Getting around in Chongqing
CHINESE ETIQUETTE LESSON III: GETTING TO THE BOTTOM OF GANBEI… OR “BOTTOMS UP” IN ENGLISH
When Chinese offer you a drink, they always start with “Ganbei.” It means “bottoms up,” and they mean it literally. If you accept, what follows will be endless “Ganbei” until you don’t know who you are!
Walking around a back alley with my American colleague in Chongqing, people were sitting outdoors doing business, playing cards, and drinking alcohol. A foreign visitor in this district is very rare, so my American colleague drew great attention. A group of old men were sitting around a table drinking alcohol from rice bowls.
One of the men who looked a little bit drunk suddenly raised his bowl to my American colleague. My colleague must have heard somewhere that you must take it and empty it to be polite, so he came over to take it and emptied it.
What he didn’t know is that’s a sign you accept this guy as your buddy. Suddenly all the other old men all stood up and held up their bowls. They were very surprised a foreigner would like to make friends with them, people who live a humble life in a back alley!
But my colleague wouldn’t play. He embarrassedly ran away.
Chinese, especially men, like to drink alcohol for fun and as a way to make friends.
The host pours alcohol for you. According to Chinese drinking custom, if you finish the first cup in one gulp, it’s a sign that you are capable to drink a lot. So the host will keep filling your cup and will not let you go until you’re completely drunk. This is his way of showing his sincerity to become friends with you.
Well, it’s normally okay if you are big drinker! But in case you are not, like my colleague who escaped, you should not empty the first cup in one gulp.
Instead, you should say “thank you for your invitation, but I’m not able to drink alcohol, let’s just sip it little by little,” and the host will agree. You can not take the first gulp at the beginning and later say “sorry I can’t drink more.” It’ll give your host the message you are not willing to become buddies with him.
It was not polite for my colleague to run away, who actually was trying to be polite… but instead he ended up leaving those old men holding their bowls, with mouths open.
There is also a rule for the host. If the guest demonstrates he’s a big drinker, the host should not stop filling the cup for the guest, and must accompany the drinking game till the end. Otherwise the guest will think the host is insincere.
That’s why sometimes a host who is not able to hold alcohol will bring several big drinkers with him when he entertains.
There are lots of rules about taking alcohol at different occasions. And drinking rules are different in different parts of the country. If anyone is interested in learning more about Chinese drinking culture, I’ll come up with more interesting “rules.”
Hey, you want to know what a visiting foreigner who can’t drink should do?
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