For my first party in China I could think of no better theme than Springtime in Brazil, whose Chinese phoneticization is “Brah-see.” The country’s national colors, green and gold, are identical to those of my native Australia, and it’s often a nation and culture that I perceive (in no doubt “grass is greener” fashion) to be one of the most diametrically different to the traditionally Chinese one which I am surrounded by on a daily basis.
Though the main purpose of the party was to eschew, for the evening at least, the most depressing elements of our descent into chilly, dark Winter, it was obvious that such escape was impossible for a number of invitees. Through a combination of late notice school exams–Chinese universities hold classes and exams seven days a week–and the universal immobilizing power of the flu, the lead-up to the party was a series of apologetic text messages withdrawing their sender’s attendance.
Upon arriving, my first Chinese guests educated me on Partying in Chengdu 101:
“Why do you start so late? 9pm is when most parties in China finish!”
I had neglected to consider that, in making the metaphysical leap from our physical bounds within the cold valley basin of Sichuan to the tropical climes and visions of endless Brazilian smooth-limbed dancing, one should always consider the limitations of cultural practices. This was not to be, I begrudgingly acknowledged, some sweat-fuelled, pill-popping baile funky Sao Paolo favela rave. Indeed this is, most certainly, still a country composed largely of Confucian conservatism, industrious competition and early bed times, as much as one might like to pretend–even for just one evening–that it is one of fetishized luxurious sensuality, Afro-Latin rhythm and unbridled joie d’vivre. My neighbors, who appear to favor Imperial China-period TV dramas, would likewise disapprove.
I had made a trip out to He Hua Shi (Water Flower Market) with Ypsilanti that morning, to scrounge up the cheapest party decorations in Chengdu. The market was, by Chinese standards, not overly crowded, it’s narrow collection of stalls selling a fantastically colorful, tacky mix of low quality goods–plastic, paper and otherwise. When buying Christmas lights from an outdoor stall, we followed the trader into a nearby warehouse-cum-market, whose power outlet served as tangible proof of the lights’ efficacy. Unfortunately, the only fake palm tree I could find was far too expensive, standing a good 8 feet high on the wall. Still, with successfully bargained carnival masks, green and yellow lanterns, green and yellow butterflies, and green and yellow streamers, preparations dictated that it was to be a most color coordinated affair.
After settling in over some oranges, an excellent icebreaker not utilized enough at parties these days, we played a Sinocized version of a popular American card game called “Kings,” inserting Mandarin for English. The purpose of the game, in essence, is to make up as many and as confusing an assortment of rules that force players to drink. On this occasion, our libations of choice were pineapple beer (which is light and delicious) and the less palatable bai jiu, along with a bottle of “Kangaroo Ridge” Australian hong putao jiu (red wine) I’d picked up at a Japanese grocer named Isetan, which stocks foreign products as essential as cheese and as yearned for as tim tams.
We then cleared the way for some real dancing to begin. Salsa, merengue, tango…seemingly as many ubiquitously Latin (but not Brazilian) dance styles as we foreigners could hope to demonstrate were attempted. It’s a lot to consider, given we’d already given brief guides to hip hop and rock music dancing earlier in the evening, but our Chinese contingent proved game participants. Matthew and I have both practiced Capoeira, a Brazilian martial art, and we offered a brief demonstration roda, whose briefness didn’t stop me from feeling the ill effects of such unrehearsed exertions in my muscles shortly after.
As the evening wound on, the party turned into a sing-along/variety show of sorts. We sung English pop songs by U2, the Beatles and, this being China, the obligatory “Country Roads” by John Denver. But we were surprised to hear a request for a classic rock favorite from Cecelia, a Facebook friend from Yunnan and English major at Southwest University for Minorities:
“Do you know ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’ by Avril Lavigne?” she asked.
We did, but the irony, of course, is that “Knocking on Heaven’s Door”, unforgettably covered by Guns N’ Roses, is a song originally by Bob Dylan. However, just like Britney Spears’ cover of The Arrow’s “I Love Rock N’ Roll”–which, in turn, was most famously covered by Joan Jett & the Blackhearts–such essential pop culture history, seemingly as critical cultural currency for us Westerners as the dates of major conflicts, is entirely without significance to a Chinese generation which only recently gained mainstream access to Western pop music. The week beforehand, I had been discussing pop music with my tutor, when the apparent layered meaning of the Irish boy band’s name “Westlife” arose. It isn’t difficult to imagine the band’s marketing machinery effectively predicting the trendy appeal of its name in China many years after the original 90s teen pop wave died down in the West.
Our local friends performed renditions of Taiwanese pop [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vo_eV8EZZls] and traditional Chinese folk songs, playfully imitating the high-pitched, nasal singing style employed by the female singers as they performed some of the dance steps. We continued to spread the gospel of the beautiful “Kangding Qingge”, at this point still the favorite (and only) Chinese folk song in my repertoire. I have not met a single Chinese person who does not know this hauntingly melodic love song.
After the party, Cecelia asked me a charmingly unusual question:
“Do all young men in America play guitar?”
I’d never noticed it before, but all three of we limited examples of the Western male specimen in attendance that evening, play guitar.
It was a most warm-spirited, culture-hopping little gathering, and one that I hope provided pleasant temporary reprieve from the approaching Winter blues. The original plan was for the party to raise funds for Mercy Corps’ development project providing job skills training to Yi minority women in Sichuan province, but given the small number of people who made it out, I figured I’d save the pitch for a wider (hint: online) audience.