“Doing the happy”

It’s not what you think . . . if you’re thinking that. The title is from a Chinese friend’s WeChat message while she was in Togo. She was excited that her local host planned to take her out that night. Both women are in their twenties. While the host enjoys her nights out during the weekends, my friend has no concept of that. She doesn’t drink, so bars or pubs are irrelevant places. She hasn’t been to a dance club because she doesn’t know how to dance. Her idea of “doing the happy” is based on the few times we’ve been out in Guangzhou. We’ve had dinners together. Once we even went to an Irish pub after a farewell dinner with a group of friends. We also went biking at one of the parks near the outskirts of Guangzhou. But, certainly, “doing the happy” couldn’t simply be linked to these activities. The way I understand it, “doing the happy” means having fun that’s unattached to work. I should mention that my friend is a businesswoman, doing wholesale. Business in Guangzhou could and often does entail working seven days a week. So, does this mean that Chinese people in their twenties, who are entrepreneurs, can’t find time for or don’t know how to have fun?


A Muslim restaurant that my friend and I came across when we were looking for a place to go for dinner

In another example, a 20-something-year-old woman had asked me to explain to her the concept of a party and partying. This woman lived in the US for at least a year before. She was an undergraduate student and had the opportunity to study in San Diego. I know she met non-Chinese people and visited different places while she was abroad. But, how could she not have had a chance to party or go to a party (or more)? Perhaps she has an exaggerated imagination of what it is, and the ones she was invited to did not fit? Could a party be an event that involves an abundance of alcohol consumption and sex as well as loud music like what’s shown on some American tv shows (that many young adults watch online)? Nevertheless, this woman couldn’t give me a description of whatever it was that she imagined a party to be. I might have offered the following explanation to her: a party is a gathering of a group of people or friends. We socialize and often there’s food and sometimes alcohol and music. There could be dancing, but not necessarily. The point is to have fun.

I think my description didn’t impress her. This was probably because it resonated much like Chinese people’s idea of friends or colleagues getting together for dinner, drinks, or ktv/karaoke (the information is from three years ago, but here’s a guide for those unfamiliar with the ktv phenomenon), called ju hui or 聚会. The Chinese characters literally mean “meet together.” Even the most social event that friends as well as colleagues could come together for that entails drinking, eating (snack food), singing . . . and . . . sometimes . . . dancing – ktv/karaoke – doesn’t seem to qualify as a party/partying or “doing the happy.”

In South Africa, I found myself in a completely different situation. There’s “phuza Thursday” that’s encouraged on public television by a cider company. In the commercial, friends drinking this cider together kick off a weekend of parties . . . fun. There’s heavy drinking as well as eating, mostly braais or barbecues. Music and dance complete the weekend of friends coming together for fun. There are also more formal dinner parties that I’ve been invited to, especially at the end of the year. A three course meal could be served or dinner could be buffet style, but there would be wine as well as entertainment. These social gatherings are recognized (referred to) as parties. So, why are there parties in South Africa (and the US), but only juhui in China?

A juhui at a ktv could take place any night of the week. A night out at one of these venues typically involves, what some would say, over-drinking or binging. I have WeChat acquaintances who have posted such nights out, showing cases upon cases of alcohol being ordered throughout the night.

night out at a ktv with locals

This was just the beginning of the night at a ktv where I did fieldwork

I’ve also observed firsthand (among Chinese research participants and friends) the heavy drinking that goes on inside the private rooms of different ktvs. In cases where hostesses are hired to help entertain guests, there could also be sex (some women who work at ktvs prefer to not talk about their occupation). So, why does it seem that Chinese people don’t have the concept of fun or a party?

From what I’ve observed from having lived and worked in Guangzhou for two years, social functions are often intimately intertwined with hierarchies and obligations. Both are most obvious in the seating arrangements at a dinner gathering and the toast. I’m still unclear about the seating arrangements and actually make a point to not know them to keep myself outside of their order of things. But, usually, the guest of honor has a designated seat, somewhere to the right or left of the host (who could be a woman or man, but often the latter) or the person who has initiated the gathering and is expected to pay. The host, I believe, takes the seat facing the door (a position of power). Then, there’s the person who’s the host’s right hand person. That person also has a

Hong Han Hotel, Fuqing - A restaurant with only private rooms for dinner

A typical private banquet room at restaurants across China

special seat at the dinner table. As for the toast, the host could initiate it, but it’s not uncommon that a guest would raise his/her glass first, asking everyone to join him/her in thanking the host for the invitation. Other guests, lower in the totem pole, would take turns toasting the host, guest of honor, and second-in-command.  Out of obligation, it seems to me, those at the top of the hierarchy would toast back. The dinner and night could be long with continuous rounds of drinks. Being a foreigner, I’m exempt from toasting anyone of any rank. However, I’ve been at dinners with students, who’d felt obligated to lead me in a toast or more to the host. I’ve observed something similar at a ktv once, when I conducted fieldwork in another Chinese city further north. The wealthiest, and, thus, most powerful, person was given the seat facing the door . . . even though we all shared a long couch and they were suppose to all be friends, who met often. The rounds of drinks followed a similar order.

The two questions that I still don’t have answers to are: (1) is it the layers of hierarchies and obligations attached to social functions that make having fun or “doing the happy” difficult; and (2) is there a notion of friendship or how does friendship look like among Chinese people within China. Party, against this backdrop, seems to be an ideal for (upwardly mobile) Chinese youths – an antithesis to juhui – that is free of hierarchy and obligation. If one could jettison social expectations and roles, then partying would be imaginable . . . and possible?

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