The (Not Quite) Christmas (Late) Show*

*With Chinese Characteristics

While this all happened, I was scribbling in the dark, periodically shielding my eyes when the gyrating stage lights tried to blind me in my privileged-foreigner (?) front-row seat. For reasons benevolent and charming, some still unclear, and others only a little nauseating, my college puts on its “Christmas Show” on the second weekend in December. When Western universities were completing exams, we had one last bash before the grim final few weeks of term. Exams started yesterday; I have papers to mark and journals to read, but remembering this is more fun. Besides, it’s (barely!) still 2013. I’d missed the show in 2012, on some pretext. Hmm, and also the year before that. This was Chance the Last, and if I hadn’t gone, you wouldn’t be able to read this breathless blurt of hyper-opinionated Western bemusement, befuddlement, wonder and dismay at the spectacle that is a Chinese celebration of we’re-not-sure-what-but-you-must-have-a-great-time…

This is Part One, and a second blast will soon follow. Happy New Year.

Oh, the sparkles, the spangles, the balloons! Oh, the frilly clothing and the 38-yuan red high heels that it was the honour of the young women honoured to be conscripted as the honoured hostesses to buy! Oh, that song, again and still – China takes all the weariness of the post-Hallowe’en deluge of Christmas songs and sharpens it all to a fine point, a stabbing red-hot poker called “Jingle Bells” that plays on repeat. Here is the same version that has impaled me for weeks at the mall where I tutor overpaying English learners on Thursday nights, at one of the many cash-cow private Business English academies. Worse, it’s a rendition that is a sonic cheese-grater to the soft parts of the ears, apparently called “Jingo Be-yo”:

Jingo be-yo, jingo be-yo, jingo ah de whee

Oh wha funny tease to righ / Inna one-hoss oben slee…

[Surely to punish me for my impertinence, the McD’s where I’m hiding away for freedom from distraction and high-grade Author Fuel is playing a diabetes-inducing version of “Here Comes Santa Claus”, which at least has the virtue of not being the George Michaels classic “All I Want for Christmas is You”.]

The glittering MCs come to the fore, to great applause. He is a grinning, rented-tux-clad chubby man with the well-oiled mannerisms and booming, he’s-got-to-be-kidding cadences of every Chinese MC I’ve been blessed to hear. [He wasn’t kidding. There’s no touch of irony at all, though it was Saturday Night Live satire come to life for these jaded Western eyes.] She is a hair-piled-high vision of high-class brothel-keeper sequined excellence. [Okay, she looked like a campy Oscar presenter, which is nearly the same thing. A very pretty young woman, it need hardly be said, and her smile was rock solid.] She was the designated deliverer of the English translations, which were brief but often hilarious. [As usual, nobody bothers to consult

Original MC pair at right, “Garlic” at the mic.

with the actual native speakers of English that our school is so proud to hire about the translations. This is one of China’s great mysteries for me, and I’m not sure whether it comes from the inferiority complex or the superiority complex, both of which are in constant battle in what I can surmise about the Chinese mind.] So, her introduction of whatever act was up next tended to sound like an order – and a warning. Welcome them! Here they come!

We start with alumni scholarship awards, all three to men. Klaxons sound. [Those were only in my head.] What-the-Hairy-Heck? meter already reading dangerously high. Three guys? In a school where the women must outnumber the men by at least 4 to 1, and routinely top the charts in marks and effort? I’ve worked a little with Cheng Long, and he’s certainly bright and serious about his work, but it smells fishy. [Unless that skinny little dude was a very butchy girl? Nah, couldn’t’ve been.] Not to worry, though: there are the obligatory girls in tight skirts bearing the awards for the Dean to present. Equality! And all this excellence, too, is accompanied by bright and wildly aimed spotlights, and by soaring (and roaring) orchestral music. “Out of Africa”, maybe? The Marlboro cigarette theme from my childhood, better known as the movie theme from The Magnificent Seven. Pump up the volume! Jump that shark! It’s showtime!

Hey, sports? Apparently, our table tennis team won the university intramural championship. We won girls volleyball, too!

Academic stars. Hey, maybe that is a young woman in the centre.

And something else! I’m basketball-nutty enough to know that our men won the title last spring, so no surprise to see tall-dark-and-Wang up there, shyly representing and grinning (a little). Detective Bride, scurrying about, thinks that there are bundles of hundred-yuan notes for the teams. Can this be true? Has their amateur status been compromised? (Call it “non-investigative journalism”.)

Special contributions awards now, one of which is for the brave kid with cerebral palsy who, in a decidedly non-supportive environment for the disabled, shuffles and jerks his way up and down stairs day after day. I wish I knew him; he reminds me of one of my favourite students back home, the irrepressible Ryan Doyle. (Where are you now, Doyler?) Next come the Academic Achievement Awards, and I don’t want to disparage the credentials of the earnest young people selected, but again: a 2:1 ratio, men to women? (Or, as they would insist, boys to girls.)

Our School of International Business gives “Excellent Talent” awards: a ping-pong girl, a dancer girl, and Bao Yang, our basketball team’s StarBoy and organizer and freshman development coach. Nice kid, and a pretty good player. (He’d have been a pretty solid Ontario high-school baller.) Every time, a new school official, working down from Dean to Vice to curriculum coordinators, but always the skirted xiao jies with their trays and perma-smiles. [Xiao jie means “young lady”, except that in certain contexts it has a rather less flattering connotation. It would be ungentlemanly of me to suggest that this context is not so far from the shady, seedy ones. So I won’t.] This time it’s the Volunteerism Awards:  charitable giving of time and money are gaining traction here. Our “volunteer station”, as they call it in English, specializes in sending kids out to the underfunded, undervalued rural schools. Three girls are honoured, and deservedly so. [They may not be all that smart, these females, but they can sure be nice to kids! Okay, that was mean. Pardon my cynicism.]

AND NOW! (That we’ve gotten all that serious stuff out o’ the way!) The MC’s Countdown to Showtime featured a tasty Chinglish morsel about “making our school a wonderful Paris!” Not too sure of the connection to Paris or Christmas. But hey! [In the spirit of wish you happy every day! this is what ShowTime looked to me, and these square brackets give me a chance to reflect on what I saw.]

ACT 1: Let’s get this party started with a bang! A bump! Some grind! Well, at least it’s not a slutfest! Whew. This is so uncomfortable. Where the hell am I? I go to a “Christmas party” and a pole-dance breaks out! Lord, that was trashy. [Later that week, some of my students confessed that they’d found it uncomfortable, even disgusting, though one bright-eyed freshperson said, “I just think it’s kind of normal!” I guess I was standing in for all the disapproving-Dads-of-my-imagination, but sheesh. I didn’t know where to look: the costumes were a little suggestive, but the movements were explicitly sexual. They copy what they see on the Internet, and maybe the main sin of these girls was that, more so than many Chinese young women, they were more successful in reproducing the raunch. I had to tread carefully when I realized that one of the tarted-up pole-dancers-without-the-poles – they had simu-sex with chairs, instead – was a lovely and, more likely than not, fairly innocent frosh still awaiting her first boyfriend. When she realized what I was saying about the, um, the purpose and the intended effect of these kinds of moves, she wailed, “But our hearts were pure!” I believed her, I think. Maybe they just thought it was a cool Western dance. Be careful what you copy, China!] Yikes. I’m looking at my wife, my Western colleagues; did you see what I saw?

[And what must the Dean and his fellow leaders think of all this? “Kind of normal?” “Not our business?” Kids have to audition for these things, and they get approved. There’s also an element of conscription that I don’t grasp completely, but I think it extends beyond the requirement that all first-year students must attend. It’s entirely possible that the leaders see no sexual/moral question here at all, curious in a country where high schools forbid dating (mainly on practical, can’t-be-distracted-from-test-prep grounds, I figure) and universities make on-campus physical intimacy nearly impossible. Dorms have guards, and the doors lock at 10. A little non-gropey, kiss-free cuddling in quiet outdoor corners is all I ever see, and don’t think I’m not lookin’.]

[And furthermore: what an amazing contrast there was between the extreme formality and tightly scripted delivery of the MCs, and the vulgarity, the studiously casual sloppy-coolness of the American wannabes. We continue.]

ACT 2: Another set of dancing girls, a little more athletic and hippity-hoppity. [Black America gave hip-hop to the world, but it’s an odd experience seeing Chinese kids try to replicate all these swaying, street-smart moves with bodies not accustomed to a whole lot of rhythm, athletic or musical, in a system where there’s precious little encouragement to even move their bodies much, for any reason.] Kinda stiff, infinitely derivative, but at least not vulgar.

Hey, there’s Garlic! There’s a second set of MCs for some of the performances, it looks like. Handsome young “Garlic”, his chosen English name, is resplendent in mascara, and rented silver tux. [He told us afterward that it stank to high heaven, and also mentioned that he’d wanted to insert some humour into his remarks, but this was expressly forbidden. Chinese students use and unblinkingly accept the word forbidden.] He has a great smile, pretty fine English and a jawline that goes on forever. Nice work, Baizun. (Now get a new English name — eight months ’til Canada!)

ACT 3: Two girls in private-school kilts and blouses and pigtails, and one brave boy. Pigtail One sings a sweet song, the other two do interpretive dance. This must be a popular video here. Another example of the things that young Chinese guys are unafraid to do – he gave an all-in, rather balletic performance, which you’d never see a Western guy do unless he happened to be a trained dancer. He isn’t, but he was all in. Quite sweet.

ACT 4: It’s boy-time! (Welcome them! Here they come!) Half have red and white flowery boxers, the other half black-and-whites. All are heavily cosmeticized. This is weird,

The boy in the boxers. And their ribbons. I laughed and laughed.

campy, over-the-top fun. Go, boys, go! I whoop and holler – this is just straight-on silliness as they “dance” and otherwise mug to the sappiest of music. Yes! Of course! “My Heart Will Go On” had to be included (the Chinese are still avid about Titanic), and the lads lip-synch and play-act a little homo-erotic goofiness, and the crowd goes wild for it. AND some kind of Chicken Song, with clucking and crowing and general high-stepping foolery. YEAH! Now that’s entertainment!

[Of course, it’s all new to me, so that one seemed fresh and surprising. I quizzed students in the following week: Did you see anything new, anything you haven’t seen before? The consensus was ‘no’, which didn’t surprise me. That’s how a lot of things are done here. Heck, if they learn basketball from watching videos…]

Their hearts will go on. Titanic lives.

ACT 5: A traditional Chinese love song; from an ancient poem, my Chinese left-hand woman informs me. Sweet, gentle. The girl has an old-school voice, that very high and reedy sound, but powerful. It’s not my favourite vocal style, but she’s very good. The guy’s not in the same league, way flat on more than a few notes, but he’s popular and there’s no restraining the grin. All the mannerisms, even, are surely imitated – everybody’s seen this performance before, maybe quite a few times, but they still love that their friends are pulling it off.

ACT 6: Another American hip-hop video copy by another team of girls. It’s low on the vulgarity meter – even when give it the old college try.

Hey, friends, there’s more stunning (stunned) reportage on the School of International Pole-Dance — er, Business gala to follow, in about 12 hours. Welcome it! Here it comes!! Zai jian.

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