Living in China

Us Stingy Foreigners

What do Chinese people “know” about us foreigners. First, foreigners have money. Second, foreigners are stingy! Not always true, but that is the image my Chinese boyfriend and many other Chinese have of us foreigners.

Chinese generosity means the one who invites is the one who pays the bill. The birthday girl or boy will treat others to dinner. A guy will pay for his girlfriend. Everyone knows this rule in China, being generous gives you face. Being stingy makes you lose it.

And us foreigners then? We go Dutch! Or AA制 like they say it in China. Every time I go to eat with someone my boyfriend will ask later on who paid and then roll his eye and shake his head if I say we all pay for our selves. He just can’t understand how us foreigners can be so stingy! He considers it bad manners.

What is even more unbelievable for my boyfriend is that I don’t pay for my sister or brothers if we go to a restaurant together. I might sometimes pay, but often we go Dutch. According to my boyfriend I should of course pay because I’m the big sister!

My boyfriend is already planning to treat his family for dinner when it’s his grand mothers birthday in a few weeks. But the last time I tried to pay for my own grand mother she got upset and insisted seeing the bill so she could pay me back!

I think both ways of paying have their time and place. Towards family members it’s of course better to be as generous as possible, something I could learn from the Chinese. But in a big group of friends it’s much easier to go Dutch.

What do you think? Do you prefer paying and treating others or you do want to pay separately? Are you already used to the Chinese way of being generous?


  • Robert Budzul

    If you’ve got rich friends and they’re always shouting (Australian for 请) then it’s great… and you actually get used to it – I did. And in reality if you’re in China and earn money overseas then you might as well shout as it’s so cheap in comparison to elsewhere. It becomes a problem though if there’s a huge number of people… and you aren’t so well off.

    I’m so used to it that I feel like shouting sometimes in Australia as well – trouble is it’s too expensive and if the others don’t really understand the tradition they’ll probably feel strange about it all.


  • Chinabecky

    Ha ha, this is so true. I actually love going out to eat with my foreign friends because paying the bill is so easy. We don’t even talk about it, just split it evenly. But when I go out with my chinese friends (or students) I always end up feeling guilty because they always pay for me (they usually sneak off and pay the bill when I’m not looking.)

    I’m not a “rich foreigner” (been living in china too long for that, ha ha) but I AM rich compared with my students, who get their money from their parents. So I feel really guilty they are spending what little money they have on me.

    And yeah, when I go back to America of course my parents buy me dinners and stuff. I expect it, and my parents insist. But my chinese friends think that is so strange!


  • FrankL

    Hi Sara, good topic for discussion. My parents immigrated to Canada in the 1960s, but the tradition of treating is still part of social interactions with other Chinese immigrants. I’ve noticed that often my parents avoid going for “tea” with relatives because they want to avoid the inevitable return of the favour. I think they really dislike the endless exchange of buying lunch/dinner for each other. So I guess there’s the negative side of treating and guanxi that becomes obligatory. Since we’ve lived in Canada so long, sometimes they agree to go Dutch (with family), but it’s a rare occurance.


  • 黃愛玲

    If I am the one who invited the person to eat with me at the restaurant I picked out – I feel like I should pay. I should never assume the person has the money for the meal (especially if the person doesn’t know where I am taking him or her or perhaps the person said yes to avoid being rude).


    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    Maybe the difference is that in Finland for example we usually decide the restaurant together and everyone chooses their own meal. This way you can choose something cheaper if you don’t have much money with you.


    黃愛玲 Reply:

    I usually do the same thing (pay for my own meal) when I am with people. For an example, when I eat hot pot with my husband’s classmates. I’m actually all for it. I even more for eating alone. :D I just see it with my own eyes when people get dragged into restaurants they can’t afford when other people are oblivious of the fact that not everybody is well off as them. It even happened to my mother in law. Sometimes, they would give you totally wrong information of the restaurant and you get a wicked surprise when you arrive.


  • ordinary malaysian

    @ Sara, so true! It is still the same here in Malaysia among the Chinese especially. @ Chinabecky, you made me lol when you said your Chinese friends/students would often sneak off to pay the bill when you were not looking. That is how it often happens here too!


  • rmzhao82

    I agree with Frank. I think there is a negative side to all of this because there is often something expected in return for the meal. . . either you will, in turn, pay for a meal in the future or you will do a favor of some sort. I don’t necessarily seeing paying a meal as being generous, especially when it’s to save face or when one expects something in return. In fact, my (Chinese) husband thinks I am too generous with my friends because I will cook for them or help them with things without expecting anything in return. He sees this as a waste of energy. In response to the commenter worried about people who can’t afford to go dutch, as an American, this never really concerns me. If someone can’t afford to go out to eat they will either so say or make up an excuse. I really think it all comes down to culture and is not so much a matter of generosity.


    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    Oh yes, we can argue if it’s truly being generous when you are wanting something in return.

    Can’t afford to go Dutch? Like you said, in Finland in that case we wouldn’t go out to eat or would choose a cheaper restaurant and cheaper meal. But if you treat others you don’t know how expensive meals they want to eat.


  • Joy

    I have lived here for nearly 2 years and I’m still the same as I was back home. My friend and I eat lunch together almost every day and we still make sure we’re completely even and the other doesn’t pay 1元 more. We take it a bit far. :-) I don’t know anyone that has adopted the Chinese way.

    What about someone’s birthday?? I will not let the ‘birthday girl/boy’ pay for their meal or drinks in China or back home but in China the ‘birthday girl/boy’ pays for everyone. :-)


    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    With my friends we also always go Dutch, usually counting to the last kuai :) As we are all students this is the best way for us to pay and we are so used to it.

    In Finland we usually don’t go to a restaurant for someone’s birthday ,usually we party at home. But in any case the birthday girl/boy wouldn’t pay for everyone’s meals in a restaurant. Most likely others would pay for her/him. But like you said, in China it’s the other way around. I’d better save some money for my birthday then ;)


  • nonamelive

    Most educated young people in China will split the bill nowadays.


    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    Really? Does being educated or not have a big difference in the ways of treating other for dinners?


    Ryan Boissonnault Reply:

    I disagree, My Chinese friend invited me out for dinner for his birthday and I offered to pay as a birthday present to him and he insisted several times that I did not pay for dinner. He then explained that it is custom for one person to pay for the meal. I thought it was very different because I am so used to “going Dutch”.


    Kai Reply:

    That’s because it’s his birthday. If just a normal dinner, i think he’ll be willing to go dutch


  • BarbarkaG

    Wow, what about Chinese counting every single mao they spend (I don’t
    mean reasonable saveing money now)?! I find my cantonese boyfriend
    incredibly stingy. He complains about everything I buy. “Whaaaat, you’ve
    spent 4 kuai on this?????” he shouts each time I buy a croissant for
    myself for breakfast. Shopping with him is a nightmare, all the time I
    have to listen how expensive everything is. So usually I have to go for
    shopping on my own, otherwise I’d be allowed to buy nothing. Even if
    it’s something we really really need to buy, like a towel or washing
    powder he says “No, it’s so expensive, I’ll buy it on taobao” and in the
    end he doesn’t buy it at all. On the other hand he loves to buy thigs
    which are cheap but very low quality. “Oh, these ice-cream cost only one
    kuai.” “Don’t buy it, it’s terrible” – I say. “But it’s one kuai.” And
    while eating the ice-cream: “Gosh, it’s really disgusting”. Not to
    mention things which are for free but we totally don’t need them ;)
    buying expensive gadgets is another story. Or treating friends for an
    expensive dinner. There’s no point in having money if you can’t show off
    in front of others.
    Another awkward thing is buying gifts for all
    family members, friends and colleagues whenever they go for a trip.
    Buying souvenirs for loved ones is a good habit and I always try to
    bring something nice for my family but I feel like for Chinese people
    it’s more important that the journey itself (and taking photos of
    everything and posting it on weibo of course). Last month I went to
    Qinghai for holiday, basically I wanted to visit my close friend and go
    to the mountains. I had just one backpack and a sleeping bag with me, in
    the places where I’ve been there was even no running water so obviously
    I didn’t have much chance to buy souvenirs, although I brought some
    dried yak meat for my bf’s family. One of my co-workers went to Qinghai
    at the same time and we met at the airport when we were both going back
    to Shenzhen. Then he started to show me all the stuff he bought for all
    his friends and other teachers form the school. Gosh, he had to buy
    another suitcase in Xining cause he had so much stuff! Scarves,
    bracelets and other things that I’d never think of buying them. He gave
    me one scarf and then I felt so damn guilty that I had nothing for him
    and my co-workers but I also think that it would be quite strange to buy
    gifts for all of them since I don’t even remember most of their
    So maybe foreigners are stingy to Chinese people, but often what for the Chinese is generous to me is rather awkward.


    Yangxiao Ou Reply:

    I don’t want to offend but I translated your commets and posted it to Baidu forum, because your story is interesting , but then I realized I didn’t even got permission from you.

    If you mind it, just tell me, I’ll delete my post.


    BarbarkaG Reply:

    I don’t mind it at all :) But I’m also curious why you (as a Chinese person, cause I assume you are Chinese) find it interesting. Also, I hope that people reading my story at the forum didn’t get it wrong (like “stupid foreigner who doesn’t understand chinese ways” or that kind of stuff) because I didn’t mean to complain (I love my bf and what I said about his attitude to money is in fact insignificant). So it would be great if you’d send me a link to that forum ;) thanks in advance!


  • vFire

    Hi Sara,

    what you talking about is really true, that’s the difference between china with western, but more and more chinese know it. When we classmates meet together, sometimes we do pay for ourself, but sometimes we still feel some awkward to do that when you still regard yourself as a traditional chinese.

    It’s just the culture difference, don’t be confused, you are a foreigner, do as you like, we won’t think it be any stranger, just like talking about you are a little bit ‘fat’, fat in chinese common dialog, not always the ‘fat’ you thought. When you understand the real meaning, you are a true Chinese:D

    Chinese language is almost the most complicated language in the world, Try to think from a real chinese you will find a lot of interesting and kindness.


  • Kai

    I’m a local cantonese, since high school, when i go have dinner with my classmates/good friends, we go dutch. We don’t have any problem about that. I think the AA制 or going dutch way is well accepted by the younger generation (people below 30) in china. At least this is how I feel about people in GZ, perhaps people in northern part of china would care more about “losing face”. Just my opinion


  • None

    I have foreign parents, but grew up in the U.S. and I don’t expect any of my friends to pay for me when going out for drinks or dinner, but occasionally I will buy them a drink or two if we have been friends a long time and are close friends. As for family, well usually we split the bill unless it is a special occasion then someone picks up the tab. Which special occasions can be anything – from buying a new car to getting a new job etc and sometimes for no reason at all one of us picks it up. But what I absolutely hate is people who try to put their stingy lifestyle on you. I have a friend who never wants to go anywhere where you have to tip for lunch. That is fine for her, but when Fridays roll around I prefer not to eat shit food from a fast food place. What is with people like this? This person is so cheap she worries about driving out of her twilight zone and spending a dollar on gas money to see her friends, which is why she has very few friends might I add since she expects them all to visit her. I can put up with the stinginess from a distance, and not say anything. But really puts a damper on me wanting to spend any time with her. To friends like this – please keep in mind just because you don’t enjoy spending your time in a nice place for lunch, doesn’t mean others share in your stinginess. And don’t expect other people to conform to you and your way of life, compromise is important in friendships.


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