My husband’s excuse not to drink? “I have a foreign wife!”

While the other men in the background imbibe way too much alcohol, my husband is off the hook -- because of me.
While the other men in the background have to drink up their baijiu, my husband (front and left) is off the hook — because of me.

During Chinese New Year, the alcohol flows as freely as the conversation — and sometimes a little too much so. On the second day of the new year, a lunch packed with mostly male relatives and well-lubricated with baijiu — the vodka-like hard liquor of choice — actually landed two of the men in the hospital for alcohol poisoning.

It works like this. The elder male relatives at the table insist their younger male relatives drink in a gesture of respect. Of course, nobody in Chinese history ever said filial piety involved imbibing the alcohol for your elders — but such reasoning is pointless at the table, where peer pressure and the expectation that “real men” can handle their alcohol rules.

Yet my husband John survived the entire holiday without a single drunken incident and ultimately only enjoying a few sips of red wine by choice. And when I asked him why, he cited me, his foreign wife, as the reason.

“I have a yangxifu,” he said. “You’re a good excuse not to drink.” In other words, because I’m a foreigner here, John’s relatives assume he needs to care for me more than if I was just Chinese (despite my fluent Chinese and years of living in this country). So if he was stupid drunk, he couldn’t fulfill his so-called “responsibility” to me.

We both laughed at this comical idea — that my being John’s wife actually shielded him from the pressure to drink in China.

Still, given John’s low alcohol tolerance, drinking among relatives will always be a dangerous pursuit. So as bizarre as it is, if my presence might save him from a drunken stupor — or worse, a trip to the hospital — I’ll take it. 😉

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22 Replies to “My husband’s excuse not to drink? “I have a foreign wife!””

  1. What a great excuse! My husband gets away with not drinking due to health issues, and his family doesn’t drink, so it’s only in professional and social settings that the drinking comes up. But since the drinking with colleagues and leaders is so essential to advancing ones career, he is a bit disgusted that he’ll never land a promotion because of his lack of drinking. I tell him it doesn’t matter; I’d rather have a healthy husband than one who has a better title but is expected to drink and do other things that go against his morals.

  2. Had no idea that having a foreign wife could be an excuse of not to drink, but that’s great! My fiance doesn’t have to drink much with family and relatives, but when at work it’s hard to say no when your bosses are ganbei’ing with you.

    Luckily me as a women don’t have to drink if I don’t want to.

  3. This is a great post Jocelyn. The drinking culture in china is one thing that bothers me the most about it. I mean in all cultures people drink by choice; but the peer pressure of drinking at work and the stuff that follows is what initially put me off the idea of living in China with a chinese partner.

    Now I know an ingenious way to trying to deter him from drinking :D, so thanks for that.

    1. @Charlotte, it’s sad that drinking should factor into promotions/advancement — but I’m with you, a healthy husband is far more important!

      @Sara, indeed, the pressure is huge and it’s difficult to say no. I’m with you, though, it is nice being exempted as a woman.

      @SBC, it is ingenious, isn’t it? I hope you won’t give up on living in China w/ your partner — with a little creativity, you can avoid unpleasant situations. Sometimes the “foreigner” excuse works wonders. 😉

  4. Used to be smoking figured into promotions and salary raises both in Asia and here in the US back in the 1960s and 1970s. Now it works against you.

  5. When my husband was a teenager, he used to walk around beside his father at banquets and drink multiple toasts on his father’s behalf.

    He thought he knew everything there was to know about forced drinking until he started going to Korea on business trips. There, his Korean counterparts ganged up on him, and when they couldn’t drink him under the table, their kisaengs (Korean geishas) exchanged drinks with him. After a few kisaeng parties like that, he figured he’d proved himself, and thereafter he insisted on meeting only for breakfast and coffee.

  6. Quite the contrary here! If the wife is a white foreigner, people expect the husband to be able to drink, because Malaysians generally have this impression, rightly or wrongly, that Westerners love drinking.

  7. Love this! My ex-husband didn’t drink, and his family wasn’t big on drinking either. So during Chinese New Year, we didn’t really have this problem. It was when we went out with his friends and professors that we–or rather I–would have to come up with some excuses not to drink. They all thought I was a big drinker just because I was American! My ex got off the hook with a simple shake of his head, but not I. More in “Good Chinese Wife” about that!

  8. My husband is kind of like yours as well but I don’t think I have ever been his excuse. Most of his family members aren’t big drinkers but some of his baseball buddies are. I remember one time, when we were having a barbecue with the entire team, most were drinking gaoliang (rice wine). They poured my husband a rather large drink and expected him to drink it straight. When they weren’t looking, my husband poured it on the ground. It was easier to say he drank it than to refuse it.

  9. Egad!

    If only I could get my husband to join the club. In my case, being a woman doesn’t always make them get off my case either. If I take a sip, sometimes people will say “Hey! Taiwan cheers!” And they won’t smile until I drain my glass. If I really don’t want to do it, I’ll stand my ground. Sometimes I’ll place a hand on my abdomen and say “MC” (period) which makes them leave me alone.

    My husband’s family doesn’t drink, however. So we only usually drink outside of their home. I lived there with his parents for about three years before getting our own place across the road this year.

    Drinking, for us only comes about in social settings. For my husband the pressure hits a fever pitch when he’s out with certain groups of friends or when he attends business meeting dinners. I really hate it when he gets wasted at these things. But I don’t usually attend. He claims he “needs to socialize,” but I’m hard pressed to see drinking as essential to cementing these relationships and networking. In some cases, he’s taken care of co-workers and even his own boss (at a dinner just before CNY) when they were so sh**-faced that one of them passed out and the other sick as a dog.

    It’s disgusting! I always tell him. Also, imho, this kind of aggressive drinking behavior takes the pleasure out of having a drink. Here in Asia, because of the manner in which people usually drink in social settings, alcohol carries a certain stigma. For example, sometimes my husband tells his friends that I like beer. And they might buy one bottle and keep cheer-sing me and making me drink bottoms up, until it’s gone and then promptly disappearing only to come back with two more big bottles in hand to continue carrying on.

    It’s annoying. I like to sit back and relax with a drink sometimes and just sip it in a leisurely fashion. I don’t like to get wasted and puke my guts out. It’s not my idea of fun and it’s also totally unattractive. And if I ever mention that I like any kind of drink people assume that’s what I like to get wasted on. Ugh.

    But when my husband and I are on our own, sometimes I will opt to have a drink and he won’t, or vice-versa. And we don’t turn it into a drinking tournament. That kind of stuff (granted it’s perceived differently in Asian culture). But to me, will always seem like juvenile (read: high school, freshman in college) behavior and never fail to get under my skin. I always think: what’s the point?

    It continues to frustrate that alcohol, here in Asia, is one of the many things which people tend to have a black and white attitude about. Ie; they don’t drink at all or drink until they pass out. If a person (such as myself) claims to be fond of any kind of alcohol, I must therefore be an alcoholic. It’s so not the case.

    Finally, as you mentioned your husband’s “low tolerance for alcohol,” I’ve seen this in many instances. Most of the Taiwanese people I know turn a vivid shade of beet red after a single drink. That makes it easy to know who’s been drinking at any kind of social event, such as a wedding banquet.

    “Oh, you’re uncle’s face is really red, has he been drinking?” I might ask, for example.

    But of course I already know what the answer is going to be so a response isn’t even really necessary.

    Kudos to your husband. I’ll drop my husband a hint that he might use a similar excuse next time he’s invited to a company social event (even though I won’t be there). After all, I’ll have to smell him and deal with his hopefully not drunk and falling all over himself, self when he gets home!

  10. Great excuse! But I thought the reasoning behind it would be something like “my foreign wife will beat the crap out of me if I get home drunk” 😀

    I totally agree with Ashley about the drinking culture here. I don’t like going out with my colleagues because they don’t go out to have fun, they go out to get wasted. And what’s the point in that?

    Luckily my bf started giving health excuses to not drink at dinners with customers or colleagues. Since I’ve known him he has just gotten drunk once and he was pretty sick for 2 days so he decided not to drink again.

  11. Unfortunately, this excuse has never worked for us. Not just is the place my parents-in-law a major producer of tobacco, but also the centre of China’s best Baijiu (Gujing Gongjiu 古井贡酒, I am sure if you have been drinking in China, you have seen this special brand). So no matter if it is Chinese New Year, or we just came back for an occacional visit, there is ALWAYS a lot of drinking involved.

    This really is something that put me off (and at time made me so angry, that my husband had to excuse us from the dinner to not make him/them lose face when I explode and scream at every one). Before I met him, he was fully giving in to the per pressure; drinking and smoking. But now he gave up (with a lot of support from me). Still, when ever we are back, relatives want us to drink. Close family actually got the hint, and after refusing once would not try to force us to drink, but further relatives can be very nasty. You just won’t get away without drinking. And not just him, no because I am a foreigner, and Russian, and everyone seems to believe that we can drink a lot, everyone tries to start drinking competitions to test their theory that Russians can drink a lot… It is really hard. Fortunately, since we got married they don’t make me drink that often now, and it gets easier to refuse. I guess it’s because many of them believe we are soon to have children… well, I will let them in that believe as long as humanly possible.

    For my husband on the other site, lately he uses a health excuse so he has not to drink. It seems to work. And because excessive baijiu drinking is so bad for your health, since over a year we are working on my father-in-law. He gave up smoking last year! Which is incredible! I never knew what great impact I had on him, but he never really listens to his wife if it comes to drinking or smoking. He would promise not to drink that much next time, but usually he does anyway. It’s just when I give him a phone call and tell him to stop drinking, it really gets to him. After me preaching health risks due to smoking he stopped. Not the next goal is the drinking. I love my father-in-law and I don’t want him getting sick from drinking too much alcohol. I don’t care what everyone in the neighbourhood thinks about me telling off my father-in-law everytime he drinks too much. Lately it got so bad (like drinking everyday with his mahjong friends because its winter and cold and they have nothing to do), that I had to call him and throw some very strong arguments. I told him if he wants to see his grandchildren he has to stop now! That was three weeks ago. He hasn’t been drinking a sip of alcohol since than. I really hope this time it lasts…

    Just hate, hate, hate baijiu!

  12. Wow, I’m surprised that they accept this kind of excuse!

    My husband told others he doesn’t drink because of health issues and then he found out he really shouldn’t drink because of his health, but at first people would still try to get him to drink, saying that he can go to the doctor the next day (as though that would make these issues go away). He really doesn’t like drinking baijiu and ganbeiing, but health issues seem to be one of the only reasons that will be accepted by the majority as an excuse not to drink if you’re male and if you insist long enough.

  13. Funny story Jocelyn. I’m not a drinker at all. Don’t really care for alcohol and my family comes from Russia, although my dad’s cutting down on drinking. If I were to be with someone, I would want to be with someone who’s not a drinker as well; I really don’t want to watch them get drunk, clumsy, throw up, and so forth…

  14. The drinking and, especially, smoking at dinners in China is the one thing that I really hate. My father-in-law is known for incredibly heavy drinking, and he smokes packs a day, so every dinner out he gets drunk, and then when we go home my mother-in-law has to drop him off at a bar to keep drinking with his friends. Every morning after one of these nights he can’t go to work because he is so sick, but he just lays on the couch. 🙁

    Luckily my husband doesn’t drink much, if at all. An occasional beer at home. A drink or two at the dinners. But he really doesn’t like drunkenness and he always urges his father not to drink very much. And my mother-in-law is the perfect shield for me; I will drink an occasional cocktail at a party or out with friends but I don’t like the taste of baijiu, beer, or wine, so even though there are always people who pressure me to drink at dinners she always swoops in and orders some kind of juice for me. It helps that she doesn’t drink at all (designated driver, which everyone accepts from her, but I do notice many other couples who drove who both get drunk anyway…). She and my father-in-law also come in to protect my husband after he’s had a couple toasts – when someone else toasts him or pressures him to drink more or refill his little cup my father-in-law actually will take it away (and drink it himself… but at least he recognizes that my husband doesn’t want to get drunk).

    One thing that amazed me recently was about smoking. My father-in-law has been a heavy smoker all his life. My husband actually has lung and nose issues because of the secondhand smoke. But people in China seem to be really clueless… when I first mentioned to my mother-in-law that breathing secondhand smoke is bad for children’s development she said, “Nonsense – look how tall your husband is! His father smoked all his life.” Um… okay… But anyway I always insist that it is bad for you, and at dinners where the smoking has been heavy I actually just get up and walk outside. They all “accept” my behavior because I’m a foreigner and then try to soothe me by apologetically saying, “It’s a Chinese tradition, try to understand us.” *sigh* But by now, my family and their close friends know that I so detest smoking that an amazing thing happened this past New Years… at one dinner it was just my family and two couples – close family friends… and the three men (my father-in-law included) didn’t smoke at all the whole dinner!!!! They got completely drunk, of course, but they didn’t smoke. One of the men proudly told me that they quit smoking for me. (Of course, they meant for the dinner… as soon as we exited the private room into the hallway they all had cigarettes out and lit) but I was really touched by the gesture. The next night, haha, same situation, and they made it about halfway through dinner without smoking, but then they just *had to*. But my father-in-law opened the door and window and told me the breeze was to take the smoke away. Very sweet.

    What gets me is that he wakes up each morning, goes to the balcony to smoke (my mother-in-law forced him to stop smoking inside after my husband met me), pretty much hacks up a lung… my husband is very concerned that he will soon have lung cancer or liver disease because of his lifestyle and urges him to change all the time but father-in-law never made any changes until my husband brought me home to meet them. I think for whatever reason the foreign wife can have a big influence without realizing it…

    The biggest thing I am concerned about is when I am pregnant or have a small child. We don’t live in China now, only visit. But when we visit, of course everyone invites us to eat, to see us. However I am absolutely determined I will not go to a place where they are smoking if I am pregnant, and I will not bring a baby or child there. I saw the saddest thing this past New Years, at a really smoky restaurant, a woman holding her 6-month old, the poor baby was coughing the whole time… 🙁 Not sick, but because of the smoke. I know that they tolerate my dislike of smoking and I even go to teh dinners, I step out when it gets really bad, but I go. I don’t know how they will take it if I absolutely refuse to go… especially if the whole point they invited us is to see the baby. But I have already made up my mind that I won’t go. My husband supports me, so even if it sours his father’s friends towards us I feel like it will be okay. I am just a bit nervous about what will happen.

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