How to survive a Chinese drinking party

Imagethief is in Shenzhen, supporting a Japanese client company at the Seventh Annual China High Technology Exposition, currently occupying a huge amount of space at one of Shenzhen’s two convention halls (our first taxi driver took us to the wrong convention center this morning). We’re also staying at one of two hotels with nearly identical names, which caused us some problems yesterday. Shenzhen is a confusing town.

It’s extra confusing when you’re drunk. After a hard day’s teeing up interviews for our client with the Chinese media, they invited us to a lavish dinner at the Beihai Fishing Village Restaurant. Like all Asian dinner parties, it was really an excuse to drink ruinously and publicly shame friends and colleagues. A free flow of lethal Chinese brandy and beer was arranged. Thankfully, delicate Japanese sensibilities (I presume) kept baijiu, China’s liver-and brain-dissolving white spirit, off the list.

Despite their often-reported political and cultural schisms, the Japanese and Chinese share one thing in common: they love social drinking. It’s the time when protocol hits the road and everyone becomes loudly friendly, until they pass out. This shared interest notwithstanding, I was interested to see a clear segregation of Japanese executives at one table (with one Japanese speaking Chinese manager) and Chinese and Imagethief at a second table (with two Japanese executives). Given that one Japanese executive at my table spoke both English and Chinese, it may have been simple linguistic segregation rather than some kind of spooky, racial arrangement.

The national table arrangements didn’t stop much cordial toasting back and forth. Yours truly was seated next to a young Chinese executive who spoke passable English and was both friendly and, apparently, interested in seeing exactly how much alcohol would go down an American’s throat before his head exploded.

I learned a valuable lesson tonight. These kinds of ganbei toast-o-ramas are not tests of your drinking abilities. They are tests of your wits. The contest is not who can drink the most or hold their liquor the best. The test is who can slyly cajole his friends and colleagues into drinking more than he does. It’s all about duplicity, challenges, evasions, filling the glasses of people in the bathrooms, and gentle belittlement to encourage people to risk alcohol poisoning.

Imagethief is a quick study. I rapidly sent my brandy glass away, as just having it in front of me was going to result in my painful and premature death. I also never let the waitress fill my beer glass more than halfway, and often stopped her at a third. That way I was never far from a gan bei (dry glass). I went over and toasted the other table as a group to pre-empt them coming over and toasting me one by one (the lone white boy is always a toast-magnet). Finally, I drank 1.5 liters of water during the evening, in addition to my liquor, as good hydration helps to mitigate both drunkenness and, especially, hangovers.

While I was employing these tactics I observed various other forms of duplicity, including toasting beer against brandy; diluting beer with water; toast deflection (finding someone more worthy of a toast than you  – this often victimized the women) and, the coup de grace, one Japanese executive actually pretending to be passed out at the table. He somehow managed a miraculous recovery when it was time to walk to the bus.

I figure I earned a B- for my performance. I was called out for sending my brandy glass back after three shots, but managed to go toast-for-toast with my beers and sacrificed only a moderate amount of face. One Chinese executive who upbraided me for quaffing water was doing the same thing ten minutes later. I was never caught dumping or cutting liquor, and I never shied from a toast that was offered me. I am still sober enough to write this, and should be borderline functional tomorrow. Which, in PR, is par for the course.

But I’ll probably be sleeping in the bathroom tonight as I get rid of that liter and a half of water. Nothing in this world comes free.

Coda: It is now the next morning. There is nothing sadder than a bunch of hung-over executives slinking around an incredibly noisy and hot convention floor. That might be the definition of hell.

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