“Shit on face. What does it mean?”
“No, no, no. Shitfaced. Shit-face-duh. Like past tense. Shit-face-e-d-.”
“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.