For the last few months, our school has played host to a singing tournament of sorts. They began the contest as an open-entry opportunity for any students in the city who were interested, and every few weeks they’ve had a mass performance, and the judges eliminate several more contenders. By the end of the semester, they will finally announce the grand finalist. It is like a miniature version of China’s Got Talent (yes, that is a real show…I have watched multiple episodes). Our good friend Catherine really enjoys singing and she entered this contest. She has made it through several rounds of elimination already. Justin and I always tell her that we want to attend and watch her performances, but she always “conveniently” gives us the wrong time or the wrong place. We were starting to wonder whether it was a language barrier issue, or she was just too nervous to sing in front of us! But finally, we got an invitation to watch her perform last week, and we were in the right place at the right time.
The day before the much anticipated singing performance, Catherine called Justin in a panic. I was there when he answered the phone. A look of confusion swept over his face as he held the phone to his ear. “What did you say? I can’t hear you. You lost your voice? Oh no!” We felt so bad that Catherine had come down with a sore throat the day before her performance that we invited her over to our apartment and raided our medicine cabinet, handing her vitamin C capsules, Tylenol for pain, and even a lemon that Justin had picked up at the fruit stand outside the school. “Just cut this lemon in half and squeeze it into some hot water to drink,” Justin instructed, sounding just like a doctor. “Do you think it will help?” Catherine croaked doubtfully. “Yes! It will help,” Justin assured her. “By tomorrow night your voice will be 100% better!” “I hope you’re right,” I whispered as Catherine left our apartment.
On the night of the performance, we entered the school gymnasium to find that the students had transformed it into an auditorium with banners, stage lights, and smoke and bubble machines. As soon as we arrived, we were treated with excellent “laowai” service–a girl wearing a traditional red satin Chinese gown showed us to two plush cushion seats in the second row, which were complete with snacks, programs, and bottles of water! I looked around guiltily, noting that many of the Chinese students were sitting on hard bleachers and little tiny plastic stools. Oh well…I won’t be treated as a celebrity for too much longer. I had better enjoy it while I can! Our other friend Mickery showed up a little while later, and squatted down next to my chair, telling me he had been instructed to be our translators for the duration of the program. We often tease Mickery about how he tends to be courteous to the point of acting like our slave boy (i.e.-“Mickery! Please–I can carry my own shopping bag!”, etc.), and tonight was no exception. “Mickery,” I said, “Please don’t tell me you intend to squat there on the floor the whole night. Why don’t you sit in this seat next to us?” “Oh, I couldn’t,” he said. “Those seats are reserved for very important people.” Thankfully, someone eventually brought him a little plastic stool to sit on, but I still felt pretty ridiculous about the whole seating arrangement.
There are a few marked culture differences between going to a school performance in China and going to one in America:
1. Chinese people like to turn up the volume. In hindsight, I really should have brought some earplugs. But no one goes to a school performance expecting the volume to be so loud that their ears are bleeding by the end of the two hour show. The decibel level in that gymnasium was comparable to a death metal stadium concert. And I really should have known better, considering that this is my seventh month living in China. Every store I shop in has the radio blaring…every car I pass by has their bass thumping. And let’s not forget KTV (karaoke), because the experience is really better when the music is so loud it drowns out the person trying to sing along to it. Everywhere I’ve gone in China, they have their music playing loud to the point of distortion, and this school concert was no exception.
2. Chinese people like to show their appreciation for the singer…while he or she is still singing. Before the show, I looked around at the audience behind me and I saw students loaded with clappers, air horns, and even some homemade noise makers (just fill an empty water bottle with sticks or rocks and shake it). I’ve seen such fare at sports games in America, but a singing competition usually beckons a more dignified crowd. Not so in China. Often times, the crowd would clap and yell and use their noise makers during the middle of the performance, not even able to stay quiet until the singer had finished! If a singer ever sang a really impressive high note or held a note for a particularly long time, the audience erupted into a loud chant of “JIAYO!” (which means “heat the oil” or “turn up the gas”) as encouragement. I’ve often seen people shower a performer with bouquets of roses or a teddy bear, but I’ve never seen the audience members run onto the stage in the middle of the song to thrust a gift into the singer’s hands! It was all a little bit distracting, and I can’t help but feel that the singers must have felt distracted by it all as well. But maybe it’s such a part of their culture that they’re used to it by now.
3. A special spontaneous tribute to Mao Zedong. No large gathering of Chinese people is complete without a line of soldiers (students) in full military gear marching across the stage carrying a giant Chinese flag. They stood at attention while a 1950’s recording of a choir singing a communist anthem played over the loudspeakers, and those in the audience who knew the words joined in. It was one of the creepier moments of the evening…but I suppose that in America, we are just as patriotic.
Justin and I were excited to see some of our students on stage singing and even dancing a little. But we were really looking forward to seeing Catherine’s performance, which came about halfway through the evening. I was feeling nervous for her as she walked onto the stage and the song began to play. She was originally going to sing Kelly Clarkson’s “Because of You,” but after she lost her voice, she decided to switch to a Chinese song that is a little bit easier on the vocal chords. She had a really good start to the song, but then she went for a high note in the chorus, and her throat closed up on her. She immediately covered her mouth in embarrassment at choking in front of such a large audience, and she missed a couple of bars of the song because she was starting to cry. I felt really nervous that she was going to get scared and run off of the stage! I looked over at Justin, and he didn’t seem to realize that anything was wrong. He was just occupied with videotaping her performance on our camera.
Suddenly, rather than getting awkward or booing Catherine off the stage, the students in the audience all started a chant of “JIAYO! JIAYO!” A few moments later, not one, not two, but three people ran onto the stage bearing bouquets of flowers (and some hugs) for Catherine to encourage her to keep singing. This was such a touching gesture that Catherine’s voice cracked with emotion, and she started to cry again. She bravely finished her song, and even though she was off key for most of the ballad, the audience rose to its feet to applaud her at the end. She bowed and thanked them profusely in Chinese before leaving the stage.
It was a bit confusing trying to figure the complicated system that the judges were using to eliminate contestants, but luckily we had Mickery there to explain it to us. Catherine was not eliminated initially, but put into a group of ten second-chance contestants who were instructed to pull a mystery song out of an envelope and sing a few bars of it on the spot, a cappella. She pulled herself together and sang the second song beautifully, and that combined with her previous performances won her a chance at continuing on to the next stage of the competition.
They had a nice ceremony at the end in which they awarded all of the finalists moving on to the next round with trophies and certificates. They also let a bunch of students up onto the stage to hand the finalists little notes of encouragement and congratulations that they’d written. When we met up with Catherine after the program, she was floating on cloud nine. We walked her home to her apartment (she needed someone to help her carry her mountain of her flowers and trophies), and she just couldn’t stop grinning. I think she put it best when she said, “My song sounded so bad. I felt so ashamed, but everyone was very nice to me. They tell me to keep trying. I don’t know how it happened, but they turned something so terrible into such a happy day! I think I will remember it forever!”