Liam Leslie '15: “Alcoholism Doesn’t Exist in China”
Liam Leslie was one of the 2015-2017 Shansi Fellows at Shanxi Agricultural University. This is his second year narrative.
Taigu is famous for drinking, noodles, coal, and vinegar. Alcohol can be found and bought anywhere and at any time. Airport vending machines, mom-and-pop stores, restaurants, and street stands all sell various forms of alcohol, and public drinking laws are lenient to non-existent. Not only is it everywhere, it is also cheap. Baijiu (白酒) is sold for as cheap as $2 for 500 ml, and beer is approximately $0.50 for a can. There are no open container laws and there is no seriously enforced drinking age.
Taigu’s drinking culture looks somewhat like a stereotypical frat party but with middle-aged men around a table. It’s a part of my job, my social time, and just about everything else. Whether it’s drinking at mandatory banquets or drinking as a social lubricant, alcohol has become a huge part of my life in China. If I don’t drink at a banquet, the other fellows must drink on my behalf, so chances to abstain with no consequence are few and far between. There’s no simple way around this issue, and the more you can drink, the better your relationships will become.
喝闷酒 – hē mèn jiǔ – to drink alone to drown one’s sorrows
Chatting with taxi drivers is one of my pastimes in Taigu, and the conversations usually center on Chinese food, my nationality, dialects, and, of course, alcohol. One taxi driver taught me the interesting Chinese phrase featured above that means to drink alone to drown one’s sorrows. My boss once told me at a banquet, “Liam, you are sad, you should drink more [alcohol] to be happy.” Though drinking alone is typically frowned upon, drinking socially or professionally is encouraged. Many people have reacted to the phrase above with a sad frown when I have mentioned it, but are excited to drink to excess when others are present.
Drinking in China can happen at any time of the day. It is not uncommon to see men drinking beer or baijiu at an early lunch. Drunk driving is also a huge issue in Taigu. “Don’t drink and drive” signs are becoming more and more prominent around Taigu, and with good reason.
Just last year, I took a black cab on New Year’s Eve because normal taxis stop at midnight. After haggling and getting in the car, we started our short journey from the Information College to the Agricultural University, where I live. It became immediately clear that the man was drunk when he started swerving on the empty Taigu roads. Since then I have made a concerted effort to get back to campus before official taxis stop running.
I wish I could say that it’s just the lonely black cab driver drinking away his sorrows or my boss pressuring me to drink to feel better, but it’s not. There are many circulating stories about excessive drinking. Last year, a student was hit by professor who was driving drunk. The professor proceeded to get out and try to beat up the student because he didn’t want to pay for his medical bills. A graduate student gained renown after hitting another graduate student with his car while drunk, breaking his leg. He too attempted to beat the student to silence him.
白酒 – bái jiǔ – a ubiquitous Chinese liquor (40-60% abv), 啤酒 – pí jiǔ – beer (2-3.5% abv)
Alcohol is cheap, everywhere, and varies widely in strength. Beer is weak, baijiu is strong, and there is very little in between. Baijiu is the drink of choice at banquets because relationships aren’t built on the beer-water hybrid known as Tsingtao. No, the goal of banquets is to get drunk, not to drink.
劝酒 – quàn jiǔ – to urge somebody to drink
At one banquet, my boss said, “Justin, when Liam doesn’t drink, you are the best.”
I don’t have meetings with my boss, I have banquets. Banquets are a time to air grievances, catch up, eat fancy meats, and, most importantly, drink. Banquets range in size, but alcohol is always involved. Banquet-style drinking is all about showing respect and building relationships. Thus, more people means more relationships, and inherently more alcohol.
Each region has its own toasting traditions. Let’s break down Taigu’s: first everyone drinks 3 small shots together, followed by the most honored guest drinking with everyone from the top down, then the second most honored guest drinks from the top down, then the lowest ranked group of people toast the most honored in return, finally everyone drinks 3 more times together (Fig. 1). That means 6 drinks as a group, and 2 drinks for each unique pair of people at the banquet. For example, if there are 6 people at a banquet, then each person would drink a total of 16 drinks, 7 people would be a total of 18 drinks, 10 people would be a total of 24 drinks, and so on. There are some exceptions when one might drink more or less. For example, if you finish the bottle before the final 3 drinks, then they may or may not open another bottle. On the other hand, you may drink more if someone toasts you with the pitcher as opposed to the smaller glass (Fig. 2).
酒量 – jiǔ liàng – alcohol tolerance/capacity to drink
“How much can you drink? Can you drink a bottle? Half a bottle?” The man at the convenience store always asks me these questions whenever I buy alcohol. I usually just point somewhere on the bottle to which he replies, “not bad.” The most successful banquet-ers are those who can keep drinking despite being visibly drunk. The redder the face, the louder the guffaw, the more expressive the movements, the better—as long as the person continues to respect the hierarchy of dinner guests. It’s a fine balance between not vomiting and continuing the onward trudge of baijiu consumption. One man in particular stood out at a banquet because he refused to toast with the small glasses, and instead chose to cheers with the pitcher (Fig. 2). He not only managed to drink himself under the table, but made sure that everyone knew that he was very glad to see them.
Maisy, my co-fellow, told me a story about her trip to the capital of Shanxi Province, Taiyuan. She saw two men outside of a hotel having just finished a banquet. She knew that they had just finished their banquet because one man was clumsily propping the other one up while his friend proceeded to vomit all over his messenger bag, shoes, clothes, and friend. As soon as they stumbled to their car, a worker at the hotel nonchalantly hosed down the pavement. Alcohol will likely continue to play a role in Shansi Fellows lives whether by choice or because of work and societal pressures. Good or bad, fun or sad, alcohol is a Shanxi tradition.
干杯 – gānbēi – finish your glass!
Figure 1: Diagram shows the order of drinking at a banquet in Shanxi Province. Step 1: Everyone drinks 3 times together. Step 2: Most honored guest toast individuals from most to least important. Step 3: Second most important toast individuals from most to least important (repeated until the least important person toasts everyone). Step 4: Everyone drinks 3 times together. Note that the most important guest sits facing the door.
Figure 2 (credited in image): Shows someone pouring baijiu into the small pitchers that each guest receives. To the left of the pitchers, on the lazy susan, are the small glasses that equal one drink for each toast.