Don Giovanni – in Xi’an

Wendy and I had the wonderful experience of attending a performance tonight – New Year’s Eve – with Lee and LeAnne, two of our teammates, of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” (“Don Juan”) at Xi’an’s Opera House. It was a joint performance of Sha’anxi Normal University’s School of Music – where Lee and I teach – and Tokyo University’s School of Music, which has a close relationship with our school.

(Lee, LeAnne, Wendy and I standing in front of the seal of the Opera House)

It was a great performance, in most regards on a par with other excellent performances I’ve seen in the U.S. However, it wasn’t the performance on stage that received a disproportionate amount of my attention, but rather the “performance” of the audience.

In China, it has historically been normal for an audience to talk, smoke, eat, drink, come and go freely, and generally carry on various activities in the midst of a performance. Contrary to what a westerner might think, this is not indicative that the audience isn’t paying attention, nor is it considered rude behavior. They just have a different idea of normal, acceptable behavior during performances.

Even though I know this, I could feel myself becoming increasingly annoyed at the talking that was taking place in the audience near our seats, especially when it was overly loud talking on a cell phone. It didn’t make me feel any better when I saw that several of the Chinese in the audience were also giving the offending person meaningful stares. He eventually took the hint and went out into the lobby to continue his conversation.

This experience made me realize that my attitude still has much that needs changing before I can say I am charitable toward Chinese when things like this happen. But those changes definitely need to take place, because I know that it’s still MY problem, not theirs!

A Team Christmas

For the first time in our married lives, Wendy and I were not able to spend Christmas with our children. Our children. Hmm…Yes, they ARE our children, but now that they’re not with us this Christmas, it’s hit home more forcefully that they really are all grown up and on their own now. Which makes us all the more thankful for our surrogate family – our wonderful teammates.

Our whole team had a great time exchanging gifts with each other…

…and we were even able to tie in our team this year with so many previous years, by having them all sign our Christmas tablecloth.

Even though we couldn’t share this Christmas with our children, we have MUCH to be thankful for!

Reprise of The Singing Foreign Teachers

Apparently it’s a tradition for the school to give all the foreign teachers a Christmas banquet, complete with musical items performed by Chinese students or professors, with the foreign teachers sometimes also performing. This year, it appears that the International Programs Office (the school office responsible for all foreigners on campus) somehow got wind of the fact that this year’s ELIC team has musical talent. As a result, we were asked to perform several different items. We decided to reprise our hit piece “Silent Night” and add another number – “Little Drummer Boy,” with me on the dutar (Uyghur stringed instrument) and Lee on the djembe.

From the applause, it seems that everyone enjoyed it, though I’m not sure they actually heard anything due to the enormous amount of ambient noise in the banquet hall. Nevertheless, it was received very favorably.

Now I’m wondering if we’re establishing a dangerous precedent. What are we going to do for the next banquet?

I Know It’s A Land Of Contrasts, But Really?!

We were shopping in a supermarket yesterday, and as we walked past the liquor section we heard a rather incongruous sound being broadcast through the speakers – “Jesus Loves Me,” in both Chinese and English! The strangest part was that it was being boradcast, not store-wide, but only through the speakers in the liquor section!

I could say all kinds of facetious remarks, like “Well, he DID turn water into wine!” or “Paul DID tell Timothy to take a little wine for his stomach.” But I’m not at all convinced that the person who was in charge of selecting the music to be played in the liquor section even knew what the song was. I have a sneaking suspicion that he assumed that “Jesus Loves Me” was probably a Christmas song (after all, it is the Christmas season), and he just wanted to add some festivity to his section of the store.

Whatever the reason, even though it was rather strange, I have to admit that it was nice to hear that familiar song. And I also admit that it almost caused me to linger in the liquor section. Almost. :-)

 

A Fall Choir Concert (or, “How a fiasco became a success”)

I should have known not to make any assumptions. This time it was a whole host of assumptions regarding the purpose of a college choir. I was thrilled at the beginning of this semester when I found out that I would be conducting two classes of choir in the School of Music, rather than teaching English classes. Don’t get me wrong – I really enjoy teaching English. But I LOVE teaching music! So when I found out I would be conducting the choir, I was in seventh heaven, especially when they told me that they wanted me to teach English songs and to teach the class using the same methods that I would with a choir in the U.S. Then reality began to set in.

Over the course of the first couple months I slowly learned, bit by bit, that a college choir here is NOT like a college choir in the U.S., at least not the many choirs that I have been involved with. To begin with, I was a little puzzled as to why four different classes of students – for a total of over 100 – were put together to form the Sophomore choir, and another four classes to form the junior choir. The fact that these two massive choirs met only once a week each for two hours was a little frustrating, but I figured I just needed to work with the system and do the best I could to get ready for a semester-end concert.

Shortly after classes began, WAY more students than I had expected were skipping class, week after week. When I mentioned this to the faculty member who had been assigned to assist me, she basically told me that it was a common occurrence in all classes, and I should just grade them down when they skip class. To say that I was surprised would be an understatement! How could a choir adequately prepare for a concert when a quarter of the students don’t show up for rehearsal?! She then told me that the choir class was a required class for all students with a Music Ed. major or a vocal performance major. A choir that was a required class! For five semesters! No wonder so many students skipped class. They didn’t want to be there!

When I asked the dean about organizing the concert and he gave me a puzzled look, I knew we had once again somehow crossed wires. When I then asked him if there was an expectation that the choir would give a concert anytime during the semester, his answer was, “You’re the conductor; you decide!” Hmm…definitely not the answer that I was expecting.

So, choir rehearsals once a week…required class filled with students who are required to attend and don’t really want to be there…no expectation of a concert…I was beginning to piece together a picture of a choir vastly different from the choirs I was familiar with.

In spite of this, I still wanted the choir to perform, because there was still one last piece of the puzzle that I didn’t find out about until after the concert was already scheduled. This last piece of information was that, unbeknownst to me, the choir class was intended to teach the students how to conduct. (A methods class of over 100 students brings up a whole host of other issues!)

It was too late by this time to cancel the concert without harming relationships with several different people who had helped to take care of many of the details in arranging the concert – scheduling the concert in the frequently-used campus concert hall; making posters; putting together an ad for the campus radio broadcast; making a banner that would be displayed during the concert; making concert programs; and last but certainly not least, two faculty members – a flautitst and a cellist – who had agreed to accompany two of the songs. So the show must go on, even when it appeared that the choirs were nowhere near ready to perform!

Oh, was I ever mistaken! They sang the songs for the concert better than they had ever sung them in rehearsal! What an enormous relief!

 

I wasn’t the only one pleased with their performance. The dean of the school of music, who was in the audience, came to me after the concert and was effusive in his praise, “That was wonderful! I can’t imagine how you were able to get the students to perform like this after only a little more than three months! You must do another concert next semester!” My first thought was, ‘I’m just as surprised as you!’ :-)

Well, the pressure’s on now. I better go figure out what we’ll do next semester!

A Christmas Program Unlike None Other!

When our team was invited to sing at the Foreign Languages Department Christmas/New Year’s Program, I envisioned past programs that I had participated in, where the foreign teachers were asked to sing. Sometimes it was fun, with everyone just wanting to have a good time to celebrate the end of the semester. (Yes, they may have called it a “Christmas” Program, but the purpose was not to celebrate Christmas!) Sometimes it was built up into a massive production where the presentation became much more important than having fun.

I could never have dreamed of the overwhelming production that was organized for this program! I was told that the department had spent hundreds of thousands of yuan (tens of thousands of dollars) on costuming alone for this production. It was definitely the most elaborate program that I have ever seen a department in a Chinese university put on!

In the midst of all the flash and glitter of the students’ performances, our team sang “Silent Night” to the accompaniment of my guitar and Wendy’s flute. What a contrast!

Since we sang it in both English and Chinese, the packed audience understood the words, and because of some comments made after the performance I’m sure the contrast between the frenetic performances of the students and the peaceful song by the foreigners was not lost on the audience.

When The Sky Ate The Moon

We watched a full lunar eclipse tonight, and what made it even more rare is that we were actually able to watch it! Instead of the usual gray pall of pollution hanging over the city, tonight was completely clear, the perfect weather to watch an eclipse. I’ve included some pics of various stages of the eclipse for your viewing enjoyment.

 

English Done Right!

I had a great language experience this morning. I went to the ATM on campus before 8 am to withdraw money for the health check that we needed to get in order to renew our visas (that’s another whole story!), and on the way back I was walking along the sidewalk when I saw a little girl walking toward me. She was probably in 2nd or 3rd grade, obviously on her way to school. She glanced at me and then looked again when she realized I was a foreigner. I was expecting the usual nervous “Hallo!” thrown at me after having safely passed me by, like most Chinese children do.

However, this little bundle of joy looked up at me as she got near, grinned at me, and with a twinkle in her eye gave me a cheerful, “Hi!” I was so surprised by her oh-so-appropriate greeting that I almost forgot to say “Hi” back. Almost. And I certainly said it with a grin on my face!

Yep, someone’s doing their job right in English class wherever she goes to school!