China’s drinking problem

Last Sunday, C. had a meeting. Yes, there are some companies that are horrible enough as to make you work on weekends. After the meeting there was a lunch. At 8 pm, C. had not replied my messages for several hours so I called him. He was sleeping in his car. He had been asleep for several hours. Or should I say passed out, from drinking too much.

When you do business with Chinese people, you quickly realize that eating and drinking is a very important part of negotiations. Western people do business in the meeting room, but Chinese people do business in the restaurant table, before a parade of tasty dishes and bottles of baijiu (a very strong liquor), red wine and beer.

Bottles of expensive baijiu look fancy, but don't be fooled. It's bad. You could probably use it as rubbing alcohol.

Bottles of expensive baijiu look fancy, but don’t be fooled. It’s bad. You could probably use it as rubbing alcohol.

This is one of the aspects of Chinese culture that I hate the most. I don’t have anything against friends having fun and drinking some beers, whiskeys or cocktails, but I do have a problem when drinking is a duty you have to fulfil as part of your work. And that’s exactly what it is. Let’s be honest here: many Chinese men are basically forced to drink great amounts of alcohol. Forced not in the sense of “my boss is putting this bottle to my lips and I either drink or die”, but in the sense of society and peer pressure. So many of them don’t even feel forced. For them, it’s just the way it is. But there is definitely something wrong about grown men in suits vomiting and passing out in a work event. And I’ve definitely heard more than one guy saying “I don’t want to go to that dinner” or “I don’t want to go out with those guys” because they know they will be peer pressured to drink their guts out, and I’ve heard others using excuses like “I am currently taking medicines” to excuse their non drinking. Choosing freely not to drink is not an option.

I understand that this attitude towards drinking has a long cultural tradition. Li Bai (8th century BC), probably China’s most famous poet, mentions alcohol and drinking alone many times in his poems. Drinking leisurely was not seen as a “sin” in China. Clinking your glass with another person and then drinking the whole of it is considered a sign of respect. Same in other countries like Korea and Japan.

There’s also another factor which I don’t know if it comes from antiquity or if it’s new: a man’s level of masculinity is measured according to the amount of alcohol he can drink. It’s very normal to hear people boasting that they can drink 10 bottles of beer without blinking, or a man asking another how much he can drink. Big quantities are congratulated with a pat in the back. “You can drink a lot, you’re a real man”. C. has a 40 something year old friend who invariably gets drunk every time I see him. I think it’s sad.

Why does eating BBQ with friends has to end up being a drinking beer competition?

Why does eating BBQ with friends has to end up becoming a drinking beer competition?

Last year we travelled to Gansu province to visit C.’s classmate from university. We arrived at 4 pm and he took us to a hotel bar to play drinking games with his friends. At 4 pm. Later that night we went to his parents’ apartment to have dinner. His father was a traditional medicine doctor. I don’t remember what we were talking about, but he mentioned that many people in that city had stomach problems and it was not clear why. Well, I am not a doctor, but I suspect drinking huge amounts of alcohol could have something to do with that.

There are even new businesses sprouting to cater the needs of those who drink too much: 代驾 or substitute driver. When you take your car to a dinner and end up too drunk to drive, you call a company that will send you a guy on a mini electric scooter. This guy will safely drive your car (and you) home for a fee that is normally around 3 or 4 times what you would pay for a taxi (bear in mind that taking taxis in China is not expensive).

I don’t drink much because I don’t like the taste of alcohol, but I can understand that people drink to loosen themselves and have fun. What I can’t understand though is when people take drinking as if it was a race and the goal was to get wasted. Where is the fun in puking, losing your consciousness and not remembering what you did? Am I missing something?