Monday, April 19, 2004

Okay, I concede: it’s been nearly a month since my last post. I see that the number of hits to my site has almost doubled since that last post and I reckon 95 percent of it can be attributed to Karen, Baron and my father.

This is something I started but never finished until today.


Not a single one of my students had heard of St. Patrick's Day before I introduced it to them. Only a few of them could confidently point out Ireland on a (poorly sketched) map and three confused the country for Iceland. To establish a thread of relevance to the holiday for my students, I told them the origin my own family name (this surprised them greatly as they had never before considered that I might actually have a family name), then I went on to explain that St. Patrick was, more or less, the missionary who brought Christianity to Ireland and that's why we drink green beer.

The response to this history lesson, without exception, was head scratching and window gazing. One girl asked how the beer got green. For my own interest’s sake, I told the next three classes that St. Patrick was a hero with magical powers who saved the Irish people by chasing the poisonous snakes out of Ireland and this went over much better. The students even got the idea of "tying one on" for their English teacher.

I'd been very homesick for Boston recently and I’m sure that St. Patrick’s Day had something to do with it. Going out and getting smashed on the occasion of your Irishness is the rite of every person chosen to be born Irish and there’s no better place to prove it than Boston. In fact, the holiday isn’t even necessary.

My fear of missing out on proper libations that 17th was eased when Benny called that evening around 5 o’clock to ask if I had had dinner yet. I told him I didn't and he said "come down and we'll have dinner. Right now." Getting used being expected at engagements of which I know nothing until there's someone at my door or a car waiting outside, I put on my coat and went straight out. "It's dinner for the students going to the UK," Benny told me on our way.

A handful of seniors are on their way to the UK for a year and I’ve been assigned to improve their oral English. Benny approached me about this the week prior and with the promise of a significant increase in salary, I agreed. The students must take an English entrance exam I have been selected to help them "build their confidence in speaking and listening."

"But Benny, I have an American accent," I said with concern. "Can't you do a British one?" he asked. I couldn't tell if he was serious or not. "Uh, I guess so, I mean I used to be able to do a pretty good one, uh..." I said. Then I asked, to gauge exactly what kind of accent my future students would be facing, what school they were headed to and he said "the University of Swenze." Eh? "Swenze?" I repeated. "Swenze...Sweense..." he kept trying. "Swansea?!" I asked, "Swansea? The Swansea in Wales?" He looked at me as if it was impossible that I be confused. "Yes, Swansea," he confirmed. {insert the bit where EVERYONE goes "why the fuck would students from China ever want to go to Swansea?", followed by the imagined people in Swansea asking each other "how the fuck did students from China come to Swansea?"} I looked at Benny and with all seriousness and said, "if these kids are going to Swansea, it really won't make a difference if their English teacher here has an American or British accent."

The handful headed to Swansea were seated at the table when we arrived and it was obvious that they were waiting for me (I still haven't caught the "I'm important because I'm a teacher" vibe yet). Canuck was already there and dominating the conversation. (Conversation is not quite the word as it generally describes a delivery and return of spoken information. "Interrupting silence and preventing polite chatter" is much more accurate.) I took my place next to the head of foreign affairs, Chen Yang.

The first TWO HOURS of dinner were extremely boring. Plates and plates of things I wouldn't eat came out (thankfully, Benny eventually remembered that I don't eat meat and ordered some excellent pumpkin dish) and students stood stone faced while Canuck kept talking. Most of the little talking done, not by Canuck, was in Chinese and at one point, Chen Yang insisted that each student ask a question in English. Most of the questions went to Canuck and most of them revolved around his non-foreign face. Attention came my way when one girl said to me, "I think you look a litte Chinese." I explained I was in fact half Chinese and she said, "Oooh! You have very beautiful eyes." (The Chinese lug about jugs of flattery and never hesitate to douse it on foreigners, or on each other for that matter. Just another pump to my ever inflating ego...)

Beer was served beer to the men in the group (I politely declined) and slowly, very slowly, mouths opened up. Mostly Chinese came out, but the odd "do you like Jennifer Lopez?" question was thrown my way.

Canuck and Chen Yang consumed freely and by the fifth or sixth round, the dinner party almost sounded like a dinner party. Even the women drank. But only after the urging of Mr. Chen. (I was given half a tiny glass.)

In China, beer is drunk "bottoms up" from 6 oz. glasses. Men are always expected to chug their beer when toasting and in familiar situations, women do the same.

I never feel too comfortable engaging in anything more than a casual beer with people I have to see in a daily professional setting, but when the girl who told me I had beautiful eyes toasted me (she proved herself hardier than most of the men in the group that night), I was told it would be poor form NOT to chug the beer just served to me. The toasting ritual is really more a challenge than a formality, it seems. Especially when those not involved scrutinize the ability with which the toastees can consume. As it was my first beer that evening all eyes were on me. The student, Gloria, lifted her glass, I did the same and in three gulps flat, my beer was gone. (It was a tiny glass, remember.) There were cheers all around. Benny leaned into my ear and asked if I was okay. "Of course," I said. Another round was served and this time the boys in the group toasted me. Glasses were tipped and I put them to shame. Chen Yang, unabashedly smashed himself, looked at me and announced "this is the first time I knew Maile could drink beer."

The evening continued and the students really did get to talking in English. Bottles and bottles of beer were poured and the men, like most men, I reckon, boasted about their abilities to consume. "My father taught me how to drink," proudly declared Canuck. He continued, as if revealing family secrets, "the trick is to eat a lot first, go to the toilet a lot and drink a lot of tea." I, and I think any Westerner who can drink with any confidence would argue that loading up on food before drinking and diluting the system with tea or water is flat out cheating, however, the men agreed with Canuck’s wisdom. The drinking continued. Faces reddened and trips to our private toilet (complete with a Western toilet and toilet paper--luxury!) became very frequent. After each trip I made, one of the girls would discreetly pull me aside and sincerely ask if I was okay. “Yes, I’m fine,” I said each time, not at all understanding their concern.

Chen Yang eventually left the scene and the group got rowdier and rowdier and Canuck egged on the drinkers. (I kept pace, but didn’t overinduldge. Knowing when too much is too much in the foundation of any Bostonian’s first year of college. ) Trips to the toilet became more and more regular and I soon discovered that the visitors were not only relieving their bladders, but their stomachs as well!

Collars were loosened, more bottles were ordered and through Canuck’s self requested renditions of “Old Time Rock and Roll,” the unmistakable hack of puking rang out from the toilet. No one seemed to notice, or at least make any indication that this was out of the ordinary and the only time anyone seemed overtly concerned was when I went. I assured them, consistently, that I was fine, and I was.

The drinking continued, much to my amazement, and it was in those final hours of St. Patrick’s Day that was truly proud and thankful to be Irish. While the Irish suffer the stigma of a fondness for the drink, and sometimes deservedly so, I can safely say that I, and those I know who make it through life without the assistance of AA, know that vomitting is sure fire sign that it’s time to put down the bottle and go home.

The throng eventually spilled out of the restaurant late that evening, much to the relief of a staff obviously anxious to get home. We made our “nice to meet yous” and “have a good evenings” and I started in the direction of the walk home. Benny stopped me. “Wait a moment,” he attempted to say importantly. The students left and Thomas and I stood there in the cold and waited. Five minutes later a slick black car pulled up.

“The car is for go to your apartment,” he put together slowly. “Are you joking?!” I asked. The restaurant half a block and across the street from the foreign teachers apartment building. Benny reasoned that as it was a cold night and there was much drinking had, it was more convenient to call a car for the brutal 150 yard walk. (In his defense however, I do admit that the walk involves an incline of at least 35 degrees.)

“Benny, you can see my sofa from here!” I said and pointed, hoping that, even through the alcohol haze, he could see the ridiculousness of the formality. He opened a car door for me and instead of arguing, I took off in the direction of my apartment. The effort of walking the half block home, even in the cold, was less than that of getting into the car, waiting for everyone else to get into the car, riding the 100 yards, waiting for the chit chat in the car to subside, then waiting for someone to open the door for me again; even when taking into consideration that I had already waited five minutes and the driver was probably distrurbed from a nap “for my convenience.” Benny and Canuck, seeing that I was almost home, followed suit and caught up with me.

“Aren’t you drunk?” Canuck slurred. “No, not at all,” I said. Really, I had maybe three beers when it came down to it. Three beers on top of all kinds of saucy Chinese food.

“Wow, man, you’re really something,” he congratulated me, “I’m so fucking pissed.” I fell behind the swaggering men and was careful to avoid their stumble the remaining 25 yards home.

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