An American Hero In China: Adventures With Baijiu

Our writer thought he had a simple part-time teaching gig at a Chinese army hospital. Little did he know, he’d find himself in a life-and-death battle for honor and glory — and “America.”

Baijiu

A few months back, I landed a once-a-week job teaching English to surgeons in a PLA hospital in Fengtai district. My qualifications were I was American, living in Beijing, and had a pulse. The hospital administrators, who hoped to internationalize, needed a “native speaker” to help their surgeons study a college-level surgical textbook (despite the fact that most barely had enough English to order a Coke). I had received a text message from a flamboyant educational “agent” named Danny, a language-exchange pimp, more or less, who keeps a stable of Westerners at hand to fulfill the weird whims of his Chinese clients. He’s loud and charismatic, dresses in animal print button-ups, scrotum-hugging jeans (usually fluorescent green or red) and knock-off Italian loafers, charming clients with top-shelf cigarettes and promising teachers that they’ll be paid lucratively in cool cash – the Don King of China’s sprawling, dirty educational consulting market.

He gave me the hospital address and told me I’d make 400 yuan for two hours work.

“Just make a powerpoint presentation, and smile a lot,” Danny told me. “They’ll love you.”

Despite no specialized medical knowledge, a general aversion to needles, and a complete ignorance about how best to teach adult ESL learners (when the alphabet song and funny faces no longer work), I accepted the job.

After a Google search, I learned that the PLA-administered hospital specializes in AIDS and other infectious disease research. I showed up to the first class with a PPT about hospital facilities and medical prefixes. When I’d finally found the right building in the mind-fuck of the crowded, disorganized campus, I was a few minutes late. I rode the elevator up to the surgical floor –the stinging smell of sanitizing alcohol heavy in the air – and the reception desk directed me to a back break room, like a teacher’s lounge with empty IV bags stacked in a corner.

A table full of young, grinning men in shirt sleeves and khaki shorts stood up to greet me. They were enthusiastic students, eager to learn cuss words and the goriest ways possible to describe surgical procedures – “Could we tell a patient, ‘You have a pseudocyst, we need to thrash it out?’”

Several weeks in, and I’d gotten to know my students by name and come to appreciate their wittiness and curiosity.

And then one Wednesday, I arrived to the lounge at 6:30 pm, teaching material in hand, but my students were nowhere to be found.

Two nurses (I prayed not syringe-toting) saw me enter and hurried in after me. One was young, with big brown eyes and a pretty face. The other was older and unsmiling – the director of the floor’s nursing corps (Nurse Ratched with chopsticks).

Without knowing what was happening or where I was going, the older one managed to convince me to follow her and several other nurses to her car. “There’s a dinner, a meeting,” she said in choppy English. “You’ll come. Today, no class.”

It was all a show, of course. It tasted like shit, and everyone knew it

As the elevator sunk to the underground parking lot, the pretty nurse smiled at me, telling me in Chinese that there was a special banquet at a restaurant nearby, with very important people. I would be their guest, she said, still smiling.

The car ride lasted about 30 minutes and took me somewhere deep into the bowels of the Fengtai district, at least an hour’s drive southwest of civilized Beijing. I rode shotgun, and throughout the entire ride, Nurse Ratched drilled me about my teaching qualifications and whether I was available to teach her primary-school son.

I was in the middle of explaining in tone-deaf, textbook Chinese that I had a full-time job and didn’t have time when she screeched to a stop in front of a banquet restaurant that looked like every other banquet restaurant in China’s capital – stone lions, elaborate name banner, hostesses decked out in red qipaos, bubbling fish tanks in the lobby and knock-off chandeliers with a gaudiness factor that would make Liberace blush. The whole place reeked of smoke and cooking oil.

We got out and were led up a red-carpeted staircase to the second floor. When we opened the door to our private room, about 15 people, mostly surgeons I recognized, popped out of their seats, waving, and smiling, and gesturing for me to sit in one of the prized seats, near the top of the circular table, facing the door. I politely refused a few times, playing the game that in China no one likes but everyone does, before taking my seat. The table was set up so that the men, about 10 of us, sat facing the door, with the same number of women sitting on the other half, facing us. They were nurses and secretaries and young researchers hired to poke at mircrobes and publish the results in scientific journals.

Sitting next to me on my right was Peter, the head of the surgical department. Peter was an irrepressible motor mouth in class, interrupting me constantly to ask questions about everything from Kobe Bryant to the Grand Canyon (while I was teaching vocab related to pancreatitis). When I asked him what his hobbies were, he said having fun with young ladies and driving a motorcycle. I’d have guessed his age at about 40, but he wore a close-cropped military haircut, and had a tall, slim build. He could have been anything from 30 to 50.

On my left was a young surgeon, always the first to class, who only used his Chinese name – Li Zhiwu. When I asked him if he’d like an English name, he told me no, but that I could call him Lee. He was perhaps the most enthusiastic of the bunch about studying, and became noticeably frustrated anytime he couldn’t understand something, or had to stop to tap a translation into his cell-phone dictionary. He was from Shandong province, laughed easily, and bragged to me that he could drink more beer than anyone, period.

After I’d settled into my seat, I was talking to Peter when the door cracked open and a short, barrel-chested man with dark bags under his eyes walked in. He was a cartoonist’s caricature of a government official, wearing a short-sleeved white button-up, black trousers, and polished black loafers. His hair was short, and unnaturally black (dyed?). Everyone stopped talking. Then, just as suddenly, everyone stood up and barraged him with greetings and well wishes. He waved all the attention away, said hello, and sunk into his chair next to Peter, the most esteemed seat.

He asked if we’d ordered (Peter had) and told everyone to keep talking, before noticing me. We both stood up, and I extended my hand. His handshake nearly squeezed the pulp from my palm.

“So, you’re teaching my staff English?” he said in Chinese “I’m sorry, I don’t speak, but I think it’s important. Very important.”

Peter stood up to act as the intermediary. “This is the General,” he told me. “The president of our hospital. Very important, you know? General? You know? You will drink with him. Alcohol. Yes.”

Just a few days before, I’d sworn I’d quit binge-drinking in China. There’d been too many late nights and empty wallets, lost cell phones and shady bargirls. For the first few years of expat life, getting plastered is a fun, even necessary adventure. During those early days, the rules are too loose, the consequences of debauchery too few. It seems like it will go on that way forever, until it doesn’t, and you become crushed by the weight of a few years wasted and a shattered moral compass. Pretty soon you’re old and unlovable, wearing a Hawaiian shirt in the back alleys of Sanlitun gripping a big green bottle of Yanjing waiting for the next Cherry or Sunny to stroll by.

“Christ,” I thought to myself, glancing at a container of about 12 bottles of baijiu in the corner of the room. I knew where it was going.

I told Peter that I didn’t want to drink. He reacted like I’d farted. “What? American doesn’t want to drink with Chinese? Why not? Enemies?”

I tried to laugh the joke away. The arm-twisting was culture too, I knew, and if I just persisted, I could stay sober. But the strangeness of the situation forced me to cave in. “OK,” I said, “I will have one small toast.”

Peter laughed, and before the first dishes started to arrive, poured me a mini serving-pitcher of baijiu – perhaps four glasses worth. “One cup,” he said.

“You’ll be a… hero!”

Our first toast was innocent enough. Even the nurses drank. The General stood, hoisting his baijiu glass in the air, thanking his staff and telling them to enjoy the food before we all clinked glasses, tapped the table and threw the shots back. The game had begun.

It tasted like the pungent sweat scraped from Satan’s balls was mixed with surgical hand-sanitizing solution.

“Tasty,” Lee said, making a performance of turning his cup upside down to show he’d savored the last drop. The nurses grimaced, and watched me for my reaction. I’d done this before, and didn’t flinch.

“From Sichuan,” Peter said, nudging me with his elbow. “This baijiu is… special.” As soon as he said it, the other men gushed in Chinese about how awesome it was and how much they loved its flavor, its complexity, its… heft. It was all a show, of course. It tasted like shit, and everyone knew it.

That led to two more table-wide toasts, in quick succession, the singe of the baijiu becoming less fierce with each shot.

By the time the real food, beyond peanuts and cold tofu, started to arrive, we’d pounded six or seven of the thimble-sized shots, and I was feeling warm. Peter and the General were taking turns talking to me in a strange mix of English and then Chinese, asking me questions about what the English names of our foods were, what I thought of Beijing, and whether it snowed in the US.

All the while, the nurses, Ratched especially, watched me closely, wondering, I was sure, whether I could hold my liquor.

Not long after, Lee, the beer-drinker, propositioned me to drink the rest of my baijiu pitcher in one go. He’d do it with me, he said. “You’ll be a… hero!”

In what would become a refrain for the night, he said “No problem?,” then, before waiting for me to answer, replied himself “No problem!”

The nurses caught wind of the challenge, and cheered me on. The pretty one was especially vocal, asking in English if I was a real man. I stood up, grabbed the pitcher, clinked it with Lee (making sure it was lower than his) and chugged. It felt like a warm, vile-spewing snake was slithering down my throat, but I finished, and watched Lee as he swallowed the last of his. The nurses cheered, and the General clapped and reached across Peter to pat me on my shoulder.

“One more?” the General said, grabbing my pitcher and filling it again with baijiu. His was full. I wavered, shaking my head, trying to decline.

“No, no… America!” the General said, in what little English he had. “America?” his inflection rising.

I didn’t know whether it was a challenge, a question, or a toast, but whatever logic was embedded in those words prompted me to clink the pitcher of baijiu with the General and guzzle. This time the liquor disappeared smoothly. The General choked his down, taking a time out to breathe. His eyes watered, and his face flushed drunk red. As soon as he plopped his empty pitcher down in a show of triumph, the table began to clap, and Lee said something about being a hero in Chinese.

Over the next hour, the Chinese game of individual toasts began. While we ate boiled fish and plates of Dongbei delicacies (gongbao jiding ordered special for me, the white dude), each dinner guest made the rounds around the table, offering a toast to every other dinner guest, the most emphatic, of course, saved for the General. Inevitably they made a stop at my seat, and insisted that I cheers them with Baijiu in my cup, regardless of what they were drinking. By now, they understood the game. If I was hesitant, they said, “America?” prompting me, in some sort of displaced patriotic fervor, to show them America, by slamming down a shot of Sichuan’s foulest booze.

By the time everyone had toured the circle, and most importantly flattered the General, my head was spinning. I pulled out my phone and attempted to text my girlfriend –

“Withc the surgeranos. 2 much Baijius. I might die.”

I thought that if I ate more, I’d be able to sober up a bit, so I began to shovel noodles and bits of hong shao rou into my mouth.

“Look at him,” the General said, in Chinese. “Still hungry. What time does he want to go home?”

Peter asked me the same question in English. It was maybe 8:00. Not thinking, and already deep into a Baijiu buzz, I said 10:00.

The table erupted into laughter, the General’s the loudest. “Good. Good,” he said. “We have plenty of time. Drink more.” He poured me a new pitcher of baijiu and the game began anew.

Again, I toasted Lee and gulped the whole pitcher. This time he backed away, downing half, putting it down, and waving his hands in defeat. “I have to give surgery tomorrow,” he said, already irredeemably drunk. A white lie, I figured, but a good one.

“Mei nu,” pretty girl, the General said, teasing Lee. “Are you afraid your daddy will find out?”

Lee blushed, and grabbed his cup. “One more,” he said. I poured into his cup from his half-full pitcher of baijiu, attempting to fill my cup next, but the General stopped me. No, no, he said, and filled my pitcher before pointing to his own full one.

“In China, this is our method,” he said. “Not in America?…”

Challenged and blind-drunk by now, I grabbed the pitcher, and we hoisted our drinks. The General and I drank the pitchers, Lee drank the cup. No one clapped.

The nurses looked on with something close to horror. They knew the game, knew it wasn’t won until someone was vomitous or unconscious. Joan, a shy researcher who sits silently through class and hands me my payment at the end of each lesson, met my eyes and shook her head, pleading with me to stop.

Peter, siting to my right, had stopped drinking for some time, and began to encourage the General and I to slow our paces. “Are you… OK?” he asked me.

“No problem!” Lee answered for me, dumbly encouraging.

“OK,” Peter said. “No, how about we drink beer… beer?”

The General reluctantly accepted, and I said “No problem.” The waitress brought in a box of cold Yanjings and handed out three — to me, the General, and Peter.

As we poured beer into our baijiu pitchers, the General asked me if I had a girlfriend. He was smiling. He might have winked.

I told him that I did, in fact. She was from the Philippines, of Chinese descent.

He nearly gagged on his food.

“No, no, no,” he said, in Chinese, “That won’t do. Let me find you one. A real one. A good one. Do you want?”

Before I could answer, Lee barked in, hiccupping between words. “No, Americans don’t do that. They’re afraid of AIDS. Look at him… afraid of AIDS.”

The nurses giggled, and I pretended not to hear, picking at some loose peanuts on my plate, a surprisingly tough test of drunken dexterity.

“He must have some Russian blood in him,” the General said, deftly changing topics while appraising my tolerance level. Peter asked if my mom drank while she was pregnant. “Makes sons able to drink more,” he told me.

Slamming down a shot of Sichuan’s foulest booze to show them “America”

Throughout the meal, the General had been chain-smoking an expensive brand of Chinese cigarettes favored by Deng Xiaoping. As he prepared to light one more, he asked me if I smoked. I didn’t.

“Of course,” I said in Chinese, awkwardly reaching across Peter to accept a cigarette. No, no, the General said, reaching into his pocket to pull out an unopened pack. Take these. My gift to you.

I was clumsy in my drunken movements, my tongue heavy and thoughts foggy, but I knew I had to, somehow, maintain composure. Save face. Become a hero.

I took the pack of cigarettes, and tucked them into my pocket, knowing that I’d never open them. I said thank you, and proposed a toast. I offered up my baijiu pitcher that was now full of beer. The General said, No, and reached for his full bottle, hoisting it up.

“Drink it all,” he said. We clinked glasses and I chugged the full bottle like I was at freshman frat party. The General forced his down, too, pretending to be refreshed when finished. “Tastes good, one more?” he said. He didn’t want one more, and neither did I.

The entire table had stopped drinking, and had stopped talking. No one left, they were just waiting for one of us to give in and quit drinking so that everyone could go home. It was coming up on 10. I was seeing double, a sure harbinger of bad things to come.

“No, no… no more,” I stammered. “I’mmm not drunk, I jus have to work tomorrow. Early…”

The General held his chin up and laughed, then patted me on the shoulder. “I like you very much,” he said in Chinese, reaching out to shake my hand.

I was driven home by a surgeon named Mike who hadn’t drunk during the banquet. Throughout the trip back, I drifted in and out of a drunken sleep, the world spinning each time I closed my eyes. When we finally pulled up to my apartment complex, a gallon of baijiu and boiled fish suddenly erupted from somewhere deep in my stomach. I couldn’t open the door in time. I hurled the noxious mix all over Mike’s door and his floor. He grimaced, but I was in no shape to do anything about it, my eyes unable to focus, my head rolling on my shoulders.

“No problem!” he said, as he nearly shoved me out the door. “Get good rest.” How I made it into my bed is a mystery, and how I made it up for work the next morning lost in the throes of the worst baijiu hangover known to man is a miracle.

The following week, when I strolled into class, Lee and Joan greeted me in the lounge, both with broad smiles painted on their faces.

“Would you like something to drink this class?” Lee said, “Some beer, wine… no problem!”

I told them I was sorry for drinking too much at the banquet, and sorry for making a fool of myself. Lee asked me if I remembered throwing up in Mike’s car, and Joan told me I shouldn’t give into pressure so easily.

I listened and nodded, and asked about the General.

Yes, Mike said. He likes you very much. “He thinks you are…” — he pulled out his dictionary to look up the word — “…outlandish.”

Nick Compton is an American journalist living in Beijing. You can reach him at nickcompton1@gmail.com.

6 Responses to “An American Hero In China: Adventures With Baijiu”

    • CJ

      Oh no, you didn’t read? Another with the attention span of a gnat that needs to be spoon-fed bullet point gossip and/or controversy instead of solid narrative of any length.

      Reply
  1. Jonathan Alpart

    Great story. I think all expats have gone through this night in one form or another. Hope by now you’ve learned how to politely decline going that far…

    Reply
  2. kc

    “Pretty soon you’re old and unlovable, wearing a Hawaiian shirt in the back alleys of Sanlitun gripping a big green bottle of Yanjing waiting for the next Cherry or Sunny to stroll by.”

    You are a poet.

    Reply

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