October 5, 2022
We’ve all been there. After an eventful dinner filled with laughter and good food, everyone around the table starts to get restless. The server unassumingly brings over the check in a cute little tchotchke, and suddenly the tension rises. In a flurry, chairs screech backward, and each diner stretches out their arms, clamoring for the seemingly innocuous piece of paper. Perhaps people even get physical as they try to be the first one to pay.
What ensues is what seems to be a good-natured, kind-hearted exchange over who should have the privilege of paying — “It’s our event,” “I got us together,” “I’m older,” “It’s my turn” — but is actually a terse argument that will be picked apart in the respective journeys home after. Eventually, someone proudly pays the bill, but it remains unclear who has “won”: the individual who generously paid for everyone or the one who was treated?
It’s a pattern of behavior that is practically tradition for South Asians, rooted in age-old power dynamics, but also one that is unexpectedly connected to relationship-building. And, of course, plain old pride. Consider it our very own gift economy, with cultural values in place of market values.
If you’ve ever questioned just how rampant this behavior is, a series of restaurant owners and managers I spoke to quickly confirmed that — rain, shine, or bankruptcy — the battle for the bill between South Asian customers is a constant they have come to rely on.