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This is what I posted on my Facebook page Monday night:

"Drank a little too much beer at company dinner. In China, this is not only accepted, but expected. Only place I've ever been where it is okay to pass out in front of your boss."

I received a comment on my last blog post asking if Chinese go to bars. The answer is that, yes, some do, but this is not the tradition. In many cities there are no bars at all. Linyi has three. Drinking is not a social sport. In fact, many Chinese have a difficult time metabolizing alcohol. Drinking culture in China revolves around business and forming relationships. Drinking is done to seal deals and celebrate special occasions. Some businessmen even prefer talking business over dinner than over a desk. Drinking is a complex world, believe it or not.

First of all, there is no free drinking. You don't just pop open a bottle and drink when you want. You must follow complex drinking rules so as not to offend your host or fellow diners. If you're doing business with Chinese, the way you drink at dinner may affect the entire outcome of your interaction. What are the rules? (I've heard the rules are even more complex in Korea.)

  1. Toasting is necessary before drinking. But don't just toast at will! There is an order to toasting. Once you have been toasted, you must reciprocate the toast back. You must toast your host. You must toast superiors and older guests. By toasting others, you are showing them respect and giving them face. (Face is very important in Asian cultures. Although we don't have this concept in the US, you can think of it as a combination of self-confidence, respect, and honor.)

  2. When clinking glasses in the West we don't pay much attention to position, but in China how you clink is important. If you are toasting with superiors or people older than you, the rim of your glass should be lower than the rim of their glasses. If you are of equal stature, than the glasses can be equal, or you can show them extra respect by going lower. If you are the boss, then everyone else will try to put their glass lower than yours. Sometimes, just to show respect, both toasters move their glasses lower and lower until they are under the table. We (fellow expats) do this to each other as a joke.

  3. If you say Ganbei, which is the traditional Chinese toasting word, (like our "bottoms up!" but literally translates as "empty the glass"), you must empty your glass. Your toasting partner will usually show you his empty glass after drinking. If you don't want to drink it all, you must toast with hejiu, which means something like "drink up" or "cheers." Women are not always expected to ganbei. Female foreigners may also be able to get out of ganbei, but male foreigners are not so lucky.

  4. Beer or baijiu are the two drinks usually used for toasting, although in Chinese bars and discos whiskey mixed with green tea is very popular. (Johnny Walker and Jack Daniels are the whiskey of choice at the moment.) Baijiu is a white liquor made from rice and it is very, very potent and very, very disagreeable. Tea, cola or juice may be substituted, but this will be viewed as quite peculiar.

  5. Drink, drink and drink some more. It is not uncommon to see men at business dinners passed out at the table or bright red from alcohol intolerance. It is a loss of face (or shame) if one is not able to drink as much as the others, and some people will just drink until they can no longer stand. This is not viewed negatively, but simply as a consequence of the drinking culture. I can't tell you how many times I have seen grown men in business suits being carried out of restaurants. (Alcoholism is viewed negatively, however.)

Monday night the company I work for hosted a dinner for the employees. Every department sat at their own table while they ate the many dishes that were served. After everyone had had enough to eat, chairs emptied as employees went from table to table to toast with fellow colleagues, managers and "leaders." The toasts involved words like harmony, cooperation and communication and were given in Chinese and English. This has to be done whether you really feel like it or not. It is a real slight to others if you refuse a toast or simply don't do it. Previous company dinners for Christmas and Chinese New Year have involved hours of toasting and drinking resulting in more than one person puking under the table and passing out. Completely acceptable! Fortunately, dinners are usually finished by 10PM and everyone tucked safely in bed shortly after.

Not all business dinners end with the dinner, however, often times the drinking and "business" continue at a Karaoke Bar, known as a KTV in China, or even luxurious bathhouses, where massages, hot tub soaks and sauna sessions replace the drinking. This may all sound crazy, but that is the price of doing business. I am glad I am not really here doing business.

Several Chinese friends have privately shared that they enjoy drinking with foreigners as they are not expected to follow the rigid rules, resulting in a much more enjoyable and possibly, more sober, experience (and for those who have alcohol intolerance, a more pleasant, non-alcoholic evening.)

Got a question about life in China? Please leave a comment!