If Russia is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, then China is a snake eating its own tail. To the linear, logical Western mind, everything in China seems like its own contradiction. How else could I argue, for example, that Chinese people are both hard-working and lazy at the same time? After all, they wake up early and work long hours into the evening, but they are also often found sleeping at odd times. Well, Chinese drinking culture is much the same.
The Chinese people are very modest and self-controlled with it comes to drinking. Public drunkenness, or excessive drinking on a daily basis, are viewed as shameful and unrefined. But at dinners and banquets, Chinese men will become rip-roaring drunk. And the more formal or important the dinner, the more important drinking becomes.
The two drinks of choice at these dinners are beer and baijiu (literally white alcohol), which is a distilled drink made from sorghum. For most Westerners experiencing baijiu for the first time, it goes down like fiery lava, and more than one Western guest has had to bow to the porcelain god after his first night in China. Of course you become accustomed to the whole Chinese drinking scene after living here for a while, but sometimes, you are reminded just how tough and tiring a night of banqueting can be.
During Chinese New Year, I was transported from house to house in a Romanesque orgy of food and drink. The hospitality I was shown was enough to shame the finest hosts in the West, and I was accepted with open arms as a part of the family. Then, an uncle heard that I like to drink.
“Your girlfriend told me that people in your culture in Louisiana like to drink,” he said in perfect Mandarin, my own terrible Mandarin just picking up his meaning.
“Oh, in Louisiana, drinking is an important part of food culture,” I replied, then I stopped. I realized what I had just done. In his subtle, understated, Chinese way, he had just challenged me to a drinking contest, one which I could no longer back down from, lest I be considered an outsider forever. I sighed, and sat at the table.
The food was superb — a 10-course seafood feast. But when I saw the uncle slyly pull out a magnum bottle of Courvoisier XO, I knew that this would be serious business. See, I am a native of New Orleans and French Louisiana. And we take drinking very, very seriously. To us, it is a matter of personal pride and worth, and I never back down from a drinking contest. But a war waged inside of me. I knew that I had been raised to hold my liquor. On the other hand, I had been to China before, and I knew that Chinese men trying to show hospitality would drink until they literally died. To the Chinese, it is a matter of family honor.
It began after a few bites of oysters. The uncle raised his glass of cognac and looked at me. Like a scene from an old Western movie, we met eyes. “Ganbei,” he said, meaning “Empty glass.” We each took a long swig, looking each other in the eyes, and finishing our glasses. After such a toast, you must lower your empty glass to your drinking companion (opponent), to show that you have emptied it. And while toasting, you must try to lower your glass more than the other, as a show of humility. Finally, you must always wait until the host toasts first, but after that, you are free to toast and play all the drinking games you want. And when I say drinking games, I refer to the manipulative little mind games that the Chinese play with their Western guests, to get them as drunk as possible.
He began with a classic move: pouring me double. See, in Chinese culture, it is seen as an act of humility to pour the drinks of others before yours. And as a guest, it is frowned upon to pour anyone’s drink — I was at his mercy! He cruelly poured me twice as much as himself several times in a row, but I had no choice but to join him in his toasts, emptying my glass each time while looking him in his Machiavellian eyes.
Another trick that the Chinese play on foreigners is to involve many diners in a toast, and to divert attention by focusing on an older guest. In Chinese culture, the elders are greatly respected, and if one toasts you, or is involved in a toast, you must show him full attention and respect. While you are doing so, your devious host furtively empties his glass in a rice bowl, or moves it away from himself. Ah yes, I noticed that uncle did so, but as a guest I could say nothing. He looked me in the eyes, daring me to say anything, like Clint Eastwood eyeing an evil gunslinger. I knew I had to change my strategy. I whispered to my girlfriend, “I’m from New Orleans. I take this as a personal challenge. Watch this.”
I began to toast him at every other bite. Toast after toast, and then more — I ganbei-ed him over and over, until his eyes began to swirl. I knew that I was damning myself, but I would not lose. “Ganbei!” I shouted, round after round. I was in for the long haul. I would either outdrink this Chinese uncle, or die trying. We went head-to-head, round-after-round, long after the other diners had left the table, each of us too ashamed to admit that we were painfully drunk and desperate to quit. He opened another bottle of cognac. I eyed him, and nodded. It was on. We continued to drink until we could both barely blink an eye.
“Another bottle?” he slurred in Mandarin.
“No, no!” my girlfriend objected.
“Yes,” I said in a deadpan voice. But that day, my friend, the angels smiled upon us.
“We are out,” scolded the uncle’s wife. They were not really out, but she had to stop us. In Chinese culture, you cannot admit defeat in drinking — his wife gave him a respectable excuse. But the outcome was set — I had won. I had conquered my future Chinese uncle in an unspoken drinking contest.
Chinese men love to drink heavily at such meals. In fact, many American businessmen are shocked to be drunk under the table at business banquets — the poor, unsuspecting fools imagining that the Chinese would be subservient, politely bowing to them. No, dear readers, in China, drinking is a serious business. But there is a method behind the madness. You see, after the drinking bout, the uncle put his arm around me in a brotherly manner and told me that I had performed much better than he had ever expected. When you drink, he explained, all societal and cultural masks fall off. You get to see the real man, the real person behind the mask. You really get to know someone like a brother, and your conversation is true (in vino veritas).
In China, the purpose of drinking is not only to enjoy the intoxication, but also to involve others in it. If a Chinese company wants to do business with an American company, for example, then the Chinese partners want to really know what the Americans are like before doing business with them. And in Chinese opinion, the best way to do that is to get smashed with them. I like this concept, because it is true. When you sit down for an entire evening and drink, you really do get to know that person, the real person behind the mask. And my ability to keep up with the uncle has permanently earned me a place in the family as an equal. As great as the food was, it was the drinking that really brought us together — two people from opposite cultures, united in the love of food and drink.