Firewater in China: Building Bridges Family-Style

By: Ashmi Sheth

The Chinese official surprises us and says he will be back in five minutes, back with baijiu.

Baijiu is China’s “firewater,” a prominent part of business culture tied to centuries of tradition. It is Chinese liquor that can be traced back 7000 years. When the official brings his ‘top shelf’ baijiu, we cheer him on, acknowledging his gesture of generosity. He walks around the table, shakes each of our hands and toasts baijiu to us one by one.

It feels as if I am in a motion picture, seated in a grand dining room surrounded by friends old and new, eighteen of us representing Columbia University’s China Delegation. We are in Kunming, capital of the Yunnan province in Southwest China having a meal with an official.

The Chinese official encourages us to endless rounds of toasting, the essence of Chinese drinking culture. We toast to building stronger relationships. To drinking fresh orange juice, squeezed from China’s redeemed orange king, Chu Shijian’s farms. To walking hundreds of steep steps up the Great Wall with HotHands hand warmers in our pockets. These toasts were a platform to share and celebrate stories with the official.

Family-style meals like these became the backbone of the China Delegation. In the midst of intense policy meetings and travel, our group shared over thirty meals together – celebratory dinners, impassioned lunches, and breakfast buffets. Some meals were two hours long and we sat at large round tables. As a vegetarian who has never eaten meat, China was an adventurous place where I ate vegetable dumplings, sautéed vegetables, and lots of tofu.

I learned what Peking duck was in Beijing. A dish prepared since the imperial era, Peking duck was topical fit for the first four days of the Delegation, meeting with senior government officials from the Ministry of Commerce and Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Additional meetings with the Gates Foundation and International Poverty Reduction Center in China taught me about Beijing’s economic reforms four decades ago that lifted 700 million people out of poverty. Peking duck made me think about vast income inequality, the growing middle class, and the East versus the West.

These themes grew louder in Kunming, especially over meals. We compared the Chu Orange Facility with the Kunming Coca-Cola Production Facility and asked about labor conditions in China. We met with Yunnan University students and asked about how China’s censorship laws affect education. Through dialogue I learned about the Chinese way and thought about how we represented the United States. As Americans, we have many different interpretations of what being an American means.

In Shenzhen, our dinner at the Shangri-La was elegant. The trip was coming to an end, and our trip liaison made a toast that night. He said, “It is better to travel 10,000 miles than to read 10,000 books. There’s no better way to develop your thoughts and perspective on China than to set foot on China. Despite our differences in culture, ideology, and history, we must uphold our mutual understanding for one another and learn from each other.”

No one checked their phones during family-style dinners. We focused on being present and that easily made China one of the most incredible experiences of my life. Through food, I built friendships, an understanding of cultural differences, and experienced one perspective of China, recognizing there are millions more.