A Salute to Baijiu, Part 6: How to Not Get Hammered at a Banquet

1. Pray for soup

Weird, right? When in your life have you ever NEEDED soup? You will at a banquet, believe me. Here’s the thing about Chinese soup: it’s not nearly as thick as western soup. In fact, in Chinese no one says “eat” soup; everyone “drinks” soup, which of course means although you have a spoon at your disposal, most people just drink the soup right from the bowl. At one banquet for my adviser, I realized that no one EVER looks at your soup bowl. They’ll check your plate from time to time, just to make sure you’ve got something to eat, but soup is not anywhere near the top of the “important dinner items” list, so no one pays attention. Once I realized this, I created the following dodge. Whenever there was a toast involving me (which was frequent, given that I was sitting to the left of the host; more on that later), I raised my glass with everyone else, upended it, winced with everyone else, but didn’t swallow the baijiu. I sat down, picked up my soup bowl, held it up to my mouth, and spit out my baijiu. Gross, yes, but effective. You can’t do this many times, of course, because even though no one’s checking your soup bowl closely, they’ll all notice if you have a completely full bowl even though you’ve been drinking from it all evening. Use this trick sparingly. I did, and in combination with a few other tricks I had my hosts thinking I was a SERIOUS drinker, even though I only had a few glasses.

2. Fight to sit anywhere except on the host’s left or right

You might not have a choice with this one, but if you do, fight tooth and nail to sit anywhere else at the table. If you’re sitting with the host, you’re going to be expected to drink every time he does, or at least every time there’s a general group toast. If you’re sitting at one of the lower-echelon seats closer to the door, no one’s really going to see if you’re drinking or not.

3. Rice/mantou are your salvation

Both soak up alcohol quite nicely, especially mantou, which is a bland steamed rice bun with the consistency of a Nerf football. As a foreigner, you can leapfrog the “rice at the end of the meal” hurdle by simply saying, humbly, “I’m used to eating rice with my meal. Can I get a bowl now?” Your host will definitely supply you with one, that being a perfectly reasonable, simple request. WOLF that rice. Polish off half a bowl for each sip of baijiu you take. You’ll thank me for it.

4. Tea’s your salvation, too

Chug tea. Just chug it. Your hosts will assume you enjoy Chinese tea, which will make them feel good, and you’ll be ensuring any alcohol you drink is being filtered QUICKLY through your kidneys by the caffeine in the tea.

5. Drink reluctantly

This isn’t hard, of course, given that baijiu tastes so putrid. If you’ve played your cards right, your hosts already know you’re sick, or freakishly busy, or horribly tired, or bound to go home and take care of your kids or, if you’re a real, pro, all of the above. Now, do all you can to fight drinking anything at all. Refer to your kryptonite. But do make sure you drink one or two small glasses, especially when your boss toasts you. Here’s the other advantage of kryptonite: by agreeing to drink one small glass with your boss, even though you “really shouldn’t” (nudge nudge, wink wink), your boss will think you’re making a special exception for him/her. It looks good.

Note: This doesn’t work in the business world, where you’re going to be expected to drink like a fish, no matter what condition you’re in.

6. Keep your glass next to your plate.

Plates are regularly taken away and replaced by the restaurant staff. So what you do is, you keep your baijiu glass right next to your plate, and keep your hand on it at all times. It’s a good bet no one will be watching you, so, keeping your eyes on everyone else, gently tip some baijiu out onto your plate. Half a glass is about right. To guarantee that’s not going to sit there too long, put a lot of food on your plate, too. The staff typically replaces any plate that’s loaded up with bones and fat.

7. Go for beer.

Chinese beer is basically water with hops added to it. It’s somewhere below 4% alcohol, which is roughly a third that of a glass of red wine. That means you can drink LITERS of the stuff and feel no ill effects, aside from the obvious effects drinking liters of any liquid will impart. Praise Chinese beer to the skies leading up to the banquet, and make sure you act very excited when they bring the beer out. Beer’s not the greatest substitute for baijiu in Chinese culture, but it’s still acceptable. And it gets you out of drinking liquid death.

8. Don’t open your mouth

This only works if you have an opaque cup, and if your hosts aren’t showing off their drinking prowess by holding out their cups for everyone to see (which is frequent). Simple enough. Just tip the cup to your lips, pretend to drink, but don’t open your mouth. Gasp, wince, and make it look realistic.

9. Eat really spicy food

This is an interesting one. The ability to eat really spicy food is also a fairly “cool” ability to have at a dinner. It’s not on a par with being able to put away lots of baijiu, but it still looks good. People will still be impressed with you, even if you don’t drink much.

10. Sing

I’m not kidding. Drinking is connected, traditionally anyway, with art. A typical Chinese karaoke session doesn’t REALLY kick into gear until everyone’s had lots of beer. The idea is that singing is also a very personal thing, so you don’t do it unless everyone insists, or unless you’ve had a lot to drink. The timing on this one isn’t as easy, but if you stand up and say something like, “Instead of a toast, I would like to sing a song from my country for you,” it will impress the pants off your hosts. Or at least it will if you can sing. If you can’t, I wouldn’t recommend it.

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2 Responses to A Salute to Baijiu, Part 6: How to Not Get Hammered at a Banquet

  1. Pingback: Hao Hao Report

  2. Lee says:

    Re: business expectations
    I once sat on a panel for a foreign friend teaching a business program to Chinese undergrads. Other panelists included a PhD from Berkeley and an alumnus of the program. We were asked what employers look for in applicants. My answer included diligence, initiative, and the ability to learn quickly. The alumnus simply said: “You need to learn to drink.”

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