A Morning of Celebrity
Lately, I have been in the stage where I'm so caught up with getting ready to come home that I haven't been going out as much on social visits. But last weekend I had the unique opportunity of being involved in a "Question and Answer" session hosted by my friend Lulu and attended by her classmates, who are all studying English as part of their major. I felt a little anxious about it until the night before; then Lulu texted me with the topics and possible questions I was supposed to "lecture" on: they were not weighty, and I could just kind of outline answers in my mind before I went to sleep.
Sunday was the day of the event; Lulu's campus is outside the city, so at 8:30am she picked me up and took me to the bus station. We spent an hour on the bus, and during this time went over the topics and some last minute questions texted by her classmates; when we arrived, we walked directly to the classroom building and entered a room filled with fifteen smiling faces, mostly girls. One of the girls was drawingpn the blackboard the name
of the lecture that had been chosen that morning,"七嘴八舌," which literally translated is "seven mouths, eight tongues" but means "Everybody talking at once" or "Everybody trying to put in a word."
I was nervous at first, but Lulu was there to prompt me. I started by explaining how Lulu and I had met last year. Then I spoke about my family and family history, and the Q&A began after that. The first question was, “How is your skin so white?” which got everyone laughing, and Lulu told everyone about the time we went to the mall together and I gawked at all the whitening products for girls, since white girls in the U.S. generally want to do the opposite. Then Lulu asked for another question, adding, “Be serious this time.”
The questions ranged from curiosity about American culture (does everybody hug and kiss in public?) to the future of teaching Chinese in the U.S. to personal questions, the most awkward of which was “Do you believe in God?” Also somewhat inappropriate was, “Are all Americans really as sexual as the people in American movies?” I explained that I thought movies anywhere were idealized representations of the way people
think things should be (for instance, the romantic leads are usually much more beautiful than average people) and therefore that movies were not the best guide on this subject. The same girl had asked the religious question; Lulu steered the topic to someone else after I answered as shortly as I could.
The only boy in attendance asked if I liked country music; when I answered that I liked some of it, the class asked me to sing. I sang a spiritual from the “O Brother, Where Art Though?” soundtrack. It was met with enthusiastic applause, and then the class singer rose and sang an old Chinese folk song; she had an amazing voice and the performance kind of set the pace for the lecture; it was interspersed with performances both by me and others, which I hadn’t really expected and made it much less nerve-wracking than if I were required to stand and talk the whole time.
The session ended with a fun activity where students could teach me a special or unusual Chinese character, and then we took photos and the class ended. Lulu and one of her roommates (who had attended) took me to their
dorm, where they room with four other girls. Lulu had recently acquired a plush toy yellow lab, which she had named “Big Yellow.” After resting a few minutes with the two roommates who were there when we arrived, all five of us set out for the commercial street on the edge of campus, where there is an abundance of restaurants.
We went to one place that had relatively good dumplings; the owner, a woman in her forties or fifties, was astonished to see me and was very polite to me. She was amazed when my friends told her I spoke Chinese. We took lunch slowly; I kept thanking Lulu’s roommate when she poured tea for me, which bothered her; one time as she poured she started to say, “Do NOT thank me” right when I rapped my knuckles on the table next to my cup, which elicited a girlish giggle of delight. Rapping on the table is a traditional non-verbal way of saying when for the pourer to stop, as well as thanking them. Among friends, saying “thank you” can actually be seen as much too formal and a way of establishing distance.
After lunch, Lulu and her
roommate gave me a tour of the campus, stopping by the “Gezi Wo” store where Lulu sells accessories. This kind of store is a concept I haven’t seen anywhere else, and is really popular in Hohhot right now. The store owner rents out little cubbies to individual sellers, and anything that sells from that cubby is the seller’s profit. Lulu has rented one, and decorated it with a fetching polka-dot cloth background and photos of Korean girls wearing the accessories she is selling (she likes Korean fashions). Hers is one of the most creative cubbies I have seen.
This store was cool because it also had a coffee bar. The owner was very surprised to see me, and also hoping that I was interested in buying something. I saw some cool earrings but they were too flashy for me to wear them more than once in a blue moon. We left and kept walking in the early autumn weather; the sky was a brilliant blue and the air was crisp. We stopped at the man-made lake near the campus entrance, where arrogant swans and scrappy little ducks went swimming by. Then I was deposited at the campus bus station.
I dozed most the way back to Hohhot, but had to wake the student in the seat next to me when we arrived: he was snoring and didn’t stir even after the bus had stopped and everyone had risen to disembark. I shook his shoulder gently and he nearly jumped out of his skin, looking at me wide-eyed as I said, “We’re here;” then he rose and got off just as spry as if he hadn’t been solidly asleep a moment before.
I went home and rested; having fifteen students for two hours is a bit tiring. Today I’m back at work, and thinking again of all I have to do to get ready for my move. Sunday had a lasting impact, however. I now have several new “friends” on QQ (the Chinese instant-messaging behemoth); one of the girls said “You are my first foreigner friend.” The enthusiasm of students hoping to go abroad and make their fortune or find adventure is catching, and I feel excited about the possibilities I am considering for myself in the near future. Students are some of the most interesting and curious people I have met in China; their approach to life and to foreigners is refreshing.
Back to work, more to come later.
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