Day 23: If There Is No Alcohol, You Can't Say Anything

Thursday, April 28, 2011

In America, there is a certain cult built around turning 21 as a rite of passage, but in China, there is no legal age for drinking. Here, there are twelve year-olds who serve as cashiers at liquor stores and kids face no difficulty buying beer at corner groceries. In fact, the only times I have had to show my ID in the last two years have been to book a hotel room or board a plane.

But despite the lack of restriction on age, it's hard to say when people actually start to drink. Jiayu, a friend of mine from Oberlin, told me that like dating, drinking is one of those things that you wouldn't do as a “good student” all the way up through high school, but then at some point, it just becomes second nature. Though I can't speak for Chinese high school students, I can certainly echo the carefree attitude that accompanies drinking for everyone past the age of 18. In my experience in Asia, drinking in China is second only to Korea in both its pervasiveness and the degree to which it is taken seriously by society.

There is a lot of nuance and structure to drinking culture in China. Customarily, you should toast everyone at the table, starting with the guest of honor and moving down the ranks. You always want to toast with alcohol unless the person you are toasting isn't drinking, in which case you can use soy milk. Additionally, you always want to have your glass lower than theirs, a sign of both modesty and respect for a person of authority.

High-level Commnunist cadres, or ganbu, have to drink as part of their jobs, and, for the most part, if you can't drink, you don't get ahead. Of course, by the time you're at the top, you can have any number of lower-level minions do your drinking on your behalf, but the road up is paved with clear glass bottles of baijiu. We joke that Chinese President Hu Jintao must have an exceptional tolerance, along with everyone else in the inner CCP sanctum. A student who was applying to be a Party member once told me that male members were expected to be able to drink an entire bottle of baijiu or a whole case of beer in a single sitting. It doesn't hurt that alcohol is remarkably cheap here. A 16-ounce bottle of beer starts at about 12 cents, and baijiu prices vary much like vodka's, increasing exponentially with regard to quality.

After dance parties and "Chinese nights" at my house, we stack the cans and bottles outside to be collected by old men and women who recycle them for a small profit.

In truth, it's not only Communist leaders who drink. There is a certain ease with which drinking cuts across all sectors of the population. Francis, my Chinese tutor went over a joke with me that's been circulating widely on Chinese media outlets. It lists the reasons why different people drink and the role that alcohol plays in people's lives. Without drinking, it says, high-level cadres wouldn't have a friend. Without drinking, mid-level cadres wouldn't have any information. Without drinking, low-level cadres wouldn't have a shred of hope. Without drinking, disciplinary enforcers wouldn't have a clue. Without drinking, commoners wouldn't have any happiness. Without drinking, brothers wouldn't have any feeling. And without drinking, men and women wouldn't have a chance!

Of course, we Shansi Fellows have a joke of our own—that Shansi turns you into an alcoholic. Either you live in a country where alcohol is so prevalent that you are made to drink it, or in a culture so alcohol-repressed that you have to drink secretly just to cope. Though specifically here, it's hard to say whether it's China that truly makes you an alcoholic or you.

It would seem, then, that there would be an entire segment of the population dying off from alcohol poisoning each year, but the truth is that genetics might help more than anything else. Most Chinese are allergic to alcohol and flush when they drink (lending itself to the “Asian glow” phenomenon in the states), and have a low enough tolerance that it's easy to spot someone who's severely intoxicated before it's too late. With that said, though, it's still not uncommon to see a group of men, blurry-eyed and slurring, propping each other up as they try to walk home, or a guy in a business suit and slacks, a lit cigarette in one hand, stumble out of a restaurant in the middle of a meal to throw up.

Drinking culture is both ironic and logic-defying, making it infuriating to outsiders. But nothing more so than it's best kept secret: no one actually likes to drink. Baijiu is notoriously caustic, and even Tsingtao, the most expensive and highly-touted domestic beer, tastes bland and watered-down. At banquets and big dinners, alcohol becomes a necessary evil, acting as a social lubricant, but aside from alcoholics, few people in China are casual drinkers—they either drink because they have to or they don't. More accurately, people appreciate the powers that alcohol affords them, the ability to loosen up and speak their mind without consequence. What's more, being drunk virtually absolves you of all guilt—Chinese people tolerate behavior of all sorts without so much as a second thought.

The best possible situation, of course, is drinking for the fun of it, where there is no secret agenda or underlying social pressures. But even among the foreigners and other good friends here in Taigu, that pressure is sometimes hard to escape—certain occasions inevitably call for the introduction of alcohol. To be sure, most of the burden falls on men as Chinese women are almost always spared from excessive drinking, but foreign women aren't afforded that same luxury. Consumption has dropped markedly since last year, but we still have our moments. Drinking fuels fun and fun fuels memories. We used to say that you could judge a week by the length of Nick's hair—long and unkempt meant a good drinking week and freshly-washed meant we hadn't done our job well.

Rarely does a big dinner out with friends go by without the appearance of large glass bottles of Snow beer.

Still, there's something uniquely Chinese about the experience. Just last night, all six of us Americans sat outside of a shaokao (street stall barbecue) restaurant in North Yard with a bunch of Chinese friends, switching effortlessly between Chinese and English, with a couple dozen sticks of chuanr (skewered meat and vegetables on sticks) and a keg of fresh draft beer. I must admit that casual drinking, though obviously not without its dangers, is a part of Chinese culture I enjoy the most.

It prompted me at our most recent banquet to playfully joke with Xiao Fan that we should have banquets more often. Later on in the night, he would belligerently go on to chastise a visitor from America for trying to make a toast without alcohol, but I caught him as the drinking had just begun. Xiao Fan's entire job as director of the Foreign Affairs Office calls for constant wining and dining—making visiting scholars and new teachers feel welcome on campus. He looked at me with a down-turned smile, the bags under his eyes deep-set and heavy. That would mean you'd have to drink everyday, he said, his hair stiff and gray next to his slowly reddening face. And you really wouldn't want that.

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This post can be considered a "double feature," a longer rumination spanning 1200 words, double my project's allotted limit.

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