73 - Ganbei


“Gan1bei1”, often pronounced gambei, is the chinese equivalent of “Cheers”. Well that’s what you think at first; then you retranslate it as “Bottoms up”. This is a far better version and much more accurate, but the routine is to down the drinkcompletely—and show the bottom of the glass to the other person or persons who said “ganbei”. Literally, dry cup.

For reasons I never knew, I was requested to visit Jinan in Shandong province for a lunch. I was very much the western face being used as a ticket. Accepting that in return for a free trip across the country seemed a fair deal. I spent the whole trip in some sort of mental fog, definitely sub-standard and indeed unaware of that state until quite a bit later. Which didn’t help, as you will see.

I was met at the airport, I think, and whisked off to lunch in an immediate fashion. I failed to recognise the car and driver as family of a former pupil and met on a previous visit. Let this be the only time I have thought all chinese to look the same, but in my defence I had twice previously made the mistake of assuming the driver was someone I should know and not a servant. Three years later I still treat all drivers as equals but am aware that the person driving might be an employee, not be family.

The lunch arrangements were typical; a select room upstairs in a nice location. One wall all glass but muslin-curtained, temperature high but bearable. Vague reason given for being there, “good for business” - not mine, but some indirect colleague. All about image and one of the aspects of ‘face’. Twelve at the table; on my right is the person with the best English, on my left is the patron, the mover and shaker that is the reason for the lunch. Yes, I am being vague, but that is the way I felt at the time. This is written long afterwards and I’m trying to capture the sense of being swept along by occasion and  circumstance. Tea appears in front of one, in a no-handled, tiny cup. And drunk, and filled - and every tim a sip is taken, it will be refilled to the brim. The table fills and I’m sure I said “Ni hao” many times - my complete lexicon at the time. The senior person is a principal in the education department and I am pressed to choose a drink. I am offered white wine, Baijiu - I know pijiu, beer, hong jiu, red wine, so baijiu is obviously a similar drink. And so, I am told, white wine. Conversation moves on around the table and I’m thinking I’m beginning to distinguish single words from the mass of noise. It seems a little off that people are picking different drinks where in the west we’d all drink the same, and I am confused at this - I seem to be the only person on white wine, but this was clearly an expected choice and I was not offered an alternative in any way I could choose politely to decline. Anyway, what’s the hassle?

Shandong is famous for its welcomes. I had been once before, maybe a few months earlier, and been whisked around the sights. This time was to be a flying visit and I was expecting to see nothing but the airport and inside cars and the lunch venue. So it was proving  - and did. I am presented with a present in a box, which turns out to be a clay statue or maybe a doll, clearly of some local significance. It is too large to put under a chair and I put it by the wall out if the way.

So the first glass of baijiu (by-Joe) arrives. Neat white spirit in its own porcelain jar; ‘its own’ because the girl carrying it will put it down only briefly, looking at all times to keep my glass filled. Of course I interpret this as pressure to drink; I can’t ignore her, however surreptitious she might try to be. If I pick up the cup, I soon discover, several others will grab their drink and if I sip and put the glass down it is like the play in soccer reaching the goal but no shot occurring - I can feel the anticipation, the crowd’s roar but don’t see what is going on and why the excitement. This is rapidly taken out of my hands at the first toast; ganbei they say, throw their drink down the gullet and show me the empty glass. Okay, we can do this; that explains why the stuff tastes pretty disgusting, but it doesn’t explain why I am the only one with this particular drink. Something to do with being the foreign devil? The visitor from far away? Anyway, food presently arrives in the usual fashion, a plate at a time; the lazy Susan (revolving glass plate on which the food sits) steadily fills and food is consumed. I’m getting the hang of chopsticks, but still drop food. I don’t notice that they do the same, I only see their relative ease, their surprise when I succeed in getting food to the mouth without dropping it and I am very conscious of best-behaviour rules. I try to converse with the linguist adjacent. All the time there is movement in and out of the room, people going to answer phones, bringing and removing food, needing to visit the facilities - the door is redundant. And the toasts continue: ganbei. Presently, the senior man on my left removes himself, to be replaced by an even bigger cheese (they say big potato here, in English) and this guy might be the provincial education minister. Ganbei. Whatever, the toasts start all over again and this guy does, I think, drink baijiu, but I’ve finished that bottle already and after three more toasts he nominates someone else to do his drinking for him. Cheat. And ganbei. Again.

I’m impressed that the food is soaking up the liquor and I’m trying to make sense of what is going on. I’m aware that the mother tongue is slipping away from me, in the sense that the words are coming too freely but they’re not yet slurring. Or if they are, I’ve not noticed. The second bottle finished - so I’ve drunk one and a half or more - and the fish course has come and gone, followed by the rice porridge and then the fruit, so we can stop. Challenge; to walk out without hitting the walls. Well managed, right through the middle of the space, no wandering from intended course, doing really well.... I have a buzz between the ears, but all things considered, I think I did everything I am supposed to have done. Forgot the gift. Damn.

Into the car, off to the airport. Definitely, flying visit. Travel a blur; whatever that occasion was, I did what was wanted; lots of knee patting (get off me, please). Arrive at airport and very glad for the air. Reach the concourse, feeling like a marionette with satellite dolls so I know where to go by being led from behind. Very spooky, like being in a film where the hero team is to march bravely into the whatever. Then the strings on the doll are cut. All at once. I hit the deck, hard. I can hear, but I can’t speak. The drink was in a different vehicle and has just caught up. I hear someone say something like “not on the plane in that state” and the car reappears. I empty my stomach on the kerb (I think I missed the car, but probably not; that stuff will take paint off). A hotel appears, a room appears. I still don’t know how my lenses went into their jar, but I remember being able to explain that I was okay enough to need sleep and leaving alone, that I wouldn’t drown in my sleep....

And at nine the next morning I am well enough for breakfast. One of the secondary staff notes with some bitterness that I’m in a better state after 12-15 hours asleep (rubbish: unconscious, mostly) than he is still from the similar drinking two days earlier. I feel good. So, after convincing people I really am well, back to the airport, on the next flight and back to Xi’an.

Horrid experience. My hip was still sore six months later.

On a later occasion that academic year I am in Hangzhou, setting and marking papers for the new centre there. Part of the weekend there (fantastic site) included a dinner in on of the pagodas close to the West lake, Xi Hu. Tea is grown around the lake and we drank some with suitable reverence, The dinner party assembled at the pagoda from about four and I realised that the whole building was in use by us; that it could only be used by one party at a time. Since a pagoda is tall and thin, and since we were eating on the top floor, I wondered about facilities early on and discovered that the cooking was being done 50-100m away (so downhill) and everything, water included, was being carried to the top of the building. Picture of one of the several (three?) pagodas somewhere here.

The head of the host school (think university vice-chancellor, since the school numbers will be several thousand) is playing host, being a big potato. The number of westerners is six and the total to eat is sixteen - so you have an idea how large the circular table is, how the space is filled and we do indeed fill that top floor, with just enough space to get up and wander off for a smoke on the balcony (or a photo opportunity). As before, drinks are chosen but now I know how to do this, so I pick red wine. Several pick beer. Two guys in particular are seasoned beer drinkers and drinking partners. with what I might characterise as a Northern habit for volume. The head and his acolytic (!) staff have need for ganbei to occur. The two easterners in our party (one Chinese, one Malaysian) are wise to the game and pick non-alcoholic drinks, but the Chinese, being senior Head Office, is required to change his mind. And so the game begins. But this time all is different, for we have all had experience (it is the end of the academic year, so the newest-comers has been in-country for nine or ten months). Ganbei is great fun. The Head gets off his chair and goes round the table making toasts. We play, happily, each to his or her own chosen poison. There’s a delicious moment when the Head toasts one of the practised drinkers; he only half fills his glass so the Brit (it would be wouldn’t it?) grabs the bottle, says something vague about “Fair dos”, fills both to the brim and downs the glass comfortably, to be followed immediately by his pal in the next seat doing exactly the same  - to each of them. At which point the Head needs to promote someone to drink for him. The vice-principal was playing the same game and the volumes drunk were fairly equal around the room - but when the playing field is level, the westerner has huge advantages. Our senior colleague from Shanghai was having a bad time and went very quiet. I captured a picture of him which I keep it to remind me of being in a similar state in a different province. You just read that.

Been there, done that. No more drinking, thank you.

Indeed, I find that my tolerance has markedly declined since that event in Shandong. Not only am I at least 5kg lighter, sometimes twice that, but my limit has fallen enough for the second glass of wine to be the last, for more drink just guarantees a bad head for all of the following day. A long time ago the same bad head would result from drinking bottles, not glasses. But then the point of drinking has been lost; we drink for conviviality, not competition. or we should - and, it turns out, that was the problem in Shandong; the mission, passed off as being sociable, is to get the visitor as drunk as is possible. With no thought to the consequences. I think this may be a way, historically, of ascertaining the level of deceit being practised by the parties concerned, working on an assumption that a drunk finds it harder to keep the web of lies maintained. It doesn’t work; it can’t, unless one party stays relatively sober while the other partakes as part of the business ‘game’. Which makes for no party. not even partly party. What price honesty? Whatever it is, this is no way to achieve it.


DJS 20110203
Happy new rabbit, today

Read about alcohol tolerance, dehydrogenase mechanisms, especially if you have Asian ancestry. Test sentence for comprehension: Alcohol dehydrogenase is a dimeric zinc metalloenzyme that catalyses the reversible oxidation of alcohols to aldehydes. Tolerance is affected most by body mass. It is increased by regular drinking (up to a point). It is decreased by genetics that limit enzyme production.

© David Scoins 2017