The buses always came late in January. The cold made the wait seem interminable. there was simply no reprieve. The temperature was well below freezing, and indeed had been since November. In such cold, even the slightest breeze was excruciating. It seemed that no amount of clothing could shield me from the incursion of the icy cold air. I must have looked imposing, standing there in my police coat. At six feet three inches, I was considered a giant here, and, with the help of nearly every sweater I owned, now had the girth of an inflatable snowman. Still, the icy air jabbed at my skin.
It was Saturday. Why didn’t I just stay in my room, warm and snug on the thirteenth floor of my apartment building? Was I mad? I could have been perched on my favorite stool, reading Dostoevsky and laughing at the cold and the wind. But instead I was here, at a rundown bus stop on Fourth Street in the freezing cold, clutching an index card in my right hand. Scribbled on the index card with apparent haste were twenty or so lop-sided characters which would lead me to my destination, or get me lost. Some students had told me about a gym at one Number Eleven High School. Since the weather had turned I had not had much exercise, and this deprivation was making me restless; so restless that I had decided to brave the cold in a trip that would take me halfway across town, requiring me to change buses at least twice.
I was having second thoughts when I spotted the bus, number 278, charging down the uneven road which was, as usual, perilously fraught with pedestrians. The bus screeched for about five seconds before it came to a stop and the door was violently flung open. I was reflecting on how lucky it was that there were so few boarding passengers, when an old lady shoved me to the side and took the last seat. I would have to surf for at least six stops. Two buses, three determined frizzy-haired old ladies, and several knocks on the head later, I was standing before a complex of massive buildings. This was the prestigious Number Eleven High school.
Hundreds of students were streaming out of the front gate, holding up traffic as they crossed the four lane road, forming an impenetrable wall of human bodies. It was lunch time. The sports building, I came to know, was the building on the left. I found a large well supplied gymnasium on the third floor of this building. An intense basketball match was taking place on the main court. There were ten men shrieking and running about, none of them younger than thirty. The were all wearing fancy sneakers and a few were sporting sweat bands. Their excited voices, mixed with the sound of their nimble feet and the pounding of the ball, echoed in a very familiar way. I took a seat on the first of a long row of empty plastic chairs which lined the court, and watched as the game unfolded. I noticed, on the opposite side of the court, a bald, portly man of about thirty-five wearing a three-quarter-length winter coat over his tee and shorts, and wielding a shiny whistle. He was remarkably light on his feet considering his round form, and he monitored the game energetically. Every Twee-eet! of the whistle was accompanied by violent gesticulation. On three or four occasions, he stormed onto the court and demanded the ball. Juxtaposed with this exuberant sideline display was the apparent scorekeeper, also on the opposite side of the court, who sat and languidly adjusted the score cards.
The match ended abruptly and three quarters of the men ran to the sidelines and began stripping down to their underpants. Upon seeing this, it was apparent to me that they had done, and I began to think about what to do next. Just then a wiry member of the group tossed me the ball, inviting me to join the few who remained on the court, and I eagerly accepted. The portly referee, affectionately addressed by all of his friends as Fatty, informed me that the group was leaving for lunch and entreated me to join them. After politely declining several times, it became clear to me that Fatty would not leave the gym without me.
I was ushered into a cramped, grey Volkswagen, and in ten minutes we had all arrived at an upscale restaurant in a strip mall which was located in a particularly dusty, barren section of town. Fatty was constantly at my ear left ear, bombarding it with questions, half of which it could not discern the meanings of. Such was my distracted state when I entered the crowded, smoke-filled restaurant. A young waitress in a cheongsam escorted the lot of us to the second floor were a spacious, well-lit private room awaited us, furnished with a large, round table, upon which sat the requisite rotary serving tray. My one dozen health conscious Chinese friends quickly took their seats and began lighting cigarettes and filling their shot glasses with baijiu, an infamous and potent alcoholic drink which was consumed widely in China. The baijiu was stored in the corner of the room, each bottle contained within fancy boxes with ornate embossed labels, shiny and golden.
The table was devastatingly well supplied with baijiu. I began to feel uneasy as the shot glasses circulated. In 2011, before a two month study abroad trip to Shanghai, my Chinese professor, Teacher Liang, had circulated an email which contained information she deemed vital for our survival there. One of her warnings was about drinking with Chinese people, as it would likely end badly of you were a foreigner. My stomach turned over as I recalled this ominous warning from my respected professor.
There was a shot glass on the revolving tray and it stopped squarely in front of me. I feigned ignorance, and began looking around aimlessly. I felt Fatty’s thick finger poke my left arm twice. “That’s for you,” he said. “Oh!” I was looking at the glass as if it were the first time I had laid eyes on it. “I–I don’t drink. I won’t be needing one,” I said as I began turning the rotary tray to pass the unneeded glass on. “No worries!” was Fatty’s retort as he adroitly lifted the glass from the moving tray and placed it next to my rice bowl. As I pondered what that meant, a large man sitting on the other side of the table rose, glass in hand. He had a dark complexion and a rather bloated face which permanently wore an impassive expression, like a government official’s. “We are all friends, ah!” he bellowed, ” We are united in sport and in friendship, ah! To us and to basketball!” He then swallowed the contents of the shot glass and presented the empty glass to his comrades. The others followed. I stood with my hands in my pockets, smiling uncomfortably whilst my new friends all struggled to drink every drop of the baijiu in their glasses.
My full glass managed to avoid detection until we had all been seated again. “You must drink it!” Fatty’s eyes bulged form his head as he said this, “it is is our custom.” My lexicon was locked, and I had forgotten the combination. After several moments of mumbling incoherently, I managed to feebly extract the four necessary words, I DON’T DRINK ALCOHOL, after which I apologized pathetically. “Just take a sip.” I looked around the room and realized that every one of these men were as baffled by my behavior as I was by theirs. I looked down at the glass dubiously. The contents, clear as water, looked innocuous enough. Just this once, I told myself, just one sip. As I lifted the glass to my lips I could feel the rising anticipation of my hosts. The moment ended in anticlimax for them however. I only took in enough of the baijiu to wet my tongue. But despite imbibing only this piddling amount, I was overcome by its strength. A pungent odor filled my nostrils and made it almost impossible for me to carry out the simple task. The aftertaste was like an awful tomato sauce stain on a white shirt, it lingered long after the baijiu had trickled down my esophagus.
Nearly all of my hosts were chain smoking, Fatty not the least among them, and my brain seemed to be vacillating from left to right within the confines of my skull as the room filled with smoke. I had been engulfed by the two vices which all my life I had found most repugnant. I felt like a fish without gills in this environment, and I knew I couldn’t last much longer in this state of physical and mental agitation. Encouraged by my willingness to consume the baijiu in small amounts, Fatty refilled my glass, and in his haste spilled a few drops of the baijiu on the table in front of me. I watched as it seeped into the white table cloth, half expecting it to eat a dime-sized hole through it. But nothing happened.
I don’t remember how many sips of the baijiu I was compelled to take, but it was not more than a few, for I had never been drunk, and I had resolved that this luncheon was no place to initiate myself. By the end of the ordeal, I had managed to keep all but about a spoonful of the alcohol in my glass. I waited for my mental state to change under the influence of such an amount of alcohol, but again, nothing happened.
As I sat in this state of anticipation I felt Fatty’s heavy fingers dancing upon my shoulder. I started. It was my turn to propose a toast. I rose slowly, forcing a conciliatory expression as I looked around at the faces of the people who I had insulted by refusing to inebriate myself. I looked uneasily at the glass still sitting on the table. ‘No,’ I decided, ‘I would not raise the glass, not even symbolically.’ I took up my teacup and looked around the table. All eyes were steadfastly on me. I spoke somewhat haltingly, but managed to thank them for their hospitality, adding that I looked forward to playing basketball with them in the future (something I had no intention of doing), and that I was terribly sorry, but I was simply not accustomed to consuming alcohol. I won no sympathy.
When the lunch had ended I slipped away quietly and hailed a taxi. The ride home took about twenty minutes, but my agitated state had changed little. I overpaid the driver and swung open the door to make my escape. “OWW!” A middle aged woman who had been walking on the streeet with her daughter had been walking past the taxi when I opened the door. The door hit her squarely in her side. I knew that I had not hurt her badly and she seemed more angry than in physical pain. I apologized profusely. Maybe she could see that I was in distress as well, for after perceiving me clearly, her facial expression softened and she walked away. Back in the apartment, I quickly stripped out of my clothes which smelt miserably of cigarette smoke, showered, laundered my clothes, and went to bed early. They called me next morning for basketball but I declined. I never heard from them again.