Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Good Performance, Bad Performance, Music Lessons

This week is the last of classes, and things have been busy now that the end of the term is approaching. Xiao Ma's new thing is the "M-Club" (for "music" and "movies"), so all the people who frequent the guitar shop now have matching t-shirts, and there will sometimes be "parties" with "activities", which could mean anything. He's also more serious about forming a real band, which includes me, so I'll be spending more time there (every day if he had his way). We had a performance last weekend, which they told me about around 2 hours before it happened. It was in an internet cafe, oddly, and along with the music included unusual performances like street dancing and bicycle tricks. There was a band with a female singer who sang two English songs, both by the Cranberries, one of the five or six Western bands whose music can be bought in Zhangye. I was dragged to the front for a game I didn't understand, that involved pressing the space bar on a computer to get a number, after which someone in the place apparently won, what I don't know.

Last week one of my classes was invaded by a foreigner, namely Andrew. There was mild chaos as he suggested we go outside for pictures during the break, and then the students talked him into talking me into abandoning the rest of the class and drinking apricot tea and talking in Chinese. After we went back inside, Mohamed caught wind of the chaos after finishing an exam and joined the room, so the excitement in the students reached a boiling point with all three of their young foreign teachers in the same room. We were talked into singing Chinese and Scottish songs and generally fooled around. Very difficult job, this. I think both students and teacher have been losing their enthusiasm after 17 weeks of class, so I didn't mind being irresponsible for 50 minutes.

Andrew had a friend named Chris visit, another foreign teacher in another province in China. He was from Denmark, and only about an hour from where I spent the summer doing archaeology, so it was good to reminisce about Denmark and show my total incompetence in pronouncing Danish place names ("could you spell that?"). An example of just how complimentary Chinese people are: one of our student friends complimented Chris' Chinese as having "great improvement"; she had known him for two days.

Tonight was a performance in honor of the Communist Party, in which all of the Chinese English teachers were forced to sing, and have been practicing daily for a couple of weeks now. The foreign teachers were invited to participate, and if I'm to overcome my dislike of singing in public, it certainly wasn't going to be tonight. But as my co-teacher was pestering me I agreed I would still come, which I thought plainly meant that I would watch the performance. Lo and behold, last night I receive an e-mail from my co-teacher telling me that I need to meet at 5pm to get my t-shirt, and arrive at the performance by 7:00 for make-up, and that I better eat beforehand so I don't spoil the make-up; I was meant to just stand there on the stage while the English department was singing. He was shocked and appalled when I said I had no interest in being paraded on a stage just because the judges wouldn't embarrass foreigners with a low score (I didn't say it in those words but we heard that is why they wanted the foreign teachers up there, even if they didn't sing). So, I had to meet him at 5pm, and with a pouty-face on he led me to see the Dean of English Department, which maybe he thought was intimidating, but there's only so much authority someone can muster when they have to keep asking you if their English is correct. The Dean put on a disappointed face, but I explained I never agreed to this and Americans are not keen on being displayed on a stage doing nothing, make-up or not (talent doesn't have that much to do with getting on a stage in China, and some performances in the square have been endearingly amateur). My co-teacher is a strange, uptight man who sent a page-long e-mail criticizing me for not responding to a minor e-mail in time, and I'm hoping not to hear much from him in the future. Many of the other foreign teachers didn't go but I was only one given such a hard time about it, because of him. The whole thing was kind of amusing, because Chinese people in authority are used to having a lot of control over their subordinates' lives, and they have little control over the foreign teachers, and if anything we're the ones who intimidate them, because they have to use their English to talk to us.

I now have a new hobby - learning the gu zheng (古筝), an ancient Chinese instrument called the "zither" in English that has 21 strings, is laid out on a stand over your lap, and played with picks taped to your fingers. There is a school in Zhangye that usually performs in an area of the square in the evenings, so I got talking to them, and decided that what the hell, I'll sign up for lessons on an instrument I've never seen before from a teacher who doesn't speak English. As it turns out the teacher is well-known in these parts, and will travel to Vienna in the summer, which is pretty much unheard of around here. She's amazing at the instrument, and so far I enjoy the lessons. I can figure out most of the important things she is saying, and I otherwise learn by watching her demonstrate. It's not a very difficult transition from the guitar, though it is strange being a beginner at an instrument again. Sarah, one of the excitable music students me and Andrew know, also wants to learn gu zheng; she'll come when I do, which should keep the lessons adequately enthusiastic at all times. Every teacher should be so lucky as to get students like the ones here.

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