At the beginning of the spring semester, the foreign teachers were informed (briefly) that they would be required to perform in some way at an arts festival in April. We all took it in much the same way that we take everything we’re told 2 months before the fact: We’ll believe it when we see it.
Details were nonexistent at the time and over the course of the next several weeks, no more were forthcoming. Finally, on April 17th, we were told we’d need to tag along with one of the Chinese teachers to be sized up for our costumes.
Costumes? What the hell are they on about now?
Our coworker’s smiling face as she said, “Arts Festival!” snapped everything back into focus.
We had questions, as you can imagine. Why would we need costumes? What did they have in mind? When was the festival happening?
She explained, as best she could, that we would be learning a dance and a song and would be expected to perform both in front of our students, their parents, the kids from the local school (in which our international division resides), their parents, the other teachers, administrators, and I suppose any curious passersby who wandered into the building. We needed the costumes because they were traditional attire for performing “The Peking Opera” and we would be performing on the 30th–“of course!”
We were dumbfounded and upset. We wouldn’t be able to begin practice until the following week and even then it seemed like the only times we’d have available were during our lunch hours. We contemplated our options, but we were stuck. Contractually, we were obligated to participate in one cultural activity per semester. In the fall, these activities had been parties for the major western holidays. In the spring, we hadn’t done anything, and there was nothing else on the horizon. Short of creating our own holiday or explaining the co-opting of Cinco de Mayo, we had no options.
That first day, a few of us went to the costume shop to choose and try on our outfits. Others with prior obligations (the administration wanted us to go after school…on a Friday) skipped out, secretly hoping that they could figure a way out of the whole thing. I was informed I was to be a guard (I’ve since learned I was either a wusheng or a Wu Chou), and so I’d have a large set of flags and a mask with a beard. I figured I was safe as I’d probably be too big for them to dress, but I’d no idea that the costumes were essentially giant quilted sheets covered with hooks and loops. I could be 6 feet around instead of tall, and they still could’ve made it work.
I have to admit, going to the costume shop made me feel a bit conflicted. There was something about standing around, covered in black and gold cloth and carrying a 7 foot tall wooden spear that made me feel badass. It resurrected feelings that I hadn’t had since going out for a part in Okalahoma! in 10th grade. I was going to be on stage, performing. But, then again, that was half my life ago. And I’d had weeks to rehearse songs and dances and memorize lines and get an idea of the characters. I still hadn’t seen the opera dance performed, hadn’t heard the song. And even if I went all out and busted my ass and showed up and was the best singing and dancing laowai that these people had ever seen, what would guarantee that my coworkers would be as enthusiastic?
I’d just have to wait and see.
On the following Monday, we had our first full rehearsal. Apparently a couple of the teachers had snuck in some early time with the Chinese teacher who was responsible for roping us into this whole thing. They’d learned a few moves to the music and seemed pretty happy about their abilities heading into the first full practice. Unfortunately for them, this is China.
Instead of that Chinese teacher teaching us, as we’d thought, there was a little old Chinese woman standing in front of the class. She and the Chinese teacher conversed in Chinese (only our co-worker spoke any English) as they set up the song that we’d perform to and decided how we would come onto the stage. This was the first thing that struck me as odd–I’d figured there was a certain order to what they were going to do. I’d thought with the opera being as well-known and traditional as it is that there’d be some generic motions for us to follow. And even if there wasn’t, I’d figured they’d have sorted all the minutiae out beforehand.
Someday I’ll learn not to assume, think, or figure on anything I don’t have direct control over.
They put us into two rows and showed us how we would come in and stand at the front of the stage. Then, they began showing us the moves. We were to bring our right hands in and then spread them out towards the audience, slowly moving them from the left sides of our bodies to the right. Sort of like we were saying, “Look at this giant audience.” Apparently this part hadn’t been taught to the teachers who’d practiced beforehand, and they asked about it. The little Chinese lady insisted that these were the correct motions, and I could see the teachers’ faces drop. They’d wasted time learning moves that weren’t actually going to be used. Of course they had.
The little lady sang the song as she showed us moves, grabbing our arms and moving them to where she thought they belonged, turning our heads and feet to point where she desired. She ran around singing and doing motions and jostling us until I wondered if maybe she’d had a mid-morning drink or three before coming in to instruct us. Never before had I seen any teacher expect a group to go from 0 to 100 in one run. She literally thought that we would perform the actions as she showed us and nail everything on the first go. After about 15 minutes of moving from one motion to another and moving those of us who were off to where she wanted, I finally spoke up to our co-worker, asking if it might not be a better idea to focus on one section and then practice it until we’d got it down.
She spoke to the little lady and then came back and said that it would be okay if we practiced in this way. Great. We ran through the entrance and the first couple of motions a time or two and then the bell rang. We agreed to meet again the next day.
We started at the beginning as soon as we came in on the second day. We marched in while the lady sang and did our hand motions welcoming the audience to the opera and showing them our painted faces. This time, the lady tried to change the motions again–altering the height and speed at which we moved our arms. I told her this was different from the day before, and she waved me off and nodded as if she’d forgotten what she’d taught us and was only just then being reminded. This loss of face didn’t go unchallenged for long though, as she soon swooped in on me to move my feet around from one position to another and to, I can only assume, chastise me in Mandarin.
Things moved along much as they had at the end of the first day: we learned parts, we drilled those parts while the lady sang and moved us, and by the end we’d learned–according to our co-worker–about half of what would be expected of us. It was decided that we would take the next day off and begin again on Thursday.
At some point it became apparent to our co-worker and teacher that there was no way we’d be able to learn both the dance and the singing part for the song, so they conspired to convince some of our students to become our choir. This was good and the addition of the students brought an obvious idea to our minds: we hadn’t been practicing with music. The lady had been singing, but she’d been wrong about moves and couldn’t hold onto a rhythm to save her life. Things had sped up and slowed down as she deemed appropriate. We doubted that any of her free-styling was traditional. So, when we returned, we asked to practice with the music. They agreed, and we began the process of trying to time our motions with the music. It was at this time that I realized that my co-workers had all but given up at trying to perfect what we were doing. They’d say things like, “You’re taking this really seriously, aren’t you?” and I’d answer that I was and that I wished they would too so we wouldn’t look stupid in front of the parents. One of them, a nice guy whom I get along with about 90% of the time said, “James, we’re going to look stupid no matter what we do.” I began to wonder if he might not be right, but the idea of the performance nagged at me; I didn’t want to throw in the towel until the thing was done.
In my limited experience with performance, it seems to work best if the person doing the directing gives consistent cues and instructions and moves through those people who aren’t getting it until everyone is on the same page. Marching band worked this way. Musicals worked this way. It took time and practice, but eventually the majority of the cylinders would be firing together.
But that wasn’t how it went for us. The practice days stretched on, and I began to despair. We never hit cues at the same time. We never had the same pace when marching in or around. We started and stopped and moved like individuals instead of a cohesive unit, but through none of it did we get any further instruction. The final straw that broke my morale was a couple of days before the performance. We’d been practicing daily that week and had even gone through a dress rehearsal. Then, out of nowhere, our co-worker cheerfully said, “Now, we’ll try it with the real music!”
I’ve thought about the ordeal a lot, wondering if perhaps there was a conspiracy hatched to make all of the foreign teachers look like idiots. Honestly, I think that’s giving the administration too much credit. To me, it’s simply a natural thing for them to assume that we would practice with a song with a vocal track only to change it to one without at the last minute so that our students could fill in.
And the song did sound like the first one, minus the lyrics, except that it was a bit slower paced and didn’t hold some parts as long as the first. Add to that our students’ inability to project their voices loud enough so we could hear, and we were out there floundering once again. My shoulders slumped, and I went into full on “grin and bear it” mode. I began counting the hours until the whole damned thing was over, and I could get on with my three-day weekend (Thanks, Labor Day).
We were told to arrive that morning at 7:15–about the same time I’m usually leaving my apartment. The journey was a good 30-40 minutes for me on the metro, so I got up early and made my way across town. I walked in and took some pictures and began looking for the others. Eventually, I found my way down to a little dressing room packed with teen girls, my foreign co-workers, and a couple of older Chinese locals. I assumed at that point that the girls were performing as part of the arts festival too, but when I asked I was told that they were also competing in the “talent show.” I laughed, I shrugged, I said, “Of course,” and sat down to eat the strange croissant with dried fish jerky that they’d provided for breakfast.
It took until about 7:45 for most of the teachers to show. We were still missing the guy who was supposed to play our emperor and our head teacher who was meant to play a prime minister. By 8:00, we’d received notice from the former that his back had given out on him, and he wouldn’t be joining us. Genius! I had a bad back! I have sciatica! Why hadn’t I thought of that?! Bastard! Before too much longer we also had a message from our head teacher telling us that his wife had had to go to the hospital, but he would be joining us later.
Now, shame on me for assuming again, but I’d assumed we were to start pretty early–hence the early arrival. Nope. We were the 8th in line to go on, and the show didn’t start until 9:30. But, of course, this bit of information was kept until we’d already been put in makeup and dressed (they decided my actual beard conflicted with my costume’s required black one, and so they gave my beard to another performer). Due to the enormity of the flags on my back, I had to squat and turn sideways to fit through the door. I opted instead to stay (with another guard in the same situation) in the dressing room. We sat there for over two hours until our co-workers came and told us they were on the 5th performance. We turned sideways, squatted, and crab-walked out into the corridor and then into the arena.
Somewhere during the application of the makeup, the spirit of the performance reared its head again. A few of the students had seen or helped with our prep in the dressing room, and so they knew what we looked like in our full costumes. Many more, though, had no idea. I wanted us all to come out together and make them think, “Wow!” and maybe buy us enough shock and goodwill to allow them to ignore our performance.
As it turned out though, we were expected to go and line up, in full view of everyone, 15 minutes or so before we were to perform. Our appearance would be well-worn before we ever took the stage.
Thankfully, we added in a Chinese co-worker to play our emperor who had learned all of the moves while trying to don his costume and makeup about a half hour beforehand. He was front and center, so really if there were any screw ups to be made, they would most likely fall on his shoulders and not on those of us foreigners.
We stood around, on the edge of things but very much in the open while the crowd surged above and around us. They took photos, sang, talked, and waved various many-colored light sticks while the performers danced, sang, or played music. Many of our students were unrecognizable in their outfits. They usually wear uniforms, but on stage, they were allowed to go wild, and they took full advantage, wearing skirts, makeup, and putting their hair into elaborate styles.
We watched the performances as a disorganized mass until the performers right before us went on stage, then we lined up as we had been taught for our entrance. The girls in front of us (a vast majority of the performers were female) did a choreographed dance while singing a pop song in Chinese that I’d never heard of (big surprise). For the first time throughout the entire affair, I began to feel nervous–sweaty palms, racing heart, nauseous stomach. I got hold of myself by taking a long look at the crowd. You see, I’m near-sighted, and I’d been forced to remove my glasses prior to the application of the makeup. I couldn’t make out the features of the teachers a few feet away from me, let alone the mass of color that I figured was the crowd. “If I can’t see them, then it doesn’t really matter,” I rationalized. I couldn’t see the reactions, so there was no point in worrying about them. I’d do my bit as well as I could and let the rest of it take care of itself.
When the girls finished, we stood at attention while they exited the stage. When they were finished, we walked up in two single-file lines until we were all on stage but just barely. The music kicked in, and we began quickly marching, our lines breaking off at the middle of the stage to curve in opposite directions, circling back in towards each other until we’d formed one long horizontal line across the middle of the stage. We stopped for a moment until the music changed, and we marched forward to a few feet from the edge of the front of the stage. We moved our hands and bodies through each of the moves we’d rehearsed and drilled, sweating and worrying through the whole thing. At one point, our line became two, and I watched from the back-most line as two of my co-workers missed their cues and then had to quickly try and regain their places. I felt bad in that moment, but, as the music ended, and we made our way off the stage, I could see them all smiling, could feel myself doing the same. Whether we were happy in our performance or just happy that it was over and our long weekend was beginning, it didn’t seem to matter. We’d held up our end of the bargain, and we were free from extracurricular dealings with the administration for the foreseeable future.
Before we disrobed and cleaned ourselves up, we rode the high from our performance down the street to Starbucks. It was the first time I’ve been stared at and had my picture taken while living here that I felt happy about. We marched down the street, waving and smiling and brandishing our weapons at passersby. Some were dour and some seemed annoyed that we were making spectacles of ourselves, but others were genuinely happy–we even surrounded a guard in his little shack and made faces at him until we got him to smile. We posed for photos and got coffee, returned to the dressing room, cleaned up, and then went out for beers.
Even after performing, I can’t say that I know too much about the opera. From what was translated for me of the lyrics, most of what we were pretending to say was, “The foreigners call what we’re doing ‘The Beijing Opera.’ Look at our painted faces. Good job! Great job!” Not Sondheim by any stretch of the imagination. But I do feel like I know quite a bit more about how to deal with these types of situations mandated by the Chinese administration, and I know that I can still get a kick out of dressing up and performing on stage. And while it was a pain in the ass to go through the process, and I think it could’ve been a lot less stressful and better managed, I’m glad for the experience. It didn’t kill me, and it didn’t maim me (minus the slight chemical burn caused by the face paint), so I suppose it provided me with knowledge or perspective or experience that might prove useful in the future.
If nothing else, it provided me with this story, and this line, “I performed a Chinese opera in China.” It’s not so bad to get paid for acquiring lines like that.