I stood at an existential crossroads.Turn left: I’d be in front of my computer, shrouded in clothes I bought on taobao and thinking terrible thoughts about taobao. Turn right: I could be sitting around an incompetent space heater with a bunch of middle-aged dudes insistent on shoving flammable liquid into my throat.
I eagerly turned right.
It was a solid crowd of 5 or 6—the familiars: The principal, the security guard, a couple of administrators, a local shop owner. They were watching local news and screaming at each other. I sat down and the security guard—the host—filled my glass. There is no such thing as “say when.” “When” is “when” pouring more means losing some. I noticed dozens of empty bottles of baijiu in the corner. Our security guard would not do well in Salt Lake City.
You can always tell what kind of a night it is based on sip to gulp ratio. This is something I learned in college. This Wednesday evening, as it were, was a gulp night. A cavalcade of cheersing ensued. After a few minutes, I was two glasses deep and starting to feel warm. On my left was Mr. Zhao, a new teacher at our school. Mr. Zhao spent the last six years at a 1-4 school in an isolated area thirty minutes off the main road. He was one of two teachers at that school. As an aside, this is only plausible because the village where he taught, Dongpo, sends its kids to school every two years. So, if there is a new 1st grade class in 2014, there will not be another one until 2016. For obvious reasons, Mr. Zhao was forced to teach English. Consequently, Mr. Zhao has a fluent command of the 3rd and 4th grade People’s Education Press curriculum.
“It’s cold.” He says.
“Yes.” I say.
“I’m old.” He says.
“Nah. Mr. Zhao. If you told me you were a day over 30 I simply wouldn’t believe it .” I say in Chinese.
“I am forty.” He says and then proceeds to state the age of each person in the room in rapid sequence. “He is fifty-two. He is fifty-nine. He is forty-three. You are twenty-four,” etc.
“That’s true, Mr. Zhao. Not bad.”
Mr. Zhao smiles.
After the collective BAC climbs to “ambitious,” the local shop owner (not drinking) suggests that we get some food. It’s 10 pm now. Food is twenty minutes and a lot more baijiu and cigarettes away. Another existential crossroads emerges. I have things to do, matters of consequence to attend to, goddamnit. I’m still at the level of inebriation that allows for—potentially enhances—work.
I go with them, naturally.
Mr. Zhao, who is long past the aforementioned level begins banging wildly on the doors of other, likely asleep, teachers. After minutes of persistence he manages to roust Mr. Duan—a tall, thin, quiet man—from slumber. The crowd lets out a raucous roar as Mr. Duan emerges grouchily from his room. They (we) begin chanting “Lit-tle Duan, Lit-tle Duan,” as we move toward the shop owner’s Ford.
We pile into the car: Two in the passenger’s seat, four in the back. Seven total. Mr. Yang is on my knee, shouting orders at the driver. Mr. Duan is crammed in the corner, imbued with feelings opposite warmth, love, and affection. We arrive in town—Songgui—after twenty swervy minutes. The driver pounds the breaks and Mr. Yang hurls forward, letting out a roar of approval. We dodder into a shaokao (barbecue) spot. The place is flush with middle-aged males—the fast crowd in this pocket of the human universe.
After the obligatory volley of introductory head nods and “Ehs, ohs, and ughs” we sit down at our own table and the waiter produces two fresh bottles of baijiu and sparks the grill. The security guard takes initiative and fills everyone’s glass. Mr. Duan’s feeble attempts at refusal are met with collective guttural chortles of shaming disapproval.
The waiter brings out the food—not a vegetable in the house—at least not until Mr. Zhao powers through three or four more tall glasses of firewater. The shop owner tosses some livers and ligament-y looking things on the griddle. The fire roars and the smoke swats me in the face and we sit back and cheers. Mr. Yang and Mr. Zhao drain their glasses with frightening impunity. They are small dudes and notorious lightweights. Cigarettes are passed out and smoked livers and ligaments are crisp. Mr. Zhao and Mr. Yang are screaming at each other in nearly unintelligible dialect. I think I can make out small bits.
“I clean the damn bathroom. Clean it with my own hands, Zhao.” Mr. Yang says.
Mr. Yang gestures from a hand with a cigarette and a re-filled glass of baijiu in it. The drank sloshes and falls onto the grill. I get a fresh sheet of meat and cigarette smoke in my eyes.
“OK. I’m sorry,” Mr. Zhao is speaking English again.
“Listen here, Zhao. I clean the damn bathroom. It’s my job.” He is so sure of it.
“OK. I’m sorry. Meester Yang.” I suppose Mr. Zhao had disparaged the bathroom.
The waiter brings out some large, beanish looking things. The shop owner strategically places them on the grill, one by one. Mr. Yang and Mr. Zhao are shouting. The security guard appears to be asleep. Mr. Duan is pondering into his glass.
“What’s that?” I ask through the smoke.
“Oh, you know.” The shop owner says, smiling like a 10-year-old boy.
“It is eggs! Pig eggs!” Mr. Zhao points emphatically, returning to the fray. Egg is the Chinese slang for that particular anatomical feature, as it were.
The shop owner paints the testicles with oil (lol) and they flare up. I receive a thick cloud of testicle smoke to the eyes. I wonder what happens when a pig is tumescent, if you will, before meeting its fate. First of all, awful way to go. Second, well you know, what’s the flavor profile there?
“Eggs!” They all shout in English. Mr. Duan, an actual English teacher, drily repeats the word. We eat the eggs. They’re not bad. We finish one and a half bottles. I hide the remainder behind my stool. I fend off Mr. Yang when he discovers it. He relents. We drive back with a Styrofoam box full of testicles. Messrs Yang and Zhao, and the security guard rest peacefully on the seat.
When we arrive it’s just past 1 AM. Mr. Zhao has morning study hall in 6 hours. We approach the on-duty room, where a teacher, Yang Yan Han, is sleeping. They begin pounding on his door. I quickly make my escape. They pound and chant, “Give Yang Yan Han the testicles! Give Yang Yan Han the testicles!” I find out the next morning that they gave him the testicles. I return to my cold bed.
When I walked to the security guard’s room, and then when I piled into a car, and again when I was getting faced with fumo de cojones, I kept having this thought. I was thinking about the interplay between things we have to do, should do, want to do, need to do. The way you live your life boils down to what types of things you slot into each of those categories. I was thinking I should go “get shit done,” I should “do some work,” whatever that means. Everyone always wants to “get shit done.” Then I was thinking, I have to go down the hill and drink baijiu and smoke cigarettes with these guys. I have to. What could possibly be more important? Now, I recognize that that sounds like some sort of Nihilist excuse for debauchery. It very well could be. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe once in a while we should reprioritize our priorities.