Monday, May 17, 2010

50 Year Celebration

Kung Fu Dance
Originally uploaded by kevsunblush
By Kevin

Last weekend, our school celebrated its 50th anniversary with a massive gala. Students spent much of the last several weeks preparing for it. Even those who weren't going to be performing had to practice sitting out in the sun for several hours on Friday afternoon.

We traveled to Beijing earlier in the weekend, and in spite of two trips to the doctor's office and multiple ultrasounds, they weren't able to tell us if it's a boy or a girl. But they were able to tell us that the baby looks healthy. We managed to stop by Pete's for Tex-Mex, Annie's for Italian, Ikea for Swedish baby furniture, Jenny Lou's for awesome groceries, a steak and burger barbecue potluck and Coldstone in celebration of Ruth's 27th birthday. To Beijing, we wound up taking a soft-sleeper train car for the first time in a long time and we were shocked to open the door to our compartment (4-bed soft-sleepers have doors, unlike 6-bed hard sleepers) and find, sitting in front of us, Americans who had been traveling to see Xi'an from their home in Changchun. On the way back, in our noisy hard-sleeper, we noticed how much softer the beds truly are on the soft sleeper and how much smoother the train ride was.

Back to the celebration: we were tired and cranky when we got back to Weinan, but we hauled ourselves out to the morning's speeches in time. Unfortunately, the school had "invited" us (meaning "you will be there") to come at 9 a.m., although the festivities wouldn't kick off until 10. But we caught a break: other teachers had to come at 8 a.m. Who knows how early the students had to arrive. We got to sit there listening to a pair of announcers reading a list of hundreds of schools in China that had sent congratulations on our school's 50 years.

Strangely, when I paged through an old book listing statistics on all the universities in China that they had at our organization's headquarters in Beijing, it said the school was founded in 1978, so somebody is mistaken about some dates.

Anyway, for the ensuing two hours we sat quietly and tried not to doze off during long speeches by dignitaries, hoping that the small orchestra would play the opening bars of the "Star Wars" theme before the next speech (they alternated this with a Chinese piece of music). Just before the ceremony began, hundreds of alumni filed in to fill the pink chairs right in front of us. This was interesting because in China alumni events are rare, particularly at schools that aren't among the top tier, so it was good to see that many who may not have ever set foot on this campus before came (the school only moved here from its old campus several years ago).

While we waited, we learned that two slightly strange new statues (one is a hand relasing doves and the other is a communications satellite) that were erected on campus the week before cost the school no less than 500,000 RMB ($75,000) apiece and wondered where the money came from. Later, city officials announced a 500,000 RMB donation to the school.

Throughout the morning's speeches and performances, a giant camera crane swooped back and forth in front of us, making sure to frequently show the token foreigners on the giant screen up front for all to see. Since the stage was strangely positioned behind us, we had to crane our necks to see or resort to the big screen in the front. I kept waiting for the school to show the footage they shot of me teaching from class sometime last month, but didn't see it (I heard later that it was shown before the evening's performances).

Thankfully, the speeches were interspersed with various performances by musicians, ranging from a diva-esque opera singer in a massive white dress accompanied by green-clad dancers, to another diva-esque opera singer in a massive pink dress. In between, there was a traditional dance by peacock-like dancers, performances by musicians wearing marching band uniforms and a parade of students who had passed graduate school exams and a marching band. Unfortunately, most of the singers were so ear-splittingly loud for those of us with the "good fortune" of sitting directly in front of the speakers at the front that even Chinese people (who are able to tolerate amazingly high levels of noise) were wincing during parts. At one point, a toddler sitting in front of us wearing a shirt that said "musician" on it covered his ears with both hands and started wailing. Near the end, they released hundreds of doves into the sky. (follow this link for more pics:

During one of the musical performances, there were a pair of loud explosions. At first, we guessed that the explosions were just firecrackers accompanying the release of small balloons, but we found out later that several students had been burned during the performance, some of them severely, when one of the large blue-and-white China Mobile balloons exploded.

"It was horrible," said one student, adding that their injuries were serious. "They need to have surgery."

"Now our school is famous," said the student, explaining that the media had picked up on the story. "Or maybe I should say notorious."

Xinhua ( has reported that 12 people were burned on the face, neck and arms after decorative balloons filled with hydrogen exploded during the ceremony. Eight were hospitalized. The article said 20,000 people attended the ceremony. A witness said he saw the balloons blow up and catch fire mid-air.

According to Xinhua, the hydrogen-filled balloons, which are banned from use in school activities by the Chinese ministry of education, exploded while being released from a bag. "The sack had a small opening and the balloons rubbed against each other. It was static electricity that caused the balloons to explode," said the meteorological bureau, which regulates the use of advertising balloons in a report.

Students speculated that a worker may have been unable to cut a hydrogen-filled balloon, so he instead used a lighter to burn a hole in it.

But that day we were completely unaware.

That evening at 8 p.m., it was celebration part two. The massive stage was now filled with performers. Thankfully, they weren't they kind of mediocre, but well-meaning performances we are subjected to during departmental holiday shows. These were teachers, students and alumni from the "art" department (which includes music and dance). This meant that many of them actually had performing talent. Thousands of people filled the square to watch. The morning's divas returned, performing the same songs again, but they were joined by a pair of groups emulating China's popular 12-Girls Band, pop singers, dancers, kung-fu, even a short fashion show.

By the time I crept home at 10:30 p.m., the performances showed no sign of letting up. Indeed, when we went to bed after 11, we could still hear music. Students asked us if we had to attend similar celebrations when we were in college. Thankfully no. The closest comparison would be that it was like a graduation ceremony followed several hours later by a variety show/concert.

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