Friday, November 10, 2006

A Night at the (Chinese) Opera

I just had my first viewing of Chinese Opera, which seems to get mixed reviews from foreigners and young Chinese. I went with Danielle and Stephen, the two Peace Corps volunteers, and we weren't quite sure if we'd enjoy it or stay the whole time. Obviously, we weren't going to understand anything that was going on, and Chinese Opera is notorious for its high-pitched, grating style of singing.

We arrived at the music hall no more than 10 minutes before the performance started, which meant there were no seats left and there were many students standing in the aisles. So we were prepared to stand quietly in the back for the opera, but the school would of course be having none of that. A man apparently in charge of seating arrangements immediately spotted us and ushered us right up to the front row, into a set of empty seats that were obviously reserved and were equipped with programs and water bottles. In fact the front row was clearly marked with a sign that read "Seats for Leaders", and thus we spent the duration of the performance next to humorless Communist Party leaders in suits.

As it turned out, the performance was a lot of fun to watch. The singing was tolerable and the accompanying live music was genuinely enjoyable, and watching the performance was still entertaining even when understanding every 20th word or so. Besides the singing and music there was a lot of choreography with impressive acrobatic moves, comedy of some sort, and a fight with a fire-wielding demon. At the end there was an act of modern opera, which involved the same style of music but with drab People's Liberation Army uniforms replacing the colorful costumes of classical opera. At several points during the opera an old man with a cane behind me, who was by my guess 112 years old, tried to give me explanations in English about what was going on. The best of these was when he tried to explain a character who he said was like Venus, and having some kind of affair with humankind, ending simply with the words "make love!" and chuckling softly to himself.

For no other reason than our being foreign, relatively friendly, and unmarried, rumors seem to be flying about me and Danielle. An old guard at one of the school gates who loves to talk to us despite the difficulties of doing so (I've discovered a strong relationship between how friendly someone is and how thick their Zhangye accent is) beckoned me and Danielle into his security room this afternoon after we returned to school together because we ran into each other on the street. I watched him flip through a book with English phrases and then close it quickly, after which he spewed out some sounds at me that, I take it, were a form of language. I had a guess at what he was saying from his gestures and what I thought he was asking me earlier that day, and he shook his head "yes" when I said "are you asking if we're married?". We get a kick out of this, and it's tempting to play with our students' minds.

For this week's lesson, I was definitely playing to my audience. Food being one of the prime obsessions of Chinese people, our in-class "reading" was English recipes. I then had them write out recipes for food they knew how to cook in English, which I think was genuinely good in that it required giving specific directions, involved new vocabulary, and got them motivated, but it certainly didn't hurt that in the end I now have a large collection of Chinese recipes written in English. Have I mentioned that I really like my job?

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