Over on Food Republic today, I pen tale of my time spent drunkenly in China. At a diplomatic dinner, the host heard that I was a spirits and beer journalist. Thus, he demanded I knock back shot after shot of potent, rotgut bai jiu all under the guise of gan bei—a phrase that roughly translates to "bottoms up," and requires that the drinkers drain their cups. It's a ritual repeated, over and over, till intoxication is achieved. And then more booze is consumed. Curious? Drink it up!
Thirst be gone!
My greatest asset is my gullet. Despite my horse-jockey height, my gullet is long and elastic, permitting me to swallow ponds and streams in one breathless gulp. It’s like discovering a Wizard of Oz munchkin is hung like Dirk Diggler.
I unlocked my throat’s secrets during college, when my roommate Geoff devised a drinking contest based upon a baseball videogame’s homerun-derby feature. If you smacked two consecutive long balls, your competitor drank for two seconds. Three dingers equaled three seconds of consumption, and so on. But if a round-tripper landed in a predetermined locale—say, the bullpen— your competitor finished his 40-ouncer.
“One Phat Boy, going down!” my roommate Geoff would scream, pointing at my malt liquor that incorporated ginseng—zero health benefits, 100 percent hangover. I’d disappear the swill then grab the controller, smacking homeruns as drunkenly as Babe Ruth once did.
My gullet once again proved its handiness during last week’s voyage across China. See, the People’s Republic plays the world’s most dangerous drinking game: “gan bei,” roughly translated to “bottoms up.” At bureaucratic and businessmen banquets, glasses are filled with beer, wine or bai jiu—a raw, vicious grain liquor that makes moonshine taste like sweet tea.“Gan bei!” the meal’s host will call, meaning everyone must empty their vessels and display them for inspection. Refusing to drink is disrespectful; drinking as much as a frat pledge is applauded. China is a country where an alcoholic could feel right at home.
I knew of the dangers before I boarded my Air China flight to Beijing, embarking on an 11-day, government-sponsored trip across China—seriously. But I sidestepped disaster as I bounced from frenetic Shanghai to seafaring Yantai to bike-friendly Hangzhou. My lucky-liver streak ended in Qingdao, a mountainous Yellow Sea city better known as Tsingtao, the birthplace of America’s favorite beer to accompany General Tso’s chicken. You won’t find such gloppy abominations in this beachy town: Culinary Qingdao traffics in fried, braised, seafood-focused cuisine that’s by turns salty and savory, with an emphasis on soy sauce, peanuts and peppers.
It was a good primer for dinner in our secluded dining room—a circular table filled with my six traveling companions, a local guide and three bureaucrats of varying importance, including the host, the local head of tourism. A lazy Susan was loaded with plates of tangy and flaky white fish, cartilage-crunchy sea cucumbers swimming in a minced-swine sauce and heaps of crunchy pork nibs awash in a red capsaicin ocean. I was a chili head in heaven. Hell was around the corner.
“Josh,” my translator began, motioning to the host, “he has heard you write about beer and alcohol. He would like you to drink bai jiu.”
“Can we stick to beer?” I gulped my golden Tsingtao.
“The bai jiu, it is for special occasions,” she said.
“How strong is it?” “Seventy-two degrees.” “Which is… ” “About… 145 proof.”
“Line them up,” I said, eager to make America proud. Fleet-footed waiters filled our glasses as quickly as I typed this sentence. A toast was said, the gist of which was,“We are glad to have you visit our town and vomit in our bathrooms.” Then the host hoisted his glass—sloshing white liquid smelling of unleaded gasoline—and said the words that consign so many businessmen to cirrhosis: “Gan bei!” His shot vanished like a mirage. I brought the glass to my lips and, relaxing my most reliable body part, dumped bai jiu down the hatch. It was like turning a hairdryer on my intestines. I displayed my upside-down glass, a sole drop falling onto the tablecloth like a tear. The Chinese contingent golf-clapped, as if I’d just sunk a particularly difficult putt.The waiters filled our glasses again. “Gan bei!” the host toasted. Our shots visited our respective bellies.We switched to beer, then to wine, then back to bai jiu—who knew being a Chinese bureaucrat was so fun?
Though my gullet was indomitable, my bladder was not. I excused myself to the bathroom, nearly turning my red shoes yellow and wet. Back at the table, more bai jiu awaited. I grabbed a glass.The host guffawed.
“He says you can drink well,” my translator explained. “But you should never be the first person to go to the bathroom.”