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.

Imagine this in the average North American family restaurant

Imagine this, from the front counter of a neighbourhood restaurant, suddenly appearing one night in an average North American restaurant:
Perhaps, you can’t believe your eyes. But it’s exactly what it looks like: a full set of some male animal’s genitalia (seal, I’m guessing) soaking with gǒuqǐ berries and some other, unidentified ingredients in báijiǔ, China’s infamously impression-leaving hard liquor.

These health tonics in glass barrels on restaurant counters are pretty common in our area. For a fuller description, see:

Curiosity + China = way more than I bargained for

Drink this for your yang

Drink this for your yang

What, there’s a lineup of huge glass jars of whole snakes, lizards and deer penises soaking in booze on the drink counter? Well what did you expect to find there? This is China; China’s a whole nother version of normal.

Our preschool staff had Teacher’s Day dinner at an extravagant BBQ buffet, which included all-you-can-drink beer and traditional Chinese health tonics:


Lizards, snakes, various roots, gǒuqǐ berries (枸杞), etc. of various combinations soaked in hard Chinese liquor (白酒):


These kinds of tonics are not uncommon in Chinese restaurants around here. They’re usually intended to 补阳 (supplement your male qualities).

These things aren’t especially notable within China, and all the ingredients are available at the nearby traditional market (photos!), though this is the first time I’d seen these traditional drinks lined up in a ritzy buffet right next to the Coke and coffee machines. But if we’re talking outside of China… there’s just no end to the stuff around here that would raise a few eyebrows outside of China.

Curiosity + China = way more than I bargained for

China’s the kind of place where you can ask a totally innocuous question:

“Hey, what’s that?”

…and get the most bizarre answers, like this one from last week:

“That’s Píxiū (貔貅). Businessmen like Píxiū because it doesn’t have an anus, so it can eat fortune but the fortune can’t ‘exit’.”

“… … ah.” (See Pixiu in Wikipedia.)

It’s easy for foreigners to get used to being surrounded by stuff we can’t name, can’t read, don’t recognize or don’t understand. It becomes so overwhelming that we don’t think to ask or even want to ask. But curiosity in China is worth it. There’s a lot of crazy-to-us stuff in Chinese culture, all around us, just sitting out there in plain sight. Píxiūs aren’t uncommon; these pictures are from the front desk of the gym where we exercise.

All you have to do is ask. Take, for example, the alcoholic drinks pictured below that are often seen at the front check-out counters of restaurants. They’re usually in big glass jars filled with all manner of marinated/preserved-in-alcohol animals like snakes and seahorses and turtles and who knows what else.

Sure, just peering into their interesting-in-a-bad-car-crash-sort-of-way depths is surprising enough for most lǎowàis that we don’t even think to try the labels. I saw these particular jars regularly for three YEARS before I finally tried to read/translate the outside of the container, and…

Red Ginseng Three Penis* Tonic Liquor
The nourish-kidneys-and-strengthen-male-virility type, Original “Folk Recipe”
滋肾壮阳 来源民间方剂

This isn’t in some scuzzy adult store in a nasty part of town (if it was I probably wouldn’t be blogging it); it’s right up at the checkout counter of a regular neighbourhood family restaurant. Much like the menu of the dog meat restaurant near our old place, which I translated as a student just to get some vocab and ended up with way more than I bargained for.

I’ve encountered too many “No way!” “Way!” moments in China. I don’t know why they so often involve body parts. But I do know that next time I ask, the person could make up a completely bogus, far-flung explanation for whatever it is and I’d totally buy it.

*P.S. — You are undoubtedly wondering, “Which three?” Well, the ingredients aren’t listed on that label. However it turns out that there’s a famous, traditional brand of “three penis liquor” 三鞭酒 that can be found on the shelves of the average neighbourhood supermarket that does list the ingredients. I found this one at the supermarket closest to us, two minutes up the road. (Cost about $2.)

Zhang Yu’s Specialty Three Penis Liquor

The long list of ingredients begins with: “high-quality baijiu 优质白酒, edible alcohol 食用酒精, soft-ified water 软化水, seal penis 海狗鞭, deer penis 鹿鞭, dhole (Asiatic wild dog) penis 广狗鞭….” And, in case you’re also wondering, there’s a very good chance that those are Canadian seals.

P.P.S. – This is begging for a better title. How would you answer this question: “Curiosity + China = ______”?

A banquet, baijiu & Bon Jovi (my first office party in China)

This makes two karaoke parties in a row where Bon Jovi has made an appearance in the form of a passionate, Chinese-accented rendition of “It’s My Life”.

I don’t know about office parties, because all the jobs I had in North America weren’t ever office party kind of jobs. Last night’s New Years party for the magazine and associated companies (about 80 people at a hotel banquet) was my first one. I sat next to the big boss at the international table, which had (including me): three Koreans, two Japanese, a Canadian, a Scot, a Chinese (the boss), and an American. The Koreans were fun, the Japanese were almost invisible, the Scot could really drink, and the American was considered masculine because she smoked (they told her so).

The Fun
So I don’t know how to compare this to the average North American office party. Do office parties in America involve nice banquets, door prizes, co-workers singing to karaoke tracks, fun balloon popping competitions, cute homemade videos of all the staff, and good food? They should; it was actually kind of fun. Do most people suddenly get up and leave, as if given some sudden, subtle signal? That was kind of weird, like all these happy-looking people were really just waiting for their first chance to split (I don’t think they really were).

The Booze
What about the booze? Do American office parties have endless beer, wine, and báijiǔ (白酒)? You know, in a sad sort of way I’m actually thankful that East Asians are genetically predisposed to be weaker drinkers; it makes it a little easier to remain both polite (if the boss toasts you…) and un-inebriated over the course of an evening. I’m not a big drinker and I flat out refuse to get drunk, but I don’t mind doing my duty within those limits, so it’s convenient that the people whom I don’t want to offend will probably quickly reach the point where they won’t remember me avoiding all those extra shots anyway.

And what about an an ear-splitting karaoke after-party that involves revolutionary songs from elementary school, Bon Jovi, and an impromptu, drunken, yet sincere pre-national anthem speech about loving communism by a guy who’s made it rich in China’s current economy? I have to admit, if they don’t do karaoke after-parties in America then they are seriously missing out. Chinese karaoke parties are fun. It’s loud and crowded and rènao (热闹) the way Chinese like it. Everyone gets to have fun singing their hearts out and no one really cares if they don’t sound that good (this is also true of alcohol-free karaoke parties).

I left a little after 11pm (pregnant wife at home and all) after doing my obligatory KTV duty (it’s always satisfying to get the surprised looks when a lǎowài sings in Chinese) but before they made good their threat of making the lǎowàis sing Hotel California (I don’t know why it’s always Hotel California). After a half-hour flat-tire bike ride home, I discovered Jessica still had friends over. But the holidays end tomorrow morning at 8:05!

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).