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):
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:
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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
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.
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.
In the interest of demonstrating the varieties of horrible-ness you can experience with baijiu, I offer up five of my own representative experiences.
[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.
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:
- Curiosity + China = way more than I bargained for
- A banquet, baijiu & Bon Jovi (Chinese work party)
- How to: Hang with the homies and not get totally hammered