I waited on the side the road. A bus stopped. I hopped on. The bus drove for a while. I hopped off. Then I got on another bus. This one drove for a few minutes, too. I got off. Then I got in a car.
It was raining, ever so slightly.
The car drove for some time, then finally left the road and began to amble up and over rocks and ditches and wet little hills. As it drove deep into the woods, I had a distinct feeling I was in one of those scenes, like the one in Miller’s Crossing or the one where Adrianna La Cerva takes her final ride in The Sopranos. In those scenes, you never want to be in the passenger’s seat, and that’s where I was, elbow propped against the window listening to Baby by Bieber. We kept going. Finally, we reached something of a clearing.
“Get out,” the driver implored blank-faced.
And there they were: a mass of teachers from my school, milling about eagerly, ready to seal my fate.
Mr. Long, the short, stocky, bowlegged leader of the pack meets me halfway. He’s got a cigarette resting between his lips, bobbing up and down. One hand is motioning me closer. The other hand is hiding something behind his back. What is it? As I come upon him, he reveals the mystery.
“We’ve been waiting for you,” he grins deviously.
He circles his left hand around front. It’s a cooking pan, and it’s full of Dali beer.
“Ah yes, a pan full of beer. But, I don’t believe beer belongs in a pan, Mr. Long. Surely, there’s been some mistake,” I try for naivety.
“It’s about time you arrived Mr. Luo. We’ve been at it all day. You
should will catch up. Immediately.”
I’d estimate the amount of beer in the pan at around two large sized bottles of Dali. That size is somewhere between an Olde English and your standard Blue Moon. It was soon confirmed that it was indeed 2.5 bottles of Dali. Quality wise, Dali beer is on par with Natural Light. Now, this would be all fine and good if I wanted to pick up a case of Dali for a night’s worth of shotgunning and beer pong. However, in most instances Dali is the only beer available. So if you’re looking for a party it’s either Dali or baijiu (which I now exclusively refer to as “evil”, or 邪恶(xie e), direct translation: 邪: heretical 恶: wickedness) I imagine the Dali factory as an assembly line in five stages: The first stage shapes the bottle. The second stage slaps a label on it. The third stage fills the bottle halfway up with water. The fourth stage consists of multiple men urinating precisely into the opening until the bottle has been nearly made full. The fifth stage screws on the cap.
So I drank it, in measured steps, at the prodding behest of Mr. Long. As I tipped over the final gulp, I immediately felt completely full and dismally sober, the patented Dali beer buzz. But, at least I could begin to enjoy the afternoon.
As it turns out, I wasn’t simply being led on an ominous ride into an inconspicuous wooded area. It was a barbecue. In fact, it was strikingly similar to the American version. Everyone drove their cars into a field, brought various types of offerings, drank a lot of beer, and ate unreasonable amounts of meat. There were about 20 people in total: teachers, significant others, and a few kids, who periodically poked their heads in to pester mom and dad. The threat of rain was very much in the air.
A Yunnanese barbecue works like this: Everybody gets a bowl filled with dipping sauce. Copious amounts of meat and vegetables are dumped haphazardly onto the grill. Oil is lavishly flooded upon the meat and vegetables. Everyone sits around the grill, on tiny stools built for little children, and prods and pokes the food until someone declares that all has been cooked to edibility by bravely clasping something with their chopsticks. As you can imagine, the oil is rather “jumpy.”
It started to rain. I grabbed my bowl of dipping sauce, snagged five or six pieces of not liver, stomach, or dried blood, “inadvertently” kicked over my bottle of Dali beer amidst the haste and headed for the nearest car. We waited it out for a couple minutes, and then decided to change locations.
Everyone hopped out of the cars in a hurry and grabbed everything worth grabbing: the food, the grills, the children. We recreated the scene at another spot, a few minutes up the road that was also heavily clouded. Mr. Yang, my principal, assured us with supreme conviction that it would not rain there. On the way, one of the teachers crouched in the back of a pickup truck and never stopped grilling.
The festivities resumed. A teachers’ husband produced a giant bag of green flute-like vegetables. He dumped them on the grill and doused them in a wholly inappropriate amount of oil. The teachers started making jokes about the food, which turned out to be Chinese chives, immediately.
“Why so many chives man?” Mr. Long inquired with a hearty laugh.
“Because I like chives,” the man replied with a smirk.
“When you’ve been married as long as him, you have to like chives,” another teacher pointed out.
I was lost, utterly.
Then, the 27-year-old teacher sitting to my right, one of many Mr. Yangs, looked at me, “We don’t need the chives. Only they need the chives,” and he put his index finger in the air and curved it up and down. I thought I was starting to catch the chive vibe. He kept saying the word 伟哥(wei-ge) over and over.
There’s this frantic, heavily anticipatory moment that anyone who’s ever studied a foreign language knows about. It’s the moment between hearing a word and searching its meaning in a dictionary. It’s like when you’re the last person in the room to get the joke. Your neurons scramble to make connections and finally you figure it out, nod your head, and smile inside—because everyone else may have gotten the joke, but you got the incidental delayed gratification. I type “weige” into my dictionary. Weige: Viagra (male impotence drug). I was now fully in on the chive conversation.
A moment after I learned the mystery behind Chinese chives, one of the teacher’s wives approached the grill, grabbed a massive chopstick-full of chives and plopped them down in her husband’s dipping bowl. A minor riot of hysterics ensued. The wife tried to hold back, but she too let a chuckle slip. I seized the opportunity to “inadvertently” kick over another bottle of Dali and then lost myself in the laughter.
Despite Mr. Yang’s meteorological certitude, it promptly started to pour. We left.
I love this. I can’t get enough of this, this feeling of utter and complete sentience all around me. This feeling isn’t so easy to come by in 2014. Sometimes I think it’s got to do with being in the middle of the other side of the planet. Sometimes I think it’s the specific company I keep. Sometimes I think it’s because I don’t bring my cell phone. Sometimes I think it’s the baijiu. But then I think to myself, why should I have to emphasize or justify feeling alive? After all, isn’t that, like, kind of the point?