When you’re in China, especially if it is for business, you are likely to find yourself in a Chinese drinking session. These six tips below should help you understand what you got yourself into, and how to get yourself out of it. If you just happen to be drinking with a few Chinese people, the below won’t apply–this is for the hardcore Chinese Chinese drinking sessions that often accompany business outings, and some other social types of gatherings. Study up!
- Learn the Lingo: Toasts are common in China. No matter what you’re drinking (which is likely to be a kind of Chinese rice liquor called baijiu), you’ll have toasts–known as ganbei–and you’d better comply for fear of being distrusted (or laughed at). In case you’re wondering, the word ganbei translates to “drying the cup.”
- Take the Lead: If you really want to score some points with your Chinese counterparts, don’t just accept their toasts–toast them back as well. This applies especially well to those who may be above you on the totem pole. This art of “respectfully suggesting a drink” is known as jing jiu.
- Use Two Hands: If you ever played baseball, your coach surely hounded you to catch the ball with two hands. That rule is surprisingly versatile, as in China it is considered respectful and polite to take your drink with two hands (one on the bottom propping the cup), and then slightly tipping the cup towards your colleague upon finish to show that you’ve emptied your glass.
- Say Cheers!: As in most places, it is common in China to knock glasses together while offering your cheers. When you do this, you should make sure your glass is lower than theirs, particularly if they outrank you. If you are about equal, you may find it funny when both of your glasses lower basically to the height of the table. If the group is large, it is common to tap your glass on the tabletop.
- Hold Your Own: There is nothing wrong with getting drunk, even during business dinners. It’s actually expected, as by being completely sober upon your departure, your hosts may feel as though they failed in showing you a good time. If you’re an obvious foreigner, they will probably think you can drink more. Given that the Chinese are big on handling their liquor, as a badge of honor of sorts, you’ll probably be stuck having to down whatever you’re handed. There is a funny term in China–jiudan–that translates roughly to drink courage. Make sure you train up on yours, and hopefully your ability to hold your liquor will carry you through. You may need an exceptionally strong brand of jiudan if you aren’t used to the Chinese liquors, which can be very strong and bitter.
- Know How to Say When: There are a few tips if you aren’t really on top of your game to help you save face. First, when it comes to saying cheers, you may not have to toast everyone individually. It is common to toast two or three people at a time, which will save you a few shots of liquor. Also, if you actually clink glasses with someone, it is understood that you will down your drink immediately, like a “bottoms up” decree. If you’d rather drink more slowly, you can try your skill at touching the other person’s glass with the back of your finger (as long as they are not a senior to you), which is a signal that you would like to slow down a bit. It may not work, but worth a shot. Next, drinking and driving is to be avoided. If you’re driving, you may be able to use that as an excuse to slow down your consumption. If you’re female, that may be a good enough excuse as well–woman are not subject to the same drinking pressure that men typically are, particularly in a business setting. I have seen instances of people just declaring that they don’t drink, which may be looked at suspiciously but ultimately accepted. If you’re going to do this, though, make sure you aren’t caught with a beer! But as drinkers around the world know, the safest way to maintain your control is to fill your belly–with food! Food in China, especially at banquets, is abundant and fatty. Use that to your advantage–the more you eat, the more jiudan you’ll miraculously discover.