“Shit on face. What does it mean?”

“No, no, no. Shitfaced. Shit-face-duh. Like past tense. Shit-face-e-d-.”

“Okay, okay.”

“And it means drunk. You know, like really drunk. It’s an American expression.”

“So what do you mean by this exactly.”

“Shitfaced. Someone who drank too much alcohol is shitfaced.”

“ I see, I see. So, you have been so drunk that you will permit someone to shit on your face.”

Roar of laughter. “No. Well, I don’t think so. I don’t know if I could ever be that drunk. I’m not sure I know anyone who could be that drunk. Shitfaced, it’s just a figure of speech man. It’s not literal. There is no shit involved. It’s simply a way to say you are very, very drunk.”
“So no shit on face. Just very drunk. I understand. Just very drunk.”

That was conversation I had a few months ago with my summer institute roommate, Zhao Yi. Zhao Yi is a brilliant dude. He graduated from the best university in China (Peking University). Sometimes he is a little too smart for himself. The above conversation is one of those instances. One time, I tried to tell him the “ Seven ‘ate’ nine” joke. He found it quite difficult to accept the fact that seven would do such a thing to nine. Anyway, this story isn’t about Zhao Yi or single digit numbers cannibalizing themselves. This is about being “shit on your face” drunk in rural China, something I am right now, and something I will be many, many times over the next two years.

In the United States, there is an ongoing competition among colleges and universities to crown the nation’s best “party school.” Last May I graduated from Tulane University, a school that often finds itself on the list of America’s most hallowed institutions of shitface-edness. We are no West Virginia, but for a private school of less than 6,000 undergrads with one of the country’s worst Division One football teams, we’re doing pretty well for ourselves. Tulane’s drinking culture is vibrant and thriving. Three days a week of heavy drinking was acceptable. Four days was normal.

During the Teach for China training period, fellows are incessantly reminded/warned about various aspects of rural Chinese culture: Learn how to use a squat toilet, understand that you will, at some point, be inflicted with giardia and food poisoning, or remember that Chinese food is spicy. More than anything else, we were constantly educated on the severity of drinking culture in rural Yunnan. We were most commonly advised that we should not even begin. If we don’t drink at all, our local teachers will not be offended when we refuse their advances. After four years at Tulane, I was going to have none of this. I planned to drink on the local level. I was very much of the “bring it on” mentality. As it turns out, I should have listened to the early warnings.

The drinking culture in rural Yunnan is a force to be reckoned with. It centers almost exclusively on the malevolent concoction that is baijiu (direct translation: white wine, de facto translation: instapuke). Baijiu is full of hate. White wine, it is not. Typically, baijiu lingers between 40 and 55% alcohol. Yet, it tastes like 80%. If baijiu is Goliath, I am a pathetic, helpless David. Drinking baijiu is like playing one on one against Kobe Bryant. You’re going to lose by a lot and your adversary is going to make you feel very bad about it. You won’t even have fun. A smart man wouldn’t even play the game. The most frustrating thing about baijiu is that it is an inanimate liquid. It is completely indifferent to your suffering. Much like the computer-user who curses Microsoft and slams his keyboard against the wall, the baijiu drinker’s attempts at revenge will only lead to further despair.

In Heqing, there is really only one brand of baijiu: Heqing Da Mai Jiu. It’s 41% alcohol and costs a whopping six Yuan for a fifth. That’s around 90¢ for you non-Forex gurus. That’s sickeningly cheap. That means a fifth of 41% liquor in rural China costs less than a bottle of water in the United States. Heqing Da Mai Jiu seems purposefully bad. There is no way something so vile could have been created by chance. Even the worst mixtures of Everclear and Kool-Aid fall far short of Heqing Da Mai Jiu’s putridity. You can feel its sting from your esophagus to the pit of your stomach. It’s as though Satan himself has slithered into your digestive tract.

Almost every night, or at some point during the day, someone on my campus is guzzling down small glasses of this filth with great gusto. As the white guy, I am the undisputed preferred drinking partner. I am urged to join the revelry whenever I am spotted, which is quite often, because I am the white guy. Locals often want to push me to see how far I can go, which, unfortunately is actually pretty far in China. Every new person I meet means another shot (luckily my village population is only a few thousand).

Drinking is done at meetings, at birthday parties that become meetings, at noon, on Monday night. This weekend I was asked to drink shots with the principal to celebrate the birth of his grandson. It was 10 am. One month ago, the principal and the vice-principal came to my room and asked me to drink a few shots with them. I remember little after that. I taught my first class of the day sufficiently inebriated.

One year ago, it would take great pains to refuse an invitation to drink. There may have been an exam waiting for me in the morning, but if the Boot was calling, I had no choice but to answer. Now, I avoid booze like I avoid the spider-infested stall in our bathroom. I want no part of it. I want to make like Carrie Nation and smash every bottle of bai jiu in front of the schoolchildren so they can see how evil alcohol is. May they never drink a drop!

Maybe it’s because baijiu tastes like a fire sword being shoved down your throat that can’t be extracted, maybe it’s because my only drinking partners are 50 year old men, maybe it’s because I have to wake up before the sun comes out, or maybe it’s because the only food I have to eat when I’m shitfaced is uncooked ramen and fried grasshoppers, but I despise drinking. Where once was love is now replaced by passionate animosity, like an ex-girlfriend who broke your heart (or, liver). If I never see a bottle of Heqing Da Mai Jiu it will be too soon.

Cruelly, ‘never’ probably means 9pm tonight.


School meetings


School meetings

Since it would take a monumental effort to understand 25% of what is being said, this is what I do during my weekly two hour long meetings. Clockwise from top left: Deng Xiaoping, Mao Zedong, Hu Jintao, and my principal, Yang Xiaozhang (with his trademark cig).

South of the Border

Most places in the word command little explanation. Many sites, cities, and even countries can be described in a word or two. For example, I passed through the 7 million-person metropolis of Shenzhen on my way to Hong Kong. The word “industry” pretty much tells you the whole story. “Sludge” is also acceptable.  Some locales can be summed up by comparison. If you asked me, “What’s Massachusetts like?” I’d probably tell you “It’s kind of like Connecticut.” If you asked me, “What’s Connecticut like?” I’d be inclined to give you the dead-honest straightforward truth, “It’s kind of like Massachusetts.” Naturally, places with a little more swag about them than Connecticut (almost anywhere) could be worth a sentence. If we’re talking somewhere pretty special, like a Montreal or Shanghai caliber spot, a few remarks, maybe even a whole paragraph might suffice. “They kind of speak French in Montreal! Winter is cold! Hockey!” “Shanghai is the biggest city in China! It is very dynamic! There are a lot of tall buildings! Pedestrians are the lowest life form.” Then, there are places that deserve a page or even a chapter or even a whole book.

            Hong Kong is none of these. Hong Kong is beyond description. It resists description. It is one of the few places that cannot be understood or even perceived until it is experienced.

            I arrived in Hong Kong last week. My co-fellow Nicole and I came through the border crossing in the aforementioned Shenzhen. From the sky, Shenzhen looks like a miserable shithole. I didn’t get out of the airport, so I can’t give it the definitive shithole stamp, but I have a pretty good feeling about it. It’s kind of the poster-child for what many Westerners think modern China is: Gray and peppered with endless factories. We were headed to HK on a visa run. Hong Kong’s international status is ambiguous. It’s technically part of the PRC but retains a lot of the special benefits and government structure that it had in 1997. Having Asia’s financial epicenter fall into your lap after hundreds of years is rather fortuitous. So, China lets them have access to Google and Facebook for their troubles. I’ll refrain from delving into the complete and utter absurdity of the visa process because just thinking about it makes me want to waterboard myself.

            If Hong Kong were a work of art, it would be a cross between a Pollack and an incredibly complex and detailed architectural blueprint. It’s chaos in its purest and most disciplined form. Initial thoughts: streetlights, white people, dazzling sensory overload. I’ve been living in a place that doesn’t have a restaurant or a non-Chinese person for miles. I also haven’t had a meal without rice in two months. Hong Kong’s energy smacks me in the face. And it hurts so good. I cannot imagine what someone from my village (my Chinese village, not Sherman) would do if they were snatched off the street, blindfolded, and dropped in the middle of central Hong Kong. They’d probably put the blindfold back on.

            At first the white people are what really get me. Not just the white people, but also the black people and the very large population of brown people too. When I fly home, I’ll obviously see a lot of non-Chinese. But, that’s expected. Asians are a relatively small minority in the West. In Hong Kong, the majority is still of Chinese heritage (93% officially). That statistic definitely warrants downward readjustment in the tourist and finance hubs. Ninety-three percent may seem pretty Chinese, but it’s obviously nothing compared to my village, which at the time of this writing, as I am still in Hong Kong, has a non-Chinese population of approximately 0%. I unabashedly embraced the hypocrisy and stared at every white, black, and brown person I saw. How exotic they all are.

            My hostel is located in Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon. “TST” is a five-minute  $2.50 HKD Star Ferry ride across the water form the imposing vertical metropolis of Hong Kong Island. For simplicity’s sake Kowloon is something like Brooklyn and/or Queens and Hong Kong is Manhattan. After a metro ride to TST, I finally set foot on Hong Kong territory. This after a journey that began forty hours ago on the side of the road in my tiny village. Immediately, I’m swarmed by suavely dressed Indian and Pakistani men with slicked back hair calling my name. “Taylor!” “Hey Taylor, dude.” “Hey buddy, Taylor, Taylor!” This is my second go around in HK, so this time I know better. Whereas in Bangkok they’d be saying “Girls? Girls?…. Guys?” or in Shanghai they’d be saying “Rolex? Handbag? DVD?” in Hong Kong, tailored suits are the thing everyone and their mother is trying to con you into buying. I continue toward my hostel. As I move to enter the building, a bespectacled grandfatherly local man sitting on a stool stops me. I stop short, he kind of looks official. “Massage?” he inquires. I continue to my hostel.

            Our booking is on the fourteenth floor of a fifteen-story building. Unfortunately, only one of the two elevators is operating. We’re told we are lucky, because last week they were both out of commission. They elevator fits a China seven. Basically, shoulder to shoulder, chest to chest. Space is the ultimate commodity in Hong Kong. Since it’s been an isolated city-state for the entirety of its modern existence, the only new frontier is up. What’s considered tight quarters in New York would be cavernous in Hong Kong (rents are somehow DOUBLE Manhattan rates). Nary a square meter is wasted. Endless skyscrapers jut out from steep mountain faces. Hong Kong’s endeavor to utilize every inch of their 407 square miles of land appears to defy the laws of physics.  In Hong Kong, people live, work, and play in the sky. It is the quintessential urban jungle. New York is the only city that can even make a case for comparison.

            TST is a mashing together of malls, flashing ads for hotel rooms 28 stories up, dubious Indian restaurants, and the notorious Chungking mansion. Chungking is a giant building that houses numerous different hostels. On the ground floor you’ll find men from south Asia and Africa selling almost anything you can imagine. It retains a somewhat pleasant smell of curry and cigarette smoke. I once read a statistic that 20% of in-use cell phones in Sub-Saharan Africa had passed through Chungking mansion’s doors. That statistic rather eloquently sums up the kind of things that go on inside.

            Across the river is Hong Kong Island. This is the Hong Kong that people who’ve never been hold in their imagination. Beautiful skyscrapers with the logos of JP Morgan, HSBC, and Standard Chartered rise above the water like giant trees forming the canopy high above the urban jungle below. On the ground, masses of shops, bars, and restaurants feed the feeders of the international finance machine. At night the high-rises empty their contents into the streets. Leisure time appears to be an extension of office life. Competitive, fast-paced, and meticulously stylish. Cocktails cost $100 HKD (10+ US). Clubs charge $400 HKD to come in and have a look.

            The jet set is alive and thriving in Hong Kong. But, next to all this are the equally fast-paced, equally capitalist, altogether much grittier local neighborhoods. Taxi drivers (driving on the left side) yell at pedestrians in Cantonese, English, and Mandarin. Old woman hawk live fish and frogs from giant tanks stacked on top of each other. Even marine animals get a taste of the jam-packed Hong Kong city life before they meet their demise. Sinewy shirtless 20-somethings excitedly mind streetside stalls that promise to fix any broken electronic device ever created. Among the pandemonium Cantopop finds its way from fuzzy boomboxes into welcoming ears. You can meander these districts for hours and not see a single foreigner. It’s insanity, but you can’t stop, you can’t even sit and think, because you’ll fall behind. And, in Hong Kong, the state of behind is the most feared state of all.

            The mindset is the same, but the means are different. Champions of capitalism ply their trade from the 94th floor of grandiose superstructures. They wear tailored suits and gold cufflinks. They eat steak and drink wine. Deep inside the valleys and canyons others grind, and push, and fight to carve out their own piece of Hong Kong. They wear dirty white undershirts and listen to Raymond Lam. They eat giant crabs and fish balls. Perhaps the only tangibly binding tie is that they all ride the same unprecedentedly efficient metro rail.

            To say Hong Kong isn’t Chinese is false. To say Hong Kong isn’t a first-world, Western city is false. It is both of these things at once, side-by-side, and inside out. However, in the street vendors and the financiers to the crazed taxi drivers and the pair of Indian brothers operating a hostel on the 28th floor of and the Nigerian guy hustling cell phones from the mainland across the Indian Ocean in some corner of Chungking mansion, there is a binding desire for something more. No one in Hong Kong settles. Like the city itself that climbs higher and higher into the sky and up the mountains even when it seems impossible, everyone is reaching up, not out. There is an ambition present here unseen anywhere else in the world. Not even geographically imposed limits can keep Hong Kong contained.  One architect makes a tall building, another makes a taller one. One guy fixes iPhones for 30 bucks, another fixes them for 29. Hong Kong is in an endless race to squeeze every last bit of possibility out of everything. There is no why or how or where? Questions don’t exist. You must do before you are done in. You don’t have time to question how the machine runs so seamlessly, you just accept the fact that it does run, and it runs incredibly well.

            Then you leave, and you have no idea what just happened.