Thursday, April 28, 2011

Day 23: If There Is No Alcohol, You Can't Say Anything

In America, there is a certain cult built around turning 21 as a rite of passage, but in China, there is no legal age for drinking. Here, there are twelve year-olds who serve as cashiers at liquor stores and kids face no difficulty buying beer at corner groceries. In fact, the only times I have had to show my ID in the last two years have been to book a hotel room or board a plane.

But despite the lack of restriction on age, it's hard to say when people actually start to drink. Jiayu, a friend of mine from Oberlin, told me that like dating, drinking is one of those things that you wouldn't do as a “good student” all the way up through high school, but then at some point, it just becomes second nature. Though I can't speak for Chinese high school students, I can certainly echo the carefree attitude that accompanies drinking for everyone past the age of 18. In my experience in Asia, drinking in China is second only to Korea in both its pervasiveness and the degree to which it is taken seriously by society.

There is a lot of nuance and structure to drinking culture in China. Customarily, you should toast everyone at the table, starting with the guest of honor and moving down the ranks. You always want to toast with alcohol unless the person you are toasting isn't drinking, in which case you can use soy milk. Additionally, you always want to have your glass lower than theirs, a sign of both modesty and respect for a person of authority.

High-level Commnunist cadres, or ganbu, have to drink as part of their jobs, and, for the most part, if you can't drink, you don't get ahead. Of course, by the time you're at the top, you can have any number of lower-level minions do your drinking on your behalf, but the road up is paved with clear glass bottles of baijiu. We joke that Chinese President Hu Jintao must have an exceptional tolerance, along with everyone else in the inner CCP sanctum. A student who was applying to be a Party member once told me that male members were expected to be able to drink an entire bottle of baijiu or a whole case of beer in a single sitting. It doesn't hurt that alcohol is remarkably cheap here. A 16-ounce bottle of beer starts at about 12 cents, and baijiu prices vary much like vodka's, increasing exponentially with regard to quality.

After dance parties and "Chinese nights" at my house, we stack the cans and bottles outside to be collected by old men and women who recycle them for a small profit.

In truth, it's not only Communist leaders who drink. There is a certain ease with which drinking cuts across all sectors of the population. Francis, my Chinese tutor went over a joke with me that's been circulating widely on Chinese media outlets. It lists the reasons why different people drink and the role that alcohol plays in people's lives. Without drinking, it says, high-level cadres wouldn't have a friend. Without drinking, mid-level cadres wouldn't have any information. Without drinking, low-level cadres wouldn't have a shred of hope. Without drinking, disciplinary enforcers wouldn't have a clue. Without drinking, commoners wouldn't have any happiness. Without drinking, brothers wouldn't have any feeling. And without drinking, men and women wouldn't have a chance!

Of course, we Shansi Fellows have a joke of our own—that Shansi turns you into an alcoholic. Either you live in a country where alcohol is so prevalent that you are made to drink it, or in a culture so alcohol-repressed that you have to drink secretly just to cope. Though specifically here, it's hard to say whether it's China that truly makes you an alcoholic or you.

It would seem, then, that there would be an entire segment of the population dying off from alcohol poisoning each year, but the truth is that genetics might help more than anything else. Most Chinese are allergic to alcohol and flush when they drink (lending itself to the “Asian glow” phenomenon in the states), and have a low enough tolerance that it's easy to spot someone who's severely intoxicated before it's too late. With that said, though, it's still not uncommon to see a group of men, blurry-eyed and slurring, propping each other up as they try to walk home, or a guy in a business suit and slacks, a lit cigarette in one hand, stumble out of a restaurant in the middle of a meal to throw up.

Drinking culture is both ironic and logic-defying, making it infuriating to outsiders. But nothing more so than it's best kept secret: no one actually likes to drink. Baijiu is notoriously caustic, and even Tsingtao, the most expensive and highly-touted domestic beer, tastes bland and watered-down. At banquets and big dinners, alcohol becomes a necessary evil, acting as a social lubricant, but aside from alcoholics, few people in China are casual drinkers—they either drink because they have to or they don't. More accurately, people appreciate the powers that alcohol affords them, the ability to loosen up and speak their mind without consequence. What's more, being drunk virtually absolves you of all guilt—Chinese people tolerate behavior of all sorts without so much as a second thought.

The best possible situation, of course, is drinking for the fun of it, where there is no secret agenda or underlying social pressures. But even among the foreigners and other good friends here in Taigu, that pressure is sometimes hard to escape—certain occasions inevitably call for the introduction of alcohol. To be sure, most of the burden falls on men as Chinese women are almost always spared from excessive drinking, but foreign women aren't afforded that same luxury. Consumption has dropped markedly since last year, but we still have our moments. Drinking fuels fun and fun fuels memories. We used to say that you could judge a week by the length of Nick's hair—long and unkempt meant a good drinking week and freshly-washed meant we hadn't done our job well.

Rarely does a big dinner out with friends go by without the appearance of large glass bottles of Snow beer.

Still, there's something uniquely Chinese about the experience. Just last night, all six of us Americans sat outside of a shaokao (street stall barbecue) restaurant in North Yard with a bunch of Chinese friends, switching effortlessly between Chinese and English, with a couple dozen sticks of chuanr (skewered meat and vegetables on sticks) and a keg of fresh draft beer. I must admit that casual drinking, though obviously not without its dangers, is a part of Chinese culture I enjoy the most.

It prompted me at our most recent banquet to playfully joke with Xiao Fan that we should have banquets more often. Later on in the night, he would belligerently go on to chastise a visitor from America for trying to make a toast without alcohol, but I caught him as the drinking had just begun. Xiao Fan's entire job as director of the Foreign Affairs Office calls for constant wining and dining—making visiting scholars and new teachers feel welcome on campus. He looked at me with a down-turned smile, the bags under his eyes deep-set and heavy. That would mean you'd have to drink everyday, he said, his hair stiff and gray next to his slowly reddening face. And you really wouldn't want that.


This post can be considered a "double feature," a longer rumination spanning 1200 words, double my project's allotted limit.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Day 22: All the World's a Banquet

The first time that I sat across the table from Xiao Fan, both of us dressed in suit jackets and ties, each holding a shot of baijiu raised expectantly towards the ceiling, I knew that I was onto something. As the appetizers were being presented on the giant self-revolving Lazy Susan, we were on our third of three mandatory preliminary shots before eating, and Xiao Fan had just started telling us the story of how he applied to be a Communist cadre. Never in my professional life did I envision having the opportunity to get drunk with my boss. In fact, it's less an invitation than an obligation. An aversion to alcohol or a refusal to drink comes with an incredible loss of face for the host—in this case, our bosses at the Foreign Affairs Office and the high-powered school and Communist officials who we dine with—so, the best way to show our respect and gratitude is to drink, and drink a lot.

But like most things in China, there and rules and etiquette to banquet culture. First is seating. The guest of honor sits in the chair furthest from the door, so that he or she can see the entire room. Seated around them are those next in rank, slowly fanning out to fill the table. Next, is how to drink. Though it may sound simple, it is deceptively so—there is a method for whom to toast first and when, as well as how often. Third is how to eat. Banquets typically feature delicious food too expensive for routine consumption, including sweet-and-sour shrimp, fried braised lamb, and abalone. Though you never want to be the first to eat any one dish, you are guaranteed to be bursting by meal's end.

Just your average midday banquet spread (photo courtesy of Alexandra Sterman).

James, as analytical as he is, came up with a formula to analyze just how much we drink at banquets: 3 + 2(n-1) + x, where '3' stands for the number of shots we drink at the beginning of the meal before actually eating anything, 'n' is the number of people in attendance (we drink twice with each person not including ourselves, both proposing a toast and receiving a toast), and 'x' is the number of additional times any one of those people toasts us, thus voiding the entire equation. Depending on the company, we can drink upwards of 20 shots (a combination of baijiu, red wine, and beer) in the two hour affair. And almost without fail at the end of each banquet, we end up staggering back home, either ready to continue the drunken revelry or pass out from exhaustion. One or two times, we roped Xiao Fan into an impromptu dance party at our house, but more often than not, despite the claims that alcohol will actually make us “teach better,” we have had to cancel an afternoon class after a lunchtime banquet due to feeling sick.

Gerald, James, and I, toasting with our boss Xiao Fan (photo courtesy of Alexandra Sterman).

Banquets sort of remind me of big company galas in America—a lot of eating, a lot of drinking, and a lot of networking in the midst of the requisite drunken antics. When our Shansi bosses Deb and Carl came to visit, we were veritably banquet-ed out, but usually, they happen infrequently enough that we really look forward to them. Everyone is dressed up in a fancy room with more courses of food than there are people at the table, all ballyhooing and having a good time. For us, that usually means making small talk, getting thanked for our contributions to the school, and spending the rest of the time exuberantly toasting. Indeed, it is the alcohol that bonds us more than anything else.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Day 21: The Boy with the Dragon Tattoo

When I was 17, I made a bet with my dad. I had just graduated from high school and was on my way to becoming a wild, sex-crazed, alcoholic—in other words, a college student. Realizing this at an early stage, my dad tried to capitalize. Despite my gripes about tattoos and piercings in the past, my dad bet that before I turned 21, I would have already succumbed to getting some kind of permanent fixture on my body. To make a long story short, his $50 went a long way towards buying alcohol for my wild rager of a 21st birthday party. But even though the thought of actually getting a tattoo hadn't ever seriously crossed my mind, like most people, I still imagined what it would be. I thought about a short stanza of poetry or some small homage or allusion to a favorite novel or piece of music. It behooves me, then, at the ripe age of 23 to consider getting a tattoo of another sort entirely—namely, an enormous dragon across my upper arm.

Me, proudly brandishing my dragon tat, with Daisy, one of my former students (photo courtesy of Alexandra Sterman).

Allow me to explain. For this year's Halloween party, we needed to up the ante. Halloween last year came right in the cross-hairs of the H1N1 crisis and our planned dancing spectacle was canned by the administration. In the year since, the AV room which previously housed such events had been demolished, making that too an impossibility. So, we decided, we would hold a soiree in my house, not too dissimilar from our bi-monthly dance parties. The only difference was that this time we would be in costume.

James, dressed as a visually-impaired ghost (he didn't want to cut holes in his only bed-sheet), alongside our candle-lit jack-o-lanterns (photo courtesy of Alexandra Sterman).

After the usual ritual of messaging friends, chaos-proofing the house to the best of my abilities, and buying a couple cases of beer, the only thing left was to get in costume myself. As I scoured my closet for costume ideas, I was getting discouraged. I brought so few clothes with me to China that there was little room for anything particularly fun or outrageous. Eventually, I settled on my Cleveland Cavaliers basketball jersey—and if there was one thing I knew about professional basketball players, it was that they had an enormous assemblage of tattoos. Alexandra helped to create a pink heart with the word “Mom” embellished on my left arm, while Ray drew free-hand the coiling dragon from an image we found online. I wasn't the only one to come in costume though. Friends came dressed as ninjas, mummies, superstars, soldiers, cowboys, and cats. But none was more creative than my Chinese tutor Francis, who showed up in drag, painted face and make-up, bejeweled bandana, and a mask.

One of Ray's carved pumpkins, after sitting out on her porch for three months.

The week leading up to the Halloween bonanza was met with an appropriate amount of holiday cheer. Like last year, I did pumpkin carving in class with my students and I bought small bundles of candy to give to my English majors when they came over to trick-or-treat. Ray did pumpkin carving with some of her students too and the carved jack-o-lanterns adorned her porch well after Halloween and into the new year. When we came back from winter break, they were still there, their scary faces warped and rotted with age. When you think about it, pumpkins make a pretty good metaphor for human existence—when we are young, our faces are waxy and tight, and as we age, the skin starts to sag, we sprout wrinkles, gums get mushy, teeth get swallowed up, we grow bulbous, our faces decompress. Perhaps a similar thing can be said of arms too. Maybe I'll have to start second-guessing that dragon tattoo sooner than I thought.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Day 20: No Such Thing As a Failed Experiment

Like all of our graduate students, Bobby does experiments. Each daoshi or adviser in the college is responsible for a group of students often according to major, and assigns them to do field work with the intention of collecting results. Some take soil samples to measure for the amount of carbon and nitrogen, others test the medicinal properties of certain local fauna for the prevention of disease, and still more dabble in animal husbandry and crop cultivation.

Though some of the experiments might actually sound interesting, most students here would tell you otherwise. The truth is that many students don't like their majors—experiments are boring and time-consuming, students are called by their advisers at the drop of a hat, and whole weeks might have to be spent doing research in far-flung farming villages. Advisers are notoriously cruel, chastising students who don't get the results they want. What's more, most of what the students do is grunt work that their adviser later takes credit for. The results get tabulated in exhaustive jargon-heavy reports by PhD candidates that we proof-read before they are sent off to scientific journals.

Grad students in lab coats play amateur scientists at the soil analysis and treatment lab in the main teaching building.

One weekend in the fall, Bobby invited me to go with him to his research site about 10 kilometers from the university. Bobby hailed a taxi right outside of the main gate and he, Lynn, and I all piled in, the early afternoon sun bleating through the windows. It took the driver a while to find it—on a tiny village road, muddy and unpaved, that if you hadn't known any better, could have been an irrigation ditch or an inlet to a small family farm.

Bobby explained that daoshi never actually go to the fields themselves. Rather, students work with local farmers in order to coordinate their research. Bobby introduced me to Mr. Zhou, a handsome, though sun-beat man of about 40, with a slight Taigu accent and a long rake. Having noticed his perplexed look, I explained that I was from America and he smiled, sighing a deep sigh of relief, as if to say, Thank god, I haven't gone crazy yet.

Once there, Bobby put us to work. Our task was to comb through the branches of date trees and put small white tags around the dates that were damaged. There were maybe ten or twelve trees planted in neat rows, and almost every branch had at least one or two such dates—warped, pockmarked, swollen, sprouting a tumor-like growth, or otherwise scarred like a victim of chemical warfare. Lynn numbered the tiny white tags 1 through 50 and I looped them around the dates on the branches.

A healthy date tree in the suburbs of Taigu, taken during a date-picking expedition in the fall of 2009.

Bobby meticulously cataloged each of the 50 samples in a small notebook, measuring each one against an informal rubric: one was pretty harmless, two was average, and three meant serious. Most of the dates were either twos or threes. Bobby explained that he did this work every Sunday, the only day each week that the factories get shut down. It was also the one day each week where we could clearly make out the mountains in the distance. Sure enough, not far up the road, a massive cinder-block complex seemed to rise up out of the ground, its brick smokestack casting a shadow across the field.

The goal of the experiment was to test the effects of chemical pesticides on resisting factory pollution over time. It was hard to tell how effective it was—to be sure, many of the dates were rendered inedible, but the rest looked safe enough to eat, at least at a cursory glance. When I asked Bobby why the county didn't just shut down the factory, he turned to me and laughed. He would be back the following weekend to take more tests, just as he was the previous, for as many weeks as his adviser stipulated. As we were leaving, Mr. Zhou handed me and Lynn a bundle of freshly picked corn and thanked us again for coming.

We started hitchhiking for a while to try to get back to town. There were no cabs that passed by and no “black cars” either, private vehicles with a “Taxi” sign affixed to the top of the roof like a beret. After a while, we gave up on that too. As the sun was setting, there was only the black asphalt stretched out in front of us like a tarp. Finally, we spotted an old man puttering down the road in a beng beng che—a three-wheeled cart powered by a generator rigged to a thick white ribbon that pulls the wheels forward like the treads of a tank. Compliantly, we hopped in the open flat bed, my eyes fixed on the smoke pumping out of the tiny gasket in the back, slowly filling the moonless skies.


For the word-counters of the world, this too is of the 800-word variety.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Day 19: Request for Casual Leave of Absence

Each day in class I have exactly the same routine—I unpack my bag, write the topic of the lesson in big letters on the blackboard (along with any requisite warm-up questions), and say the same two things: "Hello, everyone!" and "How are you?” Then I take attendance. And just like clockwork, one or two students will undoubtedly pull me aside to report that so-and-so has "asked for leave," sometimes hinting at a reason, and sometimes without so much as a matter-of-fact nod, as if "asking for leave" and actually "being excused" are one and the same. And every time I tell them that “asking for leave” and just plain “being absent” are ostensibly the same thing, at least when it comes to grading, and each time they nod and smile and go back to their seats.

My students have had a bad habit of not coming to class. Admittedly, the situation is much better now than it was this time last year when more than half of my class would “ask for leave” for one reason or another, but still, the excuses are amusing. The best, though, by far was last year when James was doing a walking lesson through campus. As he was describing places and things in English, he went through a student's dormitory only to find one of his students playing Warcraft even though that student had “asked for leave” to do experiments with his adviser. As much as I loathe the “asking for leave” ritual and no matter how easy it is to abuse, it is one of the few times in class when students, without any prompts or soliciting from me, will actually volunteer information, no matter how inane or inconsequential.

I've gotten excuse notes before in class, but this is by far my favorite.

In addition to getting them to speak more, I'm doing my best to motivate my students to change other ingrained habits about oral English class. One of the most prevalent also happens to be the most grating on my sanity—the eternal query of “how are you?” To this end, one of my Chinese friends told me a joke. A group of Chinese coal miners are trapped in a coal mine after a mine collapse. After many days of the miners surviving on small reserves of food and water, international aid finally comes to try and perform a rescue. Calling down into the hole, an American aid worker asks, “How is everybody doing down there?” The Chinese coal miners steel themselves for a moment, a little nervous about speaking in English. “Fine, thank you, and you?” they shout back. Surprised and relieved, the aid workers leave, confident that the miners are well taken care of.

The joke not only illustrates the problem with rote memorization without context, but also the difficulties that arise in a culture where there is little contact with the outside world. Though things have gotten markedly better, it was especially hard for my first-year English majors at the start of the semester. For most of them, I was the first American they had ever met, and having a foreign teacher in and of itself is an adjustment—learning how to participate, engage in discussion, and interact in group activities with one another. But even then, conversation is limited—there are always those subjects that we can't breach in class. The truest showing of “freedom of speech” comes only with those Chinese friends who have weathered the challenges of opening up to and befriending us, to engage in the dialogue for which we were all sent here in the first place—of promoting cultural exchange and understanding.


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