A Salute to Baijiu, Part Three: Representative Baijiu Experiences 1-2

In the interest of demonstrating the varieties of horrible-ness you can experience with baijiu, I offer up five of my own representative experience.

1. Shandong’s answer to Kentucky moonshine

When I was teaching at Shandong Agricultural University in Taian, the other two foreign teachers and I were invited by the school to attend a special event celebrating the successful cultivation of a new strain of Chinese date developed by the school. We were driven out to a farm, where we heard a few speeches and then were served lunch. With the exception of the roasted pig head (which was so fresh it still had bristly porcine hair sticking out of the face), the meal itself was great. What wasn’t great was the bottle of baijiu they (inevitably) produced to toast the occasion. It was in an unlabeled brown bottle with, if memory serves, a bottle-cap top. I looked at one of the other teachers, he looked at me, and we both began looking for a way to get out of drinking any. We told our hosts that, as we still had to work that afternoon (which was true), we didn’t want to drink. Eventually we agreed to have one toast, and it was at this point that I made one of the dumber decisions I’ve made in my life (a competitive list, by the way) when, figuring we were only going to drink one toast so I’d better make it count, I decided to shoot the whole glass in one swallow. Which, after we all raised our glasses, I did.

If it was anything less than 130 proof, I’ll eat my shirt. If you can imagine drinking rubbing alcohol, you’ll have some idea of what I was feeling when I swallowed a full ounce and a half of the stuff. I can’t describe the flavor, but then that doesn’t matter; no flavor could possibly survive the brutal onslaught of the alcohol. I didn’t taste any food for at least ten minutes afterward. It felt like I’d roasted a skewer full of marshmallows, caught them all on fire, and swallowed the molten, flaming sugar whole. If you’d like, I can even use my previous dinner party analogy to help describe the experience. Easily, in fact. None of the guests were even able to make it into the house because they were all beaten to death by a man with a lead pipe as soon as they knocked on the door.

One of the amusing things about Chinese culture is that high-ranking officials all turn into 18 year-olds at a fraternity party as soon as there’s baijiu on the table. Everyone at this particular meal simply smiled and nodded approvingly as I gasped for air, as though my reaction was entirely appropriate.

2. Moving on up

After one semester, and I forget which one it was, at Tianjin University, my students all wanted to take me out for dinner. When they tentatively suggested we speak Chinese during the meal, since they’d used English all semester in my class, I agreed. It was fun to be able to converse with them in their own language, and of course it was also an ego boost to hear them praise my Chinese. When they served baijiu, I decided to go right along with it and try to behave in as thoroughly a Chinese fashion as possible. (Note: Don’t ever, ever, ever, ever do that.) I can’t remember how it tasted exactly, aside from the fact that I only gagged for a split second, but I do remember it wasn’t nearly as strong as most. Maybe 70 or 80 proof. As a result, over the course of the next hour or so I put down probably 6 shots and was still feeling fine.

Which prompted one of the students to order another bottle, this one somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 proof. This impulse is a common one in China, where no official dinner or group event is considered a success unless most of the men in the room (women are not held to the same standard) drink themselves into a stupor. Walk down any major street in Tianjin on a Friday or Saturday night and I guarantee you’ll see at least two guys vomiting into the road, their friends helping them stay upright. Good times. Anyway, I realized I was in trouble when I took the first sip, and after another glass or so I was not feeling well at all. I’ll talk a little later about how to successfully negotiate the baijiu trap at a banquet, but for now I’ll just say don’t ever, EVER start out by drinking with everyone who toasts you. You’ll be expected to continue that way the rest of the night, and one of the things I’ve learned is that baijiu has a way of making you drunk without your even realizing it’s happening. One minute you’re shaking your head, trying not to taste the hellish putrescence you’ve just swallowed, and the next you feel like you’re walking underwater, a circus calliope tooting in your head and drowning out the conversation. Just like that. It’s more like a successful mugging.

I made it home, but just barely.


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