BEIJING DAYS: Dispatches from the Middle Kingdom

Drinking with the Boys

We drive along rutted and broken country roads lined by Poplar trees, their spreading branches creating a natural canopy against the dust and smog that color the skies overhead. We’re a caravan of cars headed for yet another bacchanal of authentic northern Chinese cuisine, cold beer, whiskey, toasts and well-timed insults made over clinked glasses.

Twenty miles outside the city, we stop at a woodsy farm with its scattering of buildings; one with a large open-air courtyard that connects individual dining rooms. It’s a business that caters to food frenzies like this one.

We sit around a table, nine of us, the men drinking large bottles of Beijing beer and shots of bi jou, the sweet-yet-strong white spirit. We all push back from the table to give room as the attendant hustles in with a large rack supporting the slaughtered lamb that’s been cooked all afternoon over a smoking spit.

We put on plastic gloves and use our hands to pull the meat from the bone. We eat like cavemen, juice running down our chins. Someone suggests we need a fire crackling beneath the animal’s remains. Or a cave. This communal meal feels ancient, primal.

The men come from all over China. One is a Uighur, a Muslim from the far-west province of Xinjiang, another from the central region of Sichuan, where the food is spicy and the women are considered among the prettiest in China. (Though every region makes that claim.)

Normally, the group holds hands for a brief prayer, these agnostics raised not on religion but the edicts of a strong-willed central government. But on this night, they dive right in to the meal with no such formality.

So Xie Yi recites a few words to himself, imploring the creator to forgive his transgressions.

“Whatever I’ve done to offend you,” he says. “Please blame the fat guy next to me.”

He sits like a profane Buddha — large head, belly protruding, his small eyes and fatty eye bags giving him a perpetual squint, reducing his portal to the world to tiny slits. He may be the laziest police officer on the planet, requiring Armageddon to rouse him from his comfortable chair and cup of tea. He works for Beijing police, a Barney Fife in 42-inch waist pants, handed the menial tasks of driving high-ranking officers or night patrols when no one is awake. He carries a lit cigarette in his free hand, his hair cut short, Marine style.

They call him Lao Fei, Old Fat, and he was among the first of my brother-in-law’s cronies I met when I first came to China. There were others, such as Big Glasses, The Rock, Gong-Gong and Lao Ban, or Boss Man. They’re blue-collar types, many of them, some Xie Yi’s friends since childhood. As his business fortunes rose, when he had more money to spend, or squander, he became the unofficial host at dinner-and-drinking gatherings at restaurants across Beijing. Some, during hard times, even worked for Xie Yi, and they each paid him deference at such events. He was like a rapper, or NBA rookie, with his posse who watched his back. And everyone knew who was paying the bill.

In the beginning, I was hazed. Word got out that I liked to drink beer, so they came at me like vultures over the dinner table. I was the gawky white American, the journalist who was dating Xie Yi’s pretty eldest sister. Back in 1995, most had never broken bread with a foreigner. Even though I couldn’t speak Chinese, Lily translated my jokes and insights into U.S. culture. I told stories about women, and they accepted me.

But first I had to drink.

The waitresses brought bottles of beer we poured into small glasses. One after the other, the cronies eyed me from across the circular table and announced “Gambei,” or drink up. I had little choice, not that I minded. I downed my beer. The moment my glass returned to the table, eager hands refilled it to the brim. Then the next: “Gambei!” And so it went.

I held my own. But I always stuck to beer when the shots soon turned to bai jou. I stayed at the party longer that way.

Over the years, after many returns, I saw these men progress and fail. I met their long-suffering wives and learned their personal stories — that Big Glasses had once dated a friend of Lily’s younger sister, before she moved to the U.S., and carried bitter memories. I found out that Big Glasses had once lost an eye in a traffic accident. He was riding in a car driven by Lao Ban. There was a crash. Despite the long-term injury, the two remained friends. Another regular, who always had the dream of being a successful restauranteur, had opened an eatery with Big Glasses that served nothing but mushroom-based dishes. Now he had taken a break from the game to care for his ailing mother.

I learned that Lao Fei had once carried a torch for Lily. At the lamb dinner, after I had stepped out of the room, my wife announced that I had just been diagnosed with Type-2 diabetes and had to restrict my diet and drinking.

“Who doesn’t have diabetes?” Lao Fei said. “I had it years before he did. I don’t know why you chose him.”

Years earlier, Lao Fei had taken us to his apartment to meet his wife and daughter. The place was located in one of Beijing’s working-class neighborhoods, a building without an elevator. It was a hot day and we followed Lao Fei as he scaled each unlighted stairwell, pausing to sigh as he started up each new set of stairs. Once, a group of us made the long drive from Beijing to Shanghai by van. Lao Fei, the professional driver, was behind the wheel and I rode shotgun in the front passenger seat as Xie Yi, his girlfriend, sisters and several cronies slept in the back seats.

I carried my English-Chinese dictionary and tried to find the most salacious words to describe his hulking body, pointing to his chest and reciting the words “large breasts.” But Lao Fei always had the perfect response. He made fun of my back hair, referring to me as “hairy child” and called me River Horse, or hippopotamus, for the way I opened my mouth wide when I yawned. He taught me Beijing slang, phrases such as “suen-zi,” or grandson, a dismissive, insulting term. And “qu ni er die de,” which means to “Step out of the way; you mean nothing to me,” but which literally translates into “Go see your second oldest uncle.”

Xie Yi was always benevolent with his friends. One young guy named Da Peng had always wanted to become a chef. Over several drinking sessions, they hatched a plan. Xie Yi financed the opening of a restaurant serving western Chinese food, making Da Peng head chef. When that ventured failed, they opened another. That was the last I heard. Like so many others, Da Peng had veered his course away from my brother-in-law, an asteroid headed for another solar system.

Then there was Lao Young, a large man with a quick smile who resembled a Chinese version of Lurch from the old Addams Family TV show, and who became Xie Yi’s point man when any business venture needed an out-of-town presence. Whenever I was in Beijing, doing a story for my newspaper, Lao Young became my personal driver. No matter the issue, he knew where to find the right people.

For awhile, The Rock was dominant on the scene. A high-ranking Beijing police officer, he did small favors for Xie Yi’s business. He was big, 6-foot-six, and once played professional basketball. Now in his 40s, his body was still toned; he could still dunk. One summer, I arrived for a prolonged stint in my newspaper’s Beijing bureau and, just days later, went to cover a protest outside the Japanese embassy, un uprising over some territorial spat. I had yet to receive my journalist credentials, so I was stopped just outside the police line.

The surging crowd grew larger and I needed to get inside the perimeter. I scanned the scene. That’s when our eyes met. The Rock had arrived to supervise the crowd (or help whip it into a frenzy.) He and I had just partied the night before. We both had hangovers. While he couldn’t speak English, The Rock sensed my dilemma. He waved me over and lifted the orange security rope and let me pass, shooing away several minions. A few nights later, during another drinking binge, I rode with The Rock between bars. As we passed Tiananmen Square, his radio went off: There’d been a suicide on the famous space. He barked several commands and drove on. He was with friends; underlings could take charge. It was like my own private filming of Chinese Cops.

Xie Yi’s closest companion, the friend he considered a brother, was Gong-Gong. They had attended grade school together and Gong-Gong’s grandmother had warned him to stay clear of Xie Yi: She knew trouble when she saw it. But they remained inseparable. When Xie Yi moved out from his parent’s home, he found a place with Gong-Gong. As his business grew and he moved to bigger apartments, Gong-Gong came along. A shy perceptive man, he had his own life (he worked for the Beijing city planning department) and kept his distance from his best friend’s often-nefarious business dealings.

He and Xie Yi’s girlfriend were like a comfortable couple, doing errands to make my brother-in-law’s life easier. When Lily and I arrived from the states, it was always Gong-Gong who came to the airport to greet us. Our first stop was usually a restaurant where I could indulge my hankering for skewered seasoned lamb and beer. When my aging parents visited in 2001, he ferried them around, holding their arms to steady them like a dutiful son-in-law. Once, on a trip to Beijing’s Bei hai park, my mother called out to me as I mindlessly walked ahead of the group: “John, why can’t you become more like Gong-Gong?”

Gong-Gong also helped me in my journalism work. One year, I was researching a story about the popular Silk Market, a narrow alley where tourists flocked to purchase often knock-off designer clothes, purses, even golf clubs. The city had decided to tear down the alley, apparently following complaints from the adjacent U.S. Embassy, and erect a new five-story building next to the site. Few people would discuss the reasons for the change, so I went to Gong-Gong. A few nights later, over beers, he dropped an internal city planning report on the table. The document described American complaints and fears over such a crowded fire hazard. Who knew the risk he took in smuggling the report out to a foreign journalist?

But I was family, and family came before everything.

Then one year, word came that Gong-Gong had become seriously ill. There was a problem with his bone-marrow, which suddenly didn’t produce enough white blood cells. Friends were convinced the condition was caused by Beijing’s sickly pollution. As his illness worsened, Xie Yi paid to have him moved a foreign-run hospital with first-rate care. On one visit, Gong-Gong asked that no one tell his mother he was so seriously ill. And so Xie Yi covered for him, assuring Gong-Gong’s family that none of this was serious.

He died after a brief illness. The sudden loss surprised everyone. Barely in his 30s, Gong-Gong was too active, too healthy to be taken down by such a rare disease. Gong-Gong’s mother never forgave Xie-Yi for keeping her in the dark about the severity of her son’s illness, but my brother-in-law was just doing what was required for such a “ge mer,” or dear old friend. On a Saturday morning, we drove out to a elite cemetery in the suburbs where wealthy Chinese were buried in mausoleums, U.S. style. There was a brief ceremony, and Gong-Gong’s cremated remains were placed inside the crypt with the things he would need in the after-life: his bicycle, golf clubs, treasured toys he’d kept from his boyhood.

We cried that day. Even Xie Yi, who rarely, if ever, shows an emotion other than anger, broke down. There, standing in the back of the gathered, was a tall woman who kept a tissue to her eyes. Lily told me if was one of Gong-Gong’s old girlfriends. I’d never heard him talk about women, or of past relationships. And I realized how much I didn’t know about the young man who died so early, whose deep enduring friendship would have taken us both into old age.

On the night of the lamb fest, we had gathered at Xie Yi’s house, dividing ourselves into two cars. I was assigned to the Mercedes with Xie Yi, Lao Fei and some others, but decided to hop into the van with my wife, her sister and niece. It would be a long night of Mandarin-only and I wanted a few last moments of English. Taking the front passenger seat, I realized why I had been shunted to the other car. Behind the wheel was an old school classmate who once had a crush on my wife; a quiet man with sad eyes who she’d invited along. They kept in touch over the years and saw one another at least once during every one of her visits.

I liked him. He drove in comfortable silence and I sensed the easy bond that still existed between them.

Here was a true gentleman, unlike Lao Fei, who at the restaurant bellowed for the waitress like Stanley Kowalski in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Instead of shouting “Stellaaaaa!” he yelled “fu ren!” each time he wanted another beer or the air conditioner turned up.

This time, after so many years, there were fewer drinking challenges thrown my way. For old times, Lao Fei raised his glass with a weak “gam bei.” I followed suit with jokes about his sexual orientation, pushing the lab’s cooked testicles in his direction and asking how much meat and fat there would be if we threw his big frame over the spit.

“Just gristle,” he said, downing another shot of spirits.

When the lamb was gone, the group moved to another table for the traditional hot pot: vegetables and tofu cooked in scalding water. I moved outside and sat in the courtyard under a starless sky, the rough purr of crickets from the surrounding woods.

I listened to the laughter of these men and realized ‘d been accepted in this far-away world.

I have family here, people who know me.

Ge mer.