Business, Baijiu and ‘Brandon the Great’

This is the final post about a recent business trip I took to northeast Hebei province

I was sitting on a bench by the Bohai Sea in northeast China, half conscious and rubbing my head in a futile effort to relieve a throbbing headache. Pain also resonated from my stomach, and I had that funny feeling in my throat, the kind you get just before you’re about to throw up. A large statue of one of China’s emperors stood nearby, shooting me a disapproving look that said: “Know your limits Brandon.”

How I’d wound up on this bench next to this judgmental statue was a mystery, but I knew the culprit of my memory lapse and head trauma immediately: baijiu.

Baijiu, China’s equivalent of Russian vodka or Irish whiskey, is this wonderful Chinese white liquor that shares more similarities with gasoline than anything you would ever willing drink. And yet drink baijiu I had. A lot of it.

This story begins three days prior. I’d been “invited” (read, told) to join several other foreigners at Beijing Review for a short tour of Hebei, the province that surrounds Beijing municipality. The provincial government wanted to promote a few up and coming high-tech innovation zones and eco-friendly cities.

Before embarking, my boss had briefed our group on Beijing Review’s expectations – she also added that there would be no drinking on this trip.

No drinking? On a business trip?

Past experience from being toted around on these government tours has taught me two things: much of what I see and hear is either a lie or heavily diluted truths; and after a hard day’s touring, everyone is treated to a massive feast with lots of alcohol. Drinking is as much a part of Chinese culture as the Great Wall or chopsticks. Any meal for esteemed guests, especially foreigners, comes with a smorgasbord of delicacies and enough alcohol – be it wine, beer or baijiu – to knock out China’s few remaining pandas.

The ridiculousness of my boss’ statement faded before it really set in. She would have had more luck stopping the sun from rising than preventing us from drinking.

And I was right.

At each stop, local officials brought out their best bottles of baijiu. My reputation as a baijiu drinker grew with each toast.

When drinking China’s sacred white wine, I’ve mostly stuck with cheaper brands from the man 711 minimarts across Beijing. They taste like battery acid, but they get the job done at an affordable price. The baijiu at each feast came in orb-shaped bottles of aqua blue and ceramic white. While maintaining its kick as it slip down my throat, this baijiu had less of an explosive, eroding effect on my stomach. I liked this top-shelf baijiu, about as much as you can like something you know is shaving years off your life with each swig.

When we reached Luanzhou, a city three hours east of Beijing, one of my Chinese colleagues let slip that I enjoyed drinking baijiu. I was doomed.

At lunch the following day, I became the toasting target of every government official in the banquet room. Toasts were incessant, followed by shouts of “ganbei!” (bottoms up). Finishing my glass each time would yield cheers and a refill. Not finishing meant just a refill. Either way, I was losing it.

In between glasses, I would scarf down noodles or rice, anything to absorb the baijiu that was quickly filling my stomach. I also tried to sneak in a few bottles of water.

One of the local Party officials had taken a liking to me, constantly giving me the thumbs up every time a toast was proposed. I tried to avoid looking in his direction, knowing that eye contact would result in a raised glass and another ganbei. Noticing my evasive glances around the room, he rose from his chair and stumbled over to me.

“Beijing Review, number one magazine,” he said. “You are number one foreigner. Great drinker. Great man. Ganbei!”

We drank, turning our cups upside to prove they were empty. He looked at me again, or tried to look at me, with glazed eyes and a wobble that suggested he was on the verge of collapse.

“Great man. Brandon the Great!”

That was the last time I saw him. The official stumbled toward his seat, then changed course, heading instead for the door, and was gone.

My interpreter was also very drunk. He looked at me and said, “I want to throw up.”

By this point, I’d switched into Chinese mode, speaking the language and refilling other people’s glasses. I told him throwing up was not allowed. There was more toasting to do. Slowly, I began working my way around the table, at the encouragement of one of the Party officials, toasting all 11 of the remaining guests. After completing my circuit, I headed straight to the bathroom.

Then it was time to go. Everyone was ushered outside where hands were shaken, business cards exchanged and promises to revisit made. I got in our tour van and passed out.

Or blacked out, because the next fully conscious memory I had was sitting on the bench by the statue. We had arrived in Qinhuangdao, near the coast of the Bohai Sea. The statue was of Qin Shihuang, China’s first emperor. Apparently before making our way to the sea, we’d taken a quick tour of a small park. I didn’t remember that part.

For the rest of the trip I stuck with tea and an occasional beer. Brandon the Great would have to wait to reign another day.

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