Sunday, September 9, 2007

Banquet and Baijiu

Baijiu: the unofficial national Chinese banquet beverage of choice. A foul- smelling, clear substance that's about 60% pure alcohol, baijiu is served in small shot glasses: even a tiny sip burns all the way down and numbs your lips for a few seconds.

Tomorrow is the national Teachers' Day, so tonight our school held a huge dinner party for its 200+ teachers. It was my first official Chinese banquet... and also my first contact with the wonders of Chinese people drinking baijiu.

Having never been to a Chinese banquet before, choosing an appropriate outfit proved a difficult dilemma... but after 30 minutes of trying on everything in my limited wardrobe, I decided on a turquoise tank top and a flouncy black skirt. Nice and festive! As it turned out, this outfit was a bad choice... everyone else had on pale collared shirts and dark pants: the school uniform. oops. Now I was a tall, blond flamenco dancer venturing into a room full of black-haired people wearing identical business casual.

Despite the initial embarassment of entering the room, I covered my losses and wrangled a seat at "the fun table" with our friends Madison, Nemo, David, Helen, and Zhu. They're a great crowd.

Madison is our "waiban" (contact person) and is always very stressed out and sweating bullets. I think we foreigners make him nervous with our many demands. He sure loosened up tonight after a couple of shots of baijiu, and was having a great time tearing around the room toasting everyone who won a prize in the raffle drawing. Madison was also our "food narrator" for the night and took special pride in telling us exactly what every dish was (although it probably would have been better had I not known).

Nemo, another English teacher, was sitting to my right. He chose his English name because he "likes clownfish and also likes Captain Nemo." Nemo was the perfect gentleman the whole evening: pulling out my chair when I got back from the restroom, making sure I had always had enough Sprite, and selecting the tastiest morsels of the many delicacies spread before us and delivering them directly to my plate. Between bites of sandworm, fish, and vegetables, he wanted to know all about American high schools. "Janet!" "Yes?" "How much money could a high school teacher make in America?"

David, sitting two people away from me, is my very favorite so far. He's the computer guy on campus and is also very, very metro. He came over to set up my computer the other day; five minutes after the thing was turned on, he was jamming out to a karaoke knock-off version of Allison Kraus's "When You Say Nothing at All." He wears tight, whiskered jeans, talks constantly on his Bluetooth, and loves to "go to the club." David was bored by the whole "let's give two hours of speeches before the banquet starts" deal... so he resorted to texting up a storm and tapping his feet impatiently. During the meal, we were served a delicious cake with coconut filling. David asked, "How do you say this in English?" We didn't know, so David came up with a new and creative word for the dessert: "Chinese cake." The rest of the night, he boasted to the table about his invented word.

Helen is a very sweet English teacher and serves as our back-up helper if Madison isn't available. She strategically placed herself next to Scott and proceeded to flirt and giggle for the duration of the banquet, becoming more flushed with each toast. Shortly after I noticed her placing a hand on Scott's leg, I overheard her gush, "Maybe you will find a nice Chinese girl to take back to America with you!"

Zhu, across the table, I don't know very well because he's shy and self-conscious about his English. After dinner, Zhu rode with Scott and I back to campus in David's Honda Accord (a very snazzy vehicle!). On the way there, he turned around and slurred, "Tonight, David has taught me a new English word." We asked, "What's that, Zhu?" "Chinese cake." He then proceeded to laugh hysterically.

Thank you, baijiu, for a wonderfully entertaining night.

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