Thursday, January 22, 2009

Baijiu and Obama back to back

Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) has arrived. Heavy duty fireworks and firecrackers are exploding everywhere day and night. The university through which I ride my bicycle to work every day is eerily devoid of students, with only broken suitcase handles and wheels littering the ground as evidence of their mass holiday exodus home. And, restaurants everywhere are hosting Spring Festival banquets for companies and institutes all over Beijing. The need for these events can be compared with the obligatory company Christmas parties in the US. In the US, these company parties are awkward. People are forced to dress up and talk to each other about non-work related things, drink, but not indulge. The whole thing is a tightrope walk between business and pleasure. However, with all the lines of “professional” behavior slightly skewed in China, I got the feeling that these banquets in China are actually enjoyed!

Our institute’s celebration was a family affair that began in a banquet room filled with balloons, confetti, and plates of sunflower seeds and candy on the tables for munching. Staff members brought their wives/husbands and children to watch performances of our institutes’ own employees in a kind of talent show. One researcher joined his daughter in a magic show complete with a release of a parakeet (which then took 10 minutes to catch). A five year old boy showed the crowd of 100 his Taekwondo moves. A group of male post-docs performed a skit with jabs about how little money they made. Their female counterparts performed a dance routine in cut off jean shorts and tall black boots. Others sang Chinese pop songs on a Karaoke screen or performed a more traditional poetic story in the style of San Ju Ban (Three and a half sentences). The top prize went to the administrative and research staff that performed a Spanish conquistador partner dance with costumes and recorded blaring brass music. After the performances we were invited to play Chinese chess and word puzzles and then make our way to a nearby restaurant where the real party began.

Our group occupied about 20 round tables, which amounted to half the restaurant’s open first floor dining room. I sat with some of the researchers' wives and their children. The kids continued their song, dance, and martial arts performances throughout dinner despite reprimands from the adults! After a half hour of eating, the higher-ups began circulating the tables toasting their colleagues with “baijiu” (white rice alcohol that tastes like paint thinner ) and things started to get rowdy. You see a toast in China is not a sweet speech followed by a sip of champagne. Rather, it is a boisterous demonstration of thanks or good luck followed by a shot of 60 proof alcohol.

Lets again picture the stuffy holiday parties in the US where everyone is holding it all in. If someone does accidentally loosen up after a few trips to the bar, stories of their rowdiness and dirty dancing will float around the office in whispers for weeks. Now, imagine a party with no pesky Puritan roots to hold you back! Chinese drinking culture is such that one loses more face by turning down a challenge to drink than by getting completely blitzed and making a fool of himself/herself. (I say herself, but actually I do not fully understand how women fit into drinking culture in modern China.) In his book Rivertown, Peter Hessler recalled (hazily I am sure) a similar banquet with his English department where he and a friend felt no regrets about diving over tables and shooting each other with rubber band guns!

When my boss and another important staff member circled round to my chair and poured me a glass, I found myself caught in a tangle of tacit cultural expectations. I knew that it is disrespectful and even condescending to turn down a drink. Yet, I also knew that it is common for Chinese women to shy away from alcohol and toast with tea or soda instead. And finally, my Midwest roots were telling me that I should probably not be taking shots with my boss, period. I made a split second decision to file myself into a totally different category of “only foreign girl in the room” and threw one back. In the after burn I caught a thumbs up from my boss as he moved on to the next table. Whew.

The waiters brought bottle after bottle of baijiu and the noise level of our side of the room rose. I sat uncomfortably as I thought about how much we must have been disturbing the other customers sitting a mere ten feet way. Just when I thought about asking my friend if we were being too loud, the director picked up a bullhorn to announce the top prize winners of the raffle! The other customers seemed neither surprised nor offended. I guess by now I should know that hot, loud, jovial places are just where Chinese people would choose to be for the holidays.

A few students and staff stopped by my seat to chat in a mix of slurred English and Chinese. Whether it was the alcohol or the freedom that comes with speaking an opinion in a foreign language, one man felt free enough to explain the significance of this night to me. He claimed that one could “lose” oneself for the night. He described this as the one time a year when all is forgotten and forgiven. “You can say anything!” And most importantly, by drinking with his staff, the boss shows a bit of humility allowing him to reconnect with his employees.

Slightly buzzed from the cultural overload and the baijiu, I looked at my watch and remembered that the 44th US Presidential Inauguration was to take place in two hours. Being an hour's subway trip away from where I said I would meet my friends to watch, I excused myself from the party, which I later learned had continued on to a Karaoke bar. As our group walked to a bar promising a CNN live feed, we realized that while we all shared excited feelings about the big event, I was actually the only American in the group.

The bar was packed and just as loud as the Chinese banquet. But, instead of bullhorns and toasts, it was Beijing x-pats competing with each other and the CNN commentators for a bit of air time. An old Chinese man in a Mao cap circulated through the crowd selling his handicrafts and took a moment to watch the screen himself then confirming with those around him that the event was somehow connected to “ow – ba – ma.” The crowd quieted a bit at the sight of Carter, booed at George W. Bush, and cheered with the emergence of Michelle Obama. I stood beside Italians and English during the oath, an American for Aretha Franklin’s song, and Canadians during Obama’s speech. It is not until one spends an election or an inauguration abroad that one realizes how closely the rest of the world follows US politics.

I fell asleep at 4AM trying to process it all.

Here is a video just to give you a taste of the political and social vibe of the (mostly young) Beijing x-pat crowd. The second video is just proof that not everything is censored in China. This was the bit of the speech that was edited out on the Chinese stations but came through clearly on CNN.


  1. You have had a much different experiance at american holiday parties than I have. I think my experiance is more like China. At my job in Chicago we would get sloshed and carry on people would say stupid things and be forgiven and then after the party go out to the bars all night. We'ed catch a few hours nap before dawn and take a cap to the airport for out 9:30 flight. But those are the only office parties I've been too.

  2. Hey Laura, dead on. My only real banquet experiences actually came in the Northwest (so it was a little different), but I did have a few competitive toasting experiences. It is a pretty interesting contrast. We tried to have a Lantern Festival party here in Tucson, but it just turned into a potluck with American beer and Outkast (there are worse things, mind you). It was tough to find an adequate amount of baijiu, so it was more a curiosity than a giant wrecking ball of wonderful terribleness.

    And, in general, dead on with the rest of the blog!