On a recent Friday evening, at a promotional party organized by a foreign-managed bar, a very drunk foreign man accidentally dropped a very drunk Chinese woman whom had been sitting on his shoulders. She fell backwards, hit her head on the pavement, fell unconscious, and was ultimately hospitalized with a serious concussion.

The event sparked a heated forum exchange on GoKunming, the city’s popular English-language blog. (Full disclosure: I once wrote for GoKunming, know the principals in the incident slightly, and was even at the bar for awhile that evening. Yeah, Kunming is that small.) Some foreigners were outraged that anyone could be so drunk and irresponsible. Others defended the guy, noting that virtually all of us have done stupid things when drunk at least once in our lives. Eventually, the site administrator closed the forum thread.

Reading through it this morning simply underscored something I’ve been meaning to write about for a long time. Man, foreigners do drink a lot in China. By any reasonable definition a healthy chunk of foreigners that I have known in my five years in this country were either alcoholics or heavy drinkers. Perhaps this says more about me than about foreigners in general, but at the risk of ruffling anyone’s feathers I’d wager that a quite a few of you could say the same about your laowai friends and acquaintances.

Understanding why isn’t terribly hard. Most expats in China are young, and young people tend to drink more than old people. Most expats seem to be men, and men tend to drink more than women. Most expats are childless, and as anyone with children can tell you, your heavy-drinking outings become much less frequent once little ones enter your life.

Alcohol is relatively cheap in China and is easily available. China has a macho drinking culture, where binge drinking at banquets is the norm. Public drunkenness in China isn’t necessarily frowned upon as much as it might be back at home.

Many foreigners who teach English or study Chinese have a lot of free time and can afford to be hungover. In many smaller cities a bar is the only real cultural activity available to non-Chinese speaking foreigners. Many foreigners also find China an overwhelming experience at first and use drinking as a means of escape.

I could go on, but you get the point. And it’s little surprise with this much drinking going on, an incident like the one mentioned above could happen.

I’m the last man to argue for temperance, and those of you who know me personally probably find it amusing I’m writing this at all. But seriously- all of us know good men and women ruined by the bottle. Not to spoil the party, but it’s certainly worth keeping an eye on people who are in danger of becoming “lost laowai” in the worst sense of the term.

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About Matt

Matt spent six years in China, mainly based in the beautiful spring city of Kunming. During that time he worked in consulting, journalism as well as English teaching. Matt studied Chinese for 2+ years and loved exploring the mountains of Yunnan by mountain bike). He now lives in New York City where he is pursuing a Masters in International Affairs at Columbia University.

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  1. Good post, Matt.

    Another reason why young expats drink: for many, being in China is like extending their college life, complete with college boozing habits. They never feel any pressure to cut back because the beer’s so cheap and responsibility is so light.

  2. good stuff.. A warning I should probably take to heart lol

    I’d also say, that in most cases with these young expats, it takes a little bit of crazy to decide to move to China. That little bit of crazy tends to add to the level of drinking I think. Almost all young people drink, but most of the ones that end up here tend to be on the nuttier side. Throw a bunch of people like that into a country with almost no shame associated to drunken antics (for foreigners anyways..), and stuff like this happens I guess.

    Definitely including myself in that bunch of idiots 🙂

  3. When was the last time you went drinking in America? This kind of behavior is not limited to China – nor is it limited to foreigners.

    I’m currently in Korea and see the same thing. Foreigners (and Koreans) getting drunk and being stupid.

  4. Matthew and Fink,

    Good points. I agree with the point about expat life being an extension of college; in my experience the more successful expats are ones who had some semblance of a life before coming abroad. Alas I didn’t- I moved to China just six months after graduating.

    And Fink, you’re right- making the decision to move abroad is risky, and deciding to move to China is riskier still for most of us. I think there’s a strong correlation between that type of riskiness with heavy alcohol and drug intake.


    I go drinking every time I’m back in America and am well aware that this type of behavior isn’t limited to foreigners or to people in China. I didn’t say it was.

    But back at home my friends, with few exceptions, either can’t afford to go out very often, work more than twice the number of hours per week than the average expat, and typically have to drive home. These factors all limit their drinking to a greater or lesser extent.

    Virtually everyone I know who has lived in China in the past and has since gone home has told me that they drink much, much less at home.

  5. I also seem to notice that so many expats smoke – a much higher ratio than I would expect back home. Do you think this is a real effect? Why would it be?

  6. Coljac,

    Smoking culture in the West used to look like present-day China- people smoked everywhere, cigarettes were cheap, smoking was considered sociable, and there wasn’t a tremendous effort by the government or other groups to warn against the dangers of smoking.

    This all of course changed and nowadays far fewer people smoke in the West than before. It isn’t hard to see why- who wants to be banished outside in foul weather to smoke cigarettes that cost 8 bucks a pack while fending off the dirty looks of passer-bys all while risking cancer?

    Of course cancer is still a risk amongst smokers in China, but the other factors that might normally compel smokers to quit don’t really exist here. What is different about smoking culture in China (and other parts of Asia) vs. the West is that the male/female smoker ratio is much, much greater.

    But you’re right- I woke up yesterday morning after partying Sat. night with a cough, stinky clothes, and a stuffed nose just from inhaling second-hand smoke. Being a non-smoker in China sometimes isn’t that easy.

  7. In July I was invited to a party by a lot of friends and their wives to a local restaurant. We ate and drank, and I noticed that no one was smoking after dinner. I had to borrow a cigarette from a friend and light up to the relief of all the guys who immediately pulled out their packets and lit up too. I don’t smoke by the way, so my head and throat were both sore the next day. 🙂

  8. I drank a lot in China, to the point where I was worried I was becoming alcoholic. Drinking was easy, cheap and socially acceptable, if not de rigeur, drinking was fun, and drinking was a way of letting off pressure. When I found I was drinking every day, I made a conscious decision to only drink at weekends and I rationed myself to two or three a night. Then I discovered that China wasn’t so much fun without the drink. In fact, China seemed quite grim when not viewed through the bottom of a glass. I also soon discovered the constant social pressure from other expats to drink and from Chinese diners to “He yi bei, ba!” Try imagine living your life in China with little or no alcohol. Could you still live there? I don’t think I could. That was my cue to leave.

    • Interesting point. I barely drink when I am in China and I think it can still be fun. There are a lot of things to do to keep oneself busy in China…I find it all too exhausted even without going to the club.

      As a Canadian, its always living in the States that leads me to drink heavily.

  9. Let’s also not forget the boredom factor. I know that it’s exciting to live somewhere new and cool and all that, but there are usually no movie theatres, sports events, or any other things that we can do with our leisure time back home. And when you’re bored, you may as well get drunk!

  10. Laowai certainly do drink a lot in China, but I think you could probably say the same for Chinese men in their 40’s, and I’ve seen some pretty ridiculous behavior on their parts as well. The big difference I think (and possibly why laowai drunkenness seems to be so inconspicuous), is that when Chinese men drink, it’s often a competition to see who can drink the largest quantity without showing any outward signs of being drunk. In the West, we like to drink as a release, and are generally more willing to let it all hang out. But yeah, I still agree with Matt’s point. I easily drank more in 3 years in China than my entire life combined up to that point.

  11. No cars ….
    No police ….
    No chores ….

    Where I live, young and old drink a lot. Heck, I do too. Getting drunk in the US exposed you to having to drive, having to deal with police, and having to wake up with a hangover and chores to do.

    Not here.

    Drink any where and at any time. Walk down the street with a drink. Not an issue at all.

    It’s not just like being in college, it’s perceived freedom from the rules that make society in other countries bearable for all …. the freedom to do what you want as long as you do not affect the overall societal-good. This concept is not one we encounter in our daily lives here …..

    And not to mention the bars make stronger drinks here ….

  12. Stronger drinks? You sure about that? Faker drinks maybe. Make sure you’re not confusing a hangover from strong drinks with possible internal blood clotting from fake alcohol.

  13. Pingback: Fact or Fiction: Edition I | Lost Laowai China Blog

  14. Awesome post. I live in Shenzhen and my laowai friends and I tend to drink outside a lot. With no open container laws in China, with the exception of the metro, it’s possible to have what we call “walking beers.” Leaving your apartment where you’ve been pregaming to ride a 30 minute bus to the club? How ’bout a walking beer? Not drunk enough to go in the club? How ’bout a corner drink? Broke because you lost all your money in Macau? How ’bout a 7/11 crawl through the city? China is the perfect country for heavy drinking, especially if you can stomach baijiu (vile substance I tell you!). … With this atmosphere, things happen. … I once saw an American making out with a French chick so fiercely that he bent her over a table. It was the night of the Worldwide Guinness Celebration, and she was wearing some promotional top hat. The table she bent back over had a candle on it. Next thing I know, I’m looking at a French chick who’s wearing a Guinness top hat that’s capped with a flame shooting towards the ceiling.

  15. Id say the drunkest people I’ve seen here in shenzhen are either chinese or hong kongers but I am more annoyed by drunk euros or aussies. I guess I understand american drinking more.

    That said, drinking in china is fun and there’s not a lot else to do to cut loose or meet people

  16. lots of laowai losers go to china, people who could not get a job or a girlfriend in their own country. basically, they do not represent a normal cross section of western society.

  17. ^I agree with Da Gongji. Some are here because they can get better jobs or girlfriends than they can back home, not just those who can’t get any back home. I’m here to learn business in China because i’ve already been successful in the US. Also i’m 30, so yeah, I need some adventure.

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