Saturday, November 10, 2007

Wasai--- Footing the Bill, Saving Face

Going out with Taiwanese friends, one is sure to notice the custom of one person treating all the others to a meal. Although "going Dutch" is common among westerners, it is foreign to Taiwanese culture. Nevertheless, when dining with Taiwanese companions, the question remains, which among a group of friends is to foot the bill, or put another way, which has the honor to treat his or her friends. Before living in Taiwan for long, one is sure to come across the common scene of two or three men pushing and twisting their way towards the check out counter vying to pay the bill, laughing and shouting all the while.

Moon Festival of 2006, my wife and I went on a road trip with our friends, a Taiwanese couple and their three year old son. The first night, we camped out at Mei Shan Kou, on the south cross island highway. The following two days, we drove down the east coast from Tai Tong via Tai Ma Li, ending up in Ken Ting National Park. Although everyone had a great time seeing the sights, eating and drinking, I felt slightly embarrassed that my friend A-Bin insisted on paying for everything. Any attempt to pay for food or drink was preempted by a smiling A-Bin.

The last day of the trip we all ate lunch in one of Ken Ting's many seafood restaurants. The fare included a few kinds of fish, crabs, clams and other varieties of shellfish, far too much food for four adults and one three year old. Every meal that trip had displayed the same superfluity. I mentioned this to A-Bin, who laughingly replied that his wife, Mei, and he always ate this many different dishes. He claimed that they hated to eat only a couple of kinds of food a meal as there was not enough variety in the flavors. I could not decide whether this statement was merely an excuse to further treat my wife and me to an overabundance of hospitality, or an insight into the lavishness of their dining habits.

I resolved to use this final opportunity to turn the tables and treat A-Bin and his family. While out wives were showing A-Bin's son some of the creatures swimming and crawling about in the tanks out front of the restaurant, I called the waitress over to ask for the check. A-Bin immediately told me not to worry that he wanted to pay. I protested that he had paid for everything not allowing me to pay my share. It was then that A-Bin taught me an important lesson about Taiwanese character that I had realized only vaguely if at all before this moment. He told me that paying for the meal was a way for him to gain face and that if I did not allow him to pay he would lose face. All Taiwanese men feel this way, he told me. From my experiences since that meal, I can vouch that what my friend A-Bin revealed to me is true. Again, I had no choice but to allow him to pay. He promised when they next visited us, that I, not he, could treat. From all I have learned, the sincerity of that statement is in doubt.

Submitted to Wasai Taiwan by: Dustin Florence

(Lubbock, the U.S. --- Tainan County, Taiwan)

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