The diversity of Asian drinking cultures
Sanne van Oosten
Yes, drinking cultures, plural. There is no way to speak of one typical way of drinking alcohol throughout Asia. Some just don’t drink, some drink obsessively, others only drink obsessively on special occasions and then there’s the ones that use drunkenness as a way to make important decisions. Please allow me to explain with some drunken examples.
First off, Indonesia. In this country with the largest Muslim population in the world virtually nobody drinks. Even for people who aren’t devout Muslims it just isn’t something that you do. Not many stores sell it as it just isn’t really a part of life there. You can imagine our shock when an Indonesian friend of ours told us that he was “an alcoholic.” Our jaws dropped and we exclaimed “Really?!? That is so horrible for you!” He said “Yes, I’m really an alcoholic. I there were to be a drink right here in front of me, I would… [dramatic pause] …drink it.” So wait, you would drink something if it were in front of you But do you do this often? “No, not really, just once and a while.” So there you have it, in Indonesia you are considered to be an alcoholic if you occasionally drink alcohol. Everything is relative, after all.
Then there is Myanmar/Burma/whatever. An extremely poor country that has been closed off from many countries due to economic sanctions with the West. Most alcohol needs to be imported from Thailand and is therefore quite expensive, especially considering how poor the people there are. But one time a year, during the biggest celebration of the year, the water festival Thyngan, people spend large sums of money on hard liquor. Especially young men save up for this celebration all year long and blow it all on alcohol when the festivities begin. But as they aren’t all that used to drinking alcohol, let along hard liquor, they can’t handle it very well. Starting from 11 o’clock in the morning you’ll see young men passed out in the gutter. Probably the festivities are over for the day for them.
Then you have Japan. Most Japanese salary men work over sixty hours week and need something to wind them down after a long day at work. Therefore adult binge drinking is quite normal. Seeing a man in a suit puking on the side of the road is not uncommon and seeing a similarly dressed man passed out in an ally way alike. You also have obscure deals in some Japanese bars. Some bars offer all you can drink deals for a certain number of hours, usually one or two. You can drink all you want and ordering is not made difficult as the waiters are at your beck and call. Some bills will even sweeten the deal with Karaoke. If you sing more than 5 karaoke songs you will get a 500 yen discount. Drunk tune belching is, therefore, a common sight, or actually… sound.
And what about China? Whereas drinking is mostly done by salary men in Japan, it is done in a professional setting in China. When important decisions need to be made between business partners in China all of the ones concerned will go out for a drink, or two… or three, four, five, six. When everyone is nice and tipsy, some more is ordered and the decision making process can begin. If you don’t drink, then you just aren’t part of the group and can therefore never participate in the decision making process. If you just don’t drink, you are out. That’s why they’ll make sure that they can drink, and drink fast. The more you drink, the more respect you get.
So there you have it. The various drinking cultures in Asia could not be more different from each other than this. But that’s the diversity of Asia.