Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Okay maybe not THAT kind of abducted...

But last night I was ambushed. That's right, kids. I was kidnapped. In spite of my already having arranged dinner with friends, my co-workers hijacked my plans and me and whisked me off into the blackness of night. Now, obviously I survived, seeing as I'm writing this blog post - and that does tend to spoil the ending - but work with me here people. After being forced to cancel my plans and jump into a white van (this is starting to sound like the Italian Job), we began driving somwhere. When I asked where we were going, the response I got was someplace to eat. Believe it or not, this is not as detailed an answer as I was hoping for. Despite not knowing our destination, the drive was actually fun and even though I only understood about 55-60% of what was being said (I speak some Chinese, but I'm not fluent here), it did allow me to see my co-workers in a new light. They're considerably older (at least 10-15+ years), so I usually only get to see their work faces. We drove into the night and I got the grand tour of the ENTIRE steel manufacturing plant from the outside. Then, I heard my supervisor and the driver talking excitedly about something. Apparently, my supervisor wanted to stay on the main road and the driver knew a shortcut to wherever it was we were going. The driver won out and we very suddenly found ourselves driving on an incredibly uneven dirt road that had more bumps than bumper cars. If I had already eaten, I would've been sick. Luckily, this was not the case as we continued to drive along this road for about 20 minutes. Nearing our destination (I could finally see lights up ahead), one of my co-workers told me that this was Qishan (Qi mountain), a mountain that, at its peak, was in fact higher than Taishan (see post, "Ain't No Mountain High Enough"). However, I was in a car and we weren't climbing to the peak, so no issues on my end.

We arrived finally at a small restaurant that reminded me of the Chinese version of a French bistro. It had twinkle lights strung across the entryway and small lotus buds in a pond near the front door. A server showed us to the room where we would be eating, and I suddenly noticed that the table was only about one or two feet off the ground. And there were no chairs. Maybe we'd be sitting on cushions on the floor, Japanese style. But no, the waiter brought in these collapsable stools - basically two wooden crosspieces connected by a crisscross of fabric (you're supposed to sit on the fabric part). We made ourselves as comfortable as possible and my boss went out to order the dishes for the evening. And then there it was. The baijiu that I was sure would be my downfall for the evening. Every couple of minutes throughout the meal, someone of the five co-workers I was with would give a toast and we would sip at our drinks. The food was great - I will give them that; a great blend of spicy, sweet, salty, and bitter, and they were all famous Shandong dishes. The meal included things like spicy stewed beef, spinach and corn cakes, fried pumpkin, and a sort of scrambled egg and seaweed (this last one was actually my favorite despite how it sounds).

Then, after we finished eating, they said something about ten drinks. And suddenly I was confused again. We had already given the toasts - even I myself had given a toast. What could be left? Well, ganbei of course (literally meaning dry cup, its meaning refers to drinking however much alcohol is left in your glass - kind of like taking a shot). They asked me what order I had met them in. One of the co-workers was there when I was picked up at 3 a.m. the first night I arrived in Laiwu, so he was "one." My assistant was "two," followed by my boss "three," the woman in the office next door, "four," and the woman who had let me sit with her when I was locked out of my office one lunch hour, "five." So "one" and I clinked glasses (which is the equivalent of ganbei - apparently if you don't want to empty your glass, don't clink glasses with anyone) and I drank half a teacup's worth of baijiu. Now, anyone who has ever drank baijiu knows it works fast. It was unfortunate that after we began I finally realized what was about to happen:

I had to ganbei with each person. Twice.

This is supposed to symbolize "double luck." All I can say is, thank goodness they don't believe in triple luck. So in order from "one" to "five" - TWICE - we finished our glasses. I was probably drunk before the first round was even over. Now I will say one good thing for the alcohol - the conversation flowed better. My tones got progressively worse (for those of you who don't know, Chinese is a tonal language - if you use the wrong inflection, you're saying something completely different), but I understood my co-workers with more ease and I was certainly less inhibited in my speech.
*And let me digress for a moment and say to those of you - you know who you are - speech was the ONLY inhibition I lost, thank you very much Sean and Jason.

Anyway, usually if I don't know exactly how to say something in Chinese, I won't. But after that much baijiu, I didn't care and I made more effort to be part of the conversation. I don't know if constantly getting drunk is the answer to this problem - drinking may solve some problems in life, I don't think this is one of them - but it certainly made me aware of my inhibition and I'm making a more concerted effort to practice speaking as much as possible. After much alcohol and the packing up of leftover food, we headed back down the mountain talking and joking the whole way back. I was dropped off at my hotel and the kidnapping was over, giving me time to sleep it all off.
posted by Rachel @ 10:10 AM  
THE WILD WILD EAST: Everything you never knew you didn't know about life on the other side.
In China, the people are represented by two separate, yet equally important groups. The Chinese, who call this land "home," and the expats who migrate here. My name is Rachel. I am an expat. These are my stories.
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