In Concert

Foreign teachers

When we were asked to participate in the New Year Concert we were told that the Foreign Teachers contribution had already been choreographed. In fact, it had already been performed before, once, at a Sports meeting, I think.

L and I were shown the steps. It was a line dance, Western in theme. I supposed the Wild West idea was chosen because we are sort of Western.

We were to perform the dance against a backdrop of a dusty street in a Western Town.
L and I were willing, and we did our best to learn the steps, after a fashion…

Tao Bao is an online Chinese store ( from which, we have been told, you can by ANYTHING) and it was from Tao Bao that we received our costumes, one red Stetson, one red bandana and a black t-shirt each.

L and I did not sleep well the night before – I kept doing the steps over and over in my mind. I woke up that morning to the sound of L practising his steps in the kitchen. He didn’t look very well over breakfast.

We went to the auditorium at the requested time. We seemed to be early – Chinese time and Africa time have a few minutes in common – and all of us Foreign Teachers sat in the chairs that had been assigned to us.

Foreign teachers
As we entered we had to sign in at the door and as a reward (I felt anyway) we were each handed a small yellow cuddly dog with red stitching. L and I immediately named our two identical dogs Tao and Bao.

The stage was trimmed with huge clusters of colourful balloons. The Chinese teachers began to arrive, and some were in evening gowns fit for the Academy Awards. There was no red carpet, but there was plenty of red everywhere else.

The show began and all the Chinese staff had obviously been working very hard on their performance pieces. We had heard a little of the rehearsals taking place in various classrooms (they had been loud and vigorous – and sometimes a little off key)

The stage was backed by a very big screen and the show went on for over three hours. I had no idea that the staff of our small 300 pupil school extended to nearly 150! And everyone had participated in some way.

All items were in Chinese, except for the backing soundtrack of a couple of the dances, which was American pop or rap.
There were little dramas (skits) which we could get the gist of, but obviously, the humour was mostly lost on us.

There were classic pieces, a kind of Chinese opera and a very dramatic piece about China, that was very emotional, and even I found myself feeling quite stirred and a touch patriotic!
There were many awards given out, which were received by great big groups of people.
There were many speeches, and, sitting in the front row – a place where us Foreign Teachers often seem to end up – we appreciated the few sentences of English spoken in amongst the Chinese words.

We were item number 14 on the agenda, and we had not watched many of the performances before we realized that our piece was probably not quite up to the rather high standard set by the Chinese teachers.

Our turn did come eventually, and we got up and did it. L and I were in the back row and the bank of balloons thankfully hid our footwork from the front row of viewers. We were also positioned behind our more experienced (and talented) co-workers, who have quite a flair for dancing, as it turns out.
DanceI missed a good deal of the moves, and I glimpsed L going off at a bit of a tangent during the middle bit. We both recovered and ended more or less where we should, and when we sat down we breathed a huge sigh of relief.

The program continued for a good while after our set, and I think I enjoyed it more because I could relax.
During the concert, a character in one of the little dramas started throwing red envelopes, with gold writing on them into the auditorium. We got one and inside we found a one yuan note. Our first red envelope which is apparently the traditional way of gift giving – and the money inside is essential!
During another performance, very small goodies were also thrown into the audience. I caught one – it was a little piece of tofu – vacuum packed!

New Years dinnerAfter the performance, we all moved to the dining hall for lunch. Buffet style, the food was definitely of an American flavour and the hall was decorated with New Year decorations. Happy New Year! (Again)
The tables were decorated in the centre with fruit and carbonated drinks and cans of beer.

We took our platters and helped ourselves to the food which was, unfortunately, a little cold – the concert had gone on a bit – but we dished up French fries, fried chicken, fish nuggets and an assortment of salads and vegetables.

ToastingWhen we were done the toasting began, which involved groups of people moving from table to table saying: 新年好, or in English: Happy New Year! And raising tins of beer or paper cups of Coke or Fanta.
Groups of people circulated and eventually, I could say ‘Happy New Year!” in Chinese. I have now, of course, completely forgotten the words, which happens to me quite a lot. I find the particular tones used in the Chinese language so hard to remember, but I do keep on trying.

We left the dining hall with bananas and nectarines stuffed in our coat pockets for later – that was our last meal from the canteen. Everyone was leaving for their long four week Spring Festival/New Year break. Except us.

Tao and BaoIn our flat, we sat one dog on our bed (Tao) and one in the lounge (Bao, or Bow wow wow). They are to be our company for the next four weeks!

Later all teachers were summoned down to the Finance Office and we were given cash for the New Year (in China, I have realized, Good Luck and cash are inexplicably linked).

The Year of the Dog is on its way!

 

 

Year of the Dog

The Foreign Office

At the moment there are only 7 of us in the foreign teachers’ office.

The office is warm, with a view of some of Lanzhou’s new tall buildings. Many of them have only appeared over the last 2 years I have been told. Apparently, Lanzhou is growing at an incredible rate.

my workstationI have been assigned to a desk and have been given an impressive array of stationery. I have colourful circle magnets on my filing cabinet and an assortment of pens and pads and little sets of drawers.
I have always loved stationery and it is plentiful and cheap here, because ‘everything made in China.’

The other teachers are finishing the terms’ reports, and observing from the outside (my favourite place to be), I have noted that there are quite a few complications due to a fair number of instructions being lost in translation.
Another factor is that it seems that the children, sometimes on a whim, change their English names. As their English names were never given to them by their parents, they are quite free to be changed. Charles has now become Bob, and Kingsley is now Liam. And the Chinese teachers, whose job it is to translate all English comments, do not know the childrens’ English names in the first place!

I have been trying to do Lesson Plans for the next term, and to some extent, I have succeeded. But it’s strange to be planning for a situation that I have no way of understanding.

The children have already left the school for their break. When we arrived lessons had stopped for the term, but we met many of the children anyway, who were still writing their Chinese exams.

– Hello. Hello. –
The children chorus, with broad smiles, adding
– What is your name? –

We respond with Hellos, and our name, and ask their names in return.

The conversations continue over meals in the dining hall. On the first day, we were handed trays piled with a lot of everything and a plastic spoon.

foodSince then we have learned. Now we stand in the queue with our empty trays and point to whatever we select. We pick up a set of black plastic chopsticks like everyone else and find a place to sit at the tables.

The food is good, an assortment of stir-fried saucy meat or vegetable dishes.
In Lanzhou, there is always a touch, or more than a touch, of chilli. We ladle a spoonful of sticky rice onto our tray.

There are often white rolls or buns, like dumplings, to be found on the side. Sometimes, hidden within their white softness there is a secret filling.
There is also always a pot of soup. Thin and watery, sometimes containing thin transparent bunches of seaweed or Gojiba seeds or ginger or an assortment of other unknown ingredients, it is to be drunk from small silver bowls.

Much has had to be accomplished in these first days at the school for L and me.
We are driven everywhere by our young Chinese fixer and the drivers employed by the school. We ride in one of two cars. Once the wrong car came for us – wrong because its registration number ended in the wrong number for that particular day. Certain numbers can only be driven on, for example, Tuesday and Thursday and Saturdays, and other numbers on Mondays and Wednesdays and Sundays.

Some of the main streets are becoming quite familiar, and once, when we were out, the car stopped and we were taken for a walk through a part of town that we had not seen before.

I bought two small purchases from a shop filled with cute little typical Chinese design objects.
Michelle with maskI bought a mask to wear when walking along the road (but when I tried it on, I did find it to be quite claustrophobic…) and a little ring attached to a sticker to stick to my phone (I have seen many Chinese people using this addition – but I have yet to actually use it…)
They will probably remain in my drawer, as memorabilia of the time spent here.

Back in the office, my thoughts are disturbed by the sound, much like a tune played on a xylophone which signals a change of period.
Chimes are also played – they sound like a Grandfathers clock, with never more or less than 4 chimes.
It’s much gentler than the siren or school bell that I am used to. In fact, here the day starts with a tune, which, L pointed out, is very much like the opening soundtrack to a daily soapie or sitcom. A voice comes in at the end, which encourages the children to make their way to class.

Every now and then music is played over the intercom. Earlier today it was a Christmas song by Justin Bieber. No one seems to know who or why particular music has been selected. It is always English music, and it is called ‘in between lesson music’.
A lot of the words of these songs are lost on the students, but the beat no doubt puts a spring in their step, as they move from class to class.

The various melodies never fail but to put a smile on my face. No doubt the novelty of it all will eventually wear off, but for now, I remain amused.