Drunk On Spring Festival


Baijui tastes like turpentine. It is one of the most god awful things I ever drank. I would drink a few shots of it over a cigarette with the ex-military cab driver who owned a little dive just outside my apartment in Fuzhou: a filthy concrete hovel with a kitchen the size of a coffin and a dining room that could seat no more than a dozen. His wife cooked and served and did everything.  The food was delicious. She’d fry up some peanuts with green onions and salt, and some egg with very spicy peppers after her husband got home from driving his cab, and sometimes he and I would sit together drinking. He was very friendly. He didn’t speak ten words of English, and I didn’t speak twenty of Mandarin, but we communicated a lot through drunken sign language and poker cards under the buzzing of a fluorescent sign.

I never got wasted on the oily-textured, clear liquor distilled from glutinous rice; it wasn’t possible. I swallowed every shot glass around a reluctant grimace and a fatalistic “gan bei!” So I never drank enough to get really drunk except that one time, at Spring Festival last year.

Spring Festival is like Christmas and the Fourth of July and New Year’s all rolled into one. It’s a week of feasting, drinking, and enough fireworks to burn down a few buildings in each city. Last year I spent Spring Festival in a small city Nanping with a student’s family. I stood on the roof of their poured-concrete apartment building and watched people lean out of millions of windows across the city shooting or dropping lit fireworks into the street, while thousands clustered around the foundations setting off the constant roar of endless firecrackers, and the sky exploded all around me with big fireballs in red, green, blue, and gold for hours unabated.

The next night, my student’s father took us all out to dinner with an old friend of his that was in town, and about fifty relations from either family. Waitresses began to adorn the table with all the delicacies of southern China. In the West, feast days are cause for alarm and lamentation among large birds, pigs, and cattle, but along the seas of China, I am sure that every imaginable form of ocean life quakes in terror at the approach of Spring. No fish is too small, no worm too slimy, no cephalopod too tentacled, no crustacean too horrific in appearance or anatomy to deter consumption. I can only imagine the fleets of fishing boats small and massive that sweep the ocean floor to shore in preparation for the event. Suffice it to say that the only chicken in sight had been amputated above the ankle, disembodied little feet waving uninvitingly to my inadequately Easternized appetites.

Everything changed when the baijiu began to go around. This baijiu was all but unrelated to the vicious paint I drank in a burnt-out concrete hole in Fuzhou. This baijiu cost five hundred dollars a bottle, more than your average Chinese monthly salary. This baijiu was heaven to drink. It was probably made from rice picked by the mouths of virgins and nestled between their warm, loving bosoms [1] until being distilled in vast, intricately carved jade barrels and mixed with the tears of mischievous blue-faced Daoist demons lured down from their mist-clad mountains by the holiest of monks.

It was a pleasure to drink: slightly sweet, indescribably wonderful on the tongue, warming, and smooth as silk going down. It was not long before I became adventurous enough to tear a particularly spiny and foreign looking lobster to bits with my bare hands. A blurry few minutes of toasts and I was shrugging good-naturedly at the prospect of sucking a white, fleshy sea snail from its brilliant red shell. The Lazy Susan spun only a little more slowly than my head, presenting pile after pile of glorious sea life coated in glazes of sugar, garlic, ginger and MSG. These delicacies might have been parading around the table singing a Mandarin version of “Be Our Guest” à la Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, or I might have been hallucinating from alcohol poisoning.

I laughed. I said things that were extremely stupid, that nobody understood (not even the few whose English was impeccable). I think I learned to sing a song badly in Mandarin. I ate unnameable things. And I drank and I drank and I drank.

When I regained consciousness the next morning, the aforementioned Daoist demons had exacted their revenge, shitting in my skull while I had blacked out, drooling bile onto a pillow. My hosts were chattering, getting ready for breakfast. They were placing bowls of tiny mollusks, vast crawfish, roasted pig’s feet, and squid frozen in the contortions of their death-agony on the table. I dutifully took my place, knowing full well that no amount of insistence that I was not hungry would excuse me from at least occupying a chair. I watched, still half-hallucinating, seeing bizarre shapes in the greasy, shiny water that half-immersed the mollusks. I listened as my hosts cracked their little shells between their teeth, and slurped out the unfortunate former inhabitants. I added an almost-sharp firmness to my voice, “wo zhen bu yao,” as crawfish were thrust in my face at the end of chopsticks. I swallowed a few spoonfuls of rice. And I tried not to vomit all over my hosts’ table.

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image – Paul Louis