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International Bars in China

Expat or international bars are a relatively new thing in China. In them cultures from all over the world mesh together as young people drink and party.

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I knew I was walking into an international bar because it looked like one. The sign over the door said “Ellen’s,” a man-sized cardboard promo for Tuareg beer stood in the entrance way, and I think I recall a British flag hanging from somewhere. China has a roaring tradition of drinking alcohol, but the bar itself is a thing of foreign intrigue. The restaurants or the inn are were Chinese people typically get drunk — not bars.

As I entered the bar and took a corner seat, I could not miss the hand drawn messages, pictures, stories, cliche quotes, and names graffitied over nearly every inch of wall space that linguistically and culturally represented the globe. I think “Fucking is my hobby” was written in about 12 different languages. “Life is wonderful” and, of course, “Don’t worry be happy,” were painted in giant letters. Ship ropes, old wooden signs, Route 66-esque decorations, paper lanterns, and miscellaneous pieces of kitsch hung from the rafters. A shisha (hookah) water pipe was a fixture on nearly every table. The lamps had red shades on them giving the place the hue of an inferno. The furniture was pieced together from chopped logs and well-shaped tree branches. Criss-crossing the ceiling were flags of the myriad nations of the world. Beers were only 10 RMB, there was free coffee on Mondays, 15 RMB cups of French wine on Wednesdays, free beer for an hour on Thursdays, Friday had an array of drink specials, Saturday was open mic night . . .

This was a bar that had character, almost too much character. It was almost too perfect, as though it was a parody, a mock up, or a stage set of an expat bar. It was as if someone had conducted a study on college town bar life and came up with the perfect commercial sample that I was sitting in. I later found out that this was the case. On subsequent nights in other cities in China I’ve found myself sitting in this same bar. But I did not know it that first night in Nanjing’s Ellen’s, I simply looked around and said, “Wow, this is pretty cool.” Anyway, even though the place is a corporate chain there is no reason to complain: these bars are the cheapest in town, and are roaring with large crowds every night of the week.

Proper bars in China tend to be highly internationalized, but not overrun by the particular influence or presence of any single culture. The clientele tends to be a good mix of foreign expats AND Chinese people. They are not like the backpacker bars of Southeast Asia and Central America that have been gentrified and whitewashed by a clientele that is 99% foreign. These bars act like the United Nations of young global plebeians: students, expats, from all over the world gather together in them and get drunk with their Chinese brethren.

These international bars are a relatively recent development in China as the international community grows and Chinese youth culture and middle class becomes more engaged in the internationalized lifestyle. The result are places to talk about culture, world events, and China with people representing just about every part of the globe. The perspectives fly across these bars as frequently as the drinks, and if you’re in the market to hear a new take on something, a new idea, a fresh perspective, then an international bar in China is the place to be.

As I sat in a corner seat in that bar in Nanjing I could roughly gauge the cultural lay of the land. It was a packed house on a Monday evening, around 50% of the people there were young Chinese, around 25% were European or from the USA/ Canada, and the rest were from Africa, Pakistan, India, Mexico, and a few other smaller countries often do not send their young reps into the international foray.

I tend to avoid empty drinking — drinking that does not lead to the acquisition of new knowledge/ experience — there is just far too many other things to be doing that sitting around with a bottle hanging out of my mouth talking the same old bullshit. I tend to enjoy Saturday mornings more than Friday nights. But when it comes to going to a place that is full of a truly international crowd where there is nothing to do but have conversation, I’m there. By the end of the night the cultures invariably merge and become one big sphere of global dialogue.

I know of few other spaces in the world where the educated/ middle class youth of the world come together with such pluralism and indivisibility. Add a little booze to the mix and you have a living, breathing atlas of the world as near to you as the other side of your table.

Going to a bar to practice a foreign language

I often say that one of the best ways to save money while traveling is to stay out of bars. This is true. But it’s also true that occasionally paying for things that go beyond basic necessities is often essential to fully actualize the potential of travel. The trick is to know when dropping the extra cash is going to be beneficial. At $1.50 for a large beer, I did not feel as if I was risking much.

Learning the language of the country you’re traveling in is vital, and the two best ways to learn a foreign language is to either acquire a local romantic partner or hang out in the bars talking to locals. You can pay for language instruction all you want, you can stare at Rosetta Stone for a dozen hours a day, hire the best tutors, but there comes a point where the ability to actually use a foreign language will only come through excessive and continuous practice in uncontrolled settings. For this, you need people to talk to in that language — everyday.

China is an excellent country for studying language, as the people tend to be more than willing to talk to you and will actually put effort into figuring out what you’re trying to say and correct you when you screw up. China also has a vibrant drinking culture — it’s almost a national pastime. The easiest way to practice Mandarin is to either date a Han Chinese person who can’t speak English or hang out with them when they’re drinking.

So I left my little corner table and began looking for a group of Chinese people to sit down with.

How to make Chinese drinking companions

Walk a lap around the bar looking for a group that you may want to befriend. Make eye contact with everyone and try to notice if anyone is looking at you with interest. If a Chinese person doesn’t want to talk to you they will generally pretend you don’t exist and not make eye contact. I tend to look for the people who seem interested in me but are too shy to begin a conversation. There are a lot of bruisers in bars through China who will try to raise their sense of status by claiming a foreign pet for a night. These guys usually try to call me over loudly and try to force me to sit with them and show me off to their friends. This sort of scenario is often very hit or miss. Rather than take any chances, I look for a group that I can sit with and have a genuine, low key conversation. I look for the geeks, the most uncool looking people I can find. I’m looking to practice speaking Chinese after all, and some big dude with a flat top squeezing me, forcing liquor down my throat as he introduces me incessantly to his buddies, often maxes out his potential as an impromptu language instructor pretty quick.

So I walked a lap through the bar and caught a couple tables of peaking up at me sort of nervously — as though they wanted to invite me to sit down but were too nervous about it. I focused in on one, and as I made my return lap I walked by very slowly, made prolonged eye contact and greeted one of the guys with a raise of my glass. We toasted. A place at their table was soon cleared out, I was place in it, and a new beer was put into my hand.

Score.

There were three guys and two girls. The guys poked at my biceps and asked if I liked Chinese girls. Everything normal. I asked and answered the usual round of introductory questions and then began asking the words for the things on the table and in the room that I previously did not know how to say in Mandarin. One girl was from Shenzhen and had a “cooler than these hicks” sort of attitude about her. She also could not understand their Nanjing dialect and seemed pleased that my presence meant that everyone would speak standard Mandarin.

But she really didn’t have much to say, and seemed to like showing off that she could speak English fluently. She actually spent most of the night with her face stuck in her mobile phone, texting friends at home about how boring Nanjing is and how she can’t understand anything anybody says. A very typical rich Chinese girl.

The drinks kept coming my way and I burned through my supply of conversational Chinese in a matter of a half hour or so and got into the realm of screwing up real bad and sounding like a moron: the ideal zone for the language student. I must admit that embarrassed myself thoroughly, but I learned a few things in the process. Success.

China drinking culture

As far as drinking culture in China is concerned, being a host seems to be a way to gain certain amounts of face, and a gregarious hand is often extended toward foreigners here. If you’re invited to sit down at a Chinese drinking table you won’t pay for another drink for the rest of the night, you will be taken on as a guest, and etiquette demands that you’ll be well provided for. Respect for the host is often contingent on how much respect they show for their guest, and many will not only deal with your bastardizations of their language and culture but pay your way to do so.

Drinking in China is also a good way to see how certain aspect of this culture functions. In higher spheres, business deals are made and broken at the drinking table, government policy is discussed, and social contacts are established. In the working class spheres you can observe the social roles that various members play. There are the central actors, the background men, and, somewhere in the middle offering witty interjections and keeping the conversation going, the women. It is easy to see a microcosm of Chinese society manifested around the drinking table.

But soon enough I’d maxed out my Chinese learning for the night and it was time for the more chaotic social structure of the expat community. I bid my Chinese hosts farewell and made my way to another table. This is a tricky move that’s sometimes difficult to do without offense, but after an hour or two we’d simply ran out of things to talk about and my hosts’ excitement over me seemed to wan proportional to how much time I remained at their table. So I left the bar for a moment, one of the Chinese guys walked me to the door, stepped out, and then returned and joined the expats with a little salute paid back to my previous table along the way.

Nepalis

“Do you miss the king?” I asked two sort of swarthy looking Nepali youth who sat across a table from me.

“Yes!” they answered in unison. “Lots of people want to bring back the king, but it would be difficult to do,” one of them explained with a look of longing in his eyes. “The government of Nepal is now very corrupt, it was not like this when we had a king.”

“You can’t go back,” I commented, and they nodded their heads in agreement.

“Yes, we can’t go back.”

Countries that still have functioning monarchies are some of the best run countries on the planet. This sounds contrary to our principles that democracy is the fairest and best form of government, but the stark evidence is there. In these places the people tend to regard their king with a high sort of deference that teeters on the brink between worship and love. Only a wack-job would profess love for a president.

“Why are you in China?” I asked them.

“We are students,” one of them answered, “we study engineering at Nanjing University.”

I then asked them if they liked China. They laughed at my question as though I were being preposterous, and pretty much said no way. Their skin was pretty dark — even for Nepalis — and I tried to get them talking about the experiences they’ve had in terms of trying to interact with the Han Chinese. They just kept saying that it was crazy over and over in exasperated voices. I could only imagine.

“Why did you come to China to study engineering?” I had to ask.

“Because, in Nepal, it is very difficult to get into university and we didn’t make it, so we had to come to China.”

China is a beacon for students all over the developing world who wish to get a university education, and foreign students descend upon the country in droves each semester. I always assumed that these students were the cream of the crop back home and they were coming to China because the universities here are better. This was the first time I’ve heard of students coming to China because they couldn’t make it into university in their native land. Perhaps this pattern is not so uncommon?

“How do you afford school here?” I asked, knowing the prices of living and going to school in China were probably way more than in Kathmandu.

“It is very difficult,” one of them responded just before calling over a waiter and ordering two dishes of expensive bar food.

When the waiter left one of the Nepalis reached his hand into his pocket, raised his brows at me, then brought it back up on the table full of a brown, grated substance. He held out his stash in an open palm and pushed it towards me. He did not seem to mind that he was in plain view.

“Do you know what this is?” he asked me with excitement in his eyes.

With a deflated air, I admitted that I did. It was hash.

“Yes, it’s hash,” I answered.

“Most Chinese people don’t know what it is.”

I took it that he had pulled this hash test on people before.

“We got it from that guy out there,” the other one said as he pointed out the window.

I looked out and saw a lone Hui Muslim man standing behind a portable kebab cart grilling up some sticks of meat. I think I laughed, as a better stereotype could not have been better crafted by a comedian.

“Do you want to smoke some?” one of them asked.

“No,” I responded.

He began rolling it up into a joint mixed with tobacco anyway. These Nepalis come from a country that use to put bails of hash out in their city parks and squares for free public usage during the king’s birthday celebration. Hash is a part of their culture, but it’s not a part of mine. When I see a guy openly pull out illegal drugs in public I promptly stand up and walk as far away as possible — especially in countries like China where getting caught with such substances could mean deportation, or potentially worse.

He then lit the joint as I said my goodbyes. They were pretty young and, apparently, not so bright. They were sitting right by the door of the bar, and everyone in China knows, the police stick their heads into just about every bar at various intervals throughout the night to check out what’s going on. I did not see the Nepalis again, but at one point later on I did see a cop standing right were they were sitting. It’s not my impression that they were caught, but they very easily could have been.

As the night wore on I stepped outside for a breather, and the Muslim kebab vendor quickly abandoned his grill and stood right at my side. With zero nonchalance he whipped out a dime bag of hash and held it out to me. He raised his eyebrows twice as he said, “100 kuai.”

He seemed overtly surprised by my rejection of his offer and, thinking that I may have failed the hash test, decided to tell me what it was. I told him that I knew what it was and didn’t want any. Awkwardly, he put the stash back into his pocket and waddled back behind his grill defeat.

The Pakistani

“You do exactly what I want to do,” a young Pakistani told me after I explained my profession and lifestyle.

He then told me how he’d planned on doing a seven month motorcycle trip around the world soon and asked if I had any advice. I then found myself in the awkward position of being a traveler with a class-A passport trying to advise someone who needs to get a pre-arranged visa for just about each and every country they want to go to how to do an around the world overland trip.

“Because of your nationality it will be difficult for you to get all the visas for your entire trip and have them not expire before you get there on the motorcycle,” I began. “Maybe you should think of doing it in sections?”

He didn’t like the sounds of this. He said that he needed to do the trip all at once because his parents wanted him to go to work when he was finished with school

“Family pressures,” he said.

I recommend being a university professor so then he could have his summers free to travel.

“Not enough money,” he replied and then added that his plan was to be a freelance engineer and travel the world from job to job.

Often, I meet people who claim that they want something but have unrealistic parameters for obtaining it. they seem to want it all right away without realizing that just about anything in life requires compromise, effort, and time. All too often, after failure these people will say that what they went after was not possible to obtain. There are ways through just about any maze, but running straight ahead and not turning with the paths will leave just about anyone banging their head into a wall.

I had no more travel advice to offer. Instead, I asked about his experience of China.

“I’ve been here for three years and I don’t even speak Chinese!” he claimed. He then invited me to a Chinese language speaking competition. I prefer arm wrestling as a means of showing my prowess in a bar than foreign language skills, so I passed up his offer and asked him if he gets any flack for being a Pakistani in China.

“I have to say, ‘Hello, I’m from Pakistan but I’m not a terrorist,'” he responded with a laugh. “People say, ‘you don’t look like most Pakistanis,'” he added. “They think we’re all terrorists with long beards and turbans.”

Different social realms in international bars

Around this time one of the Chinese guys from my previous table came over to where I was with the expats to hang out. I introduced him to everyone, who were from France, New Zealand, Kenya, and Tahiti, but they just sort of nodded without much more regard for a random Chinese guy.

There are two different social realms in international bars in China: the English speaking realm and the Chinese speaking one. If linguistically capable, members of both sides can cross over almost imperviously, but the languages usually don’t mix. When speaking Mandarin the foreigners do things the Chinese way; when speaking English the Chinese do things the international way. When I hang out with Chinese people in bars I enter their cultural sphere, speak their language, and follow their cultural prompts; when Chinese people move over to the expat tables they speak in English and follow our leads. Bringing the two realms together can be awkward, and my fellow foreigners were in no way willing to show my Chinese acquaintance the same hospitality that I was shown at his table.

I felt slightly ashamed, but there was little I could do: he didn’t speak English, and this is the unofficial language of the foreign community in China. Behavior and culture are dictated by language in the international forum. Language is not just a matter of communicating verbally, it’s also a matter of culture.

So I got up and returned to his table with him and had a toast. He suggested that I bring the group of foreigners over to his table, but I knew that my Mandarin was not good enough to tell him about the cultural/ linguistic divide, so I just stated the obvious:

“There isn’t enough room.”

There wasn’t, and this made sense even though he tried to convince me otherwise. I now had to tend to his “face,” as it was now a matter of contention as to what table I would drink with. He was very drunk.

Not was not one foreign woman in the entire bar. Throughout the night there were probably thirty men from various parts of the world who hung out in that bar, but not one female were among them. This is normal in China: international bars are inveterate sausage fests.

I was sitting at a table with men from all over the world, but  we all held more than that in common: we were all long term residents of China. We all shared a similar daily reality in a country and culture that is very much unique to itself. This often brings the expat communities of this country together tightly, regardless of nationality. American and Nigerian culture doesn’t seem too dissimilar when compared to Chinese society.

But ultimately, there are very few major differences among the people of the world. Cultural diversity is often doesn’t go very deep. I sit in these bars in China and I watch Westerners speaking Mandarin and following suit with Chinese customs and I also see Chinese people interacting in English as just about any American would. The underlying mechanisms of most cultures in this world are pretty much the same, and parallels are easily drawn from society to society around the globe.

These international bars are cultural globalization in motion.

Filed under: China, Uncategorized

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3619 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: Astoria, New York

9 comments… add one

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  • DJJ July 18, 2012, 2:18 am

    hehe.. inveterate sausage fests.. good one! 🙂

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    • Wade Shepard July 18, 2012, 8:41 am

      Thanks David,

      It’s interesting how the social scene is different when there’s only one gender. I think the same is for women as men. Funny to say, but I think I sort of dig those sausage fests.

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  • Nathan July 18, 2012, 7:33 am

    Good to see another entry out of you Wade! It has been too long!

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    • Wade Shepard July 18, 2012, 8:43 am

      Thanks Nate!

      Will try to keep them coming.

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  • John July 18, 2012, 7:55 pm

    Very interesting post. The way you write is so unparalleled. I’ve never read anything like this. There is something about your style that feels open and unique. Like one is actually discovering something. Many travel posts on the internet seem to be either glorification or warning, but usually its common sense mixed in with romanticism.

    You writing seems to me like a sort of existential social commentary with some genuine practical dialogue.

    Link Reply
    • Wade Shepard July 18, 2012, 8:57 pm

      Thanks, man, much appreciated. Never really know what to say when receiving compliments like this 🙂

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  • DJJ July 19, 2012, 2:02 am

    say yes. 🙂

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  • Daniel August 2, 2012, 10:51 pm

    Thank you for the interesting site. I’m a seven year veteran of the middle kingdom and in that time I’ve traveled 16 provinces. Though are experiences are not the same they are similar and remind me of why I love China.
    Reading here, I think I had better write more before ages makes mist of memory.

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    • Wade Shepard August 2, 2012, 11:14 pm

      Excellent, thanks for this comment. Yes, I agree, you should get all those stories down and saved for posterity.

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