Why Shanghai expats become such drunkards

By John Harold Armstrong Source:Global Times Published: 2016/6/26 18:53:01

Illustration: Lu Ting/GT

If there's one thing I've noticed about expats in Shanghai, it's that they tend to drink and pursue "alternative lifestyles" far more than they would have had they not moved East to partake in China's economic miracle.

Members of our hard-bitten expatriate community can generally be found anywhere that serves booze, from the craft-beer bars of Yongkang Road to over-priced Bund pleasure pits. But what strikes me as unique about the hedonistic displays of Shanghai's foreign community is how joyless it all is.

There's a forced jocularity; a certain tenseness of jaw and tightness around the eyes that belie the all-night rave sessions, endless wine-tastings and parties hosted in Jinqiao and Hongqiao luxury villas. It's as if the combination of culture shock, boredom, alienation and depression that all foreigners in China feel can be directly measured by the amount of alcohol he or she consumes.

In turn, the growing number of boozers here is directly reflected in the number of bars and clubs being built in the city. Shanghai's expat entertainment magazines for example, have long provided a small amount semi-informative content about Chinese culture padded out with voluminous bar reviews and club ads.

And it's not just single men out on the town anymore either. The ranks of senior executives posted abroad are increasingly comprised of women. The stereotypical trailing spouse lazing around an empty villa all day downing bottles of Pinot Grigio have now expanded into all facets of gender, nationality and profession. What hasn't changed, however, is the tendency for foreigners living in Shanghai's suburbs to combat their boredom and isolation with unhealthily large alcohol consumption.

It's not unheard of for white-collar professionals of any society around the globe to relax with a couple cocktails at the end of the work week. However, it holds a rather prominent place in the social lives of expats, and in situations where it's questionably appropriate. Where else but in Shanghai do expense-account expatriate families hold lavish champagne brunches every Sunday culminating in a six-hour drinking binge that ends up with parents acting more silly than their own toddlers?

Despite Shanghai's glittering infrastructure, it still lacks foreigner-friendly facilities other than drinking establishments. Expats hampered by their lack of Putonghua have absolutely nowhere else to spend their corporate allowances. What we end up with, then, are throngs of 40-something senior vice-presidents of Asia operations guzzling booze together on the Bund every Friday night while their Hongqiao housewives all get soused in their compound gardens.

Children and their army of ayi are of course, left at home wondering why mommy and daddy don't spend time with them anymore since moving to Shanghai. The irony in seeing so many families here destroyed by alcohol is that the married-with-children executives who have had to leave their families back home often get so depressed that they, too, turn to bars. I once knew a Bulgarian industrialist here who had not moved from his bar-stool in six years. Homesick and pining for his wife and children, he spent all his non-working hours soaking up whiskey and lager.

Anecdotally, in spite of China's hard-line laws against drugs and drug dealing, the percentage of drug-using foreigners in China is about the same as in Western countries. The types of people doing recreational party drugs in Shanghai, for example, are the same subset doing them in Madrid or Boston or Leeds.

A stroll down Yongkang Road or past the dive bars scattered along Hengshan Road reveals out-in-the-open drug dealing of all substances, usually with Shanghai touts as the dealers and hipsters with popped-up collars and fedoras as the consumer. Marijuana has become so popular among Shanghai's legions of bored foreigners that there are now apps specifically for buying such substances in Shanghai.

This is an absurd state of affairs in a city that has so much to offer. Perhaps instead of sitting inside their villas all day, expats in Shanghai should try doing things like going out and exploring this exciting civilization. It's simply a matter of hopping on a bus and getting off at a random destination. There are swathes of Songjiang, Yangpu and Baoshan districts seldom trod by foreign feet. Believe it or not, people, there IS life beyond Jing'an wine bars and Hongqiao breweries.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Global Times.

Posted in: TwoCents, Metro Shanghai

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