An American Bartender in Shanghai - 1 Year of Lessons Learned

Summer is coming up quick in Shanghai which means that it’s been a year since I’ve lived here. I’d like to think that I have learned a few things. Not a lot, or even Chinese, but I blame it all on my public school education, beautiful women, whiskey and a general lack of commitment. Yet, here we are, a review of sorts macerated to a pulp, run through an alembic still, charcoal filtered, triple distilled, cut with water and presented to you on the rocks with a mandarin orange twist. 12, easy to digest, lessons of living the good life in the far, far, east. Let us begin.

Lesson 1 – Pace Yourself
Shanghai, China goes off like bottle rockets every single evening and if you don’t pace yourself you’ll wind up slumped over a bar stool in a noodle shop, eyes blood shot and morning creeping up on you like a car jacker every single day of your life. What I mean is, unless you stay home every night, not drinking is not an option. You will want to go out every night till all hours of the night - at least I did when I first got here. Popping 15 or 16 bottles of Champagne at a club will never bore when you’re partying but by the 137th time in a week hearing that Barbara Streisand song, it will start to grate.

Lesson 2 – Easy on the Smokes
Even though smoking anywhere and everywhere is completely accepted and a pack of smokes will run under $1, that doesn’t mean you HAVE to smoke everywhere. Truth be told, I never smoked before I came to Shanghai. In San Francisco I would have a drag or two if I wanted to be a poser and talk to all the cute chicks outside the bars, but I was never serious about it until I came out here, then whoa! For a good month or so I was like a chain smoking, womanizing, fast talking, joke cracking, custom made three piece suit wearing trouble maker - but I quit the smoking and I’m glad I did, not for the health of it but the hangover was a bitch.

Lesson 3 – China is not Friends with Social Media
The third thing I learned living in China was that social media is not a thing like we’re used to using back in the states. Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Gmail (sometimes) and whatever else you high tech kids back home are using are complete contraband out here. We have to use a VPN which stands for Virtual Private Network and connects your computer to another proxy which does some techno kung fu and hooks you up to the world at large. Forget HBO, or Cable or other conveniences - for the most part if you want to watch something get your ass to a bootsy DVD store.

Lesson 4 – Get to Know Bootsy
Bootsy ass DVD stores are the shit. There is no copyright law here in the mainland which means any movie, any time is available. Sold on a corner or the back of a bike for about 5rmb, all the new releases, TV shows and classics are at your fingertips. What we lack in broadcast television here we make up for with a thriving black market. Then there are the xbox games, you can buy a modded xbox 360 for around $150 US then any game after is also 5 rmb. Now keep in mind, this isn’t only about pirating but in Shanghai there are no other ways to buy DVD’s due to the governments heavy handed censorship of most western things. As for video games, it’s the same. It’s not piracy, it’s a way of life.

Lesson 5 - Get condoms from America
Nothing more to say about this one. Buy American.

Lesson 6 – Variety is the Flavor of Life
Check the label on everything you eat, the flavors are weird to say the least. There’s seafood flavored Oatmeal, Meat flavored Lays chips, dried fish candy, wrapped duck tongues, chicken feet and these are all things in the 7-11. I have had several occasions where I’ve eaten flavor combos that have no reason for existence. It’s not my country though and while my American tastes go for salty and sweet things the local taste here is different from Green Pea flavored ice cream to Buddha knows what. Respect.

Lesson 7 – Shanghai is Full of Money
Everyone is much, much, much, much richer than I am out here. A third of my friends went to Ivy League schools, a good 50% are multi millionaires and the rest are models. Then there is me… a lowly, drink slinging, ruggedly handsome (thank you very much), semi-literate rapscallion who can’t even grow a full mustache. But we get along and people are only ostentatious when they are out in the big nightclubs. The wealth here is incredible, but so are the friendships. Shanghai is like the wild west and a boom town all at once. There is money in the air. If I could make a net to catch it all I’d be on the cover of Forbes Magazine with two busty women flanking me and a flying limousine in the background. For now, I’m ok being poor and happy. My friends are rich and entertaining. Everyone that isn’t born here has a really interesting story of why they came in the first place. From investment banker runaways, to con men, to international bartenders there is always something, always someone, with and outrageous story and I love it.

Lesson 8 – Get Yourself Some Custom Made Threads
One of my favorite things about living in China is that it’s dirt cheap to have custom clothes made. There are fabrics markets everywhere that will custom tailor anything you want. It’s awesome to stroll into a store with a copy of GQ, or photos you took of yourself on your camera phone at the Louis Vuitton store wearing a suit, and having it made out of materials that you select yourself. Be forewarned (hey, that is what I am here for) that this is no simple process. I showed up with everything and it was still so overwhelming that I needed a drink just to calm myself down afterwards. So many questions asked about every detail of the suits I was having made. I was so wound up I ended up having several large gins and heading to the gym for 2 hours to work out the stress. In the end though it was worth it, my custom made suits are balla! Holla!

Lesson 9 - Haggle
A thing that is important to know in China is that no one pays full price for anything here. With the exception of a department store or a restaurant you better haggle and you better haggle well or you will get trampled on faster than a kid in a soccer riot. In fake (black) markets, there is a whole production that goes into the haggling process. This is repeated in almost every haggling situation. Lets say you see something you like, say a pair of Diesel jeans… The girl at the shop, they are almost always girls, will see that you are a foreigner and ask you some absurd price, say 1000 RMB then you counter on a calculator that they handily provide with a more reasonable price, like 100 RMB then they throw a hissy fit and you walk off. Remember, always walk off. Then they chase after you with a more reasonable price, do not accept. Reaffirm your original price or even go up 25 RMB. They will tell you they are giving you friend price, then accept. If they don't do the chase routine then your price is too low. That’s how we haggle in the ‘hai.

Lesson 10 – Getting Paid
Never expect to get paid on time but always expect to be hassled for bills. Being a foreigner as I am and an American to boot, you can always expect that the local people assume you to have more money then you do. So if there is a rent bill, Nigerian tab or utility bill, they expect you pay it pronto. But in terms of getting paid, if you don’t have patience in China you’ll lose your cool too often too quickly. Always expect to receive your wages with a 2 day grace period. That’s how it’s done.

Lesson 11 – Street Food
Street food is the shit but will probably give you the shits. I live my life to the fullest. I take risks, go home with strange women, go to crazy bars, eat late night food. Is it always good for me? Probably not, but life is meant to be lived while you can. If Columbus played it safe we'd probably never have the good ole’ US of A. Street food in China is about accepting your own mortality and conquering fear. I hate these people who come here and never leave their safe little bubbles, don’t eat with the locals and get a completely white washed version of China. You need to get your hands dirty, sure it will mess up your stomach for a day sometimes unless you take precautions but no noodles taste better than ones served on the side of the street on a little wooden wheel barrel cart washed down with some cheap local bear. The trick to street food is picking the right thing to eat - don’t eat in the midday heat, that food is spoiled. Used common sense… if the stall is empty the food has been sitting around too long, no bueno. If the stall is busy and things are being cooked over an open flame or boiled late at night outside a busy club or bar then you are good to go. A real safety tip and something I can not stress enough is have a good flask with you containing high content liquor, be it whisky or something more. After every dodgy meal take at least 3 big swigs. This will kill everything that could do you harm from your meal, usually. Worst comes to worse though and you’re left stuck on a toilet in Shanghai it still beats the hottest night club in Nebraska.

Lesson 12 – People are People
The last, and one of the most important things, that I’ve learned about China is that although the land and language is far different than our own culture, the people are pretty much the same, especially among the youth and 30ish and under crowd. They play our music, our movies and really love our culture. Sure, I’m usually the token white friend and I’m always asked to do the rap part of the songs at Karaoke and later to explain what a, badunkadunk is or a bootie call or any other number of the phrases we all used ironically last year but are still mysteries in China, but people are people and we all share a love of fun, friendship and adventure.

So what’s the take away here? If you’re ever going to go away for a week, a month or even a year, then forget about Europe - it’s boring and played out. It’s like Monica Bellucci, in that every kid with a backpack and a EuroRail pass has already hit that over the summer (snap!). Instead, check out Asia. Come for the boozing, the food, the unknown and the unbelievable and stay for the happy ending - or at least have a shot or ten with me.

To the bar Batman - the next round is on me.


Logan Brouse is a MetroWize correspondent, Bar Tender and Serial Traveler. For more of his "American Bartender in Shanghai" series or any of his other musings click here.