5 Tips for Staying Sober in China

A whole lotta baijiu (c) nozomiiqel

A whole lotta baijiu (c) nozomiiqel

“Sober?” you say. “What in heaven’s name makes you think I want to stay sober in China?” I admit that the following advice doesn’t apply to a large portion of foreigners in China, but hear me out.

Whether you’re someone who never drinks, who only drinks socially, or one whose blood-alcohol level should be renamed their “alcohol-blood level”, I suspect that there always comes a time in China when you’re required to drink against your will. For those times, I offer these 5 tips.

The primary culprit in these kinds of situations is baijiu, China’s national beverage which is also known by other cliché nicknames such as “white lightning”, “fire water” or my favorite, “jet fuel”. In the three years that I have lived and traveled in China I can’t even count the number of times I have been pressured to drink this wretched liquid.

Incredibly (or maybe you just think I’m stupid), I have successfully been able to avoid drinking a drop of baijiu while still maintaining a measure of respect with my friends and colleagues. These are just a few of the ways I have found to be useful in my quest to stay reasonably sober while also preserving my “face” here in China:

1. Don’t Say No

Unless they offer you drugs

Saying no to somebody in China, especially a leader, is never advisable. I find that for Chinese people this goes for just about anything, not just drinking. A better way to go about denying a request is to have a good excuse or even a joke handy. Don’t just tell them you won’t drink, tell them why.

“My wife will kill me if I come home drunk” or “I’m trying to get in shape for a [insert sport here] tournament and have stopped drinking for now”. The possibilities are endless.

A word for the wise, though – make sure your excuses make you look good. Saying something to the effect of “I get violently ill if I drink this” makes you look weak. Trust me, I know from experience that they’ll just laugh at you.

2. You Can’t Drink if you Drive

Of course, if you can drive you now have the perfect out. Ever since receiving my driver’s license I haven’t had a bit of trouble with Chinese people asking me to drink. One mention of my motorcycle and they immediately back off. In China, at least where I live, there is a very strict “No Tolerance” policy concerning drinking and driving. Forget blood-alcohol levels, you’ll get arrested for even a trace of beer on your breath.

Can’t drive in China? No problem. Before I got my license I used to always use this as a joke. “Sorry guys, I would love to drink with you, but I’m the designated driver”. Every once in a while they would get to laughing and discussing my joke so much that they’d forget they had even asked me to drink.


No alternative = no choice

No matter what excuse or method you use to get out of drinking, you’ll still want to participate in the toasts in order to earn the “guanxi”. Since tea is absolutely unacceptable, if there are no options other than alcohol then you’re pretty much screwed.

Acceptable alternatives that I’ve used are peach juice or grape juice. Sometimes I can get away with Sprite because it looks pretty similar when poured in the glass. The key is to request that these drinks be purchased before the party starts, at the point when they buy all the alcohol.

I may not look as “manly” drinking peach juice while everybody else is downing shots of baijiu but I’ve learned to deal with it. Thankfully most of them get too drunk to care what I’m drinking anyway.

4. Location, Location, Location

Choose Your Table Carefully

It may not be the best political move, but it will be best for your health. People at the leader’s table tend to have multiple rounds of toasts for the very reason that the leader is present. More drinking leniency is given at tables where people don’t feel like they have to save face.

In order to pay the proper respects, however, I’ll still walk over and toast the leader at his table, but I’ll do so with a drink I have poured. If he or she doesn’t know what’s in my glass, what do they care?

5. It Takes One to Beat One

You, too, can be a stubborn ass

After years of observation I’ve come to the conclusion that nobody really likes to drink baijiu, they just have to because the peer pressure is too great. Sometimes all of these different tips fail and they’re still telling me I need to drink because they just won’t be happy if I don’t. I laugh and smile, nod my head and just say “Uhh…sorry”.

I can hear what some of you are saying right now: “Oh, come on! Just drink it for goodness sakes. Are you too good for Chinese customs?” My answer is that if they’re allowed to be stubborn asses, pushing and pushing me to drink something that in all likelihood they don’t like either, why can’t I be one too? I participate in more than my fair share of Chinese customs so I don’t have a problem refusing this one.

Then again, maybe this is just me. Any other good tips, or am I the only person in this country who refuses to drink baijiu?