Chinese Drinking Customs: The Art of the Toast
Last month I traveled to China for my brother-in-law’s wedding. The wedding was a monstrous affair — 800 people (yes, you read that right, 800) attended the ceremony where a goat was slaughtered the night before and served for our gastronomical enjoyment. It was awesome.
But let’s be frank: far more important than my brother-in-law’s betrothal (sorry, dude) or what I consumed (sorry, goat) were the drinking rituals I experienced. And nothing is more crucial in Chinese drinking customs than the toast. How do I know this? Because I got the toast ALL WRONG. So if you ever find yourself in China and want to make a toast, here is what you do:
1. Toast with brandy. At any special Chinese occasion you will find a bottle of brandy on the table. It is the liquor of choice. Use it. That’s what it’s there for.
2. Toast with your right hand. When I asked my brother-in-law why it has to be the right hand, he just looked at me and said, “It’s the Chinese way.” The problem is I am left-handed. I had to keep switching hands every time a toast was made. I finally was able to remember, but it took four or five toasts to get it right.
3. Clink your glass on the Lazy Susan. Notice I wrote “clink,” not “hit.” The more you drink, the more you may be tempted to bang your glass. Don’t. It’s overkill, as is clinking more than once.
4. Say gon bei. It sounds like “gone bay” and in Chinese means “dry the cup.” “Cheers” is acceptable, but if you want to sound really cool, go with gon bei.
5. Shoot it — don’t sip it. Okay, this one took some getting used to. Doing a shot of brandy is a completely different experience from sipping it. Don’t let the snifters at the table fool you. You are supposed to do it as a shot. The first time I did a toast I took a sip of brandy, looked around and saw that everyone else at the table had downed theirs. They looked at me with confusion until I got the message (finally) and downed mine.
6. Show the empty glass as proof. Once said shot of brandy is consumed, turn the snifter sideways to show that every drop is gone. Please don’t turn it upside down. It looks silly in the Chinese culture — really almost any culture when you think about it.
7. Yell “how!” In Chinese this means “good” and is a way of letting people around you know that you really enjoyed that shot of brandy (you may not have but say it anyway). The best way to say it is in a deep, loud grumble. Sell it!
What’s great about experiencing a toast like this was that it brought people together. Most of the people at the wedding did not speak English, and I surely did not speak any Chinese. But that was okay. Toasting broke down all of the cultural barriers and actually made us friends. We spoke the language of liquor and it was good.