Many of my friends and relatives who are CBCs or grow up here in Canada have issues with this Chinese "thing" called FACE 面子 (façade). To us, it is embarrassing to watch our parents and their friends fighting over the restaurant bill and shoving their money back and forth. It inevitably ends up with the final ritual of the 'loser' trying to put money back into the pocket of his/her generous host. When being caught in situations like that (especially when I am expected to jump into the fray), I usually joke that I have short hands and very deep pocket, and if that joke passes over people's heads, proclaim sheepishly that I am too westernized, even though I had gobbled up most of the Chinese food on the table while the older generations were busy playing Chip 'n' Dale (卡通片 two cute overly polite cartoon characters - you first please, I have enough, no after you please, etc).
Just the other day, one of my far away but close relative came to visit our family. After a couple of days of bonding and re-bonding, we were beginning to loosen and open up, laughing and reminiscing about our childhood time together. Then at our farewell supper, as soon as it was time to pay the waiter, my mother all of a sudden put on this standard-issue mask and started, much to my horror, a pretend fight with our relative over the restaurant bill 爭結數. Although I did not say it aloud, I mumbled under my breath (in English of course): "Mother, how can you do this to someone with whom we shared our darkest and funniest of all family secrets in the last two days?!" Then it dawned on me that this giving and saving face by my mother was just a way of expressing her genuine gratitude to our relative without exposing her true emotion in public. In fact, I recall the trip with my mother to Venice, Italy 義大利威尼斯, where she was quite fascinated by the different Venetian masks and the beautiful costumes worn by the locals for foreign tourists. Perhaps, she was impressed by the colour and artistic value of the masks itself, or perhaps it was the mystery of who actually were the people under those masks that captured her fancy. Interesting though, for whatever reasons, my mother just would not keep the gift that had been given to her by a local mask-maker. "You keep it." She shoved it to me as soon as we left the artisan's studio. "Why did you accept it in the first place?" I asked without thinking. She gave me a side look and I knew better not to pursue it further. Perhaps she is afraid that the mask might come alive in the middle of the night and speak to her? I will never know.