September 19, 2012 by bethanjthomas
There are nights in your life that are worthy of note and a few weeks ago, at a tea exhibition and investment fair in Xiamen, I had one of those nights.
It started innocently enough, with considerable amounts of tea tasting at the booths of many tea producers. Jasmine tea that made my head tingle and rock teas with a mineral mouth feel that lasted for hours. I was quite content. There were even gold people promoting coffee, all was well.
But then came an innocent enough question – ‘Baisha (my Chinese pseudonym), you’ve been invited to speak to some government officials, would you be happy to prepare a few words for them?’. The question itself comes from my hosts, a local black tea company that I’ve spent time with since arriving in Fuzhou. I have nothing against government officials, and am happy for any chance to use my Mandarin. As a bonus, I could potentially improve the relations of the aforementioned tea company with local politicians. Everyone’s a winner, count me in.
However, 20 minutes later when I found myself walking into the ballroom of a local swanky hotel with over 200 people in it, I started to regret my decision. It turned out that my small meeting was actually a ‘match making seminar’ for foreign investors and Fujian agriculture companies. There were 30 delegates from Holland and the Province’s top agricultural officials were all present.
As my stoumach fell and nerves kicked in, I was quickly ushered to be the first ‘honoured foreign guest’ to make a speech. I spoke for 15 minutes or so about the tea trade between Britain and Fujian province (avoiding the Opium wars at all costs), my belief that Chinese tea was going to increase in popularity in the West over the next 10 years, and my happiness that the aforementioned black tea company was teaching me more about tea and are interested in exporting their tea to the UK.
I breathed a sigh of relief as I sunk into my chair in the audience and watched 5 Dutch agricultural business men make lengthy powerpoint presentations with the help of a Chinese translator. I started to regret not telling the room that I’d only been given 20 minutes notice about my slightly shabby speech.
There was no rest for the wicked though, as multiple photo opportunities were now available and I put my all into posing in the mandatory stiff upright standing position (de rigueur in the Middle Kingdom). I shook hands with many men, discussed my studies at the agricultural university and the work that I do for Newby in the UK.
I was just about ready to relax when I was told that I’d be sitting at the head table for the banquet that evening.
If you’ve spent any time in China, and you happen to be white and a girl (who looks around 8 years younger than you are), you’ll know what this means. Death by alcohol poisoning.
Whether I liked it or not, every single person that I’d met proceeded to force me to down a glass of wine with them to honour our meeting. The memories are slightly hazy but in total, approximately 20 people invited me to ‘干杯’ or ‘clean your glass’ by downing in one.
At one point the Agricultural Minister for Fujian swapped my small glass for a large one, and I lost the argument over whether this was fair almost immediately.
10 glasses in, a man opposite me started to demand that I find a Chinese husband and my insistence that I was quite happy with my Scottish boyfriend was met with absolute disgust.
15 glasses in, and a Dutch foreign office official tried to help me by offering to drink half of my glass of wine for me, but he was promptly told to sit down. If he really wanted to help, I could drink half a (400ml) glass of wine if he drank 3 full glasses in a row. I was on my own.
You must understand, that to refuse to drink without a vaguely decent excuse is considered very rude. Also, if you don’t drink at all then you are considered a bit of a wet fish. I was caught in a nightmare-ish scenario.
Let’s just say that when time was called, I ended up heading to karaoke with the Major of Limburg, I have vague memories of doing the moonwalk with a Tanzanian trade representative and I think I’ve agreed to open a tea house in Holland some time in 2014. Such is life.