Why I’m glad Qingdao is the beer capital of China

Being male in China means navigating the drinking culture, which varies from region to region. If you want to be healthy and not get drunk on a regular basis, this can be challenging. Not drinking would seriously hinder your social interaction with other men (never mind your ability to conduct business). That’s just how thoroughly embedded into the culture alcohol is. A lot of people — foreigners and Chinese — don’t see any middle ground; it’s either get sloshed or don’t have many male friends.

Just the other night a neighbour came over for a Christmas dinner. He brought me baijiu as a present but said he’d prefer to drink beer with dinner, and to drink slowly. That started a conversation about drinking in China, during which he explained that for two thousand years it’s been proper social etiquette for a host to display generosity by getting his guests drunk, and that only recently has this begun to slowly change toward the more “civilized” drinking of the West, where, in polite company, people can enjoy a little alcohol together but there’s no expectation or obligation to drink extreme amounts. (Turns out most adults don’t like getting routinely wasted — who knew?! ;) )

But that was an exceptional situation. Typically in Qingdao, a half-complete dinner between male friends looks like this:
restaurantbeersIt’d be easy to find bigger bottle displays to photograph; I just happened to snap this mid-meal on the way back from the bathroom the other night. To North Americans it might look like a lot of beer for a family restaurant, but to me it looks like *not baijiu*. Qingdao is the beer capital of China, and that means that — unlike our foreign friends in other parts of China — I don’t have to choose between dealing with baijiu or having male friends.

Because as we all know, one does not simply drink baijiu.

How to: Hang with the homies and not get totally hammered

Mr. Lù invited me to have dinner with the old boys tonight. I had a total blast. Undoubtedly the alcohol helped, especially for Mr. Lù. Fortunately, I knew it would be that way, and prepared accordingly. I know enough Chinese to catch and contribute to some of the jokes, and just the fact that I can do that is apparently really stinkin’ funny for these guys. From left to right: Mr. Zhāng, Sòng, Guō, Lǘ, and Lù (Mr. Guō is apparently the one who first suggested the Chinese name they all use for me:

I knew there’d be a lot of alcohol – there always is, never mind that the invitation is literally “invite you to drink alcohol.” I was supposed to meet them at 6pm, so I ate a ton of food at 5:30. Having had a few practice rounds with these guys in the past made it a lot easier this time to relax and have fun without worrying about either drinking too much or not being kèqi (客气) enough when refusing more drinks. And, thankfully, Chinese cups are smaller than North American cups, plus East Asians are genetically among the weakest drinkers in the world. In the middle of it all I managed to record the interview I need for an upcoming magazine article, despite Mr. Lù’s protests that I not record when he’s been drinking.

It was nice that their invitation came when it did. It’s easy to read the news right now and be tempted to think all kinds of negative, suspicious things about Mainlanders. People can say whatever they want in the news about Mainlanders and the issues surrounding the Olympics – but the Tianjiners we know are great.

The longer we stay here, the easier it is to know how and when to refuse too many drinks. It’s no joke, though, that if you’re going to eat with Mainlanders, especially if you’re a guy, you’d either better go in with a plan or be ready to get hammered.

Meet Mr. Lù – a living Léi Fēng

(This is the first in an as yet unnamed monthly series that tries to introduce foreigners to Tianjin’s “regular Zhou’s” – the 老百姓 (“old hundred-names”; common folk) who form the beating heart of Tianjin. Mr. Cháng, the sidewalk barber, is next. The interviews are severely hindered by my lack of Mandarin and it shows, but it’s still a fun project. This blog version contains some extra details that wouldn’t fit the space requirements in the magazine. Other adventures with Mr. Lù and the old boys club are listed at the end of this article. Mouseover the Chinese characters to see the pronunciation.)

A Modern-day Living Lei Feng
His friends call him a “modern-day living Léi Fēng” (新时代的活雷锋), after the orphaned Mao-era peasant soldier famous for his unselfishness toward fellow comrades and selfless devotion to the Communist cause. The “Léi Fēng spirit” (雷锋精神) lives on today in elementary school textbooks, songs, an online video game, advertisements, and popular imagination as a way to describe people who go out of their way to help others. It also lives on in people like Mr. Lù, our neighbourhood’s bike repairman. The way he and his friends have treated my wife, myself, and even my second-hand, high-maintenance, fake Flying Pigeon bicycle make it obvious why his friends give him this title. This “modern day living Léi Fēng” extends a generous helping hand to locals and foreigners alike, and he has a good deal of fun doing it.

Mr. Lù fixes bikes on the corner near our neighbourhood’s front gate every day from 7am to 5pm (8pm in the summer). But from my perspective as the one of only three foreigners in the community, we should include Welcoming Committee and Host in his job description. I don’t know if giving foreigners a warm welcome and helping them feel at home in China is a big part of the “real” Léi Fēng’s official legacy or not, but it’s certainly a part of Mr. Lù’s. It’s people like Mr. Lù and his friends that make living in a Chinese neighborhood so much more enjoyable for the new foreigners.

My wife and I first moved into this community in April 2007. We were fresh off the boat with a grand total of six weeks of Chinese class under our belts, meaning we could point and mumble in the vegetable market and usually get what we wanted if we’d reviewed the vocabulary beforehand. Aside from that rather necessary survival skill, we couldn’t communicate much of anything. But that didn’t stop Mr. Lù and his friends from inviting us over to sit and chat when they were having lunch outside or from being generous with their food and bái jiǔ (白酒 – the infamous Chinese alcoholic drink akin to “white lightning”). Not daunted by the language barrier, Mr. Lù used food, snacks, drinks, rounds of Chinese chess, and a lot of friendly banter to make it clear that we were welcome to stop by for more than just getting tires patched and brake pads replaced.

Some days he’s drowning in bicycles, and it looks like the repair jobs people have dropped off are laying siege to his mobile tool shed. He’ll fix more than thirty bikes on busy days, but after twelve years of repairing bicycles he’s not intimidated by the heavier work load. He enjoys the extra work and the extra pay that comes with it.

When he’s not too busy he can fit in an after-lunch nap, go fishing on the canal, or chat it up with whoever’s around. Sometimes there can be small crowd; his repair corner can be a social hot spot, and he’s not too stiff to have some good-natured laughs at the foreigner’s expense. Neighbours occasionally choose his corner for a game of Chinese chess, which usually draws more participants than just the required two. As the eighth of nine children and the fifth brother (he has three sisters), I imagine he learned early on how to handle a crowd.

When I first learned of his family’s size, I was shocked. Nine children? But it was the same for his friends. Decades ago Mao had said, “More people, greater strength” (人多力量大), and people were encouraged to have large families and make more workers for the development of the economy. This policy was short-lived, but for Mr. Lù’s generation – people who today are old enough to be grandparents – families of this size are not uncommon. Mr. Lù and his wife have a daughter in her mid-twenties who works for an oil company.

Despite his warm and easy-going manner, Mr. Lù doesn’t necessarily have it easy. He makes 1500 to 2000元 (yuán) per month (about $200-$275), and rent for him and his wife is only a little over 80元 per month ($11) because the apartment is provided through his work unit (单位). However, he no longer has the security he once enjoyed when working for his government work unit at a state-owned textile factory. Like many Mainlanders of his generation, the “iron rice bowl” (铁饭碗) has cracked; the state-owned enterprises that haven’t been closed or sold can no longer provide jobs for everyone. People like Mr. Lù, while still retaining some benefits from the old days like a cheaper apartment, have to fend for themselves financially. He misses the time when he didn’t have to worry about the basics of life, and when it was easier to find work.

When he was younger jobs were easier to come by. He’s worked for several different companies over the years, including a furniture factory and the Tianjin Daily newspaper offices. But he’s older now, and potential employers are less interested. He worries about retirement, which usually happens at 60, and how he’ll manage. More people are riding buses and taxis than in the past, and car ownership is on the rise. No one feels the gradual decline in bicycle use more keenly than bike repairmen like Mr. Lù. He jokes about how hard it is to find a bathroom when working outside, but the gradual decrease in work is his biggest work related difficulty. He wishes that the government could somehow help him improve his life, but he doesn’t receive any work or money from the state.

These worries don’t hinder his generosity. He charges little for his work, and sometimes even refuses to take money, to the point of pulling it out of the money jar and stuffing it directly back into people’s pockets. I’ve not only witnessed him do this to others, but personally experienced it myself.

Mr. Lù hasn’t had a lot of contact with foreigners, but aside from a decidedly unfavourable impression of South Koreans, he says we’re alright, and hopes that we will learn Mandarin well and bring Chinese culture and history back to our home countries.

Additional info on the “real” Lei Feng:

P.S. – I just now delivered a copy of the magazine and some photos to Mr. Lù, and they seemed to really get a kick out of it. He didn’t seem to mind that the editors used the wrong character for his name in the translation (he’s 路, not 陆).

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.

The Old Boys Club

“He’s a woman.”

“You’re wife is your boss.”

“He’s too stupid!”

There’s a group of older guys who work/loiter at the entrance to our apartment complex. At least one of them is a bike repair man, but I can’t ever tell who actually works and who is just hanging out. They’re great for language practice and a lot of fun, and they love it if one or both us sit down to chat for a bit and share some food or beer or 白酒. But they can’t seem to deal with the fact that I have a limit to how much I’ll drink, and no amount of goading or joking or guilt-tripping or verbal abuse is going to get me to drink more. I think it will take a while before they finally give up and accept it. And it will also be a little while before they discover that we understand phrases like the ones above, which we heard last night.

We’ve heard from Chinese that even many Chinese don’t actually like the culturally perpetuated drinking rituals. It was interesting to watch different guys last night react to me genuinely refusing more bái jiǔ (sort of a Chinese “white lighting”). One guy plays the host and puts up the biggest fuss when you refuse more. The oldest guy in the group actually sticks up for me now. One guy was an old friend of theirs visiting last night (he doesn’t live in the neighbourhood), and he would waver between accepting more and refusing, like it was some sort of torturous decision. The others just sit around and laugh at everything. I imagine that having someone who genuinely refuses and is impervious to the social pressure and who can get away with social faux pas on account of being a cultural outsider might be like throwing a new factor into the equation that these guys haven’t dealt with before.

It would take a long time to model an alternative vision of manhood for these guys – one that isn’t dependent on how much you drink and has the kahones to stand up to peer pressure. And that might be an impossible task for me, being a cultural outsider and being from a different generation. Either way, hopefully I won’t – in some culture-stress-induced moment of supreme annoyance and weakness – share with them the fact that Chinese men are biologically among the weakest drinkers in world, and so if drinking is your measure of manhood… but culture stress has been known to make a person do all kinds of things.

Homework with whisky and singing

Today I had whiskey with dofu chasers.

On the way out to the park to do some homework, I stopped at the bike repair guy’s corner to see if Mr. Lu would tighten my bike seat. Every time I went over a bump the seat would go vertical. He told me to sit down with his buddies for a snack, which turned out to be peanuts, shredded dofu, and whisky, with the dofu as the chaser. We ended up ‘chatting’ for almost an hour (not that I have anywhere near enough Mandarin to sustain a conversation that long).

We’ve read and heard lots about Chinese drinking customs, about how they should be avoided at all costs, and how they’re hard to avoid. At informal occasions like mine today, but especially at banquets, there can be a lot of toasting with strong drinks. It’s mostly the men; apparently it’s a manly-man thing to drink a lot, and there can be lots of goading and pressuring to get reluctant participants to drink more than they should. (Ironically, ethnic Chinese have one of the lowest genetic tolerances for alcohol, meaning that on average they get drunk easier than everyone else. Manly-man indeed…) Our friends that have lived here long enough, especially those that work in some sort of official capacity, have had to face the banquet scene a few times. They told us they just tell people something like, “We’re Christians so we don’t drink,” even if they do drink occasionally, and the rationale was that your only other choice is to get hammered. I never understood why it was apparently so hard to just stop after one drink. Can’t you just tell people no?

Today I got a small taste of how hard it can be. I only had one, but man I had to fight to keep it at one! These guys were persistent, to the point of trying to grab my cup and fill it for me, or trying to fill it when I was holding it and not paying attention for split second, or giving me all kinds of arguments and guilt trips (I imagine… Mr. Lu doesn’t slow down or simplify his speech for foreigners like others sometimes do so I don’t know what he was saying aside from the non-verbals). I wonder if a little bit has to do with you giving them face by accepting their hospitality, and saying no can be a little loss of face or something. Since you have to work so hard to refuse more, to the point of almost making a little scene, I can see how the pressure would be even greater at formal banquets where there’s a lot more face going around.

Still, tough rocks. I’m not going to be your drunk foreigner entertainment, and I’ve got more interesting ways to affirm my masculinity.

But we still had a good time. After the snack, I found a bench in the park and ending up talking with someone else for another hour. Then he saw one of his friends and we sat and talked with him. Jessica found us by then, and he and his friend (an erhu musician) sang us this song:

I’d tell you what it’s about, but, ah… it has something to do with “Who are you?” and the army… I think.

While I was talking in the park, this was going on. I promise you won’t get this stuff back home:

The guy I was chatting with asked me if I liked it. I told him it was interesting.

Tomorrow is May 4th, officially one of the most important holidays in China. Workers get a week off of work. Every gate on every apartment building around us (hundreds) is flying a Chinese flag. Fireworks almost every night. You can click here to see how a government site explains the significance of the May 4th Movement. It would be interesting to compare this to what is written in your history textbooks. From said government site:

Under the influence of the October Revolution in Russia, China’s May 4th Movement arose. During this great anti-imperialist, anti-feudal revolutionary movement led by patriotic students, the Chinese proletariat for the first time mounted the political stage. The May 4th Movement marked the change of the old democratic revolution to the new democratic revolution. It enabled Marxism-Leninism to further spread and link up with the Chinese people’s revolutionary practice, and prepared the ideology as well as the cadres necessary for the founding of the Communist Party of China…