One aspect of China that fascinates the heck out of me is social etiquette among friends. For the longest time I thought meeting friends was as easy as setting a date, showing up and in many cases bringing along some of your other peeps. The more, the merrier, right? Well, this very “suibian” (随便) Western way of approaching the matter can cause difficulties very easily when transplanted to China.
During Chinese New Year, we were thinking of fun things to do such as going to watch a movie or KTV or even laser tag. Since it can get boring just the two of us, I suggested inviting friends to go together. I started naming all the people I could think of, imagining a big, fun reunion. What about Xiao L, and You Ge; we can also invite Gu and how about Yang and his girlfriend.
Mr Li looked at me with growing worry. “You do realise that we then have to pay for all of them, right?” Damn it, rookie mistake. While among the younger generation of “post-90s” Chinese it has become quite common to go “AA”, or go Dutch, when hanging out – especially when they are still broke students – traditional Chinese social etiquette dictates that one person pays for everyone on one occasion, then person B pays for everything on the next occasion etc. and so forth. However, if you end up inviting 10 people to hang out, you will be footing quite the bill. When I responded with a desperate “But whyyyy?”, my MIL explained the logic behind the “you organise, you pay” principle. As the initiator of an event, i.e. the person who says to others, “Hey, let’s go to KTV”, you are putting yourself in the spotlight; you are so to speak, the centre of attention, which is why you should pay. There’s none of that we are all equal nonsense here – if you gather friends around you, you better be willing to lay down those yuans.
The next way in which my grand plan for a massive meet-up failed in the Chinese context, is that it is unacceptable among traditionally minded Chinese to invite people from two different friend circles. Say, Ming is your friend from elementary school and Hua is your friend from uni. Under no circumstance could you simply arrange a “hang out” with both of them because they are from different parts of your lives. It simply isn’t done. There are of course ways in which the two people could be introduced to each other; but then the meeting needs to be specifically for the purpose of this introduction and you better have a darn good reason to do so – we ain’t just foolin’ around here, folks.
That being said, there are two ways in which these social codes, that can seem very rigid to some of us (i.e. mostly me), are being transformed. For one, the aforementioned post-90’s seem a lot more relaxed about following all these rules, but where there is an even bigger transformation is the moment Chinese students go abroad. I was never aware of all these rules surrounding social interaction in China until I set foot in the country, despite having gone out with Mr. Li for over two years, because in the UK the idea that different friend groups couldn’t cross paths unless there is a formal event to introduce them simply didn’t exist. Out of necessity Chinese students would band together and end up going to events with large groups where they would meet other friends of friends and so on.
However, back in Hohhot, a third-tier city with a traditional mindset if ever there was one, things aren’t just as simple as that. Better limit the number of friends at our KTV event then, ey?