by Anita Cheung
Everything has a price. Time is Money. You need to pay a fee. Sales? 40% off. 70% off the items in the clearance bin. Two for the price of one. Pay early and get an early bird discount. This is the modern world that we live in and our lives are often dictated by a financial need driven by the necessity to pay the landlord or the mortgage or the bills. Whatever it is, we can’t seem to avoid being caught up in this cycle where money - and our need for a certain amount of it - dictate almost everything in our lives.
And although I am a realist and have my fair share of financial responsibilities as does everyone else, I love the things in life that are free and not dictated by someone needing to make a profit. To be honest, so many of us are accustomed to everything having a price that when something comes our way which does not have a price tag, we think that there’s a catch.
Take the situation of a friend, neighbour or colleague inviting you to dinner. This could take place in their home or in a restaurant and hopefully a good time is had by all. A few days later, you start thinking ‘Better return the favour and invite them to dinner’. I could not count the number of times that I have invited someone to dinner, only to hear them say at the end of the meal that they need to ‘square up with me’. Quite frankly, that attitude is slightly offensive. Let me explain. If I invite someone to have dinner, a meal or a drink , an invitation has been issued because I want to spend time with that person. What is desired is a shared time of chatting, relaxing, laughter and fun. If at some point in the future, my guest wants to invite me to something because it has been a mutually fun time, then I am happy to accept. However, an invitation just to ‘square up’ is one of the least palatable dates in my opinion. So it seems that often, if someone does something for us which is free, an automatic thought is that the favour needs to be returned and therefore ‘paid for’.
Perhaps like me you’re not the world’s greatest chef. We don’t do badly, but there is so much we don’t know how to do and there are limitations. My best dishes tend to be either a handful of Chinese dishes or Italian dishes that I can make reasonably well. Seeing as I have lived in both countries, I managed to pick up some inside secrets to these cuisines. However, I don’t have a problem acknowledging that I have never made a fish pie, roast, gravy or a crumble! So if an invitation is issued for a shared meal, it is unlikely to be gourmet cuisine coming out of my kitchen unless I can find something in a packet that looks homemade when put on a plate, which I have no hesitation in doing as and when I get the chance! A lot of care, however, goes into what I do and from time to time, I will be brave and attempt a new recipe on a (very good) friend. Friends are invited to share a meal because I want to spend time with them. Invitations are not sent out only to be chalked up so that accounts can be settled at some point in the future. True friends actually know this! For my part, there is pleasure in the giving and the sharing. There is no price tag on this. It 's free. Just come and enjoy the food and have a good time. No strings attached.
Let’s take a look at another area of our social lives such as having breakfast, drinks or something to eat in a cafe. Most of the time, everyone pays their share of the bill or the bill is divided equally amongst the party members. However, from time to time I am in the position to treat a friend and I enjoy doing this on the odd occasion. Usually I haven’t announced to them that I intend to treat them, until the bill arrives and I don’t let them even look at it! I have been asked why I chose to do that and my only reply is; ‘Because I want to.’ I don’t do it often, but do I need to have a reason or ulterior motive to bless my friends and treat them well?
Whilst living in China, I learnt that amongst the Chinese people there is honour for the Chinese in paying for their friends. I have also seen this within the Chinese members of my family who have lived in Europe for several generations. It gives such pleasure and I soon learnt that if I wanted to pay for any of my friends in China - or even just my share of the bill - then I had to be very quick in getting the bill before my friends did! I remember an incident in Changchun when both my friend and I were determined to pay the bill which almost ended up in a fight near the till! It was very funny though, but we were both so determined to treat the other. So following on from this cultural experience, I have learnt that (and I am now very good at it) if I want to treat a friend, I need to be very quick in getting the bill. When I am able to do this, there is so much pleasure in being able to say in a small way, just how special that friend is.
Obviously the opposite situation sometimes occurs when the other person wants to treat me. In these moments (as with all situations in life) I have learnt to read body language and behaviour. Sometimes I see a completely determined stare which tells me that my friend had made up his or her mind before we had even arrived at the restaurant or cafe and in these moments, I know that it is my turn to graciously accept. I take it as a token of friendship. It is not expected, but if the situation arises then I will closely observe the body language of my friend. If I see any hesitation or uncertainty then my hand quickly goes into my bag to produce my bankcard. In the case of my Chinese friends, should they offer to pay for the bill, it is often accompanied by a fierce look which I have come to know so well. That look says that there is no chance of me even coming near the bill on that day and I know (from experience) that if I want to pay then I had better prepare myself for a fight! Not only would I have to fight for the bill, but I would also offend them. So sometimes I pay for a friend and sometimes they pay for me. When these occasions arise, it is good to know that there are no strings attached, but that the gift comes from a heart of friendship.
However, aside from things such as meals which have a monetary value, there are other things in life which are free and which can be shared with whoever we choose. Take a kind word. How much does it cost us to be kind? Absolutely nothing. And will we somehow be in debt if we have been kind throughout the day? Of course we won’t! Being kind is free. Finding something to say that builds someone up costs nothing. Encouragement is scarce, but it is highly valued and to give it is free. We all know what it is like when we are on the receiving end of kind words that have built us up. Something feels good inside us. Our step has a spring in it and suddenly the world seems to be a different place, an easier place.
One last thought on that which is free and can be shared. Everyone has it and everyone can give it away. And when given away, it tends to come back immediately. Any guesses for what it is? A smile! The more we smile, the more others smile with us. I don’t know how, as adults, we think that we have to reserve our smiles for special occasions or rainy days, but quite frankly, we don’t smile enough! Smile at people and you will find them smiling back at you. Obviously, do be aware of who you are smiling at. As a single female in Malaga, I am not going to start smiling at random Mediterranean men in the hope of making the world a better place. However, I can smile at the checkout assistant whilst wishing her a good morning, or the person who is helping me in the bank or a shop. Somehow a smile and a thank you seem to go a long way in making some else’s day a little easier. Both are free and everyone has an unlimited supply to tap into. It’s time to appreciate what is free in life and to give generously. No price. No credit rating required. Nothing that needs to be repaid. Just a simple thank you, a kind word and a heartfelt smile. I challenge you to try it!