The first thing any socially skilled Chinese person does upon entering a room is to appraise all the people in it. You have to dish out respect in a certain order, and power, wealth, and age are the determining factors. Usually the greasy-haired man with the giant belly chain-smoking in the middle of the room is the laoban, or boss. He gets his ego stroked first. But a decrepit old lady can sometimes trump the laoban, depending on how sassy or how decrepit she is. On the other hand, everyone under thirty is an urchin, unless they are married and have children.
I went to dinner at a nice restaurant with a work unit this winter. One of the urchins was preparing tea for the rest of us throughout the meal. He had to boil water every fifteen minutes. I felt bad for him, so I took over for him for a little bit. I too am an urchin, after all.
I knew that under normal circumstances, I should pour the laoban’s tea before everyone else’s. But what the hell, I decided to serve the urchin first. He deserved it; he’d been pouring tea all night.
“Don’t pour mine first!” he hissed at me.
Too late. I filled his cup before anyone else’s. But my gesture of gratitude was lost on him, and he was embarrassed that he’d gotten his share before the bigshots did. Luckily, no one at that dinner was a dick, and the dude in charge didn’t really care who got tea first.
But when I went to lunch at a Taiyuan mine with my adviser and labmates, people did care. The higher-ups at the mine insisted on buying a handle of fenjiu, a famous and disgusting Shanxi liquor, and getting us all drunk. This is also an important part of showing respect. You get a bottle of vile liquor and toast each other until the liquor is gone and you can’t find your own bellybutton. Never mind that it was noon and that we’d driven there. “We’ll get you a driver,” the laoban assured us.
Everyone started toasting each other and taking shots. The shot glasses are smaller than in the US—maybe a half of a US shot glass. Might as well have fun with this, I thought. So I went around the table and toasted every single person. First I toasted the laoban, who had been boasting about his son, who is rich or something. “Thank you for inviting me to your mine,” I said. “To your son!” One shot.
I turned to the guy next to him, whose name I never learned and was not sure why he was there. But he was important because he was sitting next to the laoban. “So wonderful to meet you!” Second shot.
I didn’t really know whom to toast next, so the order broke down. I decided to toast some lady who may have been a secretary. She poured me water earlier, when we were all sitting in the laoban’s office. “Thank you for your warm welcome!” Third shot.
“She’s foreign, but she knows how to do it,” someone said appreciatively.
That was my ticket to more shots. Even though fenjiu is terrible, it is an excuse to stuff yourself with food. Pork belly makes an excellent chaser.
The table was surrounded with people I’d never seen before.
“Nice to meet you!” Shot!
“To a prosperous year!” Shot!
“Your health!” Shot!
My liver! Shot!
Time to toast my labmates, Deng and Leili. They had also been taking shots concurrently. Everyone was taking shots to everyone else. It was like a combinatorics problem.
“You don’t have to drink to us,” Leili said to me.
I took the shots anyway. The mine was terribly polluted and I was a little depressed because of it. They did get us a driver, and I fell asleep on the car ride home.