Friday, January 28, 2011

Merriment

If you happen to wander around one of Changchun's Ou Ya supermarkets in late December, don't panic. What you hear is merely a cover of "We Wish You a Merry Christmas," only the vocals have been slowed down about 400% while the musical accompaniment plays at normal speed. The song will be played on loop and you'll wonder why no one else seems to notice the frightening cacophony that's raping your ears.

Andrew told me his department was going to have a party on Christmas Day. Peter, the department head, asked if we would perform a few Christmas songs. Peter was thoughtful enough to give us almost three months' notice. Forgetting, as I often do, that plans made more than a week in advance eventually happen, I agreed to participate. I made use of the ample preparation time Peter afforded us by occasionally saying things to Andrew like "dude, it would be so funny if we did an acoustic version of Total Eclipse of the Heart," or "dude, it would be so awesome if we did an acoustic Cannibal Corpse set." With about a week to go before the Christmas party, we decided to get serious. We settled on the alleged Christmas classic "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer," with "Necropedophile" as a close runner-up.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation was also going to hold a Christmas party. Theirs would be on Christmas Eve. Summer asked us, in a manner that seemed more informative than inquisitive, to perform. She was thoughtless enough to give us about three days' notice. I convinced Andrew it would be a really good idea to perform “Oh, Hanukah” and see if anyone says something. Although we didn't begin to prepare for either party until the last minute, we thought it only proper to devote far less time and energy toward Summer's, which really shone through in our performance.

You may associate the Christmas classic "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" with fond childhood memories, or perhaps the general warmth and comfort of Christmastime. If you wish to retain such associations, stay away from Changchun's "Rottibun" any time between November and January. At this otherwise pleasant coffee shop, you will be subjected to a Christmas mix CD that includes a rendition of "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" as performed by either a Chinese woman approximately 20-35 years of age or an infant, trapped under the wheel of a truck, wailing with agony in its final moments. Unless that sound appeals to you.

My last two classes for the semester fell on Christmas Eve. I had originally intended to take half of the week off, explaining to my students that I would be celebrating Christmas for five days. This made perfect sense to them even though I told them several times throughout the semester that I, as a Jew, don't celebrate Christmas. Although my failure to convince them that Christmas is not an “American festival” ended up working to my advantage, it seemed I'd soon be presented with a better option.

Lily, Dean of the English department, neglected to inform me that the students would have January 3rd off for New Year's, the day I was planning on holding our film final. This bumped her "letting me know about vacations and days off" track record from 0 for 3 to 0 for 4. I came to the logical conclusion that she gave absolutely no shit about me or my classes and I was free to end the semester whenever I wanted. So my last two classes for the semester fell on Christmas Eve.

One of the students in my last class asked me if I could simply tell everyone their grades instead of first making them talk to me for five minutes. I thought she presented a pretty airtight case and agreed. I learned while giving a girl named Magician her grade that they wanted to leave as early as possible to throw a birthday party for Nature, another girl in the class. Magician invited me to come have dinner with them and then go to KTV (generic term for karaoke bars). I told her my presence at a Christmas party was required so the school's administrators could pretend they have a functioning relationship with the foreigners. She insisted I call when the party ended so I took her number. The prospect of seeing my students outside a classroom environment -- possibly drunk, definitely singing -- intrigued me.

Class ended about an hour early. A few students stayed in the classroom. For four years they have every class with the same people in the same room every day, so it only seems reasonable that they decorate it and make it something of their own during those four years. Most of the students stayed at their desks and opened up books. A girl named Dola, who has a tendency to ask random but amusing questions in rapid succession, began interrogating me. At first she stuck mostly to topics like how to improve English and Spring Festival plans but eventually it seemed like something was troubling her.

Dola thought she may have unintentionally offended a foreigner friend. She asked me if Americans consider it rude to arrive at a party too early. In this case, too early was fifteen minutes. Upon arriving, Dola called her friend, who then scolded Dola. Dola expressed concern that she may have effectively ended their friendship. Then it came out that her friend was a Christian missionary of sorts and the party wasn't so much a party as a forum for her to aggressively promulgate the virtues of her religion on others.

Dola isn't the first student who has approached me about a foreigner friend's confusing behavior. A freshman named Eric asked me if he should continue paying fifty yuan a week to go to a party where an elderly couple criticize his way of life and explain bible passages to him. A local shopkeeper named Jack asked me if I, like his old friend Sean, work for God and also believe that anyone who doesn't will be denied entry into Heaven. I don't think the problem is Christianity itself so much as a number of self-assured jackasses who use the institution as a moralistic crutch to validate their righteousness and claim superiority over anyone who deviates from their way of life. The problem affects me directly when I live in a city full of those who deviate from that way of life, have no reason to adapt that way of life and wonder if the self-assured jackasses are representative of all Westerners.

I didn't present this perspective to Dola but I did try to stress how unusual I thought her friend's behavior was. She seemed relieved and we then talked about conversations between foreigners and Chinese, which was pretty meta. Since she opened up and presented me with one of her foreigner-related grievances, I thought it only fair to present her with one of my China-related grievances. I mentioned that most Chinese didn't really seem to have any interest in talking to me beyond learning my ethnicity, job and opinion on the weather or local cuisine. In turn, I'd become somewhat less motivated to continue studying Chinese. She suggested that some people might be afraid they won't have anything in common with foreigners so instead of risking potential embarrassment, stick to small talk. She included herself in that category of "some people." I told her to bring up a hobby or interest at random the next time she meets a new foreigner and see what happens, which she agreed to try.

I got up to leave for the Christmas party and Dola offered to guide me to the classroom. Accepting the fact that I will never be able to convince any of my students that I have the slightest navigational prowess, I accepted her offer and invited her to come to the party. Although she initially declined, she changed her mind when I talked about the weird museum exhibit treatment I was expecting to receive based on my experience at the cocktail party earlier in the semester. She refused to believe that I was going to be swarmed by hordes of students, all of them shouting questions over each other, offering me drinks and taking pictures with me. As we approached the room Black Stallion, perched outside the door, spotted me and came running over. "Let's go, let's go!" He led me inside. For whatever reason, people were worried that I was late. I turned to Dola and said "here it comes," confident that my predictions for the evening were correct. Not so.

"Jingle Bells," known to some as “Ding Ding Dang,” is without a doubt one of the most widely-recorded songs of all time. I know what you're thinking. Is there any way I can listen to every known recording of the song at the same time? The Walmart on Lin He Jie is well-equipped to handle the task. As you walk down the halls of the mammoth establishment, you'll experience sensory overload to a moderately disorienting effect. As jazz ensembles blend with children's choruses and string quartets, you'll wonder why you didn't spend upward of $1,000 for a flight to China just to get in on the Changchun Walmart Christmas fun earlier. Five out of five, would try again.

The first thing I noticed when I entered the designated party parlour was that everyone was sitting. Furthermore, they were sitting in silence. Only one person was making any noise at all and that person was standing behind a podium, speaking into a microphone. Black Stallion led me around the perimeter of the room and showed me to a seat at the end of a long table where Andrew, Wayne and people who looked a lot more important than us were sitting. We all had name placards. Baskets of fruit had been placed between every other person. I looked around but couldn't find Dola. I assumed she wisely made an escape. The room was decorated with pink and purple balloons, presumably in the spirit of Christmas. Some pink balloons had been arranged into the shape of a heart, also presumably in the spirit of Christmas.

The woman speaking was Sophie, head of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation. I've never heard a kind word spoken about her. From personal experience I know that she refuses to learn or speak English despite being in charge of the well-being of the foreigners at the school, benefits greatly from spending as little money as possible on us and talks about me in Chinese to other people while I'm standing right in front of her.

Once Sophie concluded her speech, Allen got up to deliver a few inspired words. Summer, who had been sitting next to Wayne, noticed that I had no access to the peanut and sunflower seed tray so she came over and dumped gratuitous amounts of each in front of me. She then did the same for Andrew before returning to her seat. Andrew made a funny comment about birds. Chinese people devour sunflower seeds. My students bring enormous bags of them to my film class and litter their desks and the floor with shells. They open them in seconds with their front teeth using a method I have not yet begun to comprehend, let alone master. I stuck to the peanuts. Allen's mouth stopped moving and some real punk rock types took the stage.


Haha, Allen what are you still doing up there, you're done bro.


But we forgot to do this thing!


Wait till you see what the flannel shirt guy does later


Then that was over with and the new wave/dark ambient/progressive players took the stage once more. Members of the crowd immediately started talking amongst themselves.


Cannibal Corpse's Tomb of the Mutilated is hailed by death metal fans as one of the band's greatest efforts and one of the genre's quintessential albums. Play your loved ones track after crushing track of unrelenting brutal death metal and make this Christmas celebration one they won't soon forget! They'll get the chilling lyrics to songs like “Necropedophile” and “Addicted to Vaginal Skin” stuck in their head! Forever.


The guitar work on the album conveys a sense of frenzy and mayhem. The ultra fast riffs never get old. Before you can even faimliarize yourself with one, another is thrown in your face. The album's high energy never tapers off and you may even find it infectious, thrashing your body around not out of choice but necessity.


Chris Barnes' distinct, visceral growl compliments the nature of his lyrics perfectly. Deep, demonic grunts seem best suited to relay sickening tales of murder and necrophilia. Whether you find the horror film imagery of the lyrics provocative or reprehensible, it's undeniable that the subject matter leaves an impact. Facilitate a discussion under the Christmas tree between the maternal and paternal sides of the family: Does Barnes write lyrics as a sardonic observer of the world's horrors or as a seriously tormented individual who longs to commit the heinous acts he depicts?




*farts*


The opening act was a hit. As part of a long-running Christmas tradition we're all familiar with, a few girls in the audience presented the band members with balloons. The guitarist kept looking at me so I gave him the metal horns, which seemed to fill him with bashful joy.

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"You Raise Me Up" is a ballad of the inspirational variety. You may have heard Josh Groban cover it, or possibly hundreds of other popular recording artists. But the only time it was really done right was at the Jilin Institute of Architecture and Civil Engineering's Christmas Bonanza as hosted by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation. Two men with pipes like a plumbing system wailed their way through the inspirational ballad like no one has before. Earring Bro's soft, angelic voice tempers the bold vibrato of Glasses Guy to soothing effect, as if bringing to life the song's theme of giving a dear friend everlasting support.

I noticed Dola had not actually left the party and was staring at the door unenthusiastically. Feeling guilty for inviting her to this train wreck of an event, I invited her over to the VIP table and told her to have at my sunflower seeds, which I was having trouble enjoying due to my shell-cracking ineptitude. Dola then called up two of the girls in one of my other classes and said something like “yo, get up on this motherfucking sunflower seed shit,” and they came forthwith.

Left: Black Stallion
Black Stallion and several other students performed a short skit in English. It was supposed to be comedy but it played out as more of a tense melodrama. Unfortunately, I couldn't understand much of the dialogue due to both pronunciation issues and the increasing volume of audience chatter. I think I still pieced it together.

Left-center: Black Stallion
Two men were lying on the ground, completely immobile. Black Stallion and two other onlookers acknowledged that this was a problem but seemed emotionally disconnected from whatever incident took place. A woman came running by, crying, arms flailing. She was yelling about her son, singular, so one of the two victims may not have had anybody in the world to care for his misfortune. She repeatedly threatened to kill Black Stallion but he managed to calm her down time and time again. This continued for several minutes without any further development until the actors left the stage.

Pictured: Black Stallion and a mysterious onlooker
The audience did not respond well to the skit. Most of them were probably novice English speakers at best and even then, the English spoken didn't resemble English that much at all. Clearly embarrassed, the performers who put in a lot of time and effort to prepare left the stage. But Black Stallion would not leave in shame that night, for seconds after the skit ended he would be granted a shot at redemption. He took that shot all over Redemption's slutty face.

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Black Stallion hosted a mock version of a popular Chinese TV talent show. This skit was well-received by the audience, as it was in Chinese and thus understandable. I asked my students to give me rough translations of lines that got big laughs, which proved unnecessary as most of the gags were visual and they preferred narrating actions over translating words.

Return of the mysterious onlooker
Merry Christmas

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When it came time for the foreigners to hit the stage, the audience chatter came to a halt. I felt bad because they thought their preconceived notions that foreigners are talented singers who love to perform were going to be fulfilled and they were about to get let down hard. Hard like the horse boner with which Black Stallion shot a load onto Redemption's face.

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I have never in my ENTIRE LIFE seen such a sickening performance of “Oh Hanukah.” I own seven recordings of the song: four in Yiddish, three in English. I've seen it performed live in ten countries and twelve US states. These two jerks were BY FAR the lousiest of the lot. They averted eye contact with the audience, instead looking at each other to confirm that they weren't screwing up the words, WHICH THEY WERE. And the little one kept trying to put his hand in his pocket unsuccessfully. Very unprofessional.

The evening stagnated a bit. More pop music. More balloons. Some extraordinary dancers with ankhs painted on their heads. It picked right back up when this guy hit the stage:

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When the party finally came to an end, Sophie made us white folk take pictures with just about everyone. Summer told us the department was going to take us out to a nice dinner. Andrew, Wayne and I got a ride with Allen. "Milkshake" was playing in his car when we got in, which is notably superior to every other song I've heard on Chinese radio. I called Magician as promised and told her what was happening. Apparently they were finishing up dinner and heading to KTV, so I figured I might be able to catch them there later.

The restaurant was in a hotel, which usually means it's fancy business. A hostess led us to a private lounge area where a few well-dressed Chinese men were chain-smoking and drinking tea. One of those men was Arnold, the only member of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation who has my utmost respect.

Arnold technically answers to Sophie, but if she has a problem with something Arnold's done, she won't say shit. Arnold is the only member of the department who treats me like a person rather than a product. He also seems to realize what a joke the foreign teacher job is. When we were called in to have a meeting about teaching methods, which turned into Allen spewing permutations of the sentence "maybe you can teach in some American style, such as games," multiple times, Arnold sat in the corner making phone calls and looking otherwise disinterested in the proceedings. When he had enough, he interrupted Sophie with a declarative "Okay?" We all laughed and the meeting was over. Thank you Arnold.

The dinner was pleasant. Toasts were made regularly, I believe in show of appreciation for our presence at the school. Wayne made one on behalf of us showing our appreciation in return. One of the Chinese guests delegated himself the task of filling up everyone's glass with beer when needed. At one point, Sophie gagged dramatically and spat a piece of food onto her plate. She got up and power walked out of the room, accompanied by Allen.

During one of the toasts, someone shouted "bottoms up!" One of Arnold's guys was intrigued and asked for an explanation. Allen began to explain the expression and in doing so, turned over a bottle, not quite empty, and spilled beer all over his soup bowl and place setting. He didn't react to this. 

As we departed, Allen offered a ride to one of the other guys in addition to Wayne, Andrew and I. I noticed we were going a steady five miles per hour, gently swerving from side to side. I mentioned to Wayne and Andrew that I saw Allen spill beer and not seem to notice or care. As soon as I spoke, Allen remarked to his friend that he was too drunk and pulled over. We got out of the car and Allen apologized to us, explaining that he didn't want to get arrested and lose his license. Andrew and I were only about a block away but Wayne had a walk ahead of him. As we departed the scene of the face loss, I looked back to see Allen make a pathetically slow u-turn, half-expecting to see the car suddenly erupt in flames as it rounded the apex of the maneuver.

I called Magician once more but received no answer. I later receieved a text message from her while in the middle of some screen-watching. Unfortunately, I neglected to add the contents to funnychinesetexts.odt so I can't quote it directly but the gist was that another girl named Dream got drunk to the point that Magician had to take her home. Apparently my students went a little apeshit at KTV, which I regrettably missed out on.

I spent Christmas Day watching TNG until Andrew called and suggested we practice our set, which considering the previous night, was wise. We spent an hour or so doing that, then went to the school. We found our way to the room. Lo and behold, it was another "party." The room itself was a lecture hall and once again, all the students were sitting. I recognized two teachers sitting in the third row, Peter and a guy named David who catches the bus at the same stop as us. David likes to make dichotomous comparisons between America and China of dubious validity such as "in China, [public] squares are named for their shape but in America, they are named for their purpose." One thing I must admit, however, is that as far as I can tell, he's right about public squares in China all being square-shaped.

The lecture hall was decorated with Christmas trees and lights. Santa hats rested on every seat, generous gifts for those who attended. I started to worry that this event might actually be completely faithful to the spirit of Christmas but I was assuaged of that fear as soon as the first act went on.

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Green Day often receives praise as a band whose members cast aside conventional songwriting in favor of more daring, experimental pursuits. American Idiot was criticized by some as inaccessible and elitist, while others praised the band for their technical mastery, complex and challenging melodies and deconstructionist approach to genre. Bill Joe Armstrongs himself says of the album: "yeah we were just sitting around, kicking it, listening to some ancient Greek wedding hymns and I was like, we totally need to just get at the core of this stuff, you know, and play around with it. Maybe we were, haha, maybe we were, you know, smoking that green stuff, smoking some weed cigarettes and kicking the ball around you know? Haha, but yeah I said we need to really go back to the beginning and juxtapose those hymns with modern sounds, and we have to use a vibraphone, and I think it's probably the album I'm most proud of to date."

Most of the acts were musical performances. Some of the students performed an English translation of a Chinese drama. They made use of slapstick humor quite frequently, which seemed to keep those who couldn't understand at bay. I checked the program frequently. One act in particular, entitled "Friends," caught my eye. I knew for some time that Chinese people love the TV show Friends, but could it possibly be that I was going to witness a staged performance inspired by the sitcom?

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Personally, I think it's better than the actual show. Andrew and I did our set, marginally more successful than we had been the night prior. The finale was a grand Christmas chorus featuring all the performers except us.

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Again, we were asked to take pictures with large groups of people. Peter offered us a ride home, along with David. On the way to the car David asked us questions about Christmas. First he asked Andrew how he celebrates and then me. I gave him my standard refrain. He suddenly got very excited. He told me I'm the first Jew he ever met. Instead of the normal stereotypes, it seemed that David was actually fascinated with Jewish history, the topic that ended up dominating the conversation during our car ride home. He told me his favorite movie is The Prince of Egypt, which I had to admit I didn't see. He talked about King David and the prophets and a whole lot of stuff I never really expected to hear come out of a Chinese guy's mouth. It made me wonder what other weird topics he knew about. I made a mental note to have more conversations with David.

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