To be honest I don't even know how to start this story. I am still trying to understand what happened at dinner last night. Not only was my head still spinning from my three hour jaunt through Shanghai and builders coming and going and then a taxi ride that was more like being in Mario Cart than a taxi but simply just being in a whole new place was making my head spin. My head was beginning to hurt, my eyes were tired from seeing so much, my body was tired too. I was invited as "Greg's wife" to attend a dinner with the coach and administration of a sporting team that he and his crew are looking after. It is an honor. You don't say no. You do as is expected even if it is not what you want, you do it anyway. I went. Plus I was just plain curious!
We walked up a street and were greeted by a little man who ushered us into a lane way. The lane way was lined with tubs of flowing water. The tubs were full of sea creatures and terrestrial creatures. It was my worst nightmare. At some point in the night I knew I would have to eat these critters. It would be disrespectful not to. In no way would I want to bring shame to Greg and his crew so I took a deep breath and tried to forget what I saw and went into a little room.
The Coach, the Assistant Coach and the Team Manager were there as well as the Assistant to the Head of the Organisation. The fact that she was there was a BIG deal. No one was expecting her there but clearly pleased that she was, as she is the one that makes things happen. If you get her on side you are set. I was introduced as 'Wife of Greg'. Putting all feminist thoughts aside I smiled and shook hands with everyone. I was referred to for the rest of the night as 'wife'. In all honesty the Chinese have extreme difficulty saying my name so I was not in any way offended.
There was a huge glass 'Lazy Susan' in the middle of the table and within moments twin clay urns appeared on it. Baijiu or rice wine. This was met with ooooo's and ahhhhh's by the Chinese and moans of terror by Greg and his crew. I had tried rice wine in rural Vietnam. I sucked it up through a long bamboo straw and bits of rice came up with the wine. It was like drinking metholated spirits with maggots. It is so strong it takes your breath away and I think immediately your liver starts to compensate.
There are rules:
1. You are not allowed to drink unless someone toasts you. (No steady sipping throughout the night)
2. You must drink as much as the person toasting you. (if they down an entire glass you must too).
3. You must then toast that person at some stage throughout the night.
4. You must stand, bang your glass on the table, look the person in the eyes and raise your glass to them, drink, and then raise your glass to them again.
5. The bigger the pour into your cup the higher the level of respect that person has for you.
6. You can never refuse.
Our glasses were filled to overflowing.
With the rules firmly in my mind I then watched as the toasts began. The Coach was not drinking rice wine, instead he was drinking red wine.
The translators went into over drive telling Greg and his crew of his appreciation of their work. There were toasts to better communication, more communication, the success of the team, getting the team to number 1, staying at number one, to reducing the body fat of the athletes, to increasing the speed of the athletes, to reducing the injury rate, to making them stronger, to making this group a family, to being the head of the family, to being the sons of the family, to making the team the best China has ever seen. And then the assistant coach disappeared. The toasting ceased and the food came in. Five minutes later he returned with another urn of rice wine. In all honesty it was quality Baijiu that was like drinking sweet metho. The coach was onto his second bottle of red wine, his eyes were drooping, his Mandarin was slurring (even I could tell) the Team Manager then stood up and made a toast and proceeded to drink an entire bottle of beer. A 600mL bottle of beer. We clapped. I mean there is a lady who is about 5 feet tall and thin, once an amazing athlete who was at Olympic level well into her 40's, slamming down a bottle of at Tsing Tao. Cheers to that!
I was enjoying the spectacle and because I am a nobody in the Organisation I wasn't being toasted and I was sober. The boss of Greg's crew took a hammering of toasts from everyone. He was not in a good way. And so we ate.
Now remember those critters I spoke of? They were now appearing on our table. Eel, toad, snails, crabs, fish, yabbies/ crawfish, live prawns (yes they were alive in a dish on our table waiting to be eaten), pork (there were no little piggies out the front the pork was purchased already cut up). Thankfully there were salads, vegetables and dumplings. The dumplings were what we had to eat first. There is an order and dumplings are the starter, after the dumplings it is a free for all. They were delicious and I ate several so that I could avoid eating other 'delights'. There were more toasts but they were getting more and more personal. For example there were toasts to how great a coach he was, how smart the assistant coach was, how brilliant Greg is so on and so forth. It was becoming a festival of love in this new 'family' of sporting professionals.
The Team Manager stood up and staggered away. The coach ordered two crabs. One for him and one for me. Mortified I ate it. He was pleased and I was toasted. He lit a cigarette and smoked it whilst we were eating. I forgot the 'no sipping rule' and my second glass of Baijo was finished. He spat in the corner of the room. I filled my glass with beer. The love fest continued with more and more extravagant love toasts. I watched on as eyes drooped further. I returned the toast and said to the coach that I was looking forward to watching the team play. In a rousing rabble of excited talking it was translated to me that I would be invited as a guest of the team to their next competition in a province I had never heard of. Excitedly there was another toast. All I could think was 'is this for real? Will I actually be invited along? Or is this all lip service? Is this whole night just lip service? WHAT IS GOING ON!?'
There were stories of past Olympic greatness told. Of coaches and managers in their glory days and of course toasts to that. The excessive volumes of food was inadvertently being demolished by our 'family' as we listened to tales of times past. It was excess at its finest. It was a carnival. It was a show. It was extreme dining. And apparently it was mild.