Most Chinese people don’t talk about money between friends, not in the sense that they ignore money exists, but when going out to eat, drink etc, one person will pay the bill for everyone. It’s a great system, compared to in the UK when you go out for dinner with 4 people and after eating, each person takes the bill and figures out exactly what they individually owe, rather than just splitting the bill between five evenly. I guess it depends what group of friends you’re in, but usually that’s the case.
I’ve seen lots of people in China fighting with each other about paying for things: coffees, restaurant bills, hotel expenses, taxi fares, presents etc. Once I even saw a pair of sisters race to the counter of a cafe with their purses at the ready, both wanting to get there first and pay the bill. I’ve also seen people sneak away from the dinner table to the ‘toilet’ and secretly 埋单 (pay the bill).
Last week I was travelling with my friend Marisol, we met her primary school friend and the two were both trying to pay for our desserts in a cafe. This wasn’t the first thing they’d quarrelled about paying for that day either. In the end Marisol gave in and her friend went inside to settle up. Her friend’s 7 year old daughter Apple was sitting with us outside, when a street seller came, trying to sell a big bouncy ball thing. Apple jumped up excitedly, “oooh, I want one, how much? I’ll go ask my Mum for some money…” The vendor said 5rmb (about 50p). Marisol took out her purse and was going to give the money to the seller, it was just a little amount of money compared to how much Apple’s Mum had paid for our meals.
What absolutely shocked me was the way Apple’s facial expressions changed. In an instant, she changed from an excited, smiling girl to a sad, scared and anxious little girl. She looked around, willing her Mum to come back outside. She said to Marisol
I can’t take your money. I don’t want it anymore. Really, I can’t spend someone else’s money. I don’t want it.
It really surprised me how mature she was in understanding the concept of money, and the way her expressions changed made me feel very moved. She really felt hurt at the idea of spending someone else’s money, rather than her family’s.
In the end, Marisol was victorious and gave Apple the gift, which made her smile again. But this whole situation really surprised me and I wanted to share it with my readers.