Saturday, November 04, 2006

Liquid hell

I have mentioned before the pure evil that is baijiu, and I have been wanting to share with everyone the best description of it that I have yet found.

This is a passage from Tim Clissold's Mr. China, one of the best books I have read about the business experience in China.

Baijiu looks like gin but it tastes much stronger. It is distilled from grain and sorghum and there are many famous bands of the drink in China. Wuliang ye or “five-grain liquid” comes from Yibin in Sichuan, and Maotai, the most famous in China, comes from Guizhou, farther south. At the lower end of the market, there is er gou tou or “the top of the second wok”, which is distilled in Beijing. A really good bottle of maotai can cost the equivalent of several months’ salary. Baijiu is always taken neat but, thankfully, in small doses. The idea is to knock in back in one go with a cry of “Gan bei” “Dry the cup!” The problem is that drinking baijiu at a Chinese banquet is compulsory; it is slightly viscous, has the smell like exhaust fumes mixed with a trace of chocolate, and seems both fiery and sickly at the same time. It burns the inside of your mouth and throat and leaves you with a sensation rather than a taste. There is an immediate feeling of heat and tingling that creeps up the back of the neck and radiates out all over the scalp. I already knew that these formal banquets entailed elaborate drinking rituals designed to get the guests hopelessly drunk, so I braced myself for the deluge.

Baijiu loosens tongues almost immediately although I’ve never met anybody, even at the heights of alcoholic derangement, prepared to admit that they actually liked the taste. After drinking it, most people screw up their faces in an involuntary expression of pain and some even yell out. But there were plenty of people who liked the sensation and the atmosphere that a couple of bottle of baijiu produced at a dinner. It created the best parties and the worst hangovers imaginable and the smell seemed to seep out through my pores the following day. A German friend once summed up the experience perfectly. She said, in her perfect Hochdeutsch, that when her husband had been out drinking with his Chinese colleagues and had hit the baijiu, it was as if she had “woken up the following morning next to and oily rag that had been soaked in diesel.”

I am giving this description of baijiu as a segway (yeah, I hate people that use that word also) into a recent experience.

On November 1st, my company moved from its old offices into our new office/dormitory building. Of course, we had a large banquet complete with huge fireworks display. The Chinese manager invited all of his friends and competitors to show off his accomplishment.

The #1 Host at my dinner table was Mr. Wu, former head of marketing. His new job is Guest Reception Manager. It is quite literally his job to take business guests out to dinner each night and drink them under the table. He is extrodinarly good at drinking and was boasting that he can drink nine wine glasses full of 53% Maotai baijiu, no problem.

Anyway, Mr. Wu was sitting next to me and made it his mission to break me. Break me, he did. I woke up the next morning in my apartment, having no idea how I got there. My wonderfully forgiving girlfriend Louise said I was a mess when I came home and not the nicest of people. When I got to work later, I was told "Ahh, you drink so well, you strong man, very good job!" I was also told that I had thrown up somewhere in the hallway and then tried to walk the 20 kilometers home. The driver had to argue with me to get me into the car.

At first I was really embarrassed, but just last week the Chinese president threw up all over himself in the car on the way home; for Chinese businessmen it almost seems to be a badge of honor! "You strong man!" I have explicitly been told before that if you can drink as much as the host at a dinner, you will receive better prices/service/etc from the company. If you cannot drink as much as the host, or refuse, you may possibly kill all potential business between the two companies. If only it were't forced on you quite so strongly... no one wants to drink themselves sick, but the combination of baijiu and ritual in China makes it is extremely difficult not to.