Splitting the Check in China

on Dec 28, 2015

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Are you kidding? Don’t ever ask to split the check in China. You don’t want an angry waiter/waitress, do you?

Oh, you do? Well I guess if your financial comfort is more important than the mental stability of your 服务员…

On our second night in Shanghai, Vi and I joined up with my son’s school group to go to dinner. We ended up at a fairly nice restaurant in a very tourist-oriented part of the city, but the staff spoke absolutely no English. Normally this isn’t a big issue even if you speak absolutely no Chinese, but on this night, the group really wanted to have the restaurant split the check instead of dividing it all up manually.

Even though all of the kids speak quite a bit of Chinese, they learn mainly Math and Science in Chinese, not everyday language. Even if they did spend more time on everyday language, I doubt they ever would have come across the concept of splitting the check.  That’s because it’s not really a familiar concept to most Chinese restaurants. Usually, somebody treats in China, and as we found out this very night, sometimes the conflicts over the check become physical. Going Dutch isn’t terribly popular.

Our group was so big that we ended up split between two tables, one large and one smaller. Vi and I were at the smaller of the two tables talking to those around us about our visit to the zoo and navigating the Shanghai subway system on our own.

The waitress started with the larger table, and it wasn’t long before I heard one of the parents in our group repeating, “split the check,” in English over and over again. I decided to see if I could help even though I had no clue how to request the checks be split. The best I could come up with was, “2 people want 1 check.” Our group consisted of parent/child pairs so that’s what I tried to communicate.

两个人要一个买单。

liǎng ge rén yào yī ge mǎi dān.

It took a few tries of me repeating variations on that phrase, but they finally understood what we wanted, and they were not happy. I think both tables ended up ordering all of the food twice because the kitchen couldn’t make heads or tails of the first attempt. Our waitress along with another worked through each group of two calculating the total due with a calculator on the second, successful attempt.

After this experience, I checked in with my friend Noah to find out the correct way to request that the restaurant split the check. One approach that he said would probably work is to order for the first group and say:

这是我的买单。

zhè shì wǒ de mǎi dān.

So you’re ordering some food and saying, “this is my ticket.” It might still be confusing, but it’s probably an easier route to the desired outcome than what I attempted.

The proper way to make the request is:

请把账单分开,我们AA制。

qǐng bǎ zhàng dān fēn kāi, wǒ men A A zhì.

The important vocabulary here is “AA制” which means “to go Dutch” or “split the check.”

According to my Noah, this may still not work, and you’re better off taking turns picking up the check at different meals to make it even.

btw, the hamburger attached to this post was made in China. It put most U.S. hamburgers to shame.