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It is the Fourth of July in Chongqing, China, and I am in a bar with four other Americans and a crowd of Chongqing locals. We are all staring at a beer drinking competition being held for those celebrating Independence Day for a country approximately 7,000 miles away. Many locals participate as well, chugging Tsingtao beer as fast as they can while friends cheer them on — this is not just an “American” pastime in China.
You can hear the announcer’s muffled voice, mostly yelling indistinct Mandarin in the background through a microphone, while he attempts to predict the up and coming winners of the competition. The noises all blend together to form a cacophony of joyous yells, and we tell our friends to choke down beer regardless of whether it spills all over the wooden floor.
Our friends from Chongqing are here to celebrate the results: we’re all proud that one of our friends has won a bottle of alcohol for successfully pouring the liquid down his throat faster than anyone else.
We and our two Chinese friends walk out of the bar and into the bustling nightlife of one of China’s largest cities. Cars are cramped and no one drives in lanes. We believe that taking a small three wheeled cab would get us to our destination faster. We call out to the small red cab, almost impossible to distinguish as it swerves through a sea of taxis, and we funnel in as it pulls up to the curb. The car only fits two passengers and is not necessarily “crash test approved,” but we don’t care. One of my friends sits on the floor of the cramped vehicle, and all of us can feel the bumps of the road almost as clearly as if we ourselves are being dragged across the highway. We all stare at each other with excitement as we’re finally experiencing the cabs that feel as though they could fly off the freeway and into the Yangtze River at any moment.
Our destination is a small restaurant near an alley that serves food outside. It is one of those many places where groups of friends sit together outside until morning and eat the best barbecue anyone has ever tasted, called Shao Kao. You can smell the smoke in the distance as they cook the meat on the grill; the tables are slanted and wobbly stools are placed in the dirt. The table tops are still damp from the day’s usual rain in Chongqing. We eat whatever pieces of meat may be on the plate for all of us to share among ourselves and our chopsticks dig into Chongqing’s featured goodness. A stray kitten sits on a stool beside us, drooling over the food and we ask her if she’s hungry. She meows, and accepts the piece of chicken on the table. We are in bliss and not entirely sure where in this vast southern city we are.
It is the Fourth of July celebration in the United States, but I can assure you that today, we are content with being in Chongqing instead.