find the Chinese a very hospitable people. Colleagues, neighbours,
friends of friends are always wanting to take us to dinner and it is
near impossible to actually pay for anything when we go. The food
arrives in quantities that we couldn't eat in a week and in an array
of varieties that is bewildering. Conversation, inevitably conducted
via whichever of the party has some English, is almost exclusively
centred around finding out all about us. I, along with my two fellow
foreign teachers, get seats reserved for the guests of honour. If we
let our plates fall empty for a moment we are immediately encouraged
to choose more food and fill them again.
The only way to pay is to sneak away unobserved and do it before
anyone else can. Our hosts will also usually take us and return us in
taxis which we are also not allowed to pay for.
And then there is alcohol.
Alcohol is an important part of the social ritual and at meal times
comes in two forms. There is "pijiu" which is beer and there is
"baijiu" which is a white spirit that burns tongue, throat and sundry
internal organs as you drink it. Fortunately baijo tends to be served
only at slightly more formal meals with friendly meals sticking, for
the most part to pijiu.
Nevertheless beer presents some problems too. To begin with, it is
usually drunk from shot-sized glasses and tossed back as shots are,
the glasses being refilled with incredible speed and efficiency. The
Chinese hosts at any meal seem to take it as a matter of pride that
they can render their western guests drunk and insensible in the
shortest possible time. So a meal for eight people will initially be
accompanied by at least double that number of large bottles of beer,
most of which will find its way into the western glasses first. More
beer will arrive periodically throughout the proceedings. To aid them
in this quest for your inebriation they will fill the glasses to the
very brim time after time and with a cheerful cry of "gan bei" down
it in one. "Gan bei" literally means "dry the cup".
We were recently invited to a meal with a local family who come from a
region with a slight, but significant variation. The beer was poured
not into shot sized glasses but into the bowls normally used for rice
which hold about three times as much. The toasting went on at the
normal rate but with three times the beer volume each time.
I decided to try a tactic I had come across on another blog, but first
I need a word of explanation. I am double the age of either of my
colleagues and while I like to consider myself youthful and energetic,
there is no escaping the fact that I do look older – and the Chinese
respect age. This can be a source of annoyance – as when I was asked
if I would like to play snooker at the senior citizens' centre, or as
in the frequent solicitations after my health – but it occurred to me
that it could also work for me. The other blog had suggested that all
you need is a face-saving excuse and you can cry off some of the
constant toasting. So when the bowl was first filled up I said that I
would love to drink with them but because I am old I cannot drink as
quickly. They accepted this without a murmur of complaint and
subsequently left me to drink at my own pace. They even taught me the
alternate toast, "sui yi" which means "as you wish" which, under
banqueting etiquette allows you to take part in the toast but,
crucially, without requiring you to drink it all in one go.
After that the evening went well with my colleagues being the focus of
the toasting and me being the focus of the occasional sour look from
them as I drank "as I wished". Occasionally I replaced my happy "sui
yi" with a "gan bei" which seemed to please my hosts even more – the
old fellow making an effort. I found it all pretty funny.
In friendly gatherings such as this was there is an additional hazard.
Drinking games. Two are commonly played and the apparently childish
nature of them is ignored as they proceed in earnest. One is the
children's game rock/paper scissors ( shitou -scissors, jianzi
-fabric, bu -rock). At each turn the loser is expected to down his
glass of beer just as in a toast. The other is a slightly more
complicated variation of the same thing with finger counting
substituting for the familiar gestures. Given that everyone plays
several rounds against everyone else it can result in the losers
becoming intoxicated rather quickly. Once again the age card got me
out of too much of this.
Now that I've discovered the tactic I shall keep it in my armoury for
all future occasions.