On my year out as a voluntary English teacher a fellow Brit and I were sent to the back and beyond of China. We couldn’t even pronounce the name of the region, let alone point out on a map. The place we ended up spending a year in was Qitai, a small town three hours away from Urumqi in Xinjiang Autonomous Region.
When we got there none of us could speak a lick of Chinese; we were lambs to the slaughter, playing “gut roulette” each time we went to a restaurant: a dangerous game that involved pointing indiscriminately at Chinese characters on a menu and hoping to God we didn’t end up with a pile of horse tripe or pig lungs. Sometimes we were lucky, other times less so. By around 2 months in we had, through trial and error, managed to compose a list of dishes that weren’t decorated with severed duck heads, and learned the basic characters to watch out for (for budding Chinese learners anything with a 月 radical in it is most likely organs, for example, 肠 – intestines, 肺 – lungs, 肝 – liver)
One thing we dreaded was school banquets. The English department would often go out for lavish meals, hiring out a private room and ordering absolute mountains of food. So far so good, right? Well, along with the food comes the Bai Jiu (I’ve made several mentions to this foul stuff, here and here). Now, not only does this stuff taste like a burnt, worn sock, it’s also over 50%. We’d usually end up being made to do around 10 – 12 shots each banquet. The other volunteer out with me vomited on his bedclothes so many times that we came up with a plan of action. This could not go on. we needed a way around the Bai Jiu disaster. And so we came up with two courses of action to minimize the Bai Jiu consumption:
1. The Flip and Cover
The Flip and Cover consisted of making sure nobody was looking, quickly pouring the Bai Jiu out on to the floor under the table, then making sure to cover the empty glass with all four fingers as you pretended to down it. A risky move, but sometimes necessary if you felt you were doing #2 too often.
2. The Coyote Ugly
At Xinjiang banquets you constantly have a cup of green tea that waiters and waitresses dutifully top up when it runs low. The Coyote Ugly consists of taking the shot of Bai Jiu into your mouth, pretending you’ve swallowed it and need some tea to wash it down with, then slyly spitting the shot out into your tea cup. When the tea cup filled up with Bai Jiu, we’d just tell the waiter/waitress that the tea had gotten cold and we wanted a fresh cup.
Through these methods we managed to avoid a few savage evenings of intoxication, but a few still slipped through. For instance, the time I went into the bathroom after we got back home from a particularly messy banquet to find my inebriated flat mate on the floor by the toilet in nothing but his boxers, rocking in the fetal position and telling me that “he didn’t want to die”.