Ganbei! The Guide to Making Friends in China

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The Guide to Making Friends in China is part of The Year of the Monkey Trip Report which covers the following places:


Nothing is better than going to a city for the first time. This is especially true if that new city happens to be in China. From Shanghai to Shenzhen, each city in China is different. The one constant is how easy it is to make Chinese friends by going out for a night on the town.

Nightlife Overview 

Welcome to China nightlife
Welcome to China nightlife

Bring your earplugs because clubs in China are loud, really loud. Whether it is old school hip-hop or thumping trance, the music is bumped at unhealthy decibels. That advice will protect your hearing but you may get some weird looks, apart from the ones questioning why this Westerner is in a local bar.

With that warning out of the way, I need to issue another one: Chinese clubs are different from those found anywhere else in the world. While the drinks will not be in short supply, the dancing will be. Chinese clubs are setup as follows: There are row after rows of standing room only tables surrounding the minuscule dance floor. Around those tables are booths where it is not uncommon to see bottles upon bottles of champagne and alcohol in Costco sized containers. At each booth or table, there will be groups of people who seem oblivious to the hoopla around them.

Foreigners Welcome 

You'll find friends in this chaos
You’ll find friends in this chaos

The first step to making friends is to realize that you’re not in Detroit anymore. The Chinese party different from we do at home. The second step is to embrace the novelty of your appearance. If you happen to be blond, prepare to pose for photos everywhere you go. If you go to the gym, even infrequently, prepare to be called Mr. Olympia. The third step is to go to the bar and get yourself a drink. Drink in hand, it’s time to have some fun.

While bopping around the club, inevitably you will make eye contact with a stranger who will welcome you with a high-five or cheers your drink. This leads to the dangerous invitation to join their table.

Ganbei! 

Ganbei! Is a phrase you will often here when you’re in China. It’s the equivalent of cheers but with a twist. Instead of simply toasting your drinking partner and having a cordial sip, you are required to consume the entire drink. You’ve been warned.

After you’ve high-fived the whole table, the trouble begins as you are offered a drink in a rocks glass. Depending on where you are in China, this could be a number of things. In Shanghai, it’s whiskey. In Guangzhou, it’s cognac. In Sanya, it was beer. In Shenzhen, it was all of the above. Depending on the bravery of your drinking partners, it may or may not be mixed with a chaser, the most common one being ice (green) tea.

While the music may be piercing your ear drums, the only thing you will hear is, “Ganbei, ganbei, ganbei!” After the tenth ganbei, you have proven yourself worthy of your Mr. Olympia title.

Please no more shots
Please no more ganbei

Smoking 

In China, smoking is permitted in the bar and your drinking friends will gladly offer you a cigarette to curb your nicotine fix. Refusal to smoke is met with surprise. I do not like cigarettes but I have become addicted to fake smoking.

Fake #1
Fake #1
Fake #2
Fake #2

Dice Game 

The evil dice
The evil dice

On every table, you will notice cups of dice. Each cup has five dice. These aren’t used to play craps. They are part of a Chinese drinking game where the winner ends up the loser and the loser ends up the winner, depending on your objective.

Before I get to the rules, it is imperative to know how to count to ten in Chinese using sign. The loud noise makes it impossible to communicate otherwise. This should be mastered before you get to China. (see this link on how to do so, personally #8 is my favorite)

With a grasp of numbers, you are ready to play. And here’s how the game goes: (I’m using two players in this example but it can be played with many more.)

  1. Each player puts the dice into an opaque cup and shakes it haphazardly. I shake the dice on the table but the Chinese do it in their hand, then flip it onto the table, while not dropping any on the floor.
  2. After a good shake, lift up the cup while making sure your opponent cannot see your dice.
  3. Now the game of confidence begins. It is your job to convince your opponent that between the two of you, there are, for example, five ‘threes’ in aggregate. The way to indicate this is to use your sign language skills and first sign the number ‘five’ and then the number ‘three’.
  4. If your opponent, believes you, he or she will see your guestimate of five and raise you, for example, six ‘fours’.
  5. This escalation goes on until someone calls out the bluff and the dice are revealed. The liar (loser/winner depending on how you see it) has to drink.

A few things to point out:

  1. 1s are wild which means they count as anything.
  2. Everyone cheats. While you are looking down at your dice trying to figure out who has what, it is likely that your opponent is doing more than looking down at his. With his right hand he lifts the cup, with his left, he is slyly flipping over the dice to accommodate his wager.
  3. If your objective is to drink for free, losing on purpose is obviously the best strategy. However, you probably want to win a few rounds in between before you are shunned from the table.

Rock, Paper, Scissors

If the dice game is too complicated, your other option is rock, paper, scissors. Sounds simple right? It isn’t. The game is usually played with multiple people and at speeds beyond my comprehension, whiskey shots notwithstanding. I am not sharp or fast enough to come up with a strategy so I just throw rock every time and hope for the best. The final loser drinks.

These will be all too familiar
These will be all too familiar

Dancing Not Required But Scanning And Selfies Are 

The days of asking someone for their phone number are over. Again, with the amount of noise, doing so is basically impossible. After too many ganbeis, losses or wins in dice and rock paper, your new Chinese friends, male or female, will take out their phones and reveal a bar code. This is not a Groupon promotion. It’s that person’s Wechat ID. Like refusing a cigarette, it is impolite to refuse a scan request. Take out your phone and prepare for a barrage of voice notes and more invitations to drink in the days and weeks to come.

Also, be ready to take photo after photo at a moment’s notice. Recall your celebrity dreams? Tonight you actually are one.

Paparazzi
Paparazzi
Paparazzi
Paparazzi

Go Home 

At some point you will have to go to the bathroom. Use this time to take a look in the mirror and check your watch. Ask yourself what the hell you are doing out by yourself at 5AM on a Tuesday. Ask yourself if your lungs appreciate the second-hand and attempted first-hand smoke. Ask yourself if your liver was meant to swim in liquor infused whiskey. Ask yourself if you can hear yourself think.

You know the answer.

Go home.

Ganbei gone wrong
Ganbei gone wrong

8 COMMENTS

  1. Just out of curiosity, what language did you converse in? Or I suppose more properly in what language did you converse? I recall that you’re studying some crazy number of languages, and simultaneously, at that.

  2. i’ve been awol for a while. but i’m back. appalled at lack of apostrophes!

    “It’s that person~~s~~ Wechat ID.”

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