Once again, we were an advertisement. In exchange for the use of one of the first 70 degree Spring afternoons of the year, we were giving the University "face." But that's not what we were told going in. All we were told was that there would be an activity (活动) in the afternoon involving sports. And that we must come and participate. There's no asking: when you are a student, the school often tells you what to do.
|The cameraman we had to wait for before starting|
When we arrived with around 150 of the other foreign students on campus, the teacher in charge divided us into four rows of people and explained that we were going to be filmed by CCTV (China's national TV station) and the local Ningxia TV station because Ning Da is participating in 留动中国 (meaning "stay active China," I think) -- an activity meant to promote "healthy exercise" (redundant, I know), cultural exchange and "joining hands in the sun" for foreign students living in China. It sounds like participating schools were supposed to arrange 3-on-3 basketball tournaments, ping-pong matches and 毽子 (jianzi) (a sort of traditional Chinese hacky-sack) exhibitions, in addition to other cultural activities. While we waited for the videographer to show up, a reporter started making the rounds, interviewing several students, including our teammate about all sorts of things. I heard a few questions about food and studies and why he came to China. Nothing could start until the videographer was there.
|3-on-3 basketball "trials"|
It really came as no surprise that our sports activity, which the school's website called "trials" for a national competition featuring foreign students didn't actually involve most of us doing something we wanted to do or really learning anything. After all, this was a made-for-TV event. Not an actual activity for our enjoyment or enrichment, no matter what the propaganda said. At the root, I figured it would be some sort of face-giving publicity stunt, no matter how much it had been dressed up as a fun outing. In fact, though we were told it would involve playing sports, very few were chosen to don University t-shirts and compete. The school chose six guys they'd heard could play basketball (two of them our teammates), gave them T-shirts and split them into two teams. The rest of us were just told to be there.
A handful of students played. The rest of us were the audience.
|Foreign students holding signs|
|Student shows off his prowess at jianzi, a Chinese hacky-sack-like game|
By the time we made it to the third activity, the ping-pong "tournament," only 50 or 60 students were left to crowd around the ping-pong tables in the classroom building. But still the cameras rolled.
|Wang Hui, school director, interviewed by NXTV.|
The only interaction we had with Chinese University students was with the three who served as referees of the basketball and ping pong matches. We probably could have gleaned the Chinese love for ping-pong or basketball without attending a staged event. The jianzi activity was interesting, but most of what I learned about Chinese culture came from reading Wikipedia after learning that the sport isn't actually called "Chinese hacky-sack."
So I guess I learned two things - the importance of giving face and the name of the hacky-sack-like sport.Being the foreign faces in the crowd often gets us roped into events ostensibly for education's sake. But really it's all about giving face or publicity sake. We often go along with the publicity shoots because they "give face" to our hosts. "Face" is a huge thing in Chinese culture, so our hosts are generally more appreciative (at least when we were teachers they were -- as students, it's more of an expectation). Surely the school didn't gain as much face as it wanted. I wonder what we'll be roped into next.
|Farmers work the fields at Ningxia University's experimental farm|
As students, we've been taken to a farm owned by the university so we could be photographed by local media among the fields, we've given New Year's performances for University and governmental leaders from China and several other countries and gone to teach Christmas lessons at a local university. As teachers, we've had colleagues and students ask if they could take our photo so they could advertise their school (even though we didn't work there), invite us to spend a day playing at the kindergarten (meaning teaching the kids some English songs), ask us to give high school students an impromptu English lesson and invite us to be interviewed for school radio programs, among other things. The difference between the two was that as students, we tend to be told to participate, whereas as teachers, it's a request. Often it's a very urgent request because they've already told others that we will participate, but at least it gets phrased as a request. We then must decipher how urgent it is.
But sometimes, as students, when told that we must participate, it's just not feasible: there was the 2-1/2-to-three-hour one way bus ride last Spring to Shapotou,
|Shapotou, sand dunes along the Yellow River in Ningxia.|
I can't help but wonder what the next face-giving event will be.