The independent news organization of Duke University

Check, please

Fighting over the bill was a custom I saw often between relatives or close friends while growing up in Seoul, South Korea, but not really in the States.

I’ve been to meals where afterward, there’s been a mad scramble. Wallets fly out of pockets, and everyone has the ostensible goal to pay not just their share, but the full tab. The bill is manhandled from hand to hand while people argue for the privilege to pay for the others. Finally, one either particularly strong or insistent person secures the bill and deftly hands the money to the waiter. The struggle could continue with the other people trying to stuff money in that person’s pockets, even sneakily while walking out of the restaurant.

The funny thing is, even if everyone at the table knows perfectly well who will end up footing the bill (for example, if there are two friends and one is doing well while the other is out of a job), the social custom of arguing wholeheartedly to pay would still ensue, either for appearance’ sake or for friendship’s sake.

A cynic could call the process a tiresome one of going through the motions when “going Dutch,” like in most Western countries, would reduce the time spent in dispute over who pays, split the bill fairly and allow everyone to leave the table as equals without invisible strings of debt, despite the friendly intentions behind them.

But what’s the fun in that?

While studying abroad in Beijing this semester, I’ve been reintroduced, though to a lesser extent, to the culture of reciprocal giving rather than always splitting down the middle. I’ve also gained some new insight from back when I was a teenager sullenly waiting for the fight over the bill to end, wishing the adults would hurry up and get on with it.

Viewing it from a more practical point of view, the practice of genuinely fighting for the bill, rather than mere playacting, is actually an ingenious way to build and strengthen social solidarity between friends, relatives and business partners. Offering to pay holds an implicit promise that sometime down the road, others will reciprocate. In Chinese culture, the mutual reciprocation shapes individual roles and hierarchies that are integral for building social networks (guanxi in Chinese). The exchange of gifts and favors are integral, not only between individuals in Chinese society but also in the professional setting.

Guanxi is similar to our idea of social capital, perhaps a bit like using the term “good ol’ boy network” in America. A key similarity between these ideas of connections is the extent to which personalized networks can be leveraged to perform a favor or a service for individual benefit. Guanxi also refers to the implicit state of understanding between individuals to uphold and take into account each other’s interests. Once these relationships are built, they are contingent on the continual balance of reciprocation between individuals. If one person breaks that pact, it could lead to the end of the relationship and a loss of social face.

On a macroscopic level, the practice of paying for others is not a purely altruistic one. Although individuals might be sincerely generous, it is a culturally rooted mechanism for building mutual trust and relationships over time.

There are some loose parallels for this everywhere in American culture. Just look at Facebook, which is like a virtual stage of frenzied reciprocity, where there are innumerable ways of showing attention through comments or “likes” on comments, photos, status updates, links and notes.

But once in a while, if you’re looking for a more old-fashioned way of building guanxi with your friends and nobody’s in a rush to get to class, how about taking out your DukeCard once in a while and fighting over the bill at the front of the Great Hall line?

Jessica Kim is a Trinity junior studying abroad in Beijing. Her column runs every other Monday.