I've been writing restaurant reviews for a few months, and sometimes i get to take my little family along for a meal. In just a few months, we've been to places that specialize in pizza, thai, spanish, vegetarian, and lamb, to name a few. By and large, these meals are fantastic. This weekend, esther and i are going to spend the night, jordan-free, at a luxury mountain resort simply because my boss wasn't available. Nice perk.
I also wrote a one-page review of a new maternity and pediatrics hospital in town. We took Jordan for a check-up and now he's famous.
Most of what i write is reviews and interviews. This last month though i wrote a four-page cover story about short vacations you can take in and around Hangzhou. I've also been writing a regular feature on the last page, called High Five. It's cool because i get to choose the topic, and it can really be about anything i want. The only criteria is it needs to have five points in it. I've written three of these articles so far, and my last one is, by far, my favorite. Here it is, in its entirety.
The Art of Ganbei or How to Survive a Boozy Business Meeting
I remember my first business lunch in China like it was yesterday. The year was 2007, I was in Beijing for business, wide-eyed and excited, visiting customers. While I consider myself well-traveled, I knew very little about Chinese culture. I certainly was ill-prepared for what I was about to encounter.
It was 11am on a Wednesday, and my customers were eager to get the party started. Not one to turn down a cold beer with lunch, I responded, “Yes, I can drink.” That was my first mistake. Obviously we would not be drinking beer, or “Greet Wall Special China Red Wine”, or even whiskey. We would be drinking baijiu.
I hung in there like a trooper as everyone at the table ganbei’d with me in turn. I was congratulated, applauded, and even praised for my stamina. This played into my desire to impress my hosts, and I pushed on through. But they all knew something I did not: drinking baijiu is a game, and winning means drinking less than everyone else. No one in their right mind actually enjoys drinking shots of 108 proof, gasoline-flavored alcohol.
After we finished bottle number six, I was a worthless mess. That is when my customers blindsided me with a list of one hundred problems they have with my company’s product, problems they demanded I promise fast corrections to. Yes. They had won the game.
I have survived many more business meals since that day. Here are a few tips for surviving your next meeting with baijiu.
In all seriousness, there are few less palatable liquors than baijiu. With that in mind, your first tactic should be to plainly reject it. Request beer or wine. Even huangjiu is better. Tell them you are allergic to liquid pain. Note, however, if you choose a different poison, it will still be unpleasant. You will be expected to drink a bottle of wine by yourself. It will almost certainly not be good wine. And whence you have finished it, they will open a second bottle.
Often there is no avoiding “the drink that tastes like flaming purple.” If you must drink, learn how to play the game. Just like when playing poker, if you have not spotted the weak player in the first thirty minutes, that person is probably you. Make a stand with one key phrase: Nǐ gān bēi, Wǒ suí yì, meaning “You finish your glass, I’ll drink what I want.” This works wonders for letting them know this is not your first rodeo. You are a seasoned expert, well-versed in the nuances of not getting wasted at 11am on terrible, terrible liquor. With any luck, they will pick on your co-worker instead.
Twice, I have walked out of situations where, against all odds, I was relatively sober by the end. The first secret is a little sleight of hand, err... mouth. It requires a bottle of water in addition to your glass of baijiu. The process is simple: take a sip of water and hold some in your mouth while you smile and nod at the conversation. After a brief time, pretend to take a sip of your baijiu, but instead let the water in your mouth drip into the glass, diluting the baijiu. You will still have to drink when people cheers you, but over time the mixture will become more water than baijiu. You will certainly be required to ganbei at some point, but by then, hopefully it is a refreshing mixture of water and saliva. Still better than baijiu.
The second secret is a bit more obvious, and I employed it on my wedding night. My groomsmen, brilliant as they are handsome, found an empty bottle of baijiu and filled it with water. That is what I drank all night. Fortunately, none of my in-laws speak or read English. I still remember the looks of amazement when I drank straight from the bottle for a 10-count, selling it even further by spitting the last mouthful out in disgust. This obviously will not work in a small group, but for my purposes, it was perfect.
Finally, if you are going to give in and play the game honestly, drink slowly. It is not a race. It is the opposite. You may think finishing the four bottles on the table is the end of your misery, but there are usually four more stashed nearby. Recognize that you are going to be here for a long, long time. Take small sips and only ganbei when absolutely necessary. When they refill your glass, stop them when your glass is half full. This can be achieved by gently pushing the bottle away, or by moving your glass. Baijiu is not a precious resource, and a little waste is perfectly acceptable. Lots of waste is fine too.
In summary, I do not like to ganbei baijiu. I do not like it, oh hell no. I do not drink it at 11 o’clock. I do not drink it from a sock. I would not, could not, with my peers. I would not, could not, with no fears. I will not drink baijiu these days, unless you promise a big, big raise.