First of all, I should admit that I’m hardly an expert in this subject. I turned twenty-one the summer before my senior year of college and moved to China right after graduation. I can count on one hand the number of bars I’ve been to in the United States, so I can hardly claim to understand what the American “bar scene” is like. Still, I’ve been to my fair share of bars in China, both in Nanjing and in Lijiang (and now I work part time in a bar), and there are many features of the bar culture here that strike me as distinctly Chinese. These are a few that come to mind:

1. Dozens of bottles of beer

When Americans go to bars in groups—as far as I know—it is customary for each person to order whatever he or she feels like drinking—a beer, a cocktail, whatever. When Chinese people go to bars in groups, they usually order dozens of the same cheap beer for the whole table to share. At Rock, where I work, the menu includes dozens of different beers, liquors, cocktails and wines (and even a champagne listed at over $3000). But despite the variety available, 99% of customers order the same thing—Snow beer by the dozen. Snow beer contains 2.5% alcohol, has less flavor than seltzer, and is the cheapest thing on the menu. Two people might order twelve bottles and hunker down with dice and cigarettes, cracking open one bottle at a time and barely getting any drunker. A large group might order two or three dozen bottles at a time. It’s quantity over quality, one hundred percent.

2. Whiskey and iced tea

Perhaps second in popularity to the cheap beer is overpriced whiskey served with bottled iced tea. This is less common at Rock, but I remember it clearly from the bars and clubs in Nanjing. My guess is that wealthy men—always men—want to show off that they know what whiskey is and can afford to buy it, but they haven’t quite acquired the taste for it yet. Thus they feel the need to dilute it with tea until you can’t even taste the whiskey. The iced tea they use is the cheapest bottled kind probably made from sugar, more sugar, and floor scrapings from the tea factory. In Nanjing, I remember a constant battle between a certain American friend, who would add more whiskey to the pitcher until it tasted strong enough, and a certain Chinese friend, who would keep pouring iced tea until the whiskey flavor disappeared. In the end they both got drunk, so it didn’t matter.


3. Toasting

In China it is considered rude to drink alone. Before you take a sip, you must toast someone else at the table and drink with them. To really show your respect for the other person, it’s best to down your drink in one gulp (干杯). Because this is difficult to do with an entire bottle of Snow beer, most Chinese people pour their beer into a small glass and drink out of that. I actually really like this custom. It makes your drink last longer, keeps you interacting with the other people at the table, and it’s a great way to meet new people too. Just raise your glass to anyone in the room, and you’ve started a conversation.

4. Bar food

The first time I saw Chinese bar food at a club in Nanjing I couldn’t believe my eyes. Here was a room of sweaty young people nodding their heads to the beats of Nicki Minaj, just like in the US, pausing every now and then to snack on…sunflower seeds? Cucumbers? Fruit? Drunk Americans like cheese and grease: French fries, nachos, and chicken wings. Drunk Chinese, apparently, eat like a yoga teacher on a diet. They dine on unsalted sunflower seeds, plain peanuts, sliced cucumbers, and popcorn. The fanciest, most expensive snack is usually sliced fruit—watermelon, dragon fruit, apples, grapes, and cherry tomatoes—elaborately arranged on tiered platters. Rock bar offers French fries and pizza, but these are far less popular than the sunflower seeds. Seriously.


5. Kids

In the US, the drinking age is strictly enforced, and children aren’t even allowed to enter most drinking establishments. Not so in China. The drinking age is officially 18, but I have never seen this enforced, and there is no limit to who can enter a bar or a club. This means that in places like Lijiang, where most bar-goers are tourists with nowhere to leave their kids, the bars are crawling with wee ones. They aren’t drinking (at least I hope not). But they do play under the tables, drop dice on the floor, and dance wildly to the music. More disturbingly, children frequently come in off the street trying to sell flowers to the patrons. I’m not sure I want to know where those kids’ parents are…

6. It’s great to be a foreigner

If you’ve never been to China before, it can be hard to imagine people treating you as a celebrity simply for existing (especially if you’re white). If you go to bars and clubs you can expect to get free drinks, invitations to the VIP rooms, and Wechat friend requests from seven thousand people you’ll never see again. From the perspective of a bar manager, this friendliness towards foreigners has an ulterior motive. A Chinese bar filled with foreigners is immediately assumed to be trendier, hipper, and more cosmopolitan than a bar filled with locals. In Nanjing, I was friends with some promoters (all foreigners) at one of the larger clubs. Their job was to attract foreigners to come and drink for free, in the hope that this would in turn attract wealthy Chinese who would spend a lot of money to drink in such a globalized establishment. At Rock in Lijiang, my job is less to serve customers, and more to chat with them and make them feel special, thus encouraging them to buy more drinks. My very presence in the bar elevates it in status. I suppose this is racial objectification in its crudest, most obvious form. The bar doesn’t want me to work there because I’m friendly and good with customers; they want me to work there because I’m a white girl. I usually try not to think too hard about this. After all, don’t bars and clubs in the US give preference to “hot” girls over everybody else? It’s a biased, racialized, image-obsessed world we live in, and in China I’m workin’ my privilege as shamelessly as I can. You know, for now.