Well, I knew the time I was spending with Xiao Ma at his guitar shop would lead to something unusual, but I very surprised to find myself performing with him on-stage at a singing competition last night at the university in front of hundreds of students. We had been practicing a song he wrote and through an English-speaking student he had asked if I would promise to join his "guitar club" and take part in a "game" with him, but I often don't know what they are talking about and didn't pay much attention to it. Even as late as yesterday evening I didn't realize what was going on, until they suddenly announced we were going to Hexi University for the "game", and when we arrived at the school there was a large stage set up with a crowd cheering on the performing students. It was generally karaoke-style and I think we were the only ones to play instruments, but we didn't win. That was one of the largest audiences I've played for, and I've definitely never gotten that much applause for taking the stage. There was a big laugh when I finally looked up from setting up my guitar into the crowd and the lights with a bewildered look. His song is pretty good as far as the singing goes, but my attempts to suggest that three guitar solos might be too many and that the music should change at some point were either not understood or ignored. Actually, apparently not satisfied with the amount of soloing that would go on, he added an additional minute-long introduction at the last minute. There is another competition soon, and he is pretty well set on us playing "Hotel California" (universally adored throughout Asia) and trading singing on the verses with me. No amount of explaining that I neither can nor want to sing on a stage in front of 400 people has worked so far, so we'll see what happens here. And it's best if I just keep the fact that I don't like "Hotel California" in the first place to myself.
There was a singing competition Friday night as well, and it's been satisfying to see some kind of entertainment going on on the campus. I was there with Mohammed, the teacher from Egypt, and I was glad to overhear some students he had been talking to taking their leave to go to a party, the first sign of some students letting loose on the weekend. However, what it turned out to be was a Communist Party meeting; they had joined the Party and were going to attend a two-hour lecture on the virtues of the Socialist Motherland, at 9pm on a Friday. Even Xiao Ma, the living Spinal Tap stereotype of the hard-rocker, brought everyone back to his store after our performance only to have noodles and go to bed at 11:30. And also to put a muzak version of "Hotel California" on repeat for about 40 minutes.
Yesterday I was also invited to fly kites again by my friend Wang Ya Mo, or "Mo Mo" as her friends apparently call her. The way she pronounces it it sounds like "Mama", so I'm not sure how often I will be calling her that. The city square was taken over by a serious-looking military procession, so she took me to a park instead, which turned out to be well outside the city by bus. With her limited English and very quiet personality I often don't know what's going on; after walking about two minutes into the park we had gone out of our way to get to she said only "I think we are wrong" and turned back. So we went across the street into a dusty, barren landscape with nothing but a telephone pole and a few farmers while I silently wondered "where the hell are you taking me?". I eventually got it out from her that there were too many trees in the park for the kite, so after having as much fun as you can with a kite in a desert we headed back into the park to basically walk around and try to think of things to say. She wants me to help her with her English but like most Chinese will not get more specific than "my oral English", and this is definitely a good way to learn Chinese words. When we were almost at the guitar shop where she would again act as translator, she said not to mention we had gone to the park, and waited to enter the store 20 minutes after me. I didn't press her about that but I'm not sure how common it is for men and women to be friends in China, and Xiao Ma is the type to tease her endlessly. She's very hard to read and she knows my stay here is limited and we can barely communicate, but I'm hoping she doesn't have any ulterior motives besides kite-flying and learning English, knowing that the Chinese idea of dating is only of the "Romeo and Juliet" one-love forever variety. That's probably the biggest negative of my stay here; in a city of traditional Chinese values and only two Western women (in their 40's), my dating life isn't looking too promising.