the best is yet to come

"Business" dinners in Shanghai

It’s November 5th and I’m wearing a sleeveless dress. The weather is a balmy 75ºF in Shanghai. To be honest though, I feel accomplished to have been able put on a dress, let alone a weather-appropriate one, this morning, because last night marked my first experience with what in China is called a ‘business dinner’. In college, I believe, we called them ragers.

Some things I’ve learned about business dinners in China:

  • Very little business is done during the dinner
  • The majority of the dinner is spent drinking
  • The majority of the alcohol drunk is Baijiu
  • Baijiu is roughly 60% alcohol and hits you much like drinking a bottle of perfume dated from 1975.
  • People will attempt to box each other as the night goes on.

What did last night’s dinner accomplish? It accomplished a massive hangover. It also accomplished determining my limit for drinking baijiu, which is much, much less than a quarter of a bottle.

I think I’m still getting used to the way things happen in China. All business moves extremely fast. It’s the kind of culture where, if you don’t answer your phone within a few hours, you get an email and several WeChats wondering why you hadn’t answered the phone already, which can happen any day of the week (weekends are naturally ignored) and at any time of the night (I’ve definitely gotten calls from my old boss at 11pm before). The issue is that, as a whole, people here are not more productive, as one may expect. It’s actually the opposite of that. Things happen quickly in China, but when they happen quickly, they still feel somehow off. There seem to be so many unwritten rules that everyone follows and so many written rules that everyone ignores (of course, there is an unwritten rule to ignore that written rule, in this case). Business culture in China seems to be about winging it, and then scrambling to put things together when you realize that everyone else is winging it too, and perhaps not in the same way as you are.

And on one hand it’s absolutely thrilling to be a part of this kind of culture, but it’s also exhausting. It’s exhausting because you feel like you have to be ‘on’ all the time. Which is hard for me in particular, because I like being ‘off’ at least 50% of the time — meaning I am not wearing a bra and I am eating chocolate chips by the handful. This because difficult, partially even whenever you are ‘off’, such as at a baijiu business dinner, it is still a business dinner, and somehow a deal will get made or not made over the seventh or eighth shot (hangover notwithstanding).

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