At the beach in Qingdao, China: the biggest honking jellyfish I’ve ever seen in my entire life! [Updated!]

We were walking along the shore of Qingdao’s Shilaoren beach (老人海水浴场) today, just past that drainage river thing near where the ATV rental guys who think they own the beach are, and found THIS:

qingdaojellyfish1 At the beach in Qingdao, China: the biggest honking jellyfish Ive ever seen in my entire life! [Updated!]

That is the biggest honking jellyfish (水母 or 海蜇) I’ve ever seen in my entire life. I flipped it over with my shovel:

qingdaojellyfish2 At the beach in Qingdao, China: the biggest honking jellyfish Ive ever seen in my entire life! [Updated!]

From a distance I thought it was just some garbage (there’s lots of garbage). But man. Can you imagine bumping into this in chest-deep, murky Qingdao beach water?

qingdaojellyfish3 At the beach in Qingdao, China: the biggest honking jellyfish Ive ever seen in my entire life! [Updated!]

And keep in mind that my size-13 foot isn’t hovering *that* close to it, so the photos’ perspective makes the jellyfish look smaller that it really was.

I’d heard from friends about a local jellyfish infestation and checked the Chinese news yesterday. One guy has died this summer from jellyfish. And people we chatted with while taking pictures of this one said there was a 300 one on a beach east of here. I’ll give you one guess regarding it’s fate

P.S. – UPDATE:
Special thanks to science writer and jellyfish expert Dr. Juli Berwald, who’s ID’d this thing for us. It’s a Nomura’s jellyfish (Nemopilema nomurai), one of the two largest jellyfish species in the world. According to the internets, it’s got a painful sting but doesn’t *usually* kill people (?!) and is edible but not considered tasty enough to go to all the trouble it would take to harvest them. They’ve capsized fishing boats and shut down at least one nuclear reactor. And you can’t just go killing them, because whenever one gets stressed it releases billions of sperm or eggs into the water. It’s not the most venomous jellyfish in the ocean, but it is perhaps the most notorious for economic impact. Do an image or video search for “Noruma’s jellyfish” or “Nemopilema nomurai” — fascinating stuff.

More importantly, these recent and massive “blooms” of jellyfish have scientists’ attention. Jellyfish are an “iconic animal of our time”; scientists like Dr. Berwald are currently researching what these jellyfish blooms reveal about the future of our oceans and our role in shaping that future. You can check out her project Spineless here.

Now you know! Cold weather = dog season

One of the fun things about China is fresh fruit in season. That means good fruit and it gives a fun rhythm to the year. And due to traditional Chinese ideas about health, fruit is not the only thing that has a season:

20130925 030DOG1 Now you know! Cold weather = dog season
上市 “Dog meat is on the market!”

Our innocently unapologetic corner of Qingdao is so endearing. Why wouldn’t you put up a big “DOG MEAT” sign right outside your restaurant? This is about a 10-minute walk from our place. We regularly eat their 老醋花生 and 肉末云豆。 Have not tried their dog yet. This is one of several (as in, over ten) places within walking distance to get dog meat. That’s just how we roll in Licun ().

Dog meat is hard to find in the summer because dog meat, like donkey and mutton, makes you 上火 — it ups your internal “fire”. I’m not even going to attempt to explain what that means, but your fire being too low or too high (usually too high) is a bad thing, and results in acne and colds and stuff. But in the winter it’s cold, so your “fire” can stand a little reinforcement. Or something. I guess.

20131001 198DOG2 Now you know! Cold weather = dog season

For more about eating dogs:

For more about Chinese healthiness:

Cross-cultural food: the feeling’s mutual

applepiesmall Cross cultural food: the feelings mutualWe’re at a church lunch in Taipei. It’s Thanksgiving in America so Jessica’s baked an apple pie. They aren’t celebrating Thanksgiving but we figure an apple pie would be fun to share. Mrs. Xie’s around 50 years old and the first to take a bite. She chews twice, then suddenly yells, “Ròu guì!” as she reflexively spits out her mouthful of our quintessentially American potluck contribution into her hand.

I remember it clearly; she sort of jumps back a bit when she yells and catches the mouthful of pie. Heads turn. Everyone laughs, including us once we understand what’s just happened. Mrs. Xie was genuinely surprised and had reacted on reflex. We had no clue and never would have guessed that Chinese use cinnamon in traditional medicine but not sweets. And Mrs. Xie apparently never expected to find one of TCM‘s 50 fundamental herbs in a foreign dessert on the church potluck table. “We eat this in lots of stuff in North America, it’s really common…” You can imagine the impression this is making. So much for iconic American cuisine!

It’s Mutual

That wasn’t the first or the last time we’ve accidentally grossed-out Chinese acquaintances with our Western food. There’re more stories below, but first here’s an idea. Between any two cultures is a shared category called FOOD where individuals’ feelings range range from Yum! to Ok to No thanks to Yuck!. The preferences within one culture tend toward relative similarity. But the more different two cultures are, the greater the chance that each culture will also have stuff in their FOOD category that the other culture doesn’t — people from the other side categorize it as NOT FOOD and so have never considered eating it. Sometimes presenting NOT FOOD as FOOD triggers such visceral disgust that the very thought of eating it makes them physically uncomfortable. It’s not just NOT FOOD, it’s literally sickening.

This especially applies to China and Euro-America because of the extremes. Not only is there plenty of common food in each culture that people from the other culture typically find unappetizing, there’s quite a bit that’s entirely outside the other’s FOOD category. I think that’s funny. And interesting. It illustrates how strong and arbitrary our culturally-conditioned, visceral reactions and preferences can be.

It’s Arbitrary

dogfood2small Cross cultural food: the feelings mutualThink about it: Barbaric accurately expresses what the average Anglo-American feels inside when they think about Chinese eating dogs, even if they won’t say it out loud. But why should dog meat be any more disgusting than pig meat? Can you think of any even partially-objective reason? Are shrimp any cleaner than water roaches? Think about eating a crab: actually cracking open a shell, pulling legs off… Why are we unwilling to eat insects but pay big bucks to eat crustaceans — the relatively huge, exoskeletonned garbage-suckers of the ocean? We call one disgusting and the other delicacy.

But it doesn’t have to be “gross” to simply not be considered food. What’s the first thing that pops into your head when you see this:

starfish20130430 502embed Cross cultural food: the feelings mutual

Most North Americans, I’d wager, at first glance would think “souvenirs” (or “beach”, “tide pool”, etc.). We’ve seen starfish just like those in buckets just like that at seaside souvenir shops in Canada and the U.S. But (and you knew this was coming) it’s actually a seafood restaurant in Qingdao, waiting for you to order so they can do this:

starfish20130531 397embed Cross cultural food: the feelings mutual

Turns out that Chinese and Anglo-Americans tend to populate their respective FOOD / NOT FOOD categories with slightly (ha!) different things. And that’s where the fun comes in.

Fringe vs. Mainstream Food

One last thing before the examples: It’s easy to go to another country, search out the most exotic food you can find, something that most locals won’t even touch, and then go, “Holy cow! Look what they eat!” But it’s just not that interesting; it doesn’t well represent that culture or human diversity because it’s comparing one culture’s novelty food with another culture’s mainstream. For example, we could use prairie oysters and say,

Canadians eat bull testicles!
prairieoysters Cross cultural food: the feelings mutual

Technically that’s true, I guess, though it’s a safe bet that 99% of the Canadians I know think that’s sick and wrong. For China I’d call 3-squeak mice, urine eggs, and Taipei’s “snake alleynovelty food, along with exotic traditional Chinese medicine ingredients like tiger penis. So for our purposes here that stuff doesn’t count.

The novelty and shock value of fringe food wears off quickly. What’s more interesting, I think, is stuff that’s normal to most locals but not even within the category of “food” to most outsiders. So here’s some examples (finally!) from our own experiences that go both ways between China and North America.

Examples!

1. Pig feet 猪蹄 vs. perogies & sour cream 酸奶油

We lived with a Taiwanese family for two weeks while volunteering at a Hurricane Katrina shelter in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Their favourite dish was pig feet 猪蹄, so that’s what we had our first night. And for lunch the next day. And several more times while we were there. Microwaved pig feet at work. I remember sucking the gelatinous flesh off bones and spitting out what I guess were the knuckles. It wasn’t anywhere near appetizing for us, though that wasn’t a problem because our education had drilled into us that when you’re someone’s guest, you eat it — period (our rural East Africa internships offered much greater mealtime challenges than some sticky pig feet). Plus, we got revenge.

Perogiesmall Cross cultural food: the feelings mutualOne night while we were with them we planned to share our own cultural food. My heritage is Ukrainian; every Christmas mom makes perogies and cabbage rolls. Since perogies (we figured) were more or less Western 饺子 they ought to go down well with our Taiwanese hosts. Now I don’t know about in Ukraine, but Canadians cover their perogies in tons of sour cream (or maybe that’s just my family). Anyway, I remember the mom as we opened the sour cream container in the middle of the table and plopped a huge shiny white blob on top of our perogies — her face said something like: “Wow. They can’t be serious…” It’s the exact same face I made countless times during our first two years in Taipei and Tianjin. They took a couple token licks before eating their perogies plain. I was like, hey, more sour cream for me!

2. Pig blood cake 猪血糕

Probably the best example from our own lives of how taste in food is in your head more than your tongue comes from our first week in Taipei. We’d arrived right in time for the start of Chinese New Year. That meant almost everything was closed. Every night for dinner we would just wander outside and eat whatever we could find, which usually came from random lonely street vendors. Some nights we had to search for several blocks.

On one such night we found a push cart vendor selling these rectangular things on sticks, which he coated in… crushed peanuts? With some cilantro? We had no clue what it was and not enough language to ask, but it was our only option so we ate some for dinner. And honestly, it tasted alright. A day or two later we found out what it was when we asked our English-speaking employers during a work dinner: “pig blood cake猪血糕. Then I felt sick to my stomach. Holy cow. Part of me didn’t believe them; I’d never imagined pig blood cake was in the realm of possible dinner options.

Turns out that blood, in various forms, is not uncommon in Chinese food.

3. Our Qingdao

scorpionIMG 4657small Cross cultural food: the feelings mutual

Literally down the street and around the corner from our place in Qingdao there’s a guy with buckets of live scorpions 蝎子, sorted by size, and a little pot to fry them in. He sits directly across from the “pig head meat猪头肉 seller (which means pig parts, not just head pieces). Within a 20 minute walk from our place I can get: dog meat 狗肉 (at over a dozen places), duck blood soup 鸭血汤, hair eggs 毛蛋, silk worm chrysalis 蚕蛹, starfish 海星, more scorpions, sheep heads 羊头, 3-penis liquor 三鞭酒, sea cucumber 海参, bullfrogs 牛蛙… Click the words for a picture! :)

This isn’t a list of all the most-gross-to-the-average-Anglo-American Chinese food that I’ve ever seen in China. It’s a representative sampling of a long list of edibles outside the typical Anglo-American’s “food” category that I routinely stumble upon within a half-hour walking radius of our apartment in Qingdao. None of it is considered terribly exotic and it’s not connected to tourism. It’s at regular, daily markets and average restaurants. Sure, it’d be easy to find some Chinese who don’t like to eat this stuff, but most of the locals around here don’t think anything of it.

maodan20130519 092small Cross cultural food: the feelings mutual

And if we remove the “routinely” clause: donkey heads 驴头, donkey penis 驴鞭, cow penis soup 牛鞭汤, dog penis 狗鞭 (hot pot) — yes, I’m going with a theme here — and snake penis 蛇鞭 (liquor tonic 补酒 ingredient) represent a long list of things I come across around here but don’t see every week.

scorpionIMG 4658small Cross cultural food: the feelings mutual

4. Cheese 奶酪

Chinese people not liking cheese 奶酪 is a cliché food anecdote, especially (but not only) for Chinese 50 years and older, but we still see it. It makes sense: think of all the Chinese food you like to eat, and then imagine melting cheese on it. Ew. When our daughter’s all-Chinese preschool has “pizza” for “Western food day”, it’s cheese-less. I forget which memoir it was, but one Chinese author I’ve read wrote of moving to New Zealand and her mom coming to visit. They had dinner at some local Kiwi’s where a fancy cheese plate was served. Her very polite mom dutifully at some… and barfed afterward.

5. Mexican food 墨西哥

Mexican food 墨西哥 is, according to our fully-bilingual, internationally-traveling former boss in Taipei, the strangest-tasting-to-him of all the foreign food he’s tried, on account of the spices. And as every American expat in Mainland China knows, the lack of Mexican food is at emergency levels. We’ve never lived in Beijing but we know the one place to get decent Tex-Mex — it’s practically a religious pilgrimage every time we have to visit the Capitol.

6. Stinky Tofu 臭豆腐

choudofukeelungschodofusmall Cross cultural food: the feelings mutual

People can have pretty strong feelings about their favourite food, of course, especially if it’s connected to their heritage. Our Taipei friends love stinky tofu 臭豆腐 and they joked about it being their national food. One of them told us how angry it made her when she saw a foreigner on a TV show say, “It tastes like sh–!” Their feelings are understandable but so are that foreigner’s, even if he was rude about it. The first time we encountered stinky tofu, we were far enough down the street from the vendor that we didn’t even know he was there. My throat was suddenly seized by this pungent cloud; I literally thought something must be dead nearby, some juicy and exceptionally spicy roadkill in the hot, humid Taiwan sun. A resident foreigner had told us about stinky tofu, but what I smelled was so strong I’d assumed it was something else. I couldn’t believe it when we eventually walked past the push cart. (Not all varieties of stinky tofu are this powerful.)

6. Silkworm chrysalis蚕蛹

canyong20130531 396small Cross cultural food: the feelings mutual

I used to think silk worm chrysalis 蚕蛹 were just for tourists and adventure eaters until I started seeing them in local restaurants and markets. Our friend Rob in Tianjin had dinner with a classmates’ family, and they served a big plate of them. He said their young daughter chowed down on them like nobody’s business. We’ve had them at local sidewalk BBQs (though I opted out of the sheep penis). The picture above is from a market I pass through twice a week.

7. Duck tongues 鸭舌

 Cross cultural food: the feelings mutual

During our first month in Taipei our new friends took us to the Shilin nightmarket. We made a deal: we’d eat everything they picked out so long as they didn’t tell us what it was first. Yay duck tongues 鸭舌! Maybe that counts as adventure eating, but they ate them just like any occasional snack.

8. Breakfast 早餐

Whether you’re Chinese or Anglo-American, breakfast is one of the hardest adjustments to make when crossing these two cultures. Maybe because people are cranky in the morning, I don’t know. In our home in China we eat with chopsticks at least one meal a day and often two (not intentionally, that’s just how it happens). But breakfast is always Western; no trace of China on table. We even have a cinnamon shaker for oatmeal and coffee. And we have Chinese friends who feel the same in reverse.

youtiaoIMG 6057small Cross cultural food: the feelings mutualOne Chinese friend from Tianjin married a Michigan girl and they recently moved to the States. In the past when he was just visiting, he made his own breakfasts (instant noodles) every morning. This time, realizing it was a move and not just a visit, he was psychologically preparing himself before they left, trying to work up the right attitude toward adjusting to, rather than avoiding, American-style breakfast. He knew what he was getting into and needed to psych himself up.

With Chinese breakfast there’s no mercifully gentle easing into the warm embrace of a consoling cup of coffee that says, “There there, I know getting out of bed is hard…” Our first Chinese breakfast surprise was when staying a weekend with friends in Beijing. We had hot, spicy noodles and pickled shredded vegetables. I promise it sounds a lot worse when you’ve just woken up. But a bowl of cereal is at least as unappetizing to the average Mainlander. If you’ve ever stayed at a Chinese hotel, you’ve maybe been surprised at how there can be so little you want to eat in such a big breakfast spread.

Adventure eating is for amateurs

I’ve done my share of made-for-clueless-tourists adventure eating — there’s a certain time in every almost-man’s life when you want to challenge yourself just for fun, to see what you can handle. But more interesting to me is the food that locals think is normal, or a special treat, that I wouldn’t even think of as food if they hadn’t identified it as such.

If there’s a point to this, I guess it’s that we can and should be honest about cultural differences, not just because it builds healthy communication and mutual understanding, but it’s also interesting and funny in its own right. Of course we should be sensitive about how we communicate — different levels of bluntness are appropriate to different contexts. At dinner in someone’s home we smile and nod and eat whatever we’re served (octopus heads, recently). But with friends out in the street, or on the blog? That’s different. Gagging on one another’s food can be fun and enlightening among cross-cultural friends.

P.S. — I’m sure there’s a better list to be made of common Western food that weirds out the average Mainlander. If you’ve got stories please share!

P.P.S. — Every image here is ours except for the American pie, the perogies and the prairie oysters (click for sources).

P.P.P.S — About cross-cultural negativity:

P.P.P.P.S - Was just walking to the school and found this huge caterpillar(?) on the way, so I brought it and asked the gate guard what it was and if it would bite my kids (they like to play with bugs). One of the teachers, my coworker, was leaving out the gate, glanced at it as she passed and said, “Oh, you can eat those!”

douchongsmall Cross cultural food: the feelings mutual

Living in China? What do you do about food safety/pollution?

DSCN8896Chinesecatrestaurant Living in China? What do you do about food safety/pollution?

Just now I opened my latest ZGBriefs China news digest and found: “Rat meat and Chinese food safety” and “20 million taps (and not a drop to drink)”. Right as I sat to down to write this post I also checked my Weixin (微信 – a Chinese social media thing). At the top of my feed was a post about someone encountering “gutter oil” 地沟油 at lunch. Gutter oil comes from the kitchen slop that restaurants dump down the nearest manhole. Some enterprising (desperate?) soul scoops it out and skims off the oil, which he sells to restaurants and street vendors. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. Or they drive around at night collecting it in barrels from the restaurants directly (I’ve seen that, too). And these aren’t the worst Chinese food safety examples I can think of; they’re just the ones that happen to be immediately on hand as I write this. This is truly just the muculent tip of a putrescent iceberg.

Why am I bringing this up? I don’t want a blog full of expat whining. But I got this e-mail a few days ago from a couple who’s been in China for three months:

Hello Joel!
[...] I’m living with my husband in a town in the middle of nowhere called Neixiang (Hunan Province) we’d had tons of shocking experiences here… and now we’re mainly concern about what food is safe to eat.

I’m not talking about eating cat or dog, but eating safe and clean. After reading news about food scandals in China we became more and more afraid of buying food on the streets and even at super markets.

If you have time, could you please tell us your experience with Chinese food brands and give us some advice about what brands has more quality standards than others?

veggies2 Living in China? What do you do about food safety/pollution?How would you answer? If you live or lived in China, what specific things do you do to make your food safer?

Here’s what I replied with (plus some links)…

Other than spending tons of money and eating only imported products, I don’t know if it’s possible to eat safe and clean in China (and outside China, safe and clean is really just an illusion anyway, but that’s another topic). We’re less stringent than a lot of other expats, and I don’t think what we’re doing makes it safe and clean, but at least it’s something.

Fruit & veggies: We wash all our fruit and vegetables really well.

Milk/dairy: Our girls drink/drank imported milk and formula for their first two years. We drink the major domestic brands, but not because we think they’re necessarily safe.

Meat: Some meat vendors in vegetable markets are “certified” (so they claim, usually by displaying posters and/or certificates on the walls). We get our chicken at Metro 麦德龙 (a bulk import store, cheaper than regular import stores), but the beef and pork there is still too expensive. So we’re eating “certified” vegetable market pork and beef while still looking for better options. We also eat less meat than we did in North America.

Packaged/bottled products: We don’t usually buy packaged products like bottles of vinegar or soy milk from the tiny window shops (小卖部) or traditional vegetable markets (菜市场), because things are more likely to be fake. In our first year our teacher pointed out some details of things we’d bought: labels glued on crooked and printed in slightly lower quality, caps were just plugs instead of factory sealed screw caps, etc. Packaged stuff has better chances at a supermarket.

youtiao1 P1010683 Living in China? What do you do about food safety/pollution?

Street food: We don’t eat tons of street food (about once a week for me).

Water: Our drinking water at home comes in big blue bottles, like an office water cooler. At least there’s a chance that it’s better than the tap water (and it tastes way better). During our first week in Qingdao I asked a convenience store owner if we could buy the blue bottles from them. She said we didn’t need them, that we could just drink the tap water. When I balked, she said, well, children shouldn’t drink the tap water, they have to drink bottled water, but for adults it’s fine. We went across the parking lot to the other little convenience store and got the blue bottles.

airone Living in China? What do you do about food safety/pollution?airtwo Living in China? What do you do about food safety/pollution?

Air: We didn’t buy an air purifier; they’re prohibitively expensive. We use the China Air Quality Index app to keep track of the pollution levels (though you hardly need it; it’s obvious when the API is over 150), and on really bad days we try to keep our daughters inside. I also googled for pictures of house plants that are supposedly good for the air, and got dozens of a kind in the plant market that looked similar (not scientific, I know, but I like the green anyway, plus they’re cheap). Most importantly as far as air quality is concerned, we left Tianjin (next to Beijing) for Qingdao. Short of building pollution domes over your life like some international schools, you can’t fight the bad air. Your options: wear uncomfortable and expensive high-tech masks, live and work under a (literal) bubble, embrace an early death, or leave. We left. Sort of.

Being in China means choosing to ingest and absorb all kinds garbage. There’s no avoiding it, there’s just lessening it. There’s a joke floating around online that when a Chinese person dies if you flatten their body you’ll get the entire Periodic Table of Elements. Our first year in Tianjin, back before the Olympics when restaurant place settings didn’t come shrink wrapped with your meal, our Chinese teachers would obsessively wipe out every cup, bowl and plate before eating with them. What did they know that we didn’t? So don’t forget to ask (delicately!) your Chinese coworkers, waiban, students, etc. what they do about food safety and pollution. They aren’t unaware.

P.S. - Not exactly the kind of food safety issue we’ve been talking about, but still, this dumpling chef doesn’t mess around:

dumplingsafety Living in China? What do you do about food safety/pollution?

Don’t eat dog? We sure missed that memo… [Updated]

When we were beginner language students I translated a dog restaurant menu just for fun. Now this week in Beijing they’re telling people to stop eating dogs. A friend posted this photo yesterday:

nodogs Dont eat dog? We sure missed that memo... [Updated]
“Please refuse to eat dog meat! There’s all different kinds of food, but ‘friends’ are extremely precious.”
— The Beijing Loving Animals Foundation
食物多种多样朋友弥足珍贵
北京>动物公益基金会

If there’s a campaign to stop eating dogs, our district in Qingdao has definitely not received the memo. Here’s some pictures I just happen to have on hand, taken right in our neighbourhood and at the nearest restaurants:

dogmeat1 Dont eat dog? We sure missed that memo... [Updated]
“Five Spice Dog Meat” Spring Festival gift box.

dogmeat2 Dont eat dog? We sure missed that memo... [Updated]
This hotpot restaurant’s menu includes fish head meat 鱼头, beer duck 啤酒, dog , and eel 鳝鱼.

dogmeat3 Dont eat dog? We sure missed that memo... [Updated]
At a competing restaurant dog meat tops the hotpot menu 火锅.

These photos can be found in our public China Instagram feed.

Pro Tip! “Dog food” — is that food for your dog (), or your dog for food ()? You’ll probably want to be careful you don’t confuse this:

dogfood1 Dont eat dog? We sure missed that memo... [Updated]
(pet food store)

with this:

dogfood2 Dont eat dog? We sure missed that memo... [Updated]
(dog meat gift bag from Chinese teacher)

or this:

dogfood3 Dont eat dog? We sure missed that memo... [Updated]
(dog meat restaurant)

Pro Tip #2! Dog meat is a wintertime food. In the spring and summer it won’t be available at many restaurants that usually serve it. Because Chinese medicine. So you’ll probably have to wait a while before you get to try any.

On the first glance, it’s not immediately obvious why Mainland Chinese would be campaigning to not eat dog, or any other animal. I found some interesting explanations here: China’s dog-eating controversy is class warfare

And of course we’ve had our own dog eating adventures:

China also has other creative uses for dog, aside from food:

[Update Apr 19]
Dog is more popular around here than I realized. Normally I eat with a group on Friday nights, but everyone had to work overtime tonight. So I was on my own for dinner, and took my time walking around just to see what was available. In five minutes I found five places that serve dog. I’m sure there would have been more but friends called and said they could make it after all so I stopped looking and went to meet them. See if you can find “” in each of these pictures:

dog1 Dont eat dog? We sure missed that memo... [Updated]

dog2 Dont eat dog? We sure missed that memo... [Updated]

dog3 Dont eat dog? We sure missed that memo... [Updated]

dog4 Dont eat dog? We sure missed that memo... [Updated]

dog5 Dont eat dog? We sure missed that memo... [Updated]

Baijiu 101: “One does not simply… drink baijiu”

For better or worse (no, actually, just for worse), an abominably-tasting booze with an alcohol content from 30% to over 60% is waiting for every foreigner that plans to be more than a tourist in China. And you risk all manner of relational and social faux pas if you mishandle it. It’s a gastronomical landmine in your mouth and bloodstream. Culturally speaking, baijiu basically weaponizes Chinese meals for foreigners, turning dinners into cross-cultural minefields.

If you’re planning to go to China, consider this your much needed heads up about the dreaded 白酒 (bái jiǔ):

onedoesnotsimplydrinkbaijiu1 Baijiu 101: One does not simply... drink baijiu

Seriously — this post should be part of every NGO’s China orientation process. And there is plenty below for baijiu veterans, I promise. :)

But before we get to the details, let’s consider your options. “There are few things funnier than watching someone drink baijiu for the first time,” and after their initial cultural hazing, different foreigners end up having different ways of dealing with it. These broad categories won’t include everyone, but they’ll sketch out the parameters:

  1. The Fake Teetotallers, who simply refuse to drink — period — usually with some excuse like “I have an allergy” or “It’s against my religion”, and to heck with worries about creating bad feelings and disrespect and cultural inappropriateness and cross-cultural miscommunication. (The ironic thing being that for everyone I’ve known who used the religion excuse, drinking wasn’t actually against their religion but lying was.)
  2. The Eternal Fratboys, who basically get wasted every chance they get and don’t care what the method tastes like, so long as it lets them momentarily escape the fact that their bodies are pushing 30 or 40 but on the inside they’re stuck at 19. (Yes, this is sad and tragic. But you are loved, and there is hope.) Some of the people infected with expatitis could go here as well.
  3. The Cross-Cultural Diehards, who still have not given up hope that we can be culturally appropriate and send warm feelings to our boss/coworkers/neighbours/etc. without getting sloshed like squirrels that couldn’t lay off the rotten Jack-o-Lanterns. Maybe we’re just too idealistic. Maybe our love for cross-cultural challenges outweighs our sense of self-preservation. Maybe we didn’t get enough booze as children so we have a felt-need to rationalize our desire to drink and ‘Chinese culture’ is the greatest excuse ever. Either way, this third option is where you try to drink enough to fulfill your social duties (giving face, etc.) without betraying your personal standards (getting drunk like the aforementioned squirrels, etc.) and/or puking up everything you’d ever eaten in your entire life (more on this later). Many people feel this bio-cultural balancing act is actually impossible, given the current place of baijiu in Chinese culture. But that doesn’t stop us from employing all manner of creative, elaborate techniques in the attempt to do so (which are shared down below).

Now we’re in for a treat. Nankai Rob is the Most Under-Appreciated Genius of the China blogosphere. And he’s just written a 6-part magnum opus on dealing with baijiu. His anecdotes, observations, and road-tested baijiu avoidance strategies provide cultural insight that will introduce you to the baijiu basics and give you a fighting chance at staying (more or less) sober:

A Salute to Baijiu

Part One: One Reason for Baijiu Being the Draught of Satan

I’d like to begin by saying, for those who have no idea what I’m talking about, what baijiu is. Baijiu is alcohol. That I can say for sure. It is also, and I will brook no discussion on this point, the foulest thing ever brewed and willingly consumed by humanity.

Part Two: A Second Reason for Baijiu Being the Draught of Satan

An expensive Scotch, or tequila (yes, tequila; if you don’t believe me, drink a glass of Don Julio), or vodka, is like a perfectly balanced dinner party: one or two personalities are dominant, and the others are represented tastefully but completely. Baijiu is more like a knife fight. Between five inebriated circus clowns. In your living room.

Part Three: Representative Baijiu Experiences 1-2

In the interest of demonstrating the varieties of horrible-ness you can experience with baijiu, I offer up five of my own representative experiences.

Part Four: Representative Baijiu Experiences 3-5

[From #3] That night I threw up everything I’d ever eaten in my entire life. Everything. The egg-salad sandwiches I loved eating in third-grade, the lamb stew I make periodically in Tianjin, the Mexican food I eat whenever I’m in El Paso visiting my parents, EVERYTHING… I learned something fascinating about baijiu while bent over the toilet retching, however, and that is: there isn’t much difference between the taste of baijiu when you’re drinking it or puking it up.

Part 5: How to Look Like a Hero When There’s a Banquet

Few things in official Chinese life are more important than the banquet… everything from simple teacher meetings to festival gatherings are cemented with booze. It’s tradition, and it extends back quite literally thousands of years… Here’s the funny thing about all this: I have yet to meet a Chinese person who enjoys getting hammered at banquets… because it’s cultural, we foreigners are presented with an interesting situation. It’s quite possible to play the “dumb foreigner” card to get out of drinking much (though that won’t work in high-stakes business or politics), but you can also, if you play your cards right, make such an impression on the Chinese people with you that they’ll think you’re a hero.

Part 6: How to Not Get Hammered at a Banquet
Ten ways to get away with drinking less than expected.

You can see our own blogged baijiu adventures under the Baijiu (白酒) topic. Some highlights:

 Baijiu 101: One does not simply... drink baijiu