I was invited for the first time by a group of colleagues to celebrate the end of a project. There were 6 of us. I was the only non-Chinese person, and the oldest in the group. They moved the party date to accommodate my schedule, so it seemed important that I attend.
We went to a Korean BBQ buffet. In some ways, I was sad that only now (that I have 2 weeks left) am I discovering this wonderful enclave of all-you-can eat meat. Best part – $6.
When everyone arrived, they started pouring the beer. (Approximately 30 cents per bottle – cheaper than bottled water.) When I explained that I do not drink alcohol for religious reasons, they were disappointed, but understanding. They said openly that their plans to haze me was foiled, and the leader of the group lamented because the obligation would now fall on him. The rest of the evening turned into a cultural lesson on how important drinking is to the Chinese. Almost every proverb about drinking (loosely translated into English) was explained to me between toasts.
“To be a good leader, you must first be a good drinker.”
“A poor man will still buy liquor and drink with his friends.”
“In China, you show that you’re good friends by getting drunk. The more drunk you get, the more good friends you are.”
There was also some regionalism: “In Shanghai, you drink with people who will make you money. In Beijing, you only drink with your friends.”
They toasted each other, they made toasts to good health and long life, they toasted to the end of the project… it went on and on for about 4 hours. Graciously, they let me participate with my plum juice and Sprite as they yelled out Ganbei (literally “Empty Cup”, but more accurately “Bottoms Up”). They were very kind to me and took time to explain the conversation, and as the night wore on, they referred more and more to their cell-phone Chinese-to-English translator dictionary to include me in their conversation.
I asked them if their wive’s will give them grief when they get home in their drunken state. The two that were married said that their wives will set out some fruit and water for them realizing that they need some help. Then they will likely get a lecture in the morning about drinking too much. It seemed like it was a ritual.
One of them was from inner Mongolia. Apparently, this region is known for their very heavy drinkers. He recognized that this reputation does exist, but he himself can not drink heavily. He lamented that often times he is tested by his friends just because he is Mongolian.
One of them drove a car to work that day, and proclaimed that he could not drink. This was followed by an evening full of ridicule accusing him of driving purposely to avoid the drinking. He was playfully called all kinds of insults most of which roughly translate to “coward.” Later on, as we were both getting some sprite together, I reassured him that he was a wise man.
The drinking culture seems like it’s prevalent across Japan and Korea as well. It is a symbol of establishing friendship and trust. But honestly, they seemed quite understanding that I will not drink for religious reasons. For me to do business in Asia, I am almost certain that I’d be at a disadvantage at first. But with that said, I am also certain that there are other ways of establishing friendship and trust within any community and/or culture that will be more profound and lasting. But, like anything meaningful and lasting, it takes time.
A last word of advice for those that do not want to get drunk in China. Never drink. If you drink with one set of friends, you will risk offending other friends by not drinking with them. And this will definitely be a pretty serious offense. Pretend you are allergic…. or Mormon… or better yet, don’t pretend… just become one. 🙂