How to Split the Check in China, Japan and in America
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’?
20 thoughts on “How to Split the Check in China, Japan and in America”
We have (in Uzbekistan) something very similar, with some exceptions. So rule #1 “Guest never pays”, rule #2 “Lady never pays a bill”.
Haha I think these rules are pretty common across most of Europe and Asia. I recently went to Spain with my husband, and when I gave her my credit card to pay the bill she gave my husband the dirtiest look of shock, haha. It was hilarious!
Oh, fantastic! But actually, I prefer to keep and “deposit” my earnings in my wife’s wallet. So, usually she pays for our family dinners)))))) Mary, can you, please, direct me to your guide about feeding in china! Thank you))
勘 does mean feelings, but 勘定 (kanjou) is check, so warikan is really literally just splitting the bill.
I had an experience of Chinese hospitality in 1999. I was in Beijing, and a friend of a friend was showing me around for a couple days. We became friends but I tried to be careful of not costing him any money because I didn’t want to impose. On my last night in town he invited a bunch of guys from his soccer team and we all went out to dinner at a pretty nice restaurant. I tried to pick up the bill but he wouldn’t let me, especially not in front of his soccer buddies. I guessed that it cost him about a month’s salary. 😮
The next morning I woke up with the worst case of food poisoning and had to reroute my entire trip but that’s kind of beside the point.
Touche! I will update and fix. I didn’t know about kanjou!
Oh man, that Beijing story…!! I bet he definitely had ‘mian zi’ to upkeep–he not only had to show a foreign guest around, but he had to show his soccer buddies he could pay up! Poor guy. I’m sure he had no regrets about it. Was the food good?
I’m SO SORRY to hear about your food poisoning! Goodness! Talk about bad timing… but trust me, we’ve all been there in China, haha.
Oh and I prefer the Japanese way, except when they don’t factor in the people who aren’t drinking alcohol because it’s such a huge part of the bill! Those people are often the drivers, so they get double-dinged.
Yes, I think the Japanese way is fair! Although I’m with you, I always felt bad for the poor oolong-tea drinkers at those big nomikais… luckily those were only a couple times a year, so they didn’t get hit too hard.
Awesome article as always mary!
Aw, thanks Sean! Glad you’re still reading!
I think most white Anglo-Saxon Protestant types in the U.S. are secretly Asian. Because in my family we also fight over who gets to pay the bill. Some of us arrive early and hand the manager our credit card, in fact.
And even if my girlfriends and I split it, everyone threw in some twenties and there was way too much money for the bill, then people would generously argue that Amy should take the change because she didn’t have a dessert or I should take money back because I didn’t drink. No one ever whipped out a calculator. Usually the waiter just got a huge tip.
Because as you say, you look miserly and petty and there might be a–gasp–SCENE!
Then I learned that some people live to take advantage of this mentality. One American Princess I knew refused to even pay for her share of her boyfriend’s birthday dinner when we went out, because she’d been told by her mother that, “other people should pay for the pleasure of your company.”
Oh man, I need to hang around more Anglo-Saxon Protestant types then, haha. I don’t think I’ve ever been with a group of Americans where we all fought over who would pay the bill (unless it was family).
When I came back from China I met up with a few American friends in Utah for lunch/dinner, and I’d say: “Oh, it’s on me! I haven’t seen you in so long!” and they wouldn’t put up a fight and would instead instantly say: “wow awesome, thanks, Mary!” That’s when I knew they wouldn’t ever pick up the ‘next tab.’ haha.
Yes, it’s very easy to take advantage of someone who is generous. I think that’s why a lot of people bicker and calculate over the details–no one wants to feel cheated. Speaks volumes about the individualistic society of the West and the group oriented one of the East.
And WOW. That princess story! Goodness gracious… What a biatch, to put bluntly. Her poor boyfriend!
My friend needs a new girlfriend and you need better friends in Utah. 🙂
I think the last time I split a check was in 2015 when I was working in Shanghai and had lunch with my mostly foreign colleagues. If we went to a Chinese restaurant we would pay AA, if we went to a western one each person would pay for their dish. Now it would be easier as one person can pay everything and the rest can WeChat transfer her their part 😀
I’ve been the oolong tea drinker before and I did feel it was unfair I had to pay for others’ booze AND bear with their drunken stupidity on top xD (I am quite intolerant with drunkenness, maybe because I don’t drink myself).
Another interesting story, thanks Mary! My coworkers are mostly Chinese, with a few middle eastern types mixed in (I’m white). When we go out for lunch (southern California) we do the whole calculator, multiple card-swipe thing, just like you described. I guess even though they’re mostly Chinese, they’ve switched to the U.S. way.
Haha yes, when in Rome…. Maybe they act different around their colleagues or friends/family from China and the Middle East?
Something that just occurred to me is that in the West, eating out is generally a lot more expensive. Generally. I’m not saying that when you’ve eaten out in the East that the bill wasn’t big, but it’s much easier to treat everyone at the table over here – at least it is for me in Thailand.
Also, eating out in the West is sometimes a rare thing. I feel like out here, you will most likely eat out with your friends again and so it’s no big deal to ‘keep tabs’ on who got what, etc. If you do eat our regularly with your friends in America, I think a more relaxed system eventually falls into place.
Personally, I think it’s fun to fight over the bill. I’ve gotten good at paying before the bill arrives or other sneaky tactics. Hahahahhaa.
Lani – very true – eating out in the US is ridiculously expensive (especially when tip is factored in). We just went on a group trip to Spain and were blown away by how “cheap” it was to go out to eat. Even in Japan (which is a relatively expensive country for Asia) is more affordable than the states for dining. In Vietnam and Thailand it’s so much more affordable!!!
Eating out in the West has become more commonplace, I think, but compared to SE asia we don’t eat out as much (but again, we don’t have street food or small shops that serve up damn good food for a fraction of the cost–we just have McDonalds). When I ate out in China I was actually surprised by how expensive some meals wer e(at nice restaurants); they were sometimes comparable to the states!
Haha I like fighting over the bill too… unless I really feel like the other person shouldn’t pay, and I lose the battle 🙁
Dunno what includes “in the West” for you, but I would say here in Germany it’s also not uncommon to evenly split the bill instead of calculating down to each cent. At least in my social environment you would simply split by the number of people or if it’s family and relatives you would completely cover the bill (if you are not a student or so of course). At work we actually race to the coffee counter as the one arriving first will pay for all other colleagues and you really need to be fast if you ever want to pay 😉
You’re right, I should change the title to “America” as I have no idea how Europe operates! You just schooled me on Germany, that’s for sure. I’m glad to hear Germany is similar to Japan and everything is split down the middle–things are much simpler that way!
Ha ha, what a brilliant little glimpse into the convoluted social mores of money valuations in different cultures! It really seems to be a difference between making “fairness” a priority in one as opposed to “generosity” or “saving face.”