Sunday, February 25, 2018

A slice of life

I'm standing on the second floor of my family-in-law's home looking out the window. I happen to be peeing into a Chinese toilet, a detail which you might think I should omit but it took more skill at that moment because I was mildly inebriated (more about that later). As I look, I spot my grandfather-in-law, A-Gung, feeding the chickens. He's 95 years old but is still the perfection of how old people should live, keeping active and in routine. Just ten minutes before, I'd completed a near one hour conversation with him, which is lengthy by my standards. I tire at that length in Cantonese. He's really tough to understand, not just because he speaks even Qingyuan dialect as his second language (he actually speaks dialect Hakka as his mother tongue) and has missing teeth etc. but also because he's old and grew up in a hugely different cultural context.

We talked about of all things: sport, and then golf which is a prestige, expensive sport in China but is much more accessible in New Zealand. From there the conversation gravitated to the Chinese obsessive topic of money, who has it and who doesn't, before talking about houses. First the family over the road, then my younger brother-in-law's new home and then back to history with Chairman Mao. I can follow Waangleng accent of my family-in-law well, even when drunk, but that isn't the reason why I'm mildly inebriated talking in the yard. The reason lies in Saamgok accented Cantonese. (NB: Waangleng, Saamgok and Gwongtau are all villages in Qingyuan.)

An hour previous I'd been drinking and eating with my wife's Saamgok cousins. These are not the cousins who featured earlier in this blog. I still remember my first encounters with the cousins: It was at my younger brother-in-law's banquet; I'd had one round of food and drink; happily drunk, I went downstairs again to be sociable and caught another round of food and sat down at a table. Fourth uncle and two of the cousins were there and keen to meet me. They immediately asked me to drink and I gleefully agreed. They finished their cups in one go and I, as an afterthought after a first sip, finished mine. Then a wife from another branch of the family swooped around with a two litre mineral water bottle filled with her old man's homebrew and liberally poured everyone at the table with it. They drank and I drank, and I wisely took some time out after that to recover from the sudden dose of strong alcohol. Apart from some time-outs, I managed than banquet well.

These were the same cousins who I was sitting with one hour previous to now. Perhaps I should talk about what happened just four days previous. We went to their mother's hometown of Gwongtau. Gwongtau is a special place for me because I really enjoy the company of Fourth Uncle, my mother-in-law's brother, though I struggle with his Gwongtau accent. We get along because he doesn't hold my struggle against me. Anyway, at this visit four days ago it was his first time back from the hospital. He'd been really sick. And not just rather sick, but very sick and not just one kind of sick, but many kinds of sick. When I heard that news in New Zealand, it was rather upsetting and I was really glad to be seeing him again at my table in Gwongtau, even with the cousins.

The three cousins are individually lovely. Caan-wing, perhaps because of his likeness to Joe Pesci, has always seemed kind and funny. I remember him the most clearly from that first wipe-out at the banquet. Caan-tong has been village chief for many years, all bluster yet with feeling. And then Caan-gan who played with his grandchildren with so much affection that it almost blindsides you to his sneakiness with drink.

It was these three cousins I drank with four days ago and the same that I drank with an hour ago. Four days ago still ranks as an embarrassment. When we went to Gwongtau I first went to Third Uncle's home and was immediately invited to drink. Did I mention he brewed his own spirits? Either way, I enjoyed, sip-by-sip, his masterpiece of brewing, about two shots in total. Then went over to Fourth Uncle's to eat. They gave me the big cup and I didn't fight it. I should have. I drank and enjoyed and there was a little bit of to-and-fro, not helped by the fact that I don't quite understand Saamgok accent and why I had to drink particular rounds. To cut a long story short, I later got into a car to see my brother-in-law-in-law with his head hanging out the window. He was more trolleyed than me. I thought it strange until he started throwing up down the side of the car. It may have been in sympathy, or may have been because I'd drunk as much, if not more than he, that I too started throwing up, at first inside the car, then with my head out of my window with my brother-in-law-in-law. Hence the embarrassment.

That had been four days ago, and unfortunately, bad gossips spreads fast, so on this day everyone was asking me in a sarcastic tone about my desire to drink today. (My brother-in-law-in-law was at work today. Lucky thing, he got to avoid this inquisition!) Anyway, today I faced my bullies. Caan-tong in particular was full of tactics to get me back under the table. To put it simply, he's village chief for a reason. He's drunk more and had more battles (and scars) than I could ever wish. And he positioned himself well. I had control of the bottles early and he had the control later. When I wanted to switch to white wine (made of grapes, lower alcohol) he insisted I drank brandy. Now that brandy happened to be one I bought at Auckland Airport thus not a fake product and had been quite the hit on both occasions it was drunk. But I wanted to vary my alcohol as well as take it easier. He wasn't going to have a bar of it. Twice we comically fought physically to fill my glass. On one occasion he won. Another time I won. Either way, I can be glad to say I got to the end standing proud and able to talk to my grandfather-in-law in a coherent way an hour later.

These kind of battles can be eschewed if you avoid the drinks table altogether. I just wish the drinks table didn't entail Sun-Tzu's Art of War. I like to drink and do not need help getting drunk. But for others it's a game.

Which brings me back to my conversation with A-Gung. I asked him about his knees and he said his right knee needs a rub every morning just to get going. I'm reading Being Mortal right now which talks a lot about the secrets to an enjoyable last phase to life and I must say he really has it. I hope I can see him again.

No comments: