Much has been written in English about the drinking culture of Taiwan and other places, but mostly these blogs focus on giving foreigners the surface knowledge they need to survive it. It is not uncommon for people to even lament the necessity of drinking for business, or to look down upon it. As a foreigner I can understand how this ritual can appear chaotic and pointless to the untrained eye, but this quick judgement is far from the reality of the situation. Drinking in Taiwan is about trust and 關係 (guanxi - relationships)...and maybe pride a little.
First, let me clarify what facet of drinking culture I am focusing on in this post. I am referring here to the drinking culture of business and networking. These are the nights of long dinners, 熱炒，and hostess clubs with one's boss, associates, or colleagues. These can also be a night of fun with friends, but it is something different from what one would find in a nightclub "meat market" or at a college bar.
I attended a few business dinners while I was in Taiwan. Once, for my job, a couple of times as a favor to me, and more than a few times so a token. I want to note here that people did not drink excessively on all of these occasions - and I am not going to single anyone out. This post is a mash-up of several different encounters. I am not a binge drinker myself for two reasons. In part because I don't like being sick, but mostly because I am a bit of a "lightweight." This is not to suggest that I am against drinking, I simply mean to explain that I was never able to keep up with the guys at these dinners. For this reason I ended up practicing every excuse in the book and then some, often to no avail. Ironically, this allowed me to hear directly from Taiwanese their thoughts on drinking as they shot down every one of my excuses one by one.
I naturally started with all the excuses that have always worked well for me back home, such as the gender excuse. This is where pride appeared to come in. I was first told that men and women both have livers and when I tried to protest that that was not the issue the man trying to grab my glass pointed to a another woman present and pondered how much stronger Taiwanese women must be if such a small girl could out drink me.
Another excuse I once tried to use was that Americans are taught not to drink in professional settings because it is considered poor form. In fact I very distinctly remember this topic coming up in a professionalism class I once took. This, however was just as quickly scoffed off. Alcohol is good for business I was told, how else can you know someone else's mind? People will tell you whatever they need to for business, so you need to know their mind first. How else can you really know someone? When people drink they say anything and so then you know who they are and you can see if you want to work with this kind of person or not. i.e. is this someone you get along with, whom you want to spend time with? This explanation is about both trust and 關係. The idea is that if someone is drunk what they say is more honest. It is also about building a relationship with the person, which cannot be done without knowing them.
I also learned quickly that getting drunk with colleagues is very different from the bars. People in these situations will take care of each other. One of the reasons I don't like binge drinking (aside from not enjoying the feeling of being sick) is because its not safe. After nights of drinking in Taiwan, however everyone coherent enough carefully checks with and watches as everyone else gets into cabs, and makes sure that the driver knows where to go in cases when the passenger may not be speaking so clearly. In my case, being female and foreign, I was almost always escorted home. A couple of times, near the very end of my trip when my Chinese had improved and I knew how to get around Taipei, I went home alone, but even then it was only after I insisted that I was OK to get home by myself.