You’re making us all feel bad,” my friend said as I took a sip of my unexciting ginger tea.
We were sitting in a shiny new Beijing brewpub. While my companions were a few drinks into developing their internal “beer jackets” to help them not feel quite so miserable while traveling home on this freezing Wednesday evening, I had chosen not to order one of the over-a-dozen craft beers on offer and to rely on an external jacket.
Scorning hoppy IPAs, complex porters and refreshing pilsners, I chose to spend my hard-earned cash on a teabag and some (somewhat) hot water and thereby make my friend feel self-conscious about his decision to get a third pint.
I wasn’t keeping off the booze for health reasons, or cash reasons, or even the perfectly acceptable reason of making my friends feel bad. I’ve been trying to lose weight – for purely egotistical reasons. A few big-drinking holidays and the approaching specter of my 30th birthday saw me feeling less than great about the fact my waistline was expanding despite regular exercise. So I decided to really commit to a “see-my-abs-by- summer-2019” plan, and pints of liquid bread that gives you a headache the next day don’t fit into that plan.
“Well you’re a vegetarian. This is how everyone feels when they eat dinner with you,” I replied to my pal, feeling very clever.
Moderation has never been my strong suit, so to avoid the slippery slope from one to six drinks, I’ve allowed my social life to wither and when I do go out I stick to abstinence. Which somewhat spoils visits to the brewpub. Or any of the other late night bars that dot the capital.
That said, however, there aren’t as many places to which I’d like to pay a visit as there once were. The Beijing government’s ongoing efforts to reshape the capital have seen many of the city’s most charming watering-holes shutting down as their locations are declared inappropriate. Many of these bars were in the capital’s few remaining hutong neighborhoods, which have gone through their own slimming-down process as the government demolishes illegal constructions to restore the ancient neighborhoods to their original appearance, which often seems to involve the application of gray tiles onto walls to give the appearance of brickwork.
The brewpub in which I found myself sipping ginger tea is a perfect example of the trend. Its first iteration was in a small, cramped but much beloved hutong location. Patrons had to walk down the street to the public bathroom to release the pressure that a few pints can create. On the other hand, its new location is everything it seems the city wants to become. Modern, flashy, comfortable – and it has nice indoor bathrooms on its second and third floors. But while it’s a nice place, it’s a bit flat. A bit corporate. Some of the excitement has gone.
However, despite the elimination of many of the city’s best drinking spots, there is little doubt that for my fellow immigrants and I, drinking retains its central place in our social lives – an easier way to start feeling at home in a foreign land.
Beijing is a boozy city. Almost everyone you meet – Chinese or otherwise – is either new in town, or has a foot out of the door within a few years, as people move abroad or around the country. Household registration policies and the sky-high price of property means that for most, putting down longterm roots in Beijing can be a tricky proposition.
So I think part of the reason every social occasion revolves around drinking is that it gives people a shortcut to intimacy, to feel like you’re around old friends when the people around you rotate every three or so years. So cutting it out feels like losing part of how you relate to other people. Quitting smoking – which I achieved by having a beer whenever I craved a cigarette – is a bit similar. You lose the camaraderie of the smoking area, the huddled chats over stinky burning sticks replaced with trying to make conversation with the grab-bag of whoever is left at the table after all the smokers go outside.
Unlike smoking, however, I will probably start drinking again soon enough. Quitting smoking was much easier – probably because its gross and it kills you. But the tangible benefits of drinking are too obvious, it’s the opposite of gross and we’ve all agreed to not talk about how it kills you.
I’m not sure what the tangible benefits to visible abs, if I get them, will bestow. At least I’ll be able to make my friends feel bad.