I was eating dinner at my friend Anna’s house a few nights ago, and she said to me, “I mean, the things you do on a daily basis aren’t too crazy by themselves. It just seems like everything is so intense.” And it got me thinking that as a guy in China, that was the main thing about my daily life. Everything was really intense. My next cultural difference (usually only applicable for guys unless it became common knowledge that you were a girl that liked to drink…and even then, girls were still able to deflect situations like this…)
Drinking Customs (in Northwest Hunan Province):
China: Food is essential when drinking in China. When I say it is essential, I don’t mean pretzels, chips and dip, or snacks…I mean full meals. People rarely have people over to drink in their homes for some sort of happy hour. Pregaming doesn’t really exist with Chinese people. Instead, they will use dinner as a type of pre-game. Then, if they want to keep drinking, they usually go to a street restaurant (or night market, the literal translation) and order beers accompanied by another entire meal. They don’t just order a couple dishes too, they order another FULL meal. If you are drinking, you must be eating! And if say, I decide I am full…they will wonder if they need to order more because the reason I’m not easing is NOT that I am full…I must dislike the food. That’s the only logical explanation. So they will order more and put things in my bowl for me to eat. If someone does this, you must eat it (this is especially upsetting when it’s a chicken’s foot or duck’s head…)
So that’s the setting for drinking in China. Now, I’ll talk a little more on the actual act of drinking.
CHEERS! That’s what they all say to foreigners when they want to drink. They think that Cheers means “Gan Bei” which literally means Empty Cup or Dry Cup or something. Jon and I taught our friends that cheers means a little and that gan bei is more of “bottoms up”-not an easy transition for them. The main thing about drinking in China though, is you never drink on your own, and you surely don’t drink at your own pace. You always drink with at least one other person. Hence the “Cheers” or “Gan Bei.” Drinking together is a way of bonding. Alcohol is the international language, I have been told. And after last year, I believe it. I didn’t matter if I could speak with people…as long as I drank with them, we had an instantaneous bond. But the other thing is, it is customary to drink with each person at the table (from the person of the highest standing to the lowest…there is a specific order). And it just never steps. One person after another will “cheers” you and in due time, it becomes your responsibility to reciprocate the drinking invitation. Moreover, you are not only subject to drinking with those at your table, if you know someone at a different table, it is expected that you go over and cheers them a cup. If there is a full table of people you know, you should drink with them one by one (assuming you are capable of this). Oh, I forgot to say…you don’t drink straight out of a bottle which allows you to drink very small amounts. You must drink from a 4 ounce cup which doesn’t allow you to cheat, and if you go to a table with say 6 people you know, then you will h ave to drink 24 ounces on the spot–exhausting. Final note about drinking: people fight to go lower when tapping glasses together. Whoever’s glass is lower is showing respect to the other person. And if you hold your glass up high as a joke, as I sometimes did, people wouldn’t really notice and you would just look like an idiot.
So drinking gets tiring as it becomes a type of game where you are constantly cheersing and being cheers. Furthermore, I have had people tell me they dislike me because they know that I can drink more, and I refused. For some reason, the ultimate goal is always to get the foreigner drunk.
America: We pregame (if you are younger). You have happy hour if you are an adult. Both of these often take place at someone’s house. Then when you are out, you drink at your own pace. You don’t need to eat multiple meals every time you want to drink. Drinking in America is far too simple.