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 jiÇ”):

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:

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

  1. Oh, U R soooo right to describe Baijiu as the sweat of satan. Give us old-schoolers Maotai, anytime, with a Tsing-dao chaser. ,

  2. For complete novices, an important tip is not to be deceived by a “literal” translation of baijiu. When a Chinese person offers you “white wine”, you need to verify that the beverage was made from grapes; otherwise, you should expect something more like “white lightning” than chardonnay or riesling.

    I bought a little bottle of baijiu to use as whiteboard cleaner (for those times when someone accidentally uses a permanent marker). It also gets ink off desks – a nice pre-exam ritual.

    If I remember correctly, the contents of a small bottle will burn for about seventeen (or was it twelve?) minutes (in the bottle – obviously less if you pour it into something like a saucer before igniting it).

    My first experience with it was here in NJ at a Chinese grad student’s apartment. He offered me a little in a paper cup, which seemed to be dissolving.

    In Nanjing, I often heard a pop song about 999 roses – but with my then practically zero Chinese, when it got to the phrase “jiu bai jiu” and I thought it was about liquor. One afternoon a friend asked me to meet her at a hotel downtown for tea. She showed up drunk, having come from a company luncheon in which she was forced to drink by her superiors. Talk about uncomfortable.

    I seem to have gotten away with declining to drink without causing a lot of offense. Many of the school administrations I worked for seemed to have figured out that teachers from my organization usually didn’t drink. Our org has a policy, so their teachers can truthfully claim that they aren’t allowed to drink. Of course, at dinners with other foreigners, there was usually one quite willing to make up for the rest of us. I’ve had several FAOs who just offered us soft drinks or juice; the imbibing foreigners request beer and move on from there.

    The most unpleasant situation I have been in was at the wedding of a western friend to a Tianjin bride (at a hotel in the Dagang oil fields). As the banquet was getting started, several of us were invited upstairs to sit with the bride’s family. There was one table that had two “uncles” and no one else, so we were put with them. They seemed intent on emptying two bottles of Maotai (or some “premium” stuff) by repeatedly toasting (in turn) all the females at our table, including several teachers and a student they had brought along who had never had any alcohol before. The men seemed to take perverse glee in the girl’s distress, both in her protestations and her final unfortunate capitulation. For some reason, they let me off with one small glass.

  3. Firstly Joel, that picture of Sean Bean is quite worrying. To my eyes it looks like his miming something I don’t want to mention, with that hand position, and it being that close to his mouth I mean.

    As to the weapon of choice, Bai jiu, although it can seemingly be mixed with nothing (I’ve tried everything) to make it more palatable (here I want to use the word ‘delicious’ for some reason), there is one thing it does mix well with…

    Red Bull.

    It actually even tastes good if that’s humanly possible.

    I’m not sure it’s advisable mind you, as it only seems to make matters worse in the long run. But it might work well in the obligatory ganbei’s all over the place in favor of the westerner.

    Another good choice is to take a bottle of whisky with you to a dinner. You drink Bai jiu, they drink your whisky. Just as our bodies have no tolerance for Bai jiu, their bodies have no tolerance for whisky.

    Any eye for an eye…

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