I remember well, during the months leading up to our move to Shanghai, the million and one things that I worried about not having access to once we moved to China, and one of those was alcohol. Would we still be able to drink decent red wine and craft beer? Would we have our summertime weekend margaritas on the deck? And God forbid, what about vodka? “Do they drink in China?,” I asked my friend Lisa at lunch a couple of months before the move. I will never forget Lisa putting her hand on my arm that day at the Big Fish in Dearborn, looking me in the eye, and saying, “Oh Howard, they drink a lot in China.”
When we moved, we were given an allowance of 60 bottles of any kind of alcohol we wanted to ship to China. Our first thought was to empty the wine cellar to make sure we had the good stuff over there, but then realized we would be shipping in the heat of mid-August and September. Transport for the bottles was by slow-boat to China, so wine would get nasty sitting in a container on a ship and then on the dock in port. Since we are in China for up to four years, we decided we would just stock up on liquor with the 60 bottle allotment and divided it almost evenly among tequila (for margaritas), rum (to go with any tropical fruit juice), and vodka (to go with everything else).
And lo and behold, despite all my worrying, Lisa was right. Expats… the Chinese… everyone here drinks a lot! This is a throw down kind of town for sure. (This should be my least “PC” post to date.) We’ve been here almost nine months and have put a happy dent into that alcohol stash. However, we don’t want to deplete the stock from home completely in case of emergency. (“What kind of emergency?” you ask. I don’t know… N. Korea… trouble in the East China Sea… pretty much anything my paranoia can come up with.) And so, to keep ourselves well stocked for friends and visitors, and to fill the holes in our bar, we have discovered the joy of buying our beer, wine, and liquor on-line and having it delivered to our door. It is kind of like heaven, only with drinks (more below).
And it’s not just expats that drink a lot in China. The Chinese also can throw down with the best of them, and they do. The problem is, they tend to drink things like Baijiu, a hellish liquid that looks like vodka, burns hard as it goes down, and is really strong. It is distilled from either rice or sorghum, depending on where you are in China, and usually sports an alcohol content around 45% (90 proof). The Chinese have been making and drinking liquor for close to 5,000 years and you’d think after that long, they would come up with something better than Baijiu. When a Chinese person puts a glass of Baijiu in front of you, it is time to man up, because it’s an insult to refuse it. Worse, if they say the words “Gam bai” to you at the same time — loosely translated as “bottoms up” — well that’s kind of like the end of days. You just need to prepare your body for the burn to come, because that means you have to drink all of it in one gulp. And yes, if you don’t, it’s an insult.
The Chinese think it is hilarious to get each other annihilated on Baijiu, and will usually do so at major social events such as weddings. Not too long ago, we had the privilege of attending the Chinese wedding of Karen’s friend and colleague, Crystal, and a bottle of Baijiu was on each table, along with Chinese wine and beer. The wine was fine, and my plan that night was to just stick with it as I eyed the Baijiu warily. The first time I had tried Baijiu was in the migrant village of SanQiao (not my best idea), and the folks who served it to me thought it would be funny to watch me choke on it, so they Gam bai’d me. With everyone looking on expectantly, I shot the glass and quickly realized what an error that was. Through blood, sweat, and tears, I toughed it out, smiled back at them, and whispered that it was wonderful. As we all moved on, I thought I was going to cough up my liver, and my head was spinning from the lightening fast, massive buzz I had. I never did give them the satisfaction of seeing me pass out.
At the wedding, which like all Chinese weddings was both fun and kid-friendly, I was happy with my wine plan until another friend of ours, Trevor, spun the lazy susan and the Baijiu landed right in front of me. Oh well, when in Rome. So around and round went the lazy susan with glasses for the Baijiu which, of course, we drank because we didn’t want to insult anyone (that’s what I tell myself). Fortunately for Karen and I, we were able to get out of the wedding with only three glasses of the killer liquid. Also fortunate was the fact that our driver Steven was waiting outside to take us home. Some argue that having a driver is enabling from a drinking standpoint. I would argue that hell yeah it’s enabling, that’s part of the beauty of it, and it’s much better than trying to maneuver through Shanghai traffic after several glasses of Baijiu.
So we never worry about drinking and driving in Shanghai, which is a beautiful thing. We also don’t worry about driving to get drink because, here in China, we have our alcohol delivered. When I need to stock up on beer (almost all craft, though Bud, Corona and the like are also in play), I contact Cheers-In, an “imported beer boutique” that sells brew from more than 30 countries and delivers them throughout Shanghai (cheers-in.com). When the wine rack needs replenishing, I send a note to The M1nt, which is a high-end Shanghai club by night, and a wine, liquor, and beer retailer that delivers by day (m1intcellars.com). They have a nice selection of affordable Australian and New Zealand wines, as well as some from California and South America. The M1nt also can get you pretty much any bottle of liquor you desire. They currently are scouring Asia for me to find a bottle of Frangelico so I can make my wife a Nutty Irishmen, her occasional nightcap. I also get wine from Fields China online market, which carries a good selection of moderately priced wines (fieldschina.com). And finally, as needed, I can get a great price on Stolichnaya vodka from my buddy Robin, who runs the online Shanghai Expat Mart (shanghaiexpatmart.com). Due to proximity and good trade relations, Russian vodka sold in China is inexpensive, and on special Robin sells it for about 80RMB ($12) a fifth.
It might seem that the ease of drinking here in China is not necessarily a good thing, but I and several hundred thousand expats would beg to differ. Living in China is fun, but cocktails always help. In our nine months here, we have experienced great joy through extensive Asia-Pacific travel, meeting and making new friends from all over the world, and learning how we as a family transition to living happily and successfully in a foreign country. The fears here of tangibles like air, water, and food safety are real as well. But we deal with those as best we can and hope they don’t force us to take any kind of drastic actions. The Chinese people are great and, despite our cultural differences, help ease some of these fears through their kindness and support. We went into this adventure with our eyes wide open and have no regrets so far. I just hope my liver feels the same way.