Party with Chinese Characteristics

November 5, 2006

The Saturday before last (28 October), my friend and fellow student from China, Ma Tao, invited me to the Chinese Students’ Association’s Welcome Party for Chinese Students, held here at our student residence.  Having spent all day preparing an essay, I hadn’t organized anything else to do, and Ma is good for a chat and a laugh – once we’ve negotiated each other’s accents, that is – so I agreed.

As you might expect, I had expected it to be a party in the Australian sense – a choice of alcoholic or non-alcoholic drinks, a selection of warm and cold finger food (chips, sandwiches, those artery-clogging spring rolls and curry puffs they serve at the Canberra Hyatt during Friday night Happy Hour), which would be consumed while people made small talk over the sounds of Kylie or Nikki Webster.

Nup.  Not here.  Saturday night, China came to Tokyo.

First, the night was all organized.  And well organized, too.  It started with name tags given out at the door, some with blue stars, some with red.  Being the only barbarian foreign devil in the room I couldn’t read anyone else’s name, written as they were in Chinese script.  Never mind.

The tables were beautifully laid out with the evening’s spread.  One had a selection of fresh bananas, fresh mandarins, little breath fresheners the Japanese call supa minto, or things that looked like chips but were sugared – a very efficient way of getting sugar, salt and fat into your body in the one go.

Having lived through the Great Banana Drought of 2006 and having foregone dinner in anticipation of the greasy curry puffs I quickly grabbed a banana.  Then I looked for a drink.  I had my choice of room temperature Chinese tea from a plastic bottle, or a very sweet, clear peach water drink.  Neither betrayed any sign of containing any alcohol.  So I plumped for the Chinese tea, and I, my banana and Ma sat down on seats along the side of the room reserved for red stars. 

A succession of students approached and introduced themselves.  Invariably, they all asked:  ‘So, what are you going to perform??’  The look of horror on my face became more intense each time they asked, as I realized that they all expected me to do something.  I was stumped.  I knew a couple of versus of Waltzing Matilda but it has some embarrassing high notes.  Apart from that, some drinking songs and war cries from school.  That was it.  I would have to think fast.

Anyway, the evening soon kicked off with some welcoming speeches from the Chinese Student Association reps – all in Mandarin.  Ma translated them for me, in his strong Beijing accent, and with a 15-second lag, so I just ended up laughing and applauding when the other kids did.

Then two Japanese professors who’d been invited along were asked to give speeches – all in Japanese.  Then one of reps said something in Mandarin, everyone looked at me and applauded, and I realized that I had been asked to make a speech. 

I think you know how it is – the brain goes into neutral when someone hands you a microphone unprepared.  So I said something ridiculous like ‘Thankyou for your hospitality, on behalf of Australia I would like to wish you a very pleasant evening’ and rushed back to my banana.

Ma was then invited to sing a couple of Chinese fold songs.  Being from the south of the country originally, they were both about Tibetan mountain girls with rosy cheeks.  This was followed by a party game, in which many of the Chinese kids participated.  And that set the pattern for the next two hours:  a musical performance, followed by a game, followed by a musical performance.  One of the games was a mime version of Chinese Whispers – what I mean is, instead of a message being whispered from one person to another, it was mimed.  Another game involved four teams of three people, with two standing on pieces of paper and one having to answer questions.  If she answered incorrectly, the paper was folded in half, with the two having to stand together on smaller pieces of paper.  Much jocularity ensured!!

By 8.30 they had run out of games, and I’d talked to all the people in the room who could maintain a conversation in English.  Feeling lucky that I hadn’t been asked to perform after all, but fearful that they could change their minds at any moment, I said my goodbyes and quickly made my way out.

I’ll have to remember to prepare something for next time.  Let me know if you have any ideas.


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