A Nation Run by Immortals

‘I think I’m going to die,’ says Tyler, the youngest of my group of travelers. He’s well on his way to being drunk under the table by the Minister of Foreign Trade for Yueyang City.

Tyler and I, along with eight of the other English teachers, are traveling around Hunan province with the Yao family. The Yaos founded Uniwise Bilingual School in Dongguan ten years ago, and have been importing Harvard students to teach at their ‘Summer Cultural Exchange’ for the last five. Part of the very generous compensation package for the job is a tour around a region of China. Hunan is Guangzhou’s better looking neighbor to the north, best known for being the birthplace of Mao Zedong.

The Yao family’s connections run much further than their local community, which means I was wrong in what I said a few weeks ago about guanxi. Here in Hunan, we’ve been treated to meals by uncles, a student’s mother’s college roommate, and now this government official in Yueyang.

Of all the connections, this is the most prestigious. People here speak of lower-level government officials with the kind of reverence that Americans save for the CEOs of major corporations. They have untouchable wealth, cachet, and influence. They function on an entirely different level from the common person. Which is funny, because they’re all Communists.

One of the things that makes government officials superhuman is their ability to drink more alcohol than science believes possible. Throughout our dinner, the minister challenges each of us to race him in chugging a large shot of beer. I do the math: ten English teachers plus three members of the Yao family means he is drinking thirteen times as much as the rest of us. He eventually singles out Tyler for extra challenges. As the only white male in the group, Tyler has been chosen to defend America’s manhood.

24 bottles of beer in, we all start shouting Disney songs at the top of our lungs. The only other place I have sung like this is on the stretching mat at Weld Boathouse, when my teammates on the Radcliffe Crew needed to let off some steam. ‘Let’s get down to business – to defeat the Huns!’ takes on a new dimension when you’re singing with a member of the CCP.

31 bottles of beer in, I challenge the minister to try and take some pressure off Tyler. The over-carbonated lager goes to my head almost immediately. The minister tells me I’m a pretty American girl, and I reply he’s not bad looking himself. Then I realize I might be drunk, and return to my seat.

38 bottles of beer in, we say goodnight. The minister walks off with his arm slung around Mr Yao’s shoulders, looking jolly but hardly tipsy. One of the teachers, destined for Harvard Med School this fall, remarks absentmindedly: ‘I’d like to get ahold of his liver when he dies.’ One of the Yao sisters responds: ‘Government officials never die.’
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