Friday, April 24, 2009

Gan bei! (Surviving the baijiu ritual)

The other abiding memory - or memory loss - of my first visit to China involves my frequently being nearly baijiu'd to death by the English Faculties of the various teaching institutions I visited.

They like their liquor down there in the central western provinces; they seem to be far more hardy and determined drinkers than the Beijingers. I have very seldom become embroiled in an ordeal-by-baijiu since I've come to live here and, perversely, I rather miss it.

Back in '94, you see, foreigners were still an astounding novelty. Most of the small-town universities or teacher training colleges I was visiting would only have 1, 2, or 3 foreign teachers on their staff; and, as often as not, they would be the only foreigners in town. Shortly after I arrived, the friends I was staying with travelled to a remote town in the north of Hubei province for a conference of all the foreign teachers stationed in the surrounding provinces (almost all of them sourced via VSO, Britain's 'Voluntary Service Overseas' organization) - that was quite a party in itself; much baijiu drunk! These folks were all feeling so desperately deprived of non-Chinese company that they were ecstatic to be able to hang out with native English speakers, to meet someone new. These strangers became new friends almost instantly, and several of them invited - begged - me to come and visit them. It provided a convenient framework for my travel, so I was more than happy to oblige.

However, in each of the places I visited these foreign teachers, the arrival of another foreigner was a matter of even greater excitement to their Chinese colleagues; and in almost every case I was treated to a banquet (sometimes more than one). And in China, a banquet is always accompanied by toasting in baijiu, the dauntingly strong (and usually foul-tasting) local clear spirit.

I was warned by my new foreign friends what a trial this could be. Most of them had hints and tips to share with me for 'survival'. Most of these involved not drinking: you can discreetly spill your cup into your lap as you pick it up, or into a napkin or paper towel placed on the edge of the table for that very purpose.... or even just toss it over your shoulder as you raise the cup to your lips. You're usually drinking from a tiny porcelain thimble cup, or else from a small shot glass, so it's easy enough to conceal it completely behind your fingers; with just a little practice, you develop a conjuror's dexterity in briskly tilting the glass to empty most of its contents in a swift, concealed motion. The clutter of dishes on a Chinese dining table (and, usually, a large lazy-Susan in the middle) helps to obscure other diners' view of this subterfuge. And your Chinese hosts are mostly remarkably unobservant of such furtive behaviour. Nevertheless, the danger of exposure and 'loss of face' seemed too high to me. And it did seem to be a bit of a cheat. I experimented with these techniques a little, but it just didn't seem quite proper to me.

Other advice I was given ranged from ducking out of the toasting exchanges altogether by claiming ill health or teetotalism, to forcing yourself to vomit in the loo (in the good old Roman way), to drinking copious amounts of water to dilute the alcohol at every opportunity.

I wasn't very attracted by any of these, either.

No, the approach that I developed was more tactical, more psychological.

You see, the purpose of the baijiu-toasting tradition is to get the visitor drunk. (Many foreigners develop the paranoid conviction that the Chinese take special pleasure in trying to get foreigners drunk; but I think that the form is pretty much the same in an all-Chinese group.) Therefore, each member of the hosting group will toast you in turn. Individually. There are, say, 12 representatives of the English faculty and 1 of you. They may throw in a few group toasts as well, especially early on. But basically, the aim is to get you to down 15 or 20 shots before anyone else has had more than 4 or 5.

4 or 5, I think, is about the limit for most Chinese drinkers. As I've observed before, they allegedly lack the gene for metabolizing alcohol efficiently, so they tend to get red-faced, falling down, throwing up drunk very quickly indeed, especially once they start quaffing the baijiu. Indeed, a secondary aim of the procedure is to see which of the Chinese hosts will become ill or be forced to quit first. The weaker drinkers are usually goaded into entering the fray first - to embarrass them, and to give the stronger drinkers (or the more senior members of staff) a bit more breathing room.

So.... I worked out that what you need to do is get proactive: don't just sit there grinning like an idiot, waiting for the next toast; ALWAYS return a toast immediately. This is not common practice, and the Chinese usually get quite fazed by it. Imagine - if you've started with one or two group toasts, and then you are called upon to begin the individual toasting..... and then this crafty foreigner toasts you back! Suddenly you've had 4 shots in just over a minute and you realise you're on the fast train to oblivion.

It's a good idea to throw in a few group toasts as well. Just to put everyone on the back foot. English is acceptable, though a little bit of Chinese is obviously more impressive - even if it's just Youyi, 'friendship'! (Most of the Chinese toasts were rather elaborate, hackneyed political slogans, along the lines of "Celebrate enhanced cooperation between our two great nations!" I memorised one or two of these at the time, but I have forgotten them now.)

It was remarkable how well this worked. If you can get the first three or four toasters pissed while remaining upright yourself, most of the others will be intimidated into dropping out of the game.

Most. There will always be one or two hardcore guys who are determined to see whether they can outlast the foreigner. I think most times, despite my cunning tactics, I did end up drinking 15 or 20 shots, sometimes even more. I think I threw up at least once or twice as a result of these baijiu banquets (and I have only thrown up through alcoholic over-indulgence a handful of times in my life). I certainly retired to bed with the room spinning madly around my head on several occasions.

Ah, they were great times, though. I haven't really had quite that much fun in China ever since.

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