Friday, March 8, 2013

The Art of Ganbei

Chinese New Year passed as it normally does: in a cloud of smoke (both cigarette and firework) and reeking of baijiu.  My little family survived it in Xiaoshan with my in-laws.  It was cold, but much more bearable than last year since they got the air-con fixed.  We spent about 10 days hanging out with her family.
Jordan with his only living great-grandparent
CNY is celebrated for a full week straight, with different families hosting lunches and dinners.  There is so much food at each meal, it seems the 10 of us per table barely make a dent in it.  Dishes are stacked on top of each other when theres no more room.

Strange foods are presented, liquor is poured, and cigarettes are smoked by the case.  The award for Strangest Vegetable Dish goes to the mini cucumbers, and the award for Strangest Meat Dish goes to the "Plate o' Rabbit Skulls".

For those of you unfamiliar with CNY's many traditions, here's a walkthrough of a few.

First is smoking.  Whenever a man is going to light a cigarette, he passes one out to every guy sitting at the table first.  Sometimes one dude will have collected five or six before he's ready to smoke his first one.  And when he does smoke that first one, he'll pass one out to everyone from his own pack first.  If you think the pollution is bad in Beijing, you probably shouldn't be anywhere near a Chinese dinner table during CNY.

Hong bao's, or red envelopes, are another common tradition, and one that i will gladly endorse.  The family hosting the dinner will give a hong bao containing a few hundred RMB to all the children present.  Jordan must have collected 20 over the week.  Or course, that's all money that her parents have paid out over the years while giving hong bao's to other kids, but now is Esther's turn to receive them.

Last, and probably most important, is drinking.  Every man drinks.  You're drunk at lunch, you're drunk at dinner, and you're sometimes just barely sobering up between the two.  It's exhausting.  The drink of choice is obviously baijiu, but i usually just drink red wine, beer, or the local yellow wine.  Yellow wine, or huangjiu, is 15-17% alcohol, where regular red wine is around 12%.  Baijiu is 43%.

Here are a list of some drinking rules i've managed to decipher over this past CNY.
  1. If you cheers one person, you should say how much you'll drink. The options are usually suoyi (drink whatever you want) or ganbei (dry the glass).
  2. If you cheers the whole table, you should finish your glass, everyone else can drink what they want. 
  3. If you're hosting a dinner, you must cheers everyone at least once. 
  4. You can request that the cheers'er(?) switch glasses with you, if they are drinking weaker alcohol.  This happened to me once when i was drinking red wine and our family was hosting the dinner.  Esther's older cousin switched with me, which became the only time all CNY i actually drank baijiu.
  5. Touching your glass below the other other person's glass is a sign of respect, and is encouraged especially if they are much older. 
  6. Everyone should wait for the toaster to finish drinking, so you know what you should drink. 
  7. You will rarely drink until you are toasted, or you toast somebody.  Few normal people can afford to drink casually when there is ganbeiing(?) going on. 
  8. Finally, if someone toasts you and says ganbei, you're expected to finish your glass. This usually ends badly.  I've seen many an inexperienced drinker get floored because of this tactic.
It's also amusing to watch them pour out the much-feared liquor.  For a people that appear to love drinking baijiu, they sure have a funny way of showing it.  Maybe they just fully respect it's potency.  Check out the body language when esther's cousin tries to refill their glasses.

Also, i just like this picture of esther's dad and her uncles hands.  It's, like, all artistic and crap.


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