Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Our Man in China (5): Weddings and A Failure to Communicate

I’m now about halfway into the eleven months I will have spent in Xi’an, China. It has gone by very quickly because, as many of you know, once a semester begins, well, the sixteenth week seems like sixteen years into the future and then, before you know it, there are finals and grade computations and students angry about those grades. It’s no different here regarding that. And now I’m between the fall and spring semesters with time to experience more Chinese culture, travel, and do my work. The winter break is long and many people (students, staff, and faculty at the universities of Xi’an) leave the big city for their homes in the countryside or in other cities around China. So, lately, I have been alone quite often—no friend with whom to chat, no colleague with whom to commiserate, without a nine-year-old son to help with the language barrier (I’m sure Kay knows just how crucial Z’s contributions were for enjoying the whole experience). I plan on traveling to Thailand, where I’ll meet up with my daughter for a much-needed time in a warm climate. As well, my dear friend Rosie will be here in a few weeks, so it’s not as if I’ll waste away in misery. No. There has been and will continue to be much to share with you all.

            Of all the odd, different, unique, wondrous, and bewildering things I’ve observed and been a
part of, a high-ranking one has to be attending a Chinese wedding. My friend Karen invited me to her friend Song Wei’s ceremony and reception and I cannot count the times I had to consciously close my mouth during this particular afternoon event. It took place about six weeks ago, within a week of my hiking adventure, and a few months after having been to a KTV (Karaoke) so I honestly didn’t think anything would top any of that. And perhaps this experience doesn’t, but…let’s just say, that when Karen invited me, I knew I wasn’t over-reacting by saying to myself, “Oh, goody!”

            Bright, happy colors everywhere, Sung Wei and his betrothed Yan Yuan, wanted a photo with me and Karen (I’m the barrel-chested old man on the right, in case it’s not clear).
After we obliged, we were escorted into the reception area. As the lone westerners, all eyes were on us as Karen and I wound our way around tables and chairs. I learned later that there is some sort of good luck and status that comes with having westerners at a Chinese wedding. Once seated at a table with ten people, I scanned the room. Four mirrored disco balls hung from the ceiling, narrow spotlights hitting them as they spun. A sort of model’s runway, slightly elevated and covered in reflective chrome paper, was set from the front door of the banquet hall all the way to a 20 x 20 foot stage (also covered in reflective chrome paper). A huge video screen was up stage and showed different designs and colors—red, pink, blue, orange—all flashing like we were at an outdoor
concert. The visuals often gave way to dozens of photographs of the young couple posed in coordinated dress, Song Wei in white slacks, light blue shirt, with light blue shoes, Yan Yuan in white shorts, the same color blue shirt and blue shoes. More photos flashed with the happy couple wearing other, nearly exact, pink, purple, black, and red outfits.

The ceremony began as a tuxedoed MC with a slicked-back pompadour hairstyle came out on stage and had a spotlight directed toward double doors. Song Wei and Yan Yuan stepped upon the
runway and moved into a sort of gazebo, where they took about five minutes to re-state their vows (a formal, family-only service had taken place during the morning) all while the MC narrated the events in his baritone, Ed McMahon voice and Ryan Seacrest manner. The happy couple seemed to float down the mirrored aisle as the traditional wedding march played over loud speakers. We all applauded and the MC rambled on, his voice aiming high at times, but falling low as, with a sweeping gesture of his hand, he guided them to their marks onstage. Photographers’ cameras clicked and flashed and more designs and colors dissolved into one another on the video screen behind the three on stage. The music changed to Iggy Azalea and then Nicki Minaj (at least that’s what I learned later when I asked Song Wei). The MC bowed in Elizabethan style, arm and hand extended downward, torso leaning forward over a locked leg with heel to the floor and toe pointing up, and his other hand holding the mic to his lips. Then, with a flourish, he sprang upright and pointed to the ceiling in some sort of prompt for everyone to rise from their seats in a standing ovation for the beaming newlyweds.

            The music changed once more to classical Chinese and the MC directed Song Wei and Yan Yuan to a table off the stage where the couple’s parents waited. All six of them lit candles and incense and recited a prayer. Then Song Wei presented his in-laws with an envelope of money and his wife did the same for his parents. They all hugged and the tradition was complete. We were then allowed to eat.

Wait staff brought tons of food to the tables—vegetables, tofu, fruit, hot and cold dishes, mutton and beef and chicken, an appetizer made of jellyfish, another of thousand-year-old eggs that
are a translucent blue-green in color. At some time during the feast, Yan Yuan had changed from her white wedding dress into a traditional Chinese red wedding dress. Quite beautiful. She visited every table and chatted with old and new friends while Song Wei did the same. Once guests had been visited and the food and beverage stopped flowing (about twenty minutes after the first few dishes of food were brought out) people got up to leave, passing Yan Yuan and her sister, not Song Wei, in a reception line. Within three minutes—and I do mean three minutes—the banquet hall was empty. I looked around and then at Karen and said, “What the hell just happened?” I took one more sip of tea and followed Karen, where she found Song Wei. We said our thank yous and goodbyes and left—the last ones out. That was it. Over. Done. No chicken dance. No hokey pokey. No Hava Nagila. Not even the possibility of making a request at a daughter’s wedding. I still smile about this because it was so odd and cool at the same time.

That episode in the life of MoWest’s man in China was a few weeks back, I know. However, the end of the fall semester was considerably more recent and my memories of the wonderful students I was lucky to have in my classes will stay with me for quite some time. I am like many others who teach. We have well-thought-out plans for the new semester, visions of students held in rapt attention by our words, and hopes for an exchange of intellectual ideas and experiences. Sure. There was that, to some degree. I must admit, though, that my plans for what I would cover during the semester became only half-realized. And, like the students at MoWest, there were a few here who were interested in what I was teaching, but others sat in the back row and played with their cell phones or offered deep sighs of boredom as I lectured.

One day, I had a well-organized lesson plan for my English Writing class (composition) where I wanted to cover signal phrases and in-text citations according to MLA Style. Admittedly, it’s not the most exciting subject for a ninety-minute lecture, but I had visual aids copied to my flash drive and exercises for partners to work on. Besides, they’d actually learn something.

As I explained the use of signal phrases, with examples of them on the overhead, I saw a handful of students in the back row casually flipping their thumbs across the glass screens of their cell phones. One student stopped to show his neighbor something he’d found. They both laughed. I then glanced to the front row where my best students were dutifully taking notes and looking up at me with eyes wide and minds seemingly open. I stopped.

“Please,” I’d said. “Put your cell phones away.”

“We’re taking notes,” one of the students said.

“Show me.”

And of course he couldn’t, so he and the others put their cell phones on their desktops. That lasted about five minutes. So, I stopped again, and asked again for them to turn off their cell phones and put them away. But this one student, who will go un-named, continued his browsing. I have to say that this seemed unusual. Chinese students aren’t normally defiant to a teacher’s face, but this young man had tried my patience on occasion in the past when he insisted that many of the things America had accomplished were lies—such as, we never landed on the moon—or that our military’s development of HAARP is responsible for China’s bad air quality (instead of its dependence on coal).

So I walked over to his desk. Silence in the room as all eyes were on me. I stood in front of him, leaned over, and called him by name. He looked up.

“Listen,” I said. “If you don’t put that phone away right now, it’s really gonna suck to be you.” (To be sure, my only recourse would have been to kick him out of class. The embarrassment of that would have been punishment enough, though.)

And then I realized that in a MoWest classroom a young, defiant student would have met my use of the phrase “it’s really gonna suck to be you” with a smirk or a nervous smile of guilt. But not with this student. All I got was a blank stare. He hadn’t a clue what I meant. I looked around the room and the other students, too, had similar expressions.

“Never heard that one before?” I said.  No. No. They hadn’t. “So I guess if I’d have said, ‘you’re killin’ me, Smalls’ that wouldn’t mean anything, either.” Nope. Of course not. “How about, ‘Lucy, you got some ‘splainin’ to do’? I mean, I could have easily said that to him.” Nothing. So I said, “‘What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.’” And as I walked back to the front of the room, I heard a little voice inside my head say, “‘Forget it, Jake, it’s….’”

One of my favorite students, Hou Xiaofeng—a great kid who is charming and funny and bright and extremely interested in American culture—had his hand in the air. I called on him.

“What does it mean, ‘suck to be you’?” he said.

I laughed. And the rest of the class time (d)evolved into a discussion of American idioms, common expressions, and famous quotes. I say evolved because it was fun to deviate from my plan and see the looks on their faces when they “got” what “it sucks to be you” meant.

I said to Hou, “Remember last week when you told me you lost your portfolio?”

“Yes,” he said.

“Find it yet?”


“Well, it sucks to be you.”

And I say devolved because during my explanation of “it sucks to be you,” I used the acronym S.O.L. to try and make it clearer. However, that got me into more trouble because once I used the word, well, all classroom civility and forms of decorum evaporated. In China, they have an expression which is, “Dog Shit Lucky.” In fact, somehow, the word (especially when combined with dog), is generally very fortunate, a good thing, so they couldn’t quite grasp the “outta luck” angle.

I went on to explain that many American sayings come from popular movies, although we don’t always quote them exactly. I knew that talking about Sandlot or Desi and Lucy or Cool Hand Luke would merely be me going off on a lecture about popular culture in America, without them being able to relate because they’ve never seen the movies or the TV show. So I tried to reduce it to something universally relatable. I asked them to think of their crazy uncle. Only Hou and one other student had an uncle (China’s One-Child Policy!).

“He’s your father or mother’s brother,” I said. “He’s the guy who gets murderous stares from his brother or sister because he lets you look at his Playboy magazine, or teaches you how to bet on football games, or gives you a sip from his beer when you’re five years old.”

More blank stares.

“He is cool?” Hou said, figuring out the crazy uncle character.

“Yes,” I said. “He rides a Harley, has a hot girlfriend, belches without excusing himself, and…” I walked over to Hou and stood in front of him, extending my arm, while pointing within his reach, “… he says to you…pull my finger.”

Hilarity ensued. Within seconds everyone, every student in the room, had pointed to his neighbor with instructions to pull their fingers.

And that, my friends, might just be my major contribution to a cross-cultural exchange with the Chinese people.

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