Editor's note: Author Sean Weatherall, like many of us who have spent a long time in Yunnan, has fantastic stories to tell. Most of us have ventured, innocently or not, into the countryside at one time or another and come out with an embarrassing tale of alcohol consumption gone awry. Here's one of Sean's better ones. Our gentler readers should be forewarned: this article contains language spoken by adults.
I am from the US, but have spent the last decade of my life in southwest China's Yunnan province. It's an amazing place with some of the best and most inviting people in the world, as well as mind-blowing geographic, cultural, and linguistic diversity, not to mention some of the most badass drinkers in all of China. Regardless of how some people may feel about China overall, my experience in this province has guided me to where I am today, and will probably be the place I call home for the rest of my life.
I have traveled throughout the province and have many stories to tell, but nothing quite compares to the fish story. It all started around Chinese New Year 2016, when I had planned a 24-day village adventure around the more ethnically diverse parts of Honghe County (红河州). The region borders Vietnam and is home to quite a few of my best friends, all of which belong to various ethnic minority groups, most notably the Dai (傣), Hani (哈尼) and Yi (彝).
The trip routine went as expected — booze, feast, booze, hangover, pig killing, booze, feast, more booze, blacking out, another pig bites the dust, rinse, lather, repeat. You see, a lot of ethnic minorities in this region enjoy their breakfast with a big glass or four of Chinese moonshine (自烤酒). It's clean homemade death liquid that acts quick. You can never get enough of it. Fortunately it doesn't usually cause bad hangovers.
This last fact is quite a blessing because most mornings during the Chinese New Year festival you are woken up by the sounds of the 30-minute process of a pig being slaughtered. Maybe you have never heard the screams and squeals of a pig about to be killed, but let me tell you, it is one of the most terrorizing sounds to wake up to.
Although the Chinese country lifestyle might not sound appealing to most, the fellowship of chatting and getting sloshed with old friends — most of whom are the kind that spend their year either working in the factories of eastern China or conversely stay in their villages and do hard farm labor for a small amounts of money — is very meaningful. The camaraderie we share when we spend time is an especially rewarding two-way street. In this part of China, very few people in these villages have ever met a foreigner, let alone one that can speak Yunnan dialect.
So they are always extremely eager to hang out and talk to me about nearly everything, especially after a few cups of moonshine. At this point in my Chinese New Year tour, I made it through the towns of Mile (弥勒), Jianshui (建水), Gejiu (个旧), Mengzi (蒙自), Honghexian (红河县), Yuanyang (元阳) and Hekou (河口). Finally, it was time for the last leg of the trip — the only part of Honghe that I had never been to — a Hani ethnic autonomous region by the name of Lüchun (绿春). Now I should start by saying that drinking alcohol can get pretty competitive in this place. As the only foreigner in each village I visited, I was often the main target for people to try and drink under the table.
However, I was on day 20 of this adventure and was in peak drinking form. I was therefore not afraid of the beastly alcohol-drinking abilities of the Hani ethnic minority, whom I had already faced off with during my journey through Honghe and Yuanyang.
A friend hooked me up with a local living in the far southern part of the county, a young, short, dark-skinned Hani dude, ironically named Xiaobai (小白), or 'Little White' in English. I met up with him in the one streets of the very ethnically diverse town of Lüchun, and took a long three-hour drive to his home through the clouds and mist covering the mountains bordering Yunnan and Vietnam.
I made it to Xiao Bai's newly built concrete home, replacing the old mud-brick one. The new house was built with the help of a government anti-poverty program. But because the scheme only gives money for basic structures, Xiao Bai's family still hadn't saved up enough money to buy furniture, appliances or even windows. The house was just a concrete shell with a few light bulbs and flattened cardboard boxes for mattresses.
This situation didn't bother me, knowing that I would be completely smashed by bedtime, and would not notice that three layers of cardboard isn't especially soft. The bathroom was lit only by an open hole in the wall where a window was supposed to be, meaning people walking by had the opportunity of seeing residents do their business. The toilet had no flush and could only be taken care of by pouring water from a bucket into the toilet.
This method of flushing by directly pouring water down the toilet is not uncommon here, but I mention it because later it becomes an important detail of this story. No part of the situation really bothered me. It wasn't my first time in a rural village, and the whole point of visiting was just to have a meaningful get-together with close friends and celebrate the New Year. Furthermore, although the lodging wasn't exactly five-star, the village itself was on the side of a beautiful mountain, overlooking the border with Vietnam, with breathtaking rice terraces reflecting wispy clouds and the blue skies all around.
We arrived roughly around lunchtime, and Xiao Bai's mom had prepared a simple but delicious meal of fresh pork, chicken soup, spicy sour mango and a variety of stir-fried veggies. Meanwhile, the father had prepared a few large cups of moonshine to loosen us up and help us get to know each other better. Chatting with the father, I learned a lot about the village's past and that they were super excited to host a non-Vietnamese foreigner for the first time ever.
I immediately became best buds with my newfound friends, and they were quite impressed that I could speak a few sentences in the Hani language — which is a completely unrelated language to Chinese or even the Yunnan dialect, both of which I have a bit more skill in speaking. The dad was also surprised by the fact that I could keep up with them on the booze. Nonetheless, a few cups in, and everyone was already feeling a bit woozy. We decided to take a short rest and play some music for a little while. Xiao Bai had a guitar and I had brought my banjo.
After about 20 minutes of jamming, Xiao Bai said it was time to go. When I asked where, he responded vaguely by saying "a place". He told me to grab my banjo and we headed up to a big square at the top of the village. There, to my surprise, people were in the process of setting up for a Hani Long Table Feast. This social gathering is a mix of old Hani men smoking tobacco out of giant bongs, handmade bamboo tables lined up to make a circle across the square — all covered with a variety of delicious food prepared by women wearing colorful traditional clothing — and of course enough moonshine to intoxicate a whale.
Although I was already a bit tipsy, it was expected of me to drink with all of the elder males. They numbered around 50 or 60 individuals, all of whom expected me to tip my glass and yell 'dousa'! which means 'bottoms up' in the Hani language. I could certainly sense my impending doom, and was thankful I had supercharged my alcohol tolerance in the days building up to this. Chat, chug, chug, chat. One of the foods I had to eat here was a Hani specialty — literally raw pork prepared with super spicy peppers. The peppers are assumed to be so spicy that they are viewed as a sufficient way to 'cook' the meat. It's not.
Just like one can never turn down a drink from an old man in China, you never turn down a bite to eat from an old lady. So, I had the raw pork – an important note for late. After about 45 minutes of drinking, singing, dancing, and taking hits from the tobacco bong, I was certainly intoxicated. Miraculously I hadn't blacked out. Xiao Bai and I broke out the banjo — which nobody had ever seen before — and guitar for another short jam, to which everyone danced.
This new bit of revelry prompted another round of toasts, and I sensed my impending doom grow closer. I had already consumed roughly a liter and a half of moonshine at this point, but I knew the madness wasn't going to stop until I passed out on the ground. Soldiering on, I went ahead with shot after shot until the village leader — a mayor of sorts — came up to me and invited me to his house for a surprise.
We got to the mayor's house and the surprise was a suckling pig dinner. So there we went again — screaming pig, blood, guts, the usual when preparing any farm animal for consumption. Xiao Bai and I prepared a fire in the barbecue pit while the mayor was blowtorching the skin of the pig to remove hair.
Despite another big glass of moonshine poured by the mayor, I made it through and had what was probably the most juicy, tender, delicious pork of my entire life. It was insanely spicy, with crispy skin and delicious meat that melted in our mouths. I had already eaten three meals that day, and while I was completely stuffed, I just couldn't stop eating and obviously had to drink big gulps of moonshine between every bite. I wanted to cherish this last supper before my demise.
We finished up, thanked the big man, and started to head back to Xiao Bai's house when he got a call. Because I don't understand the Hani language, I had no idea what they were saying. But after ending the call, Xiao Bai told me we needed to go to a friend's house. Stupidly, I asked what we were going to do. When the reply was "drink," my heart sank. As we stumbled towards the house I started pondering an escape plan.
From previous experience, I knew these 8pm countryside drinking sessions were always messy affairs, as everyone was already completely wasted. No matter what happened, nobody would remember the next day. I tried to tell Xiaobai I was too drunk and get out of it, but he was not having it, explaining it was his best best friend who invited us, and if he brought a foreigner to the village and not to this guy's house he would lose face. That certainly would not be cool, I reasoned.
So we get to the house and I saw something that made my day. Instead of a big plastic container of moonshine, there were four cases of watery Chinese beer awaiting us. This development gave me a little hope that maybe, just maybe, I could make it through the night without dying. The six of us sat at a small table, the Yunnan kind where the chairs are only around six inches tall. I met all the dudes, who were roughly the same age as me at the time, and all of them seemed really cool and nice.
That is except for one guy, who I will refer to from here on out as 'The Dick'. I like most people, but no matter where you go there will always be at least one person like The Dick. This is not the kind of asshole who insults you directly or tries to start fights, but instead are just subtly condescending, constantly seeking ways to belittle, insult, or start up disagreements on anything in general just bring everyone down. With me there, this guy kept talking about how evil the US was while shooting nasty glances my way. Charming.
So The Dick is absolutely hell-bent on beating me in drinking. I usually don't engage with this, but because I couldn't stand the guy, I got a boost of adrenaline at the thought of beating him and decided that I would take him up on the challenge. As we continued to play luck-based drinking games — which essentially amount to 'drink the beer' — I began an aggressive campaign to take the guy down by controlling the pace of our collective drinking. I acted like I was oblivious to his assholery, and sat beside him and got all buddy-buddy. I toasted him not-stop, making sure each time we tipped our whole cans back. I was smashed, but the challenge increased my concentration and awareness, and I was not about to let intoxication get in the way of defeating The Dick.
As we opened the fourth case of beers — 24 cans in each! — it was roughly 11pm. Through the haze, I could sense that the end was near, not just for me, but for everyone. I knew I had to act quick if I was to take The Dick down. I thought and thought and thought of what to do and then, like a lightening strike, it came to me. I could teach everyone how to shotgun beers, and challenge The Dick to a race. This I duly did. I swiftly defeated him and everyone laughed. I sat back down, triumphant for the moment.
I could see it was close to the end of The Dick, as he missed his seat when he tried to sit down and fell on the floor. He got back up quickly, not wanting to look beaten. I had changed seats to being across from him by then. He had definitely hit his limit, and was unable to sit still or keep his eyes focused on anything, or even talk for that matter. It was time for the knockout punch. I grabbed two cans of beer, cracked them open for the local dousa! toast, and there was nothing he could do but try to finish this last can.
About midway through the beer, he stopped and collapsed on the ground, and started to vomit all over himself, which because of the sheer quantity of beer we had drank, was enough to have him soaked from head to the in his own refuse. I was victorious and everyone knew it. The challenge had been won and now it was time to go back to Xiao Bai's house and out on our comfy cardboard mattresses. Strangely, after 12 hours of drinking at this pace, I didn't fall asleep right away, probably because of the adrenaline caused by my epic defeat of The Dick.
As I lay there trying to sleep, my stomach started to feel reaaaal funny. The gallons of beer and moonshine had mixed together with the super spicy uncooked pork from the festival. You can see where this is going. For the Hani, maybe they were used to such things, but for little whiteboy me, it seems to have been a bit too much. I got up and rushed down the concrete stairs to the bathroom. My arrival at squat toilet was nothing short of explosive, with only the moon illuminating my unenviable situation.
Thank god I hadn't blacked out, otherwise I would have certainly ruined the bed that night. That would have been tough to explain to Xiao Bai the following morning. I wiped myself clean and remembered that the toilet had no flush. I saw a large barrel full of water beside the toilet, which I thought would be adequate for flushing down my mess. In my drunken state I decided the mess was big enough that I should just tip the whole barrel over and let the water flow out.
However, what I did not expect, was that this particular barrel was in fact not used for flushing the toilet, and was actually full of around 30 or 40 small fish that the family had raised. To this day I have no idea why they kept the fish bucket where the flushing bucket should have been. Maybe they used the water for both keeping fish and flushing, and just avoided the fish when getting a scoop of water for flushing. I don't know. I guess buckets are expensive.
Anyways, I had just tipped the whole bucket over and fish were everywhere. In the toilet, on the ground, on my feet, all over the bathroom. Oh fuck! Oh fuck! Oh fuck!, I thought, as I tried my best to get all of the fish back into the barrel, including reaching into the still-soiled toilet with my bare hands to pull out at least ten of them. Just gross. Low and behold, I got them all back in and used the shower to fill up the barrel. If I just re-filled the bucket with clean water nobody would ever know what had happened to these poor fish.
After 30 seconds of filling the bucket, something strange happened. A little bit of steam started to rise from the bucket. Confused, I put my hand under the faucet, and to my horror, discovered that the water was hot. I never expected it! In this concrete shell of a house — with no windows, no furniture, no mattresses, they had nevertheless installed a water heater! I immediately turned off the water, but it was too late. All the fish were dead. The entire bucket of fish — that a family of very little means had prepared specially for the new year celebration — died painful, boiling and poopy deaths.
I dejectedly went upstairs and woke Xiao Bai up to tell him what had happened. He gave me a nonchalant, drunken smile and said, "It's ok, man". Then he went back to sleep. What a fucking day, I was so fucked up and depressed. My great success against The Dick was overshadowed by the fact I had killed all of my newfound buddy's fish, even after he had been so accommodating and great to me all day. The next morning I woke up with a pounding headache, still half-drunk and extremely embarrassed that I had to go downstairs and face Xiaobai's family. They certainly must have known it was me that killed the fish.
Keep in mind that this was day 21 of the new year celebration, and every morning my hangover was compounded by the previous day's bingeing. Everything was pretty unbearable by this point. The three-week moonshine orgy manifested itself into a feeling so bad that my liver was pulsating, by brain was exploding and my stomach was doing backflips so bad that I would have preferred to die rather than continue.
After gathering the courage to face day 22, I found my balance and walked downstairs. As with every morning over the course of this experience, there was that terrorizing, evil-looking glass of moonshine, sitting quietly waiting for me at the table. I sat down and, over the rim of my moonshine glass, glimpsed the main course of breakfast. Xiaobai smiled at me, clinked my glass with his, and said, "Have some fish!"
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