A glass of wine, some nice food, soothing music and some talk of intimacy may greatly facilitate the process of business. However, the same claim may not hold true when culture crash gets mixed into the picture. Chinese and westerners have plenty not in common when it comes to wines and dines. Different customs and habits in different regions make the matter worse. This guide addresses the trickiest scenario possible: you have to go out for a business dinner with a Chinese customer, about 50 years old or older than that, from Northern China, and probably a government officer, and a few extra people brought by him. The objective is to guide you through the whole process, survive, and impress your partner/customer with your understanding of Chinese “dining culture”.
Say, imagine you are facing no option but to meet a not quite familiar Chinese partner/customer for dinner. If he is from Southern China (Guangdong, Sichuan, Shanghai, Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Fujian, etc), things will likely turn out really smooth since those regions are quite well “westernized”. Just behave like you usually do, and he will feel just fine.
The real trouble mostly lies in the Northern part of the country, which roughly includes Inner Mongolia, Heilongjiang, Jilin, Liaoning, Hebei, Beijing, Tianjin, Shandong, etc. Here people are more “genuinely Chinese”, and thanks to the cold weather, alcohol plays a big part in people’s life, a bit like Russians. Let’s have a tour through what’s likely to happen under such circumstances and explain how to cope with them:
If you have the chance to decide the dining venue, make full use of it. Do some local research, find a nice western restaurant. Although you are somewhere in Northern China, picking a proper western restaurant will force western table manners onto the Chinese party, thus you gain some home ground advantage. You will be doing well on your own. Congrats.
Or if that’s not the case, your partner/customer might pick a nice Chinese restaurant. It looks grand, feels grand, and the prices on the menu will definitely be grand. The place will likely be very busy, but don’t worry, he should have booked a separate dining room for the meeting.
Arrive on time. The Chinese guy will be there 30 minutes or so in prior to arrange things. Don’t worry about that. Showing up on time is OK.
Take a seat of your preference. If the host insists seating you in a particular corner, follow the instructions. Seats are more than just stools or chairs on a Chinese feast. The one facing the room entrance is called “上座” (shàng zuò, “the honorable seat”), while the opposite one the “humble seat” (sorry, no Chinese name for this one). The honorable seat is often reserved for the one with the highest social rank, or the most remarkable guest, or the host, or the oldest member of a family. Under normal circumstances, the host will likely sit on this seat, and seat you next to him, or even put you onto the throne. The humble seat is usually for secretaries, assistants, drivers and such. If you are put onto that position directly facing the host across the round table and with other guests in between, consider him not treating you seriously.
Chinese food might be new to you, or the restaurant may not have an English menu. I trust you can cope with that well. The key here is to know about the BEVERAGE, which mostly has alcohol inside. It’s very important knowing what you are going to drink, because you may have to drink a lot of it.
If you tell the host “up to you”, what you get might be Chinese 白酒 (bái jiǔ, “the white spirit”), a colorless liquid looks like vodka but tastes and smells otherwise. It’s not a good idea to try it out on a formal occasion because I’ve seen plenty of foreigners complaining the stuff has a weird taste. Instead, try to take initiative, pick your alcohol of choice.
Brandy and whisky should be the best choice. Most Chinese are not quite used to the taste of these two, while you might have already been getting along well with them. The alien taste will probably discourage them from drinking too much, therefore relieving you of the burden.
Wine comes next on the recommendation list. It doesn’t scare people off, but the low alcohol content does less damage.
Beer is the culture-neutral ground. By picking this you and your host (as well as other guests) will be thrown into an equivalent of hand-to-hand combat.
If you are particularly confident in your ability of holding alcohol, try vodka.
For the last choice, which means you are stuck with Baijiu, do have a look at the label. Look for the line that says alcohol percentage (V/V). The alcohol content of Baijiu might vary from 20% (as mild as Japanese sake) all the way to 70% (frequently seen in Beijing and anywhere northward). At the top of the meter it renders vodka a sissy. It’s vital to know what you are going to drink, and ask for weaker replacement if it’s too crazy.
During the Meal:
Try to hold a clear mind. Chinese traditionally prefer doing business over a dining table because people think funny, talk funny and promise funny after consuming enough alcohol. THINK before talk.
Don’t propose “干杯” (gān bēi, “bottoms up”) in Chinese if you happen to know the word. In Northern China people tend to literally do a toast on that, no matter how much alcohol left in their glasses, especially when they are moderately drunk already.
Take advantage of the fact that you are a foreigner. Pretend never heard of this, and only drink your comfortable share on each proposed 干杯.
Gesture language when clinking glasses: if somebody is intentionally (and repeatedly) trying to make the rim of his glass lower than the rim of yours, it means “you are older than I am”, “you have better social status”, “you are the more respectable”, or “you are truly my honorable guest”.
Take your chance, eat as much as possible. As the dinner gets longer and people get high on alcohol, there will be rounds after rounds of 干杯. Better have some food in your stomach already when that happens.
Learn to refuse when it gets out of control and you feel it hard to consume any more alcohol. Your host will actively and kindly encourage you against it. But do insist, smile, say thank you, and refuse. Just tell them you are reaching your limit. Repeat it a few times maybe. They will cease it if your face is already burning red.
If all you guys are particularly happy or high on alcohol after the dinner, the host might ask you to other activities to extend the fun. Usually there is only one kind of activity: Karaoke, or more frequently called “KTV” here in China. Turn the offer down politely if you are not good at this and sober enough to feel frustration. There won’t be many foreign songs you can find on the Karaoke machine, and sitting there like a coat hanger is sure frustrating. Better skip it than leaving a lame finale.