Published in the Xpat Journal.
In most cultures, people have their own way of making a toast. People raise their glass and say things like na zradavi, egészségére, salud, santé, zum Wohl or ganbei. And proost! here in the Netherlands. These are all local expressions for wishing you good health.
“Luckily, there are destinations where good relationships are sealed by juices or tea”
In some cultures, you look your well-wisher in the eyes, in others, you take the spirit without a flinch and in a single gulp, and in yet others, you stand straight and pronounce a speech. And everywhere, the drink is to your health with an immediate breach of the pledge by having you take a glass of an often-fiery local substance that will normally not improve your health. During my many business travels, I have raised hundreds of glasses with colleagues, customers and suppliers. Small glasses in China, huge ones in Germany, sophisticated ones in France and cheap ones back home. I must be the healthiest person on earth with so many people wishing me all this well-being.
In many cultures, the most important consideration is to ‘give face’ to your hosts. It is a good idea to deflect compliments while offering many to others; humility being a virtue. Being Dutch, however, it takes time to become aware of all the intercultural sensitivities surrounding a toast. If we are not careful, a few shots of alcohol might just be enough to awaken the Dutch bluntness in us, to the point where we feel free to point out a flaw or mistake, offending others at the table in the act. Expats in the Netherlands may have experienced this already. As we travel, however, it is we who need to be sensitive to other cultures. Let me share a few of my experiences from around the world – you will see how different they are!
Small Glasses of Huang Jiu
I once was a chief guest of a government institution in China. After lengthy discussions at a facility just outside Beijing, I was invited to a welcoming dinner with the director. I was picked up by the chief expert, Xing, with whom I had had the talks, and was again pleasantly impressed by the generous hospitality the Chinese always extend during my visits. Upon arrival at the restaurant, I recognized a few people I had spoken to earlier that day, but there were also many I had not yet met. People rose to their feet and bowed slightly to greet me. An occasional hand was carefully raised as a sign of recognition. I was seated at one of the three round tables. The seat next to me was empty and Xing, seated to my right, explained that the director was stuck in traffic. He was in constant contact with him on the mobile phone. The first round of small glasses of huang jiu, a tasty but treacherous shot of rice wine, went by. In the meantime, Xing kept me updated on the progress of the director.
I was having a good time and was not bothered at all by the delay. Xing, however, was clearly unsettled by this misfortune. When we had consumed three glasses of huang jiu, the director finally entered the room. Everybody rose to their feet and he took his seat next to me. He did not greet me, which I found disconcerting. A waiter had been tailing him and served him three glasses of huang jiu, which the director drank quickly and unflinchingly. Only then did he turn to me, greet me and have everybody rise to their feet to welcome me and drink to the health of their guest from the beautiful and famous Netherlands: ‘Ganbei!’ We all drank our fourth huang jiu. Ad fundum this time, and I wondered what good that would do my health. Nonetheless, under the influence of the huang jiu we had an unforgettable evening and a rewarding future.
Back in the Netherlands I was able to put myself on a no-alcohol diet and recuperate from my trip to China. But sometimes the drinking and toasting becomes a routine, as I experienced in Colombia. There we had our viernes cultural, or cultural Friday. After a week of hard work, all office workers and managers would get together around four in the afternoon to share a bottle of aguardiente. The boss was expected to say a few words and drink to everyone’s health. Soon the aguardiente would wash away the hierarchy and all colleagues would raise a glass and wish health and prosperity to someone who had closed a great deal, was in need of a boost – or to no one in particular. Often, we would wrap up the afternoon with some salsa or cumbia, leaving the office in great spirits. Years later, I returned to pay a visit to my ex – colleagues and the many firm abrazos, hugs, reminded me of those Fridays at the office which had created a lasting bond amongst us all.
“Over time, I have had many smiling local friends line up to fill my glass between toasts”
There are times one needs a drink, even at work. It was an early, very dark and cold morning in April, in the Donetsk coalmining region, Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland. Wearing a tight black overall and a heavy helmet featuring a not-so-explosion-proof light, I lingered at the entrance of the pit. Together with 15 others, I was ushered into a rattling cage that slowly lowered us into the depths of the mine. We ended up 1,000 meters below the ground in a very dark shaft that barely allowed us to stand up straight, and with a temperature so high that I wished I had left my woolen underwear, so welcome above ground, in the hotel. We saw bare-chested miners, who appeared to be half our size, jackhammering bedrock with black sweat rolling down their spines. It was just a quick look-around and the travel up and down took longer than the underground tour itself. We returned to the pit entrance, clothes soaked in sweat, and needed minutes to adjust our black-lined eyes to the light of the emerging winter sun. The shower that followed was heavenly and our hosts had prepared a lavish breakfast with bread, charcuterie, vegetables, tea and brandy, probably homemade. In spite of the early hour, we were happy to raise numerous toasts to the health of our hosts, knocking back the brandy and quietly celebrating our survival.
Alcoholic drinks are not easy to get away from in nocturnal business meetings, particularly in cultures that are collectivistic and hierarchical. Being the visiting foreigner, one often ends up being the guest of honor, which is a somewhat awkward role to play for a Dutch person who is raised to believe that he should not think he is better than anyone else. Over time, I have had many smiling local friends line up to fill my glass between toasts. Sometimes I chose not to drink, saving face with a little white lie about a fabricated health concern. Yet, even then, whilst not being pregnant nor a monk, I would get some good-natured nagging.
Luckily, there are destinations where good relationships are sealed by juices or tea. Take the dry state of Gujarat, India, where I much appreciated the many variations of fresh juices and Indian beverages such as lassi or thandai. And I remember a visit to the Patagonian Valdes Peninsula, in Argentina, where I was invited to the home of the local ranger in Punta Delgada. I was part of a small delegation of fire fighters from Puerto Madryn. The ranger was thrilled with the foreign visit and served a yerba mate in the traditional hollow calabash gourd. I used the silver straw to suck a bit of the bitter infusion and passed on the calabash for others to take a draw. I reluctantly took the calabash back again after it had completed the round. Sharing the same straw with all these men was well beyond my comfort zone. But this one straw made us friends for life.
Back Home Again
In the Netherlands, we love the vrijmibo, the Friday afternoon borrel; the after-work gathering for a drink. The borrel is often dressed up with deep-fried bitterballen and other mouth burners. Although you may get some chiding if you take a tonic water, a Spa Rood or, heaven forbid, 0% beer, it is widely accepted that you may be pregnant, taking antibiotics or even being the driver of the day. The Dutch are an individualistic lot and it is fine to do our own thing, even if this is skipping the borrel to collect the kids. And, although I have always appreciated the bonding, as well as the honor sometimes bestowed upon me, I was happy to be back home and grab a beer, or not, without being worried about offending a boss or having others lose face.