One of the most difficult things for Westerners to understand is the importance of hierarchy, social roles and etiquette in Asian societies. There are many situations in a person’s life in which these – from a foreigner’s point of view often invisible – social stratifications reveal themselves.
The first time I became aware of such deep social hierarchical differences was when I lived in Berlin. One of my Korean friends told me with a somewhat exhausted expression on his face that recently he’d been going out with his Korean buddies and he often got drunk. Apparently, he disliked to drink so much, but his friends pushed him to do so.
“Why don’t you tell them you don’t like to drink alcohol?” I asked him.
“My friends asked me to drink,” he answered.
The whole issue seemed to me non-existent. From my viewpoint, he was turning a perfectly harmless situation into an extremely complicated one. If you don’t want to drink, I thought, just say ‘no’.
However, I soon understood that what may seem simple to me becomes difficult in the minds of others. The point is that the person who invited him was a few years older than him. Because of the age difference, the younger had to show ‘respect’ to the elder. As a guide to Korean society explains:
Many Korean men believe that the best way to get to know a person is to drink with him … People who do not drink as much as their counterparts are sometimes thought to be hiding something, afraid to let down their defences. Many Koreans would prefer not to drink so much, but not to drink, or to stop drinking too soon might ruin the mood for everyone. In terms of etiquette, it is particularly difficult for someone of a lower status to turn down a request to drink from someone of a higher status … Considering the amount of alcohol imbided, there may be times when one is tempted to refuse. This borders on antisocial behaviour. Koreans have the same problem, as there is often one person urging everyone else to drink one more glass, but being Koreans, they go ahead and drink, even if it means becoming sick (CultureShock! Korea, pp. 161-162).
In her book Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China, author Leslie T. Chang describes social relations in China as “needlessly complicated”. The same can be said for the whole of East Asia. From a Western point of view, interpersonal relationships in Asian societies may often appear stiff, formal, and governed by many rules and restraints that depend on the internal social stratification and the power distribution within a group.
Dinner With A CCP Delegation
One day I was invited to have dinner with a delegation of Chinese Communist Party members. They had come to Berlin to attend the IFA (the “International Radio Exhibition”. one of the oldest industrial exhibitions in the world). The days of their visit fell on Mid-Autumn Festival, so the dinner was both a business gathering and an occasion to celebrate a traditional Chinese festival (as usual, no contradiction whatsoever was felt between celebrating an ancient ‘feudal’ festival and being a member of the CCP).
We went to a quite expensive restaurant in Potsdamer Platz. The overlapping of the two events led to the consumption of high quantities of alcohol, more specifically of the so-called baijiu (白酒), a kind of white liquor derived from rice or sorghum.
On that occasion, I had a first-hand experience of what seniority means during social gatherings. Except for the three interpreters, all other people in the group were much older than me. I guess they were between forty and sixty. I was repeatedly invited by the elder people to drink baijiu, and every time I finished a glass, I was urged to drink more. The beautiful young interpreter that accompanied the delegation refilled my glass, and she, too, chimed in the chorus: ‘have another one!’
As I seldom drink, my 酒力 (jiǔlì), my alcohol tolerance, is pretty low. I knew if I’d kept on drinking like that I would soon have got drunk. The more so as the baijiu was very strong.
Such drinking rituals have a social meaning. First of all, you can clearly see who is hierarchically superior and who is inferior. Second, drinking allow individuals to gauge each other’s ‘social skills’. Contrary to what people say about ‘group harmony’, interaction between Chinese individuals is marked by a high level of mistrust. Drinking rituals and taking part in social activities does in no way eliminate the distance between people. It may, however, help them understand your character better without resorting to verbal communication, which is one of the things Chinese people dread most when it comes to socially defined hierarchies and roles.
By observing how you act in ritualised social gatherings like a drinking party, they can see if you can easily be influenced or manipulated, they can see how you deal with pressure, they can see how you deal with hierarchies, and if you talk too much or about the wrong things. In short, they try to evaluate you and at the same time keep a distance from you.
Under certain circumstances, people can also take advantage of their seniority. This idea is expressed by the idiom: 倚老賣老 (simplified Chinese: 倚老卖老, pinyin: Yǐlǎomàilǎo).
In the power distribution of a social group, old age can be a social capital (資本). This social capital can be used by individuals as a way to enhance one’s own leverage. The issue is how the socially inferior will react to such strategies.
At one point, one of the members of the delegation, who was around 60 years old and was sitting opposite me, said to me: “You’re much younger than us. Usually, it’s young people who offer a toast to their elders. But now it’s us who are asking you to have a toast, so you can’t refuse.” He was reminding me of our different social standing, and of the rules of propriety connected to this difference.
I myself do not care much about hierarchies and I hate to be controlled by others. Although I was trying not to offend my hosts, in the end I thought it would be better to displease them rather than get totally drunk. So I told him: “All right, I will drink. But only if you take me to the hospital afterwards.”
My sarcastic remark had a goal: I wanted to show them I wasn’t there to prove them anything, and I was willing to admit my weakness (I can’t drink too much). It may or may not have been the right thing to say, but all of a sudden, no one asked me to drink any more. They didn’t seem in any way offended by what I’d said. I didn’t stop drinking, I just finished one more glass, sipping slowly.
As far as I’m concerned, the moral of this story is that it is good to respect other cultures and accept social rules and customs. However, one shouldn’t necessarily accept everything and always do as one is told. One thing is to respect others, another thing is to become overly acquiescent. Compromise is good. But compromise should be made by both parties, and bot only by one.