By Nick Kembel
Having lived with a Taiwanese family for almost two years now, I have come to learn that every few months or so, there is one affair that I cannot avoid: getting drunk with my fiancee’s dad and his friends or relatives. It could strike at any time; during a weekday lunch a bottle of kaoliang suddenly materializes, or the ayi is sent to purchase a case of Taiwan jin pai when a guest suddenly shows up without invitation. Drinking with Taiwanese men, there is no excuse that is valid. Better to give in at the get-go, otherwise you will be punished more severely for attempting to resist. This is no leisurely sipping affair, but rather a test of strength. Women are not left out, and I have battled with aunts who can drink all but the most aquatic under the table. Do not make the mistake of washing down a bite of food with a slug from your own glass; better to save your stomach space for the barrage of drinking duels that will follow as the meal progresses. Fortunately the glasses are tiny, so it is not very difficult to gan bei (literally “empty glass”). The difficulty lies in watching your glass being refilled by the next contestant who is waiting to drink with you, before you’ve even gotten your last swallow down. While quaffing, I usually maintain eye contact with my opponent, not that it is a race or anything, but I do note that my fiancee’s father will usually hold up his empty glass to me, as if to say, “see, amateur, it’s empty,” and then slam it down on the table as he sighs with satisfaction.
I have also noticed some local tricks that are used against foreigners. For example, I have observed red-cheeked men who’ve reached their limits filling my glass right to the rim, while proceeding to only fill their own half way, and making sure there is lots of foam to make it look fuller. No harm is intended overall. Rather, this custom of forcing guests to overeat and overdrink is an overt display of hospitality and openness to foreigners. On my recent trip to a small town in Chiayi to meet the extended family for Chinese New Year, the uncle whose home I was being accommodated in informed me, “You are not leaving my house until you are completely wasted.” We had to leave shortly after noon, but let me say, he sure was successful.