Hi everyone! The new semester is under way, but before we move ahead, I want to hearken back to the end of last semester, though it seems like ages ago. I didn’t have time to write about all this before heading out on vacation, but in the last few days of December, I was invited to some of my students’ New Year’s parties, and, well…they did a number on me. I want to tell you all about them.
One thing I think American readers will find interesting about my college (and, in fact, most Chinese colleges) is that students are put into classes of about 50. With these 50 classmates, Chinese students will not only have all of their courses over the duration of their 2-4 years of college, but some of these students will also be their (6-8) roommates. So at my college, students wake up in the morning in their dorm room of 8, go to morning exercises together, go to breakfast together, go to all their classes with the same 50 people, play ping-pong together after class, have dinner together, and then, for two hours in the evening, have mandatory study hall in their “homeroom” classroom with their 50 classmates. It’s a lot of togetherness, but also sheds light on why students are always asking me if I’m lonely living by myself. I think most Chinese people can’t fathom it. As you might imagine, though, Chinese students become extremely close to their roommates and classmates.
So, at the end of December, a wonderful student I’ve become quite close to named Will appeared at my door with a red invitation summoning me to his class’s New Years party. On the appointed evening, my sitemate, Anna, and I made our way to the teaching building and found their homeroom class, which was decked out in streamers and balloons, with incredibly intricate pictures and Chinese characters covering the blackboard – chalk was doing things I didn’t know chalk could do. The desks were arranged in a U-shape around the classroom creating something of a stage, and each one was piled with a mound of sunflower seeds and chocolates.
One thing I love about Chinese “parties” is that no Westerner would ever call them a party. I cottoned on to this fairly early in the school year when another teacher asked me what song I would be singing at the Christmas “Party.” My stomach gave a sickening lurch, I swallowed dryly, and said, “Excuse me?” Turns out the Christmas “Party” is that happy time of year when all the English Department teachers entertain about 300 students by singing English songs for everyone’s enjoyment. The Welcome Freshmen “Party,” which Anna and I happened upon one cool September evening AT THE OUTDOOR STAGE IN THE SPORTS ARENA WITH 4,000 STUDENTS AND TEACHERS WATCHING turned out to be a 3-hour song-and-dance spectacular, complete with ethnic costumes, stirring monologues and hosts in tails and ball gowns. So…yeah. I guess “party” means different things to different people. If by “party,” you understood “performance,” I guess you’d be baffled if you arrived at someone’s house, they gave you a glass of wine and told you to go mingle.
And so, armed with this knowledge, Anna and I took our seats on the front row and waited for the fun to begin. Presently, the students sat down, and two of them – the hosts for the evening – took to the front of the room and, demonstrating the Chinese love of overly-formal rhetoric, greeted everyone with, “Esteemed classmates, teachers, and special foreign guests Anna and Lindsay: Welcome! Everyone, good evening! Let the 2011 New Year’s Party begin! [both bow deeply, applause]”
What followed was an excruciating series of students standing up and performing for each other. Some danced, some read poems (often to the accompaniment of cheesy music in the background), but most of them sang songs, either with music or just a cappella. There was the barely-audible warble of a pink-cheeked girl with bangs and a barrette; a group of girls holding hands, swaying and singing to a song called “Friend;” some of the cool guys completely rocking out, unabashedly, using a Coke bottle as a microphone. Will, the student who invited us, belted out a lovely rendition of “Yesterday Once More” by the Carpenters (who, by the way, are still big in China). Almost without exception, the singers looked like they wanted to die, but they got up and did it again and again. As each student sang, other students would approach him or her and give the singer a gift – an orange, a lollipop – as encouragement, and in sweet acknowledgement that it is not easy to stand up and sing in front of fifty people, even if they’re your best friends.
About an hour into the party, the students’ homeroom teacher, a fun guy of about 33 who is my Chinese mentor and also a good friend, arrived. After an appropriate amount of heckling from the students, he was cajoled into singing everyone a song. He ambled to the front of the room, the crowd went quiet, and in a husky voice, he crooned a love ballad with no accompaniment. It was so painfully awkward that I just couldn’t look at him – I was squirming – but neither he nor the students were fazed. At all. The awkwardness of it still makes me shudder, even at a two-month remove. And I guess that’s the lesson: different cultures have different ideas of what is, and should be, embarrassing.
During this whole affair, a few thoughts kept running through my mind: First, Why, why, in a country of such stereotypically shy people, is this how they choose to celebrate? It was absolute torture for them, but they volunteered to do it themselves. Is it some bizarre rite of self-assertion? Or is it just that in a life as 1 in 1.3 billion, it’s your way to be in the spotlight for a second? And second, Why is singing such a big part of Chinese culture (The number of karaoke parlors in every town! The number of times I’ve been asked to sing a song in public!)? And why are they so consistently bad at it??
As the evening went on, the singing and dancing were punctuated at intervals by rousing games of musical chairs, relay races and tongue twisters. At one point, Anna leaned over to me and whispered, “They’re doing this all sober.” These are 20-year-old college students, having the time of their lives, and this is their idea of a party. Can you imagine what it would take to make a group of 50 American college students sing songs for each other? Play musical chairs? Decorate their classroom with streamers and balloons? I’ll tell you: lots and lots of beer. But here, the thought of alcohol had not even crossed anyone’s mind. It was incredibly refreshing.
The next night, two other students, Frank and June, invited me to a school-wide party in the teaching building. They met me outside with a gift of candied fruit and ushered me in. As soon as word got around that one of the foreigners was there, I was retrieved and escorted to a lecture hall full of hundreds of students. As I entered, applause. I was requested to sing a song. I declined. I did, however, address the crowd, wishing them a Very Happy New Year. As I stood there in front of the masses, I contemplated my sloppy attire and was reminded, again, never to leave home not ready to address hundreds at the drop of a hat. Oh, China.
That done, I found Frank and June, and went with them from classroom to classroom. Each room had a different game or activity set up for students to participate in – relay races, obstacle courses, trivia challenges – and you got prizes for winning! (Ensworth readers, it was like Super Saturday!) The hallways were plastered with riddles painted in beautiful calligraphy that students were clustered around, trying to solve. Again, the students were having the time of their lives – college students! – and there was nary a drop of alcohol to be found. It was just good, clean fun. Everything was so fun, so creative, and so cheap – the students put it together so well. I had a blast.
Frank and June ushered me around for a bit, and when it was time to leave, I thought, and not for the first time, that when I’m with my students, I’m happy. I feel good about myself and my role here, and the students – they do my soul good.
Often, when I spend time with students, they’ll say this to me, but this time, it was my turn to say it to them: “When I stay with you, I very happy.”