Thursday, April 07, 2011
Off The Rickshaw: A Libertine's Guide to Living a Healthy Life of Debauchery in the People's Republic of China - Volume 2
This is the second installment of Keith Petit's two-part Off The Rickshaw series. The first volume, "On Smoking," was published in July of 2010 and has since appeared in Vibe, Men's Health, and Better Homes and Gardens. This, his second volume, "On Drinking," is likely to be the final installment of the series. The author, quite frankly, doesn't want to get into any of his other vices, and sincerely doubts that his readers would care to hear about them.
About the Author: Keith Petit does not currently drink or smoke, and has never drinked nor smoked in his entire life. He is an active member of the Nanchong Women's League of Teetotalers and Contract Bridge Players, as well as his local Joy Luck Club, JLC Lodge No. 451. He does not recommend smoking or drinking to his readership, however badly his writing may drive them to swallow the contents of the nearest open container within reach of the keyboard.
If at the end of this article you remain curious about the infinitely hued and shaded spectrum of human depravity, the author suggests that you check out Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller from your local public library, making sure to avert the steely, menopausal glare of your local public librarian.
Volume 2: On Drinking
~*A TWOPARTITE, TWO-PART FUGUE IN TWO PARTS*~
When I pause to consider the vast, beer-bellied body of literature about alcohol - and all of the great literature written by alcoholics - I figure that I really ought to be quoting Ernest Hemingway or Malcolm Lowry or Christopher Hitchens at the top of the page. But to my mind, no one has put it more succinctly than Homer Simpson.
"Beer: the cause of, and solution to, all of life's problems."
By that infallible Simpsonian logic, I cannot advocate drinking any more than I can recommend abstaining from it. In China, there are certain social predicaments (called banquets) that alcohol will enhance significantly. But there remain other, more important facets of your life (your job, your reputation, your liver) that alcohol will not enhance at all. So in general, and in China in particular, the author recommends that you enjoy alcohol in moderation - and when your boss won't let you, at least enjoy it in abundance.
On the Varieties of Chinese Liquor
The many nerve tonics of China can be metabolized and broken down into three families of liquor, somewhat akin to their alcoholic cousins in the West. There is beer, there is wine, and there is alcohol.
But already, in this early stage of classification, things have gotten more complicated than they really ought to be.
Due either to a flawed translation, or a deliberate obfuscation intended to get everyone shamefully sloshed very early in the night, what the Chinese call "wine" is often, in fact, hard liquor. Baijiu – literally "white alcohol" – is among the most potent substances known to non-Russian man, but its name is rendered in English as "white wine," something, clearly, it is not.
On the flip side (and here, the brewing companies are probably the culprit), what the Chinese call "beer" is what we in the West would call "pisswater."
I will address these confusing misappropriations in further detail as the night progresses. Which reminds me, I gotta go to the shop real quick. But bear in mind that when you accept a glass of wine in China, you will more than likely find yourself staring down the barrel of a shot glass. And after you've put away a Chinese beer, or five, or ten, you will suffer all of the urinary distress of drinking an equivalent amount of Western brewskis, with none of the more pleasant side-effects. In China, nothing you drink is quite what it seems. Remember that. Beer is water. Wine is vodka. Ignorance is strength.
The Five-Second Plan
The Chinese are far better at making five-year plans than they are at making plans for the evening. Hopefully, on an unsuspecting Tuesday night, getting completely trashed isn't anywhere on your agenda. But then, This Is China: your agenda doesn't matter. On an unsuspecting Tuesday night, around 9:30 in the PM, you will receive a phone call from a friend, a stranger, or (in all likelihood) your employer. He will invite you out for some "white wine." Sounds good. When? This weekend? No, your boss says. Now. I am waiting for you. Outside. You part the blinds and see that, yes indeed, a black Lexus is parked there, idling just outside your window. From here on out, the narrative of your unsuspecting Tuesday night collapses into a totally fatalistic Choose Your Own Adventure book in which the choices have been blacked out from the text. You can make decisions, but they don't mean anything. You can run, but you can't hide. You can hem and haw, you can turn down the invitation outright, you can terminate the call and toss your phone under the bed like a live grenade. You can even mention to your employer that you have to work in the morning. So do I, he'll say. Whatever you do, short of suicide, your prolonged existence in China amounts to your accepting the invitation. And your accepting the invitation amounts to your consuming more alcohol than you really ought to on a school night. At the behest of your boss, no less. Well. Hell. At least he's buying.
The Chinese love to propose toasts. Or, I don't know - I'm not really sure whether they love it or not. Do songbirds love singing? Do crickets love chirping? Duz lolcats luvz cheezburgerz? Who knows? Who cares? It's what they do.
Whereas most American nights on the town are merely kicked off with a toast, Chinese benders live and die by the toast. A toast in America is a one-time thing: the brittle clinking of fork to glass, or a "let's get down to business" pregame huddle.
In China, the toast is a recurring nightmare. It is a tender one-on-one moment that serves two purposes that I am aware of. A: It establishes rapport (thus, a connection) with a valuable social contact. And B: It ensures that said valuable social contact is at least as drunk as you are.
Everyone is expected to toast everyone else at least once. If there are ten people at table, you must toast nine of them. (You wouldn't toast yourself because that would be weird.) And all nine of the people at table must toast you in return. Now, I'm no mathematician, but I would imagine that toasting nine people and nine people toasting you adds up to an astronomical, disastrous number of toasts. Either that, or it's just eighteen. Please do let me know.
During a toast, you must look your toasting partner in the eye and express (in Chinese or in Chinglish) your hopes and aspirations for your shared future as drinking buddies and business associates. A useful expression to know is tian tian kuai le, which translates into Chinglish as "happy every day!" If Chinese isn't your strong suit, the Chinglish version will also suffice. You might want to mention how overjoyed you are to be toasting the person you are toasting, whether you know who they are or not. It is, after all, entirely likely that you met them five minutes ago but completely forgot who they were after that oh-so-memorable 27th toast with Vice Principal Liu. Either way, you must act as though you are ecstatically happy to meet so-and-so and in full possession of all of your senses. It is important not to appear drunk, however drunk you may be, however drunk everyone else assuredly is. Saving face is everything. Which invites the question: what does face have to do with anything when everyone is shitfaced? My dear reader, I have not the foggiest fucking idea.
The Social Lubricant Network
The Chinese do not drink their beers straight from the bottle for public health reasons, and they do not drink their beers in pint glasses, for logistical reasons. They drink their beers from shot glasses. This helps out the lightweights of the banquet scene, who can carefully mete out their drinking and abstain from shots as their field of vision starts to blur. Likewise, it benefits the boozers, who can rapidly put away beerstuff by hooking up with other boozers via the toasting system described above. Vice Principal Liu! You again? Happy every day, man! Clink. It's like Facebook for alcoholics.
There are two kinds of toasts in China. There is the gan bei toast. Gan bei translates to "dry the glass," and when someone proposes a gan bei toast, you are obligated to man up and "chug" or "pound" the booze. Then there is the xiao he toast. The xiao he, or "little drink," involves a ginger sip of the glass from both parties. To mix up the two toasts - to take a shot when the other person is just sipping - is a minor faux pas that can be glossed over easily enough by making a few extra toasts on the side. But what cannot be forgiven is drinking independently. If the party starts to get slow, and it will, you are not allowed to pour yourself a beer and drink it. Should you grow weary of the company, and you will, you cannot abscond to a dark corner and drink by your lonesome. To botch a toast is a slight but forgivable gaffe. To quit drinking before everyone else is a mere act of wussiness. But to drink while others are not drinking is a deadly sin.
When the Chinese go out drinking, they drink as a unit. They drink together, they giggle together, and they puke together. They have a system. They pace their drinking as a means of separating the men from the boys. Or the women from the boys, for that matter. When everyone at the table is drinking at the exact same rate, the lightweights are the first ones to be TKO'ed, while the heavyweights are free to remain in the ring until there is blood all over the mat. A kind of intramural drinking hierarchy unfolds: Dean Wang can't hold his liquor; Vice President Liu can't even hold his chopsticks at this point; Mr. Pan, however, seems to possess a liver of titanium alloy.
Drinking in China is almost always competitive, and the Chinese have a system, the sheer organization of which puts March Madness to shame. If everyone were to start drinking independently of the toasting system, it would inject chaos into the all-important ranking schema and we'd have another Bowl Championship Shitshow on our hands.
To be a heavyweight in China is a great honor, and you will gain much face in this country by drinking everyone else under the table. If you grew up in America and cut your teeth on all the fine high-gravity lagers that your neighborhood Conoco station had to offer, you will almost certainly be considered a heavyweight in China. As a Westerner, drinking among the Chinese is almost too easy, like playing a video game with cheat codes activated. Over the course of the evening, you will successfully tuck away an uncountable number of watered-down Chinese lagers. By 10 PM, everyone else will be stumbling around like defective marionettes, flinging sauteed eggplant all over the floor. And by the end of the night, you will have beaten the game, i.e. everyone else will be vomiting in the squatter toilets while you sit there at the banquet table, alone, bored off your ass, noshing on cold cucumbers and feeling more sober than when you arrived.
I should add that the above paragraph applies only to beer nights. Baijiu nights are different. When it comes to Sino-American drinking relations, baijiu is, alas, the great equalizer.
The Translucent Scourge of the Far East
As a rule, the Chinese cannot handle their beer, but I have seen them perform incredible feats of baijiu absorption.
Baijiu is somewhat analogous to vodka, insofar as it is a clear liquid that is more alcohol than anything else. But it is also far worse than vodka. It is far worse than any fluid - bodily or otherwise - ever concocted by man or beast. I can't physically stomach baijiu. Most Westerners cannot. Regardless of the loss of face involved, I will always refuse baijiu at banquets, both because I can't bear the agony of drinking it, and because I don't want to wind up passing out overnight in a construction site. For chemical reasons that can't be entirely related to alcohol content, baijiu will (in the parlance of our times) "fuck you up" in the sort of way that, believe me, you do not want to be fucked up.
Richard Nixon had the dubious pleasure of sampling the Cadillac of baijius, Maotai, when he graced Chairman Mao and Zhou Enlai with his jowly, hemorrhoidal presence back in 1972. A man with a strong genetic predisposition for Bitter Beer Face, it remains hard to tell from the photographs just how disgusted Nixon was after his first Chinese gan bei. But the banquet, in the end, was a rollicking success, leading Nixon to proclaim, "If we drink enough Moutai, we can solve anything." It is my hope, for the rest of the world's sake, that the Sino-American policy of Maotai diplomacy has long since been discontinued.
~*TO BE CONTINUED IN PART TWO OF THIS TWOPARTITE, TWO-PART FUGUE WHICH IS POSSESSED OF TWO PARTS*~