This is personally one of my favourite chapters. First of all the anecdote to which its title refers is extremely funny. One level deeper, it was the first occasion for us to translate a very Chinese holiday and the way it was celebrated then into the way we were used to celebrate anything at home. The Chinese holiday I am referring to was:
. . . National Day.
. . . The preparation for the National Day celebration in 1975 invoked the spirits of an interesting collection of people. One day, Tiananmen Square was suddenly decorated with enormous pictures of the world’s most famous revolutionaries, including Marx, Engels, Mao Zedong, Lenin, and . . . Stalin. Fascinating to see the portrait of that Cold War politician whose memory had already been erased in his native country.
October 1, 1975 was a holiday in that there were no classes for a couple of days, but the day itself was still extremely busy with activities. That morning we were driven to the Sun Yat Sen Park, named after the first president of China, which used to be part of the Imperial Palace. It immediately posed a culture shock, as we were confronted with Chinese women wearing skirts without proper warning; some of them even wore lipstick. What a contrast with the unisex attire that was so much part of our environment.
After only two weeks in China, we had already grown used to the fact that women could hardly be recognized from the other sex by their cloths. Actually that is not entirely true. The female version of the Mao suit had more Western style lapels, while the male version was closed up to the chin. However, most men used to leave the top the jacket unbuttoned, which partly undid the male – female distinction again.
The school buses drove us to the Sun Yat Sen Part adjacent to the Forbidden City in the morning, and to the Summer Palace in the afternoon. We walked past all the sites where people were performing sketches, playing music, or singing and dancing. We absorbed what we saw. We were still new in China.
The celebrations continue up to the present day, but are less abundant than at that time. Life is colorful all year round now, and only judging by the food consumed in the street and various types of restaurants, every day seems a day of celebration, at least on the surface.
An especially interesting event happened during the afternoon walk in the Summer Palace. We actually saw a top leader, Gu Mu, who was visiting the park to celebrate National Day with the masses. That wasn’t made easy for him, as he was encircled by a number of less important people and guards.
Back home in our dorms, we felt we had to do something the following day, to celebrate National Day with the Chinese and simultaneously celebrate the fact that all foreign students had arrived and were in need for a get-to-know-everybody party.
It takes a Dutchman to prepare such a party in a proper fashion
. . . My diary entry for October 2, 1975 reads: ‘welcoming party for our fellow students: Peter’s Potent Punch’. The latter could be nominated for the Best Euphemism Ever award; if such an award would exist. . .
By that time, most students had arrived at the Institute and that was a great occasion to do what we would have done at home: organize a party. That was easier said than done in an environment without convenient supermarkets to stock up on crackers, cheese, crisps, wine, beer, and other party necessities.
Beer was available, as I mentioned earlier. There were beverages called wine on the labels, but that turned out to be extremely sweet alcoholic beverages, nothing like what we know as wine. Even referring to them as plonk would count as too much honor.
There were liqueurs, also mixtures of juices, alcohol and again sugar and maybe some other additives that we were happy to be unfamiliar with. Still, the most common type of alcoholic beverage available then was the traditional Chinese distilled liquor, going by the deceptive name of ‘white wine (baijiu) ’. They had an alcohol content between 50 and 60 per cent and most of them were quite awful. The more expensive varieties, particularly the famous Moutai, which gained world fame through President Nixon’s seminal visit to China in 1972, were tolerable, but most of them were quite unpalatable.
. . . I came up with the idea to pool some money and purchase a stock of various canned fruits and alcoholic beverages and mix all that at random in a few of the enamel wash basins we all had. It met with agreement from most of our neighbors in the hall, and I volunteered (sure I did) to do the shopping and mixing. The shopping was the price I gladly paid for having the knowledge of what actually went into the punch.
. . . Back in the dormitory, I started opening cans of lychees, pineapple, pears, peaches in syrup. When Chinese write ‘syrup’ on the label, you can trust it to be real syrup, with such a high sugar content (yes, again), that it almost becomes sticky, like fruit flavored caramel. No problem, once diluted with the deftly mixed alcoholic beverages, and carefully stirred (cutting the halved peaches and pears in smaller pieces), the result was what I still consider the mother of all punches: Peter’s Potent Punch.
. . . That proved to be dangerous, as such large drinking vessels invited for quickly drinking large quantities of what turned out to be a nearly lethal beverage. Sweet alcoholic drinks are always dangerous, because their mouth feel offers little warning of the inebriating ingredient. Your senses grow number with the amount of alcohol consumed, until you forget what you are taking in. The sweet aromatic taste of the fruits is noticeable longest, so your brain may even be tricked into thinking that the stuff is actually good for you.
. . . the fruits in Peter’s Potent Punch turned into malicious alcohol bombs. Their smooth texture did not require much chewing. You washed them down with a large gulp of the liquid. They would remain dormant in your esophagus as well, but once they reached your stomach . . . bang!
The punch worked like a dream. We all had a swell time during the actual party. As could be expected, many of those who have been less restrictive in their consumption of that lethal concoction started paying the price in the course of evening and the following morning.
. . . A number of the partygoers had to make quick runs to the toilet in the middle of the night and early morning. When I woke up de following day and set out to the toilet, for the regular reasons, I passed the door of the room occupied by two Danish students. One of them, the tallest one, a real Dane, normally a perfect example of how a fearless Viking is depicted in the movies, the only thing missing a helmet with horns, was standing in the opened door, leaning against the wall. His face was greenish grey, and his mouth produced a mix of gargling and moaning sounds. That man looked seriously sick.
I guess that he attempted to make it to the toilet in time, but he did not get further than the doorway. He barfed right where I spotted him, the vomit streaming down the wall. You could actually still distinguish pieces of the fruit flavored alcohol bombs slowly finding their way down the wall to the floor. He was indeed brutally sick.
This paragraph may be a little gross for a book like this, but that picture is stuck on the walls of my mind as one of the highlights of that year in China. I believe that even in extreme stages of dementia that I may suffer eventually, I will still vividly remember how we finally revenged the damage done to our ancestors by the Vikings. . .
We Dutch had better things to do than being sick. I had drunk with restraint and so had Chris. As October 3 is a holiday in (part of) The Netherlands, we had another party to attend at our Embassy. A major event in our 80-year war with Spain (1568-1648) was the Siege of Leiden (1573-1574), which was broken on October 3, 1574, using the most typical of Dutch ruses, flooding the land around the city. We Dutch feel at home in water, but the Spanish, born and raised on arid land, hated it. The Dutch resistance sailed a boat into the city and fed the hungry citizens with herring and white bread. That is the fare that is still eaten in Leiden each October 3 to commemorate its liberation.
Many Dutch diplomats are graduates from Leiden University, therefore, Leiden’s Liberation is celebrated in all Dutch embassies. It has almost turned into quasi national holiday, outside the Dutch border.
The herring is eaten raw, as we do in The Netherlands, washed down with jenever, our version of gin. In other words, more eating and drinking for us that evening, though after Peter’s Potent Punch, jenever almost tasted like nectar.
As of October 4. 1975, we were ready for the action.