One of the first things I learned how to say when I moved to China was 买单 (mǎidān), the word for “the bill” or “pay the bill” when you’re at a restaurant. I can remember sitting outside in a Beijing hutong in the summer of 2007, still struggling with the tonality of the Chinese language and barking “màidàn” to a horrified server. Over two years later, of all things in Chinese, I thought that this was one of the key phrases that I had mastered, intoning it and thinking it just like a Chinese person would, thinking “buy” (买, mǎi) and “list” (单, dān) to myself when I asked for the bill. To my surprise, there is still another twist.
I recently came across the word 埋单 (máidān), literally “bury the list”, which means the same thing as 买单 (mǎidān). The sound of these two phrases are so close that it is difficult to distinguish which one is being said unless you listen very closely and the person saying them is speaking clearly. Yet there seems to be a world of difference in meaning if you consider what is being said.
What a strange idea! Paying at a restaurant as burying the proof of what is owed, laying to rest the obligation, ostensibly forever. Paying the bill appears to be a ritual associated with the kind of reverence one owes towards the dead, and true to the analogy, the Chinese are particular about paying the bill. Typically, one person treats everyone else, regardless of the occasion. The idea of everyone taking out money and laying it on the table while the bill is divided up is considered unsightly and barbaric. I’ve witnessed a number of waiters cringe as they watch a group of foreigners figure out the money after a banquet.
Perhaps this kind of solemnity explains the fact that 埋单 has a more expanded usage, meaning to take responsibility for something. Nciku gives the following example:
If the whole thing is bungled, you will be responsible.
I’ve started asking to “bury the list” when I check out of restaurants now. No one seems to notice the difference.