA.’“
“AA?” I said, bewildered. “Like, two letter As next to each other? What does that even mean?”
Chen shrugged, “I dunno, but that’s how we say it. Like, ‘我们AA吧’ (Let’s AA!)“
“You’re kidding,” I dropped my chopsticks. “That sounds ridiculous!”
Chen and I finished the meal when the check came and, with some secret kung-fu-ninja-reflexes I’ve never seen him use, he grabbed the check before the server even set it on the table.
“I’ll pay,” he said, busting out his wallet. “My treat.”
“No!” I cried, jumping over the table trying to snatch the bill out of his hand. “Let me pay! I’m a rich American!”
“Shut up, no you’re not!” Chen hid the bill behind his back as I tried to grope around him to snatch it back. “You’re a guest in China! I need to show you Chinese hospitality!”
“That’s a shit excuse!” I stopped mid-air trying to grab the bill and looked at him with a smile. “How about… women AA ba?”
“Nah,” he laughed as he shoved the bill and his credit card into the server’s hands as she walked by. “How about you get it next time?”
If you’ve ever lived in China, you’ve probably fought over a restaurant tab more times than you can count. It’s the norm. Hell, there’s even a skit form Fresh off the Boat on it.
While it is a nice gesture on the part of your Chinese friends, most Chinese insist on picking up the tab to keep ‘mian zi,’ or face. Paying for your good friend or family member makes you feel good. Like you’re a badass who can pay for everyone’s meals. Like you’re rich. Like you’ve made it.
It’s also just a nice, generous thing to do.
To be fair, Chen did let me pick up the tab the next time. When Z wrestled a bill out of my hand and treated me to lunch or dinner, she’d usually let me treat the next time we went out. I soon learned that this was the way people kept tabs in China–not by who ate what, but who treated whom. And, like Chen said, more and more young Chinese are making the whole ‘AA’ thing normal.
Suffice to say, like the Japanese, the Chinese did not sweat the small stuff. Obviously the meal that Chen treated me to was not the same price as the meal I would treat him to the month following. Again, bickering over a few dollars isn’t worth souring the mood or friendship–plus, it’s real bad for your mian zi.
Back in the States….
I once took a group of American friends to Japan to visit our American ex-pat friend who had been living in Japan well over a decade. We all went out to dinner and, when the American friends insisted on splitting according to who-ordered-what and we whipped out the pen and calculator, my American ex-pat friend ruffled his hair and screamed.
“God, I can’t take this American way of splitting the bill!”
I get the American way of splitting the tab. It’s fair. It’s just. It leaves little room for error or ill-will.
But after living in Asia for so many years, I have to say I much prefer the Asian method of splitting money. I’m the type of person who doesn’t really care if I pay five more dollars for beer I didn’t drink, or nachos I didn’t eat–as long as everyone had a good time, I’m fine with it.
I get the emphasis on details and an even-split. But as an easygoing person, I much prefer the Japan and China method of splitting the bill to ‘keep the peace.’
How do you split the bill? Do you think you’re more American or Asian when it comes to ‘going dutch’?