Thursday, October 1, 2009

Nationalistic Patriotic People's Singing Extravaganza

Clown shoes
Originally uploaded by kevsunblush
Sept. 23, 2009 (it's been a crazy week, so I didn't have a chance to finish this till now, but since today is THE National Day, Oct. 1, now's as good a time as any)
By Kevin

It was finally here: the much-anticipated singing competition. After weeks of listening to choirs from each of some 20 departments at the school, including staff, office workers and cafeteria workers, rehearse a half-dozen patriotic "revolutionary" songs dating back to the founding of modern China (the PRC), it was show time.

We weren't sure until now where the competition would be held, but we followed the sound and sauntered out to the square on campus a few minutes after we'd been told it would start: at 2 p.m. (No city or school in China would be complete without a giant concrete square modeled somewhat after the large one in the capital where untold numbers of major events have occurred in the last 60 years has) The steps in front of the central teaching building made a natural stage for choirs. Thousands of students sat in the square. Some were dutifully watching the performances, which had already begun. Most were huddled underneath umbrellas chatting with friends. Though the temperature was in the 80s, many still wore long sleeves, so umbrellas, or as we've taken to calling them, "sunbrellas" were necessary to help the students keep their skin white. Generally Chinese people have a polar opposite reaction to sunny days from Americans. American women sunbathe, often admiring the darker tones of other cultures. Chinese girls do everything they can to be as pale as they can, admiring the whiteness of our skin.

But I digress. As we looked for the students, teachers and leaders from the English department, who we've heard practicing for hours on end for the last few weeks, we found out that they were inside the building getting dressed and doing their makeup. Yes, even though few students wear makeup, both guys and girls made sure to apply the most gaudy stage makeup they could imagine.

As I walked into the building, and unfamiliar student approached. "Can I ask you a question?" he asked, nervously. I assumed he wanted to know how to improve his spoken English or one of the other standard questions Chinese students need to know about us. "Can I borrow your shoes."

I figured I heard him wrong. "My shoes?" I asked, sizing him up. He was taller than an average Chinese student, but I still had several inches on him. "Won't they be a little bit big on you?"

"It doesn't matter," he said. "My leader said I must wear black shoes, but we only have 15 minutes until we will sing."

I put my foot next to his. My size 13 foot dwarfed his size 9. But he insisted that the size difference wouldn't matter. "I will still need shoes to wear, though," I explained. "Let's go to my house and I can exchange shoes with you there."

"I think we'd better run," he said. "I don't have much time."

On the way to the apartment, in between hard breaths, he explained that he was a "fresh student" (Chinglish for "freshman," which I'd guessed -- all the freshmen wear the same white shirt with yellow and blue fringe) and that his English name was Darren.

At the apartment, Darren slipped his feet into my shoes. There was a good inch to spare behind his heel. We couldn't run back to the staging area because the shoes were too loose. He walked with his knees bent, trying to keep his feet from slipping out of clown shoes. I remembered how big my Dad's shoes felt whenever I tried them on as a child. I tried to imagine how he felt, walking in the shoes of a foreigner to sing patriotic Chinese songs.

When he made it back, the math department was waiting, they were second in line to sing. He endured several minutes of ridicule from his friends, who seemed to tease him about his shoes. I wonder what he told them. Undoubtedly I was now his best friend.

After he sang, he came back, slipped back into his white shoes and thanked me profusely for helping him. Around this time Ruth and Christina came back from going to see the English department teachers and students putting on their makeup. They'd learned that the English department would be the 17th group to perform. We were on group number five and it was now more than an hour into the program. We decided we'd kill the time in the comforts of our apartments, then return just before the English department performed. There's only so many times a foreigner can handle hearing the same half-dozen revolutionary marches sung over and over again, even if the arrangements are (slightly) different.

Around 4:30 p.m., our students and colleagues were finally in the staging area, anxiously awaiting their chance to do the motherland proud and show off their patriotic zeal. I thought about how many millions of college students were likely doing the same thing today or sometime in the coming week. They proudly took the stage and sung with all their might. After they exited to the other side of the stage, we hurried to find them, so we could congratulate them on a job well done. By the time we found them, the last group, the Art department (which includes not only painters and sculptors, but also musicians and singers), took the stage and blew everyone else away.

Thankfully, the English department wasn't competing against them.

"Can you understand what they are singing?" asked Connor, a former student who is now a junior. Nope. He seemed confused by our appearance. "They are patriotic songs about the motherland."

"I figured as much. China is celebrating it's 60th anniversary. It's a big deal."

"Why did you come?" he asked.

I thought it seemed obvious. This was a huge outdoor competition with a mass of thousands of students. The school "strongly encouraged" us to move classes in order to accommodate students who might want to watch. Music had been blaring on loudspeakers all day long. We couldn't avoid it if we tried. But I kept those explanations to myself and went with the still truthful, but more diplomatic, approach: "We wanted to come," I said. "We've been hearing students and teachers practice for a long time. We knew that the singing would be excellent and we wanted to support our students."

Before long, prizes were announced. First prize for the non-educational portion: the cafeteria workers. My mind flashed to Saturday Night Live skits with Chris Farley dancing to Adam Sandler's song about "Lunch Lady Land." Clearly I wasn't as mentally caught up in the patriotic fervor of the students around me.

I asked why Connor wasn't singing, since almost all of the other boys in the department were on stage. "I wish I could have been there," he said.

"I went to the first practice, but I had the runs for more than a week," he explained, using a bit of slang he'd recently picked up. "I couldn't stand there for two hours to practice."

I listened to the awards and noticed a couple that were familiar: "Wai jiao" (foreigner), so I was able to anticipate the student's translation. "We won," exclaimed one student, grinning. "First prize for the English department."

Another student, who had sung with the group, said he hoped this meant that the English Department would treat them to dinner. "So far, the department has given us a notebook for participating," he said, sensing a tinge of disappointment.

As we left, a reporter from the local newspaper grinned and asked us to pose for a few photos, handing his camera to a student to snap his memento of his fortunate rendezvous foreigners at a patriotic Chinese singing competition. Who knows if or when the photo might show up in print.

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