July 7, 2010

Wasted Possession: Alcohol and Hangovers in China

As a high school sophomore, we had basketball practices every Saturday morning, bright and early at 8 a.m. But just because we practiced early in the morn didn’t mean we were diligently tucked away the night before. Sophomore year, after all, was when fake IDs started floating around, when kids got their licenses to drive, when we started treating the sentence, “Her parents are out of town,” with the same reverence a priest might treat a passage from the Good Book. 

The 8 a.m. start time was likely intended, at least in part, to thwart any Friday night shenanigans. But it didn’t. We still went out, still got drunk, still made silly choices and then paid for it in the morning. A lot of us would go in there with headaches on account of the alcohol, and would then proceed to give our coaches headaches on account of our crappy play.

After one particularly sluggish practice, one of the assistant coaches had us circle up for a little heart-to-heart. Coach Smith, or Smitty, was more of a football coach than basketball coach. He was round through the trunk with buzzed blonde hair, the type of hair you’d see on a drill sergeant or offensive line coach (the latter was his gig in the fall).

“Guys,” he began, “I want to say something about drinking. I know what it’s like being in high school, alright? But you can’t drink on Friday nights and then come out here and think you can play, alright? And I know some of you are drinking. I can smell it out there the second you start running around.”

There was a lightheartedness to this warning, and after the “I can smell it” line we all gave a little chuckle. Despite the district’s militant policy on student athletes and alcohol, we could tell that Smitty wasn’t out to get us in trouble. 

But before he was finished, and before we could go home and crash, Smitty looked right at me and, in front of everyone, said, “Man, you just look like a drinker.” 

I don’t know how exactly a 16-year-old can look like a drinker. Maybe it was because my hair was a little shaggy. Or maybe my eyes were droopy. Or maybe I was a culprit of the sweaty-booze smell Smitty had identified on the court. I don’t know. But as people laughed at Smitty’s observations, I smiled sheepishly and nodded; I was in no position to deny it. (In a Costanzian moment, I realized on the way home that I should have shot back, “Yeah, well you look like a drinker too!” Or at least something about the Jerk Store.)

Anyway, the reason for this anecdote, beside the tenuous link it gives me to place the ensuing words on a basketball blog, is that I wanted to play basketball today. I really did. But it simply wasn’t going to happen. Yes, it was hot, but that’s not why I didn’t ball. And yes, with my pending move to Denmark, and the accompanying logistical headaches that go with it, I have a lot on my mind. But that’s not why I didn’t play, either. 

No, I didn’t play ball today because I got a little, uh, torn last night. And when you tie one on in China, you’re bound to be aching – bad – the next day. Hangovers are of course an international phenomenon. But hangovers in China are a different beast. This is the country that boasts the world’s biggest population, the world’s biggest mountain and, by my estimation, the world’s biggest hangovers. Hangovers that unequivocally prohibit you from playing basketball.

I have been drinking on-and-off since high school (just ask Smitty), which gives me about eight years of drinking experience. I had a Keystone Light phase as a youngster, a Colorado micro brew infatuation when I got to college, a Heineken thing when I studied in the Netherlands, and a longstanding love affair with Budweiser all the while. Oh, and in the months preceding my move to China, I had a little fling with whiskey. Throw in several boxes of Franzia, an ill-fated one-night stand with Long Island Ice Tea and a typically American 21st birthday, and I know what’s what with alcohol and alcohol’s side effects.

I’m not a drunk, but I’ve been drunk. As such, I have a well-honed understanding and appreciation for hangovers. And I’m telling you, there is no hangover like a Chinese hangover. 

One explanation for Chinese hangovers being in a league of their own is that the contents of a bottle of Chinese beer (or booze) are all second-rate: the water, the hops, the wheat, the malt, etc. The Chinese simply don’t seem to pay as much heed to the quality of beer as, say, Americans or the Dutch. Even when I was snatching up every $11.99 30-pack of Keystone I could find as a 16-year-old, there was never a day where I felt as poisoned as I do after drinking Chinese beer. It would require some in-depth investigative journalism (and the ability to speak a lick of Chinese) to really unearth the quality of ingredients that go into your average Chinese beer, but it ain’t high. It’s the same principle, more or less, behind the fact that foreigners who come to China often have bouts of food poisoning and diarrhea: the stuff the people put into their bodies here isn’t quite up to snuff compared with what we’re used to. 

Then there is a more disgusting (and troubling) explanation: the formaldehyde that is put in the beer. Yes, formaldehyde, the stuff they use to preserve dead bodies. Beer-faq.com tackled this issue back in 2007:

First of all, why on earth would breweries knowingly use formaldehyde? As it turns out it is a very inexpensive clarifying agent that lightens the color of the beer and extends its shelf life. Although some Chinese breweries claim that they have discontinued the practice, there are a number of beers sold in China that are very cheap and low quality (intended to be affordable to the masses), and it has been stated that these lower quality brews still use formaldehyde to keep costs down.

So how widespread is the use of formaldehyde in Chinese beer? I found a few articles dating back to 2005, where a representative of the China Alcoholic Drinks Industry Association (CADIA) is quoted as saying that 95% of the domestic beer in China has formaldehyde. What was that? Did you say 95% of domestic beers in China have a known cancer causing agent in them? Not really making me want to drink a Chinese beer.

One reason that Chinese beer is reputed to use formaldehyde is that the malt used in Chinese beer is of such low quality that it could rot otherwise. Or maybe the formaldehyde is used to help clean the bottles and disinfect the beer of any diseases. Either way, it speaks to my first point, that the ingredients in Chinese beer are second-rate: If you have to use formaldehyde as a preservative and cleaning agent, it’s probably an inferior product to begin with.

Another factor contributing to hangovers is the alcohol content of the beer. Chinese beer invariably has a lower alcohol content than in America. For instance, a big 600-ml bottle of Tsingtao – which is the most common medium for the nation’s most common beer – has an alcohol content of 3.1 percent. Other beers hover around that same number; some dip below three percent, none exceed five.

So, why would lower alcohol content make hangovers worse? Well, to achieve the same effect of, say, five 12-ounce American beers, you’d have to drink something like five 20-ounce Chinese beers. Indeed, a 20-ounce bottle at 3.1 percent alcohol has almost exactly as much alcohol as a 12-ounce bottle at five percent, so you have to suck down 100 ounces of Chinese beer to equal 60 ounces of real beer – er, American beer. Thus, when you drink Chinese beer, you’re simply going to ingest more ounces of beer, if not more alcohol. Thus, you’re ingesting more ounces of Chinese water, Chinese malt, Chinese formaldehyde. It’s not the next-day alcohol lingering in your system that causes the vaunted Chinese hangover; it’s all that other crap. But hey, at least if I were to die of a hangover my body would be relatively well-preserved.

Then there is fake alcohol – that is, alcohol that is sold as one thing but, after a swig, is revealed to be something else entirely. This happens with both beer and hard alcohol. One of my co-workers, a 24-year-old from Maryland, has a good story about seeing Pabst Blue Ribbon on a supermarket shelf in China. He was a PBR man in college, and seeing the quintessentially American brew lining a supermarket shelf in Jinan, China, of all places, infused him with a sense of obligation: I have to pay my respects and drink a few.

So that’s what he did – he drank a few, only a few. Yet despite his moderation he awoke the next day with the worst hangover of his life. This wasn’t an issue of drinking a lot (he had but a couple cans). And it wasn’t an issue of drinking a variety of booze (just Pabst). No, it was an issue of the “Pabst Blue Ribbon” being a far cry from the real Pabst Blue Ribbon that has helped broke college kids (and hip 20-somethings) stay buzzed since 1844. This Chinese Pabst was a knockoff that no doubt betrayed the lofty brewing standards set forth by Jacob and Frederick Pabst.

(Another fake alcohol story, if you’ll indulge me. Two guys I know took an overnight train ride a few years back. There are a few different ways in which you can take an overnight train. One is what’s called a soft sleeper, which is a room that has four relatively nice beds and a door to shun the noise and cigarette smoke that invariably fills Chinese trains. Another is a hard sleeper, which is like a soft sleeper but sans the door and with six beds instead of four; it’s a little more crowded, but totally serviceable. If you can’t procure a bed, then you are stuck sitting. My friends were unlucky enough to get stuck sitting. To ease the pain of this 22-hour overnight train ride, these guys bought a bottle of Jack Daniel’s, but because of the putrid taste and immediate nausea, they realized that the Jack was not Jack, but rather one of China’s innumerable fake products. One of my friends was quickly reduced to a floppy mess, and was forced to plop his head down on the table separating himself and the two Chinese people sitting across from him. With his forehead planted on his forearm, and his mouth aligned with the edge of the table, he suddenly vomited the contents of his stomach – a deplorable combination of noodles and Jack Daniels – all over the shared floor. Shortly thereafter he passed out cold, and for the rest of trip there was an stark role reversal: With a puddle of this foreigner’s puke at their feet, the Chinese people were in the odd position of being grossed out by a foreigner.) 

OK, how about some other perspectives on fake booze? This blogger from China rants about fake alcohol thus: 

This is a huge problem in mainland china, not only in Shenzhen, but from my experience i think the major area that its happening, is down here. I have been to places where when you open the bottle it burns your eyes it is so badly, obviously and sickeningly fake.

The poor often drink fake alcohol. There have been many reports of deaths and people going blind attributed to this practice. Poisonous, fake liquor left 40 people dead in Shanxi province in 1998….

Bootleg bottles are also a problem. In a three month period in 1998, 470 people were injured by exploding bottles, including 27 blinded by flying glass. The daughter of migrant workers was killed by glass shrapnel from a bootleg bottle of beer that exploded in Shanghai. The problem was blamed on inferior bottles and bottles that had been recycled too many times.

And a blogger who goes by Beijing Boyce wrote:

I can live with poor service, poor location, poor ambience, even poorly made drinks, but what I can’t live with is bars that lie about their booze….

I’m not alone in these sentiments. Last week, I asked two dozen readers their thoughts about Beijing’s drinking scene (full results in tomorrow’s newsletter). One theme: people are cautious about the alcohol in this city’s bars. Some snippets:

“…we all know about fake alcohol and just how much Beijing bars love the stuff: the situation is so bad in some parts of town that I just flat out to refuse to drink anything that isn’t beer – you just don’t know what you’re getting (and it’s not just small hole in the walls either)….

“Generally, buy stuff in bottles. Especially if you can see the staff open the bottle in front of you – it minimizes the risks of being served god knows what.”

And finally, this 2007 report:

In a check conducted before the May holiday, the Beijing Municipal Department of Industry and Commerce found that over half of the businesses that claim to sell real cigarettes and wine were actually selling counterfeit wines.

The department checked about 400 businesses including peddlers at shopping malls, supermarkets and restaurants before the holiday.

The authorities confiscated 3937 bottles of unqualified alcohol that covered almost all the best-selling brands across China. The Industry and Commerce department has put these enterprises on probation, pending further penalties.

I think fake booze may have been a big part of the problem with my crippling hangover today. After indulging in a mix of beer and wine, a crew of foreign teachers headed to a dance club. This particular club – like many others across China – likes to have foreigners milling about, and they’ll go out of their way to lure foreigners by offering them (us) free booze. When we got the club last night, we were immediately shown a table and gifted a bottle of Eristoff Vodka. Eristoff is, in theory, a “premium” vodka distributed by Bacardi. According to one England publication, “ERISTOFF is a high quality premium vodka - made from 100% pure wheat, triple distilled and charcoal filtered for absolute purity. At 37.5% ABV Eristoff has an exceptionally pure, clean, dry flavour and can be drunk neat or with a wide selection of mixers.” Well, it wasn’t 100 percent anything but nasty. Even as far as vodka goes, it was rank and vile. 

Of course, there is the possibility that I’m just getting a little old for this type of chicanery, for pre-drinking and going to clubs and tearing through bottles of vodka. I am now less than three weeks away from my 25th birthday. At some point, it seems like I’ll have to give up on forays deep into the a.m. 

So, that’s why I didn’t play ball today, and why I am not drinking tonight…or any night in the next several. Tomorrow there should be basketball. Now, though, I must retreat to ibuprofen, sprite and my bed.

1 comment:

  1. Hi,

    Now that the NBA Season has started. Do you have access to NBA games in Jinan ?

    Do you ever find a place to play indoors with the winter coming ?

    LA Guy