Unless you are from America, a legal drinking age of 18 sounds pretty normal. In most countries, including China, it’s very common to see 18-22 year old college students partying at bars and clubs, or even having a casual drink at dinner. However, in China, teenagers (especially foreigners) can easily purchase and consume alcohol before reaching the legal age of 18.
The “Foreign Look”
We may notice with our own kids, friends, and or families, that many kids today look a lot older than their current age. Even with people we see every day, or with whom we are well-acquainted with, age guessing can still be difficult. However, most people can give accurate ranges based on how they witness aging. For example, a Chinese person could probably guess the age of another Chinese person more accurately than one could guess someone of a different ethnicity. Some foreigners are frequently featured in Chinese media, however, add-ons such as make-up, dress, and role can also add a few years to each face. Therefore, making it seem like foreigners are older than they actually are.
Another reason is due to a lack of recognition. Up until 1978, China was closed off from the world. It was almost impossible to see anyone that wasn’t Chinese, or Asian for that matter, depicted on national media. There are still many people in China that haven’t seen foreigners in person, which makes them that much more foreign. Consequentially, when an International high school student walks into a liquor store to purchase alcohol, he is rarely questioned, because it is assumed that he is old enough. Shop owners often don’t even check ID.
According to Gail Zohar, radio show host and participant of the 2014 INN talk on underage drinking in China, even if a foreigner is clearly too young, most business owners still won’t intervene, because they do not want any drama with foreigners. Shop owners want to avoid negative encounters with foreigners due to the massive attention that it could bring. Clubs, bars, or shops that cater to foreigners attract other foreigners and young Chinese people, because foreigners are seen as cooler. A business that makes problems for foreigners can receive a bad rap that lingers thereafter.
Underage drinking in China is also very dangerous because it is not seen as dangerous. Zohar goes on to say, “China has a very relaxed drinking culture. Drinking and alcohol itself, is not seen as a drug”, something that one can be addicted to or an act that should occur in moderation. It is just as easy for underage Chinese nationals to purchase and consume alcohol. Although notably underage, 14- 17 year old Chinese nationals are still clubbing, bar hopping and purchasing alcohol with ease. This results in a drinking culture that is socially acceptable and particularly common among young people. Even foreigners who aren’t interested in alcohol themselves, may be introduced to alcohol by Chinese nationals or other foreigners who have been successfully buying and drinking alcohol for years.
Zohar also states, “Foreign families will come to China, and be relatively surprised at how safe it actually is.” Because of this, some parents let their kids stay out late, travel alone, and constantly drink because there is no fear of any major crimes occurring. However, as a parent, one should still take the necessary precautions in ensuring the safety of one’s child, his or her whereabouts, and health no matter how safe China is.
“Fake Alcohol” is a big trend in China, especially within international communities and neighborhoods. “Fake or illegally produced alcohol is alcohol that is produced in unlicensed distilleries or people’s home and intended for sale.” (Adams, 2016) Fake alcohol is not regulated and contains many ingredients dangerous to one’s health. This alcohol can contain ethanol, pesticides, and other harmful poisons that can cause blindness, seizures, and even death. This is especially dangerous to China’s youth due to their still developing bodies. This is a major factor in regards to safe drinking in China for anyone, even if you or your kids are of the legal drinking age. Anyone can be a victim of counterfeit alcohol exchanges, no matter their age. If you are the parent of a child that is underage and suspect them of purchasing or consuming alcohol, a conversation is in order. Talk to your kids about safe drinking, side effects and the potential risks of drinking. Although underage, it is better to talk to your children about consuming alcohol safely, rather than drinking without any knowledge of the potential risks.
Foreigners, especially the young, are easy targets for counterfeit alcohol sales due to their lack of familiarity with Chinese brands and the corresponding prices. Foreigners are also subject to be hounded by club or bar promoters looking to get rid of event tickets. Be alarmed if you are invited for “free drinks” at a club or bar. Free anything should be an immediate red flag, especially when alcohol is involved. If its “free” it’s most likely fake, and you shouldn’t drink it. Counterfeit alcohol may be rebranded with a more expensive or well-known brand so that consumers are attracted to it. Counterfeit alcohol has a very strong chemical smell, and often doesn’t smell like the real stuff at all. Underage drinkers may be less cautious about what they are drinking and how it tastes/ smells which puts them at a higher risk. Have open and honest conversations with your children. Make sure they know the dangers of excessive and irresponsible drinking.
Have “The Talk”
- What is the drinking age? Why is this law important and why should it be followed?
- How much is enough? Determine an approximate limit for your height/ weight.
- Explore different kinds of alcohol/ trustworthy brands (become familiar with appearances, (and if of age) taste/ smell of said brands)
- Go over the importance of alcohol safety and constant awareness when drinking. (Never leave your cup out, don’t drink from another’s glass etc.)
- Always go out and return with friends; don’t take (especially non-registered) taxis, public transportation etc. alone at night
- Set up a curfew. Appropriate times to return home or to be out with friends. (If your child is too old for a curfew or does not live at home, set up a system to let each other know of emergency situations)
- Bar/ Club settings: foreigners are easy sales targets
It may seem like having a conversation about alcohol with your sixteen year old high schooler may encourage him/ her to start drinking, or to now safely continue his/ her pre-existing drinking habits. However, it is always better to be safe than sorry when dealing with the health of you and your family. China’s nonchalant drinking culture can cause quite a mix up when the drinker is underage, ignorant, and resourceful, given how counterfeit alcohol is so readily at hand in Beijing.