I heard that Chinese people drink a lot of alcohol. But that’s false.
Alright, that’s that for this post!
Joking. Here’s some nuance:
Compared to the people and places that I have historical experience with, and in the handful of Chinese cities I’ve visited, I would notsay that Chinese people drink a lot. In fact, I would say they hardly drink at all.
It’s not for lack of availability or means. In fact, the Trifecta of casual consumption is in place:
Walking to dinner? Strolling back to the hostel in the evening? In the park watching the people go by? You better believe these are prime opportunities for casual consumption, and the Trifecta has helped me seize on these opportunities. However, there is only so much room temperature, 3.1% by volume, state-owned brewery lager that I care to drink. It doesn’t hold my attention for very long when I’m the only one participating and when the materials, while readily available, are of marginal quality.
All of this is not to say I haven’t seen anybody else drinking, or that I haven’t seen drunk people. I do have a couple stories. In one instance, I had one googley-eyed rotund-belly Chinese fellow talk English to me with little skill, but great enthusiasm, for over an hour about how, “Beer drinking make happy. Very very good. Very happy.” In another instance, I was brought into an often-referenced tradition that I am quite grateful to have experienced – Banquet Baijiu Boozing:
I was generously invited to “a party with my friends. We will be back after lunch.”
“Sure, sounds fun. I’m for it.”
Turns out that it was a reunion, an annual reunion with university classmates. They were all originally from Hangzhou and went to university in the far northeast of China. They graduated 45 years ago.
My friend Bruce “hosted” our party – there were 8 of us. He paid, he received the menu, he ordered. With great heart, hospitality, and welcome, he invited me, watched over me, encouraged me to eat and required me to take the choicest pick of the dishes.
“White wine. Not like ‘Red wine, white wine’. Like ‘Chinese white wine’. Can you drink it, Luke?”
You bet your ass I can! “Sure, of course.”
It’s baijiu. 'White wine.' They brought their own bottle. It was in a big fancy box. The bottle was anti-climatically small and plain for the size and opulence of the gilded box. Maybe 0.25 liters, but rather strong, at 120 proof. The 2 other men (not Bruce) and I drank it. It’s good fun. There is a definite leader of the party - the ‘bottle host’. He pours the baijiu, initiates the raising of glasses, discourages sipping, encourages the ‘bottoms up’. He pours into shot glasses, the most miniature ‘goblet-style’ shot glasses. The glasses are probably one-fourth of a standard 1.5 oz US shot
The first round was accompanied by great ceremony. Each party stated great respect and healthful wishes, using language the other party could not understand a word of. Eye contact was made. Glasses were raised, clinked, raised again. Finally, a nod to drink the thing.
I drank the whole baby little shot, of course! I’m trying to be respectful!
Well, the ‘bottle host’, the fellow to my left, loved that and he had downed his entire glass too. Bruce and one of the ladies, though, they exclaimed a bit at my enthusiasm, they recommended I don’t do that. “Why you do that! Too strong, too strong..” said Bruce. So about 40 seconds later, when the glasses had been refilled and raised in another toast, I had maybe 1/3 of the miniature goblet. The table nodded in approval – except for the bottle host. He had finished his. So he refilled his goblet in its entirety, and refilled the 1/3 of mine that I had drank.
A few bites of food and 2 minutes later it was time for another go. The bottle host raised his glass an inch off the table, tried to catch my eye, lifted his chin with gentle encouragement.
“Yeah, sure, pal!”
I can’t disrespect the bottle host’s hospitality and our only real shot at communication, so we made eye contact and bottoms-upped. “Too strong, too strong..” A small head shake from one of the ladies.
What!? I don’t know.. What, people!? The bottle’s not that big, it can’t get that out of hand! I’m just trying to do my job as a whiskey-drinking and vigorously living American. An amiable traveler. A friend the world’s people. Truly just a grateful and exceedingly enthusiastic guest! Let me bond with this man! Me and this man from a far-flung corner of China. An encounter brought about by a head-spinning, incomprehensible sequence of chance encounters and pro-spiracy nudges, let us have this fleeting moment of shared experience on our wild journeys.
Pour. Clink. Look. Stop, actually look into their eyes, be there with them for one moment. Bottoms up. Ganbei.