10 Mar

Today I arrived at my first class, slightly feverish and hopped up on cold medication, to find that I was being observed by an envoy of teachers from a middle school in a small city 4 hours away. Of course, I didn’t know that’s who they were. They just stood in the back of my class in suits and ties, 6 of them looming, while I talked about career-related vocabulary with my 12 year olds. We weren’t introduced until afterwards.

It was a bit nerve-wracking.

Then, the entire English department from my school and the visiting teachers were treated to a banquet lunch at a nearby restaurant. Again, I had no advanced notice of this, and although it was a pleasant surprise I had been hoping to get some work done during my 2 hour lunch break.

The banquet was lovely, although I couldn’t understand the conversations around me. Mostly, it was enjoyable because I’ve been told again and again about the ritual baijiu drinking that happens at these events, but I had not witnessed it before today.

Baijiu is the only hard liquor you can easily find around these parts. It’s strong (usually in the 90 to 100 proof range) and it’s really aggressively tangy with a distinctive flavor. I have no idea how to describe the taste, except that it reminds me of ammonia and candy canes, but it’s not minty. It’s got a really astringent sweetness.

I do not care for it. Not at all.

Of course, I’ve never tried the really expensive brands of baijiu. In fact, I suspect I haven’t tried the mediocre brands–the only baijiu I’ve purchased myself cost what I later calculated to be the equivalent of 75 cents. For a (smallish) bottle. So you may want to take my dislike of the stuff with a grain of salt. Still, I’m deeply averse to it…just the smell makes me shudder in horror.

It’s what people drink here, though, especially if you’re going to be toasting.

We were all treated to a nice banquet lunch, which in China means that we were seated at a very large, circular table with a lazy susan in the center. The school principal was there, and he’s an intimidating guy–there’s a lot of cultural stuff here in China about workplace hierarchy, and I don’t fully understand most of it, but every time he enters or leaves the room, we all have to stand up. Also, he only speaks a few words of English. He actually seems pretty pleasant, but he’s become an almost mythic figure in my head. We’ve barely interacted, I rarely see him around the school, and when I do, he’s in his fancy suit and everyone else is leaping out of his way.

So everyone was drinking shots of baijiu, and the principal started the toasting. I don’t know how to explain the toasting, but it was incredibly elaborate. I couldn’t understand what was being said, but random people would just pop up out of their chairs and toast other random people, sometimes speaking at great length. Sometimes a toast required everyone to stand, and sometimes it only required the toaster to stand. Sometimes the toast called for downing your entire shot and other times it was okay to sip. I couldn’t see rhyme or reason in it, but I suspect there were patterns that would have been obvious if I understood the language.

In the first 30 minutes of the meal, there must have been 20 toasts. The people around me went through 2 glasses of baijiu and they were debating a 3rd before anyone noticed that I was toasting with Sprite.

Under other circumstances (like at a dinner), I’m sure I would have had some baijiu, despite not caring for the taste. But. It was 1:20 in the afternoon and I had 3 back-to-back classes to teach starting at 2:10. And, more importantly, I was doped to the eyeballs with cold medicine. I am not so foolish as to do shots while on cold medicine with a group of esteemed visitors and my boss at 1pm on a Thursday. I have enough trouble eating with chopsticks in civilized society when I’m stone cold sober, and more importantly, I don’t want to get kicked out of the country after causing an incident while in an antihistamine and rice-liquor induced haze.

I thought the cold gave me the perfect excuse to pass on drinking. Everyone at work knows I’ve been sick for a few days and several of the teachers present were part of my scavenger hunt to find appropriate medicine. And the directions for the antiviral that the local pharmacist gave me clearly state in several languages that it is forbidden to drink alcohol while taking this drug.

It wasn’t that easy, of course…even the principal tried to talk me into a shot. I stuck to my guns, though, although I did clumsily join in on the toasting. I’m not sure who I toasted or why, but it got a big laugh. I don’t mind looking slightly foolish if it conveys my enthusiasm about being here, and despite the lack of advance warning, the visiting teachers were very friendly. I was repeatedly invited to visit their school, should I ever find myself out that way.

It was an interesting day, mostly because it was an example of how a normal morning can veer off into something unexpected. I was told over and over again that I should prepare to be flexible here, and that cultural differences in attitudes about scheduling and time and advanced notice are often frustrating for Americans in China. I guess today was a good example, and I wouldn’t say I’m frustrated–at least, not yet. I just hope I can continue to roll with these kinds of surprises.


One Response to “cheers!”

  1. kjschnur March 11, 2011 at 8:39 am #

    Erin, Keep the idea of rolling with the punches, look like you did, and I know you can!

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