Day 22: All the World's a Banquet

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The first time that I sat across the table from Xiao Fan, both of us dressed in suit jackets and ties, each holding a shot of baijiu raised expectantly towards the ceiling, I knew that I was onto something. As the appetizers were being presented on the giant self-revolving Lazy Susan, we were on our third of three mandatory preliminary shots before eating, and Xiao Fan had just started telling us the story of how he applied to be a Communist cadre. Never in my professional life did I envision having the opportunity to get drunk with my boss. In fact, it's less an invitation than an obligation. An aversion to alcohol or a refusal to drink comes with an incredible loss of face for the host—in this case, our bosses at the Foreign Affairs Office and the high-powered school and Communist officials who we dine with—so, the best way to show our respect and gratitude is to drink, and drink a lot.

But like most things in China, there and rules and etiquette to banquet culture. First is seating. The guest of honor sits in the chair furthest from the door, so that he or she can see the entire room. Seated around them are those next in rank, slowly fanning out to fill the table. Next, is how to drink. Though it may sound simple, it is deceptively so—there is a method for whom to toast first and when, as well as how often. Third is how to eat. Banquets typically feature delicious food too expensive for routine consumption, including sweet-and-sour shrimp, fried braised lamb, and abalone. Though you never want to be the first to eat any one dish, you are guaranteed to be bursting by meal's end.

Just your average midday banquet spread (photo courtesy of Alexandra Sterman).

James, as analytical as he is, came up with a formula to analyze just how much we drink at banquets: 3 + 2(n-1) + x, where '3' stands for the number of shots we drink at the beginning of the meal before actually eating anything, 'n' is the number of people in attendance (we drink twice with each person not including ourselves, both proposing a toast and receiving a toast), and 'x' is the number of additional times any one of those people toasts us, thus voiding the entire equation. Depending on the company, we can drink upwards of 20 shots (a combination of baijiu, red wine, and beer) in the two hour affair. And almost without fail at the end of each banquet, we end up staggering back home, either ready to continue the drunken revelry or pass out from exhaustion. One or two times, we roped Xiao Fan into an impromptu dance party at our house, but more often than not, despite the claims that alcohol will actually make us “teach better,” we have had to cancel an afternoon class after a lunchtime banquet due to feeling sick.

Gerald, James, and I, toasting with our boss Xiao Fan (photo courtesy of Alexandra Sterman).

Banquets sort of remind me of big company galas in America—a lot of eating, a lot of drinking, and a lot of networking in the midst of the requisite drunken antics. When our Shansi bosses Deb and Carl came to visit, we were veritably banquet-ed out, but usually, they happen infrequently enough that we really look forward to them. Everyone is dressed up in a fancy room with more courses of food than there are people at the table, all ballyhooing and having a good time. For us, that usually means making small talk, getting thanked for our contributions to the school, and spending the rest of the time exuberantly toasting. Indeed, it is the alcohol that bonds us more than anything else.

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