Drinking, driving, and kèqi dancing

Saturday was a great first for us. We spent the entire day with non-English speakers, and had no one like a teacher or a more advanced language student with us to bail us out. Since the people we were with didn’t have any English they were willing to use, we had to rely on what little Mandarin we have to communicate. It also meant that we couldn’t watch more experienced foreigners for social and cultural cues. We had to rely on our own knowledge and instincts to navigate the daunting world of politeness and face with people we’d only just met, but who had no English skills, and with whom we were sharing a huge meal and spending the entire day. A fun little adventure that produced some interesting cultural anecdotes.

(Browse the photo gallery here.)

The Deal: Teach English for 90 minutes, get a day on the tax payers’ dime
In return for speaking English to a room crammed wall-to-wall with forty 13-16 year-olds for ninety minutes, this middle school in Jì Xiàn (蓟县 – Ji County, north of Tianjin city, here’s a cool map) drove us out from Tianjin (almost two hours), treated us to a huge lunch, and spent all afternoon taking us around sites of interest before driving us back home. There are numerous centuries-old temples nearby, plus the Great Wall, which we’d already camped on. We got in the taxi at 7:30am and got home just after 7pm. Outside of that ninety minutes of “teaching,” there was no English. It was a really tiring day but fantastic language practice.

Celebrity teachers
We walked into the classroom at 10am and the students immediately started talking excitedly to each other and pointing. Aside from tourists at the tourist sites, they don’t see that many foreigners in town. Plus, I’m sure that every time I go to places like Jì Xiàn I’m perpetuating the stereotype that foreigners all have big noses. We were their third or fourth time for foreigners with this particular Saturday deal. We divided them between us into two groups and tried to do some interactive circle-game stuff. It was fun, and pretty low pressure for us. We tried to get them talking about Fuwas and every related thing we could think of (colours, sports, animals), make group stories, sing songs, that kind of thing. The really bizarre thing was after we’d taken the big group picture at the end, when the female students lined up to get Jessica and I to autograph their notebooks. Felt kind of weird, but, whatever.

We headed for lunch with our language engines geared up and our culture radars turned on; we had to navigate the ‘rules,’ which are only slightly less foggy than when we first arrived, on our own. It was good language and culture practice, and provided some great anecdotes.

Loading up a Taxi? Do the kè qi (客气) dance
You might not think cramming five people into a little car takes culture skills, but it does. We had two older female teachers with us, plus the driver. The principal was in a separate carload. One of the teachers told me to get in the front seat, since I’m so tall. I almost automatically went for it; I towered over the teachers and the back seats are so small that it’s a chore just to get my size 13 shoes in and out. But then I realized I was instead supposed to resist her repeated insistence enough so that she could sit in the front seat while still maintaining the appearance of hospitality, generosity, politeness, unselfishness, consideration, etc., etc.

This type of game – resisting offers and having to know when you should finally accept and when you shouldn’t – happens all the time, with almost everything. It’s still not natural for us. You could say we do this a bit in the North America – “Why don’t you stay for dinner?” “Oh, I don’t want to bother you and I’ve got some stuff I gotta do…” “Really, it’s no problem….” We have our own little social rituals where we implicitly feel out whether or not we’re imposing on one another (and we’re affirming one another’s self-determination and individuality in the process). But in the West we resolve these exchanges much quicker and with much less force. In China, people often insist with force far beyond what would be necessary to convince someone in North America that your invitation is actually genuine, yet they are still sometimes seeing it as mere politeness and expect that you will know not to accept. It’s our tendency as Westerners to accept too quickly, or, feeling unsure about the person’s true intentions, to refuse too much and cause offense.

But I played this one right, I think: after arguing back and forth a few times, I moved toward the back seat and started to get in, at which point she felt free to move toward the front seat since I was “forcing” her to take it by getting in the back first.

How to: Sit down at the dinner table
We arrived at a huge, ridiculously fancy restaurant and entered a private dining room lined with statues and display cases of expensive looking trinkets. The table was big and round, as usual, and where each person sits matters. The chair most facing the door is the most honoured seat. The chairs with their backs to the door are the lowliest seats. Everyone should know their proper place, but guests should still make a show of humbleness by moving toward a seat that is below their proper seat. A good host will give his guests face by telling them to sit in a better seat. We didn’t know how low to go, so we moved toward the seats closest to the door, and the principal, who had the biggest face at the table (figuratively speaking), and to whom everyone deferred during the polite dinner conversation, made a small show of getting us to sit near him on the other side of the table.

I felt bad for Mr. Hǎo, our taxi driver, who sat opposite of us. He was basically only there as hired help and was almost ignored the whole time. No one made any toasts to him (people toast for seemingly every conceivable opportunity, as it’s the excuse to drink), and he couldn’t have any alcohol anyway since he was driving (we suspect he may have been under orders from our school not to drink, since it’s apparently not uncommon for cab drivers to drink and keep on working). I only made one toast to everyone at the end, since we haven’t had any instruction on how that’s done yet, but I made a point to include him.

How to: Drink, toast, and be kè qi without getting totally hammered
The principal, who was the big man in the room, turned to me before the food started coming and asked what kind of alcohol he should order: beer, wine, or bái jiǔ (白酒), which is kind of like whiskey. I hadn’t ever been the guy who gets asked this before. We’ve heard plenty of stories about Chinese drinking culture, and I’ve had one or two experiences with it myself, but this was the first time in a more formal setting. My goal was to be as polite and appropriate as possible without drinking too much. I answered by saying that we usually only drink alcohol on special occasions like Christmas or our anniversary, and he replied that this was a special occasion so what kind of alcohol should we drink?, so I told him beer, knowing that I could get through more glasses of that than any of the other choices, and that we’d probably have to get through a few glasses.

The glasses are small, but it’s expected that when toasting you’ll do some gān bēi (干杯), which literally means “dry glass” and is equivalent to “bottoms up!” and “cheers!” while synonymous with “make a toast.” In this situation it means when someone toasts you and you drink, the polite thing to do before sitting down is to hold your glass up toward them so they can see that the bottom is empty. That’s gān bēi, and it’s easy to do with beer and the little Chinese cups that are like over-sized shot glasses. But with bái jiǔ it’s a whole different story. Plus, they either fill up or top off all the drinks after each toast so you’re always tipping a full glass.

The trick is not just drinking your limit and then calling it quits, because pretty much the only time people drink is when someone’s getting toasted. The trick – for people who care about not drinking too much – is spacing out your alcohol tolerance over however many toasts you’ll have to participate in, so that you can give each person their due without drinking more than you should.

The boss’ first toast was to us, the guests, and he said, “Gān bēi!”, so I gave him that one, but indicated that I only gān bēi once. They tried a few more times, but didn’t push too hard and seemed to be OK with me not draining my glass every time. Then half-way through the meal they ordered bái jiǔ anyway and tried to get us to drink that. At first I said no, but then they said just a little, and I was surprised when they really only did give me just a half-glass.

One interesting toasting detail: when you clink glasses, the relative position of the rims indicates who is higher than whom. Between people of generally equal status there can be a little struggle as both try to be lower than the other; sometimes you end up clinking just above the table.

The boss apologized to me twice – once near the end of the meal and once when we were leaving to return to Tianjin. All I could catch was that he was afraid he’d created offense somehow, or something like that. The more he drank the faster he talked, and we don’t catch everything they’re saying anyway, so I couldn’t catch it all. But that lets me know that I can still do better when it comes to refusing too much alcohol, as we must of confused him at least a little (our lack of Mandarin doesn’t help either!). Still, it seems like if we’re going to share banquets with people and refuse to get even a little drunk, we’ll have to make a break with people’s expectations at some point and risk a little offense or misunderstanding. We’re trained to respect and accommodate culture, and although we can see how the drinking functions on different levels, in the end it still seems like culture and kè qi are just excuses for a bunch of guys wanting to flaunt their status, curry favour, and, of course, drink a lot. Or maybe the culture and kè qi expectations surrounding drinking developed for the purpose of accommodating peoples’ vices. Either way, we choose misunderstanding over getting drunk.

A local friend we described this to after we returned to Tianjin said it sounds like the school’s administration is living it up on tax dollars (apparently this is not uncommon). Plus, they may be either fulfilling a requirement to have foreign English teachers, or generating more prestige (and, therefore, higher school fees) for the school by bringing foreigners in every weekend. We’d been offered this interpretation of the situation before we went, and lunch was the event that most seemed to confirm it. Aside from the drinking, there was way more food than the nine of us needed; I don’t think we more than half finished any one dish.

Driving – Glad we’re not
After sitting in the passenger seat of a taxi for about 4 hours in one day, I am really glad that we hardly spend any time in cars in China. We talked with the driver, Mr. Hǎo, most of the way there and all the way back. He really got talking on the way home, and by this time he was really getting into the game where you have to describe all the words you want to use but that we haven’t learned yet. One day I’ve got to write up one of these conversations, because I bet they’d sound hilarious in English.

Even though the city traffic seems to make more and more sense the longer we’re here, I sure wouldn’t trust myself to drive in it. Mr. Hǎo was a great taxi driver: he loved to talk and was willing to put up with our poor Mandarin for hours, he refused a lot of free alcohol on the day he was driving (they don’t all do that), and he wasn’t near as adventurous as other cab drivers we’ve had. But knowing that even the best drivers are willing to let go of the steering wheel at 120km/hour to dig their tea bottle out of their backpack or illustrate the finer points of pigeon selection with hand gestures makes me glad that most of the time we stick to our bikes.

Touristy stuff
The town is small, but they have a developed tourism centre. We went to some temples, some of which were really interesting. Plus, they let us gong the bells and beat the drums. We never got to do that in Taibei, but that may be because the temple bells and drums we saw in Taiwan are still regularly used for their originally intended purposes.

This afternoon reminded us how easy it is to accidentally imply things in Chinese culture. If you’re a guest and you show interest in something, your hosts may assume you want them to buy it for you. Being a good host is very important, and apparently anticipating your guests’ wishes and buying them things can be part of the deal. This happened to us once before already, and happened twice in Jì Xiàn. We asked about this one locally made drink they had at lunch and ended up going home with two cans, and when we were looking at prayer hanging-cards in the Guanyin temple and they started to go buy us some.

It was a long day – our brains were fried by the end – but well worth it.

3 thoughts on “Drinking, driving, and kèqi dancing”

  1. Quite a tour de force. I think your insights into the Chinese drinking culture are, how to say…insightful. There is no way to not get drunk with superiors and their not be offended. I might just add one thing I don’t think you mentioned: I’ve talked to a whole lot of Chinese that don’t like this toasting/drinking culture one little bit. In fact, most seem not to like it (especially girls).

  2. We’ve heard the same thing from people, that they personally don’t like the drinking culture at all but they sort of feel in those situations like they have no choice, especially if they aren’t the host. In fact, just yesterday our school’s boss (American 11 years in China) was telling me of once attending a banquet hosted by the department head of his university. The dept. head toasted with Sprite all night, but made everyone else drink alcohol. Our headmaster asked him about it and he said he hates drinking, and as the biggest man at the banquet he could do whatever he wanted (drink Sprite), but that everyone else has to drink whatever he wanted them to (and he made them all drink more than they wanted). Reminds me of people pledging fraternities in undergrad.

    I hear that weddings are apparently the worst, when the couple has to toast every single guest/couple. But our only Chinese wedding experience so far wasn’t all that traditional of a wedding.

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