Note: Photos following soon for this entry. At present, the Net is too slow to add them.
It’s a custom in most universities and colleges in China to welcome incoming freshmen with a performance party. Some schools invite all departments to participate, sending their best acts to the stage. Dancing, singing, skits, dramatic poetry readings and choirs are the highlights with grandly garmented student hosts introducing each number. In other schools, each department will put on a show for their new students.
At our school, separate departments are in charge of such shows and last Friday afternoon, November 2nd, was our English Language Department’s turn.
A Late Start
Why the late start and not have this in September? Many freshmen don’t make an appearance until after the October 1st holidays. This is the time when colleges and universities allow the long list of undecided students or those on the waiting list to enter the school. If the welcome parties are held earlier, late-comers miss out. It’s also difficult to get good performances out of upperclassmen who have just arrived for the new school year. There’s no time to get settled back into school life and work at creating a worthy dance number, song or skit to show others.
Our English Department booked our welcoming event at the sports field last Friday, giving my 2nd and 3rd year students a decent time to prepare. Every day I’ve come back from class for the past 3 weeks, they’d been practicing outside during lunch hours and evenings, working hard to make our department proud.
And they weren’t the only ones.
Our Faculty Rehearsals: Ms Xie To the Rescue!
Our English language teachers were also busy practicing as well. Our performance number was to sing Jingle Bells and Auld Lang Syne, melodies everyone in China knows but in Chinese, not in English. We all felt these two would be perfect for us as English teachers.
Our first practice was a week before the big day, during the department’s Friday afternoon meeting. I was asked to go over the words, melody, rhythm and help direct to get them started. John and Ashley joined me, of course, but I was the first asked to lead them in singing so most of the duty fell on me.
I had a few motions for us to do. After introducing them to the movements, and going over the songs several times, we went outside to practice.
When it comes to these kind of performance shows, I’m your typical American. I just figure we do our best and not bother about perfection. I am not in the habit of yelling at people for not doing what they’re supposed to do, or being all that picky concerning rhythm, melody or movement coordination. Just as long as it gets done and we don’t embarrass ourselves is enough for me.
But the Chinese have a different viewpoint.
As we went onward with our first rehearsal outside, I could see our office secretary, who is in charge of student’s daily life, was itching to shape us up.
“They aren’t smiling,” Secretary Xie frowned and jumped to the director’s spot where was standing. “Smile! Look happy!” she said, hopping about to get everyone to laugh.
Immediately, everyone snapped to attention.
“You men! Move over. You two, change places. Teacher Hou, you need to be on the end. When you use the bells for the song Jingle Bells, try to make it louder. Don’t slouch! Stand up straight. Show some energy!”
Obviously, my lax leadership was in question, which was fine with me! I wasn’t too keen to take on the responsibility of our performance, especially if it was pathetic.
Thus in the hot sunshine, we sweated it out while Ms. Xie whipped us into shape.
Nor was that the only practice our secretary showed off her leadership talents. The next Wednesday, we all went out to eat at 12 noon at a restaurant across from the school gate. After that, we hustled at 12:30 to the music room for a full hour of rehearsal with musician Ms. Xie at the piano to pound us through our songs. Everyone was very tired but she hopped to it snapping commands, repeating our numbers over and over again, cajoling us into smiles and bounces, hustling us through our exits and entrances for the stage and grooming me as the director for our starts and finishes.
Whew! By the end of that hour, it was pretty much as good as it was going to get, all due to Ms. Xie.
The Big Day
Originally, we were to have another practice session before Friday but that never materialized. Everyone was so busy teaching classes, it was hard for us to get together again.
We were told to meet at 1 p.m. in front of Classroom Building No. 4 for picture-taking. I didn’t realize that the teachers had ordered suits which the school paid for so they could all be uniform. Only the foreigners (John, Ashley and I) were to told to “wear something nice” which wouldn’t match with everyone else.
I understand the dilemma when trying to order matching outfits for the foreigners. We are pretty darn big compared to the Chinese. Ashley is about 6 feet tall, 8 with heels, and John has a strong, athletic, muscular build. In America, I’m considered little at size 4 but hard to find things even for me to fit into in China.
When we all showed up (me in nice jeans and a shirt, Ashley in a short linen dress, John with his slacks, long-sleeved shirt and tie), we certainly stood out from the others. All our colleagues looked so nice and spiffy in their pink shirts, tailored jackets and pants. We looked like your typical rumpled, unkempt, overly casual Americans.
Naturally, with everyone in the department present, we had to take advantage of the moment. A picture-taking session had been arranged, conducted by our photographer from across the street. She has a photo shop and does all the official pictures for the school.
For 1 hour, our campus studio was hers.
We had group shots, individual shots, pair shots, and every other shot you can imagine.
We had photos taken on the classroom steps, next to trees and bushes, on grassy lawns, amid flowers, on the school walkways and next to colorful posters. We had formal poses, silly poses, laughing poses and serious poses. We had all male photos, all female photos, mixed photos and best friend colleague photos. We had sessions with Connie, sessions with Ashley, sessions with John, sessions with all the foreigners then selected foreigners and no foreigners.
We had photos with my camera, John’s camera, the photographer’s camera and then everyone elses’ cell phone cameras.
By the end of that heated hour in the sunshine, we were exhausted, dripping in sweat and feeling as if our performance was over.
Time to go home! (Didn’t we wish.)
The Sports Field: Readying the 3 p.m. Show
At 2 p.m., we made our way to the sports field where the students had set up over 100 desks, covered in a carpet cloth, to make our stage. The piano had been dragged forth from somewhere, the sound equipment was ready to go, the backdrop welcoming the freshmen to the party hoisted overhead and the student performers dressed in their flashy outfits were practicing to the side in their selected groups.
The freshmen English majors were arranged in classes. They brought their own stools to sit on in their assigned sections. Even an hour early, they were eagerly awaiting the show and were seated behind the teacher’s tables where we were sitting.
Since we had time, Ashley and I decided to return to our apartments to change clothes. We both felt under-dressed for the occasion and wanted to surprise our new students. What better way to cause excitement than to don the traditional Chinese woman’s garment, the qipao (chee-pow)?
Ashley’s was white; mine was pink, given to me by my students 2 years ago. We had a nice color combination, not too flashy or loud but a calm elegant for a stage show.
Upon our return, everyone looked on with pleased smiles.
“Oh! You have on the traditional Chinese clothes. You look so beautiful!” our students and Chinese colleagues alike commented.
The Performance Party – A huge Success
For 1 ½ hours, the freshmen and other onlookers were treated to a wide range of acts. We had a Xinjiang Province belly dance routine, a choir, a group reading of a famous Chairman Mao poem, two abridged English skits (Sound of Music, Wizard of Oz), a minority people’s (the Mao) dance number, and our teachers’ performance along with a few other great acts.
But what truly brought the house down, and had everyone on their feet cheering, were the retired teachers. Dressed as young Chinese folk in qipaos with slits up to the thigh, girly clothes for children, fan dancers in sweeping skirts and men in their traditional Chinese formal jackets, the retired teachers walked slowly in fashion runway mode across the stage. They struck numerous poses along the way and incorporated a love story of a girl meeting her boyfriend who whisked her away in elegant ballroom dance moves at the end.
A second retired teacher’s performance was a traditional Chinese rap with the 4 leading ladies acting out the words.
The retired teachers, with all their hard work, spot-on choreography and proud air, certainly put our piddly little Jingle Bells and Auld Lang Syne to shame, that’s for sure. No amount of barking from Ms. Xie would ever have had us anywhere near the performance level of our older folk. They really were amazing.
Busy Week Ahead
Once again, the weekend gives me a chance to rest up before heading into another busy week of teaching and other activities.
The Protestant church music director, John, and I have already made an appointment for me to help with the choir this coming Thursday evening with their December Christmas celebrations. “Ding-dong Merrily On High” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” are the two English numbers they’ll be rehearsing with me leading the way.
Wish us luck!
From along the Yangtze, here’s wishing you Ping An (peace) for your day.