One of the trickiest aspects of living in China for a westerner is negotiating the potholed track of Chinese etiquette. When this is combined with the language barrier, the path becomes even more treacherous. At times it could be likened to a steep mountain pass with a sheer cliff face on one side, off which the unwary westerner is doomed to blindly stumble, and scream all the way into oblivion.
Nowhere was this more apparent to me than one evening in 2006 when a long-lost language partner gave me an unexpected call. It was great to talk to her again, even if the speed at which she was speaking Chinese was a little disconcerting.
“It’s been a long time,” she said. “Tonight we have a concert on. Would you like to come and join us?”
“Yeah sure,” I replied. “Is it ok to bring my girlfriend?”
Twenty minutes later, we arrived at the meeting point. There was my friend, and a suited, bespectacled man standing anxiously by her side, hands clasped and a nervous tick.
“But where is your guitar?” she asked after the initial introductions had been made.
“My guitar? What for?” I asked, a slight premonition of foreboding in the pit of my stomach.
“Oh, we want you to perform in the concert,” she said, with all the offhandedness of someone asking the time. “Didn’t you understand me on the phone?”
Of course, this is an entirely casual request to make of a Chinese person. My own Chinese teacher was not averse to asking her adult students to get up in class and sing a song for the benefit of their classmates if they failed to complete their homework. On a tour bus in Sichuan once I had also been put in the position of singing to a bus half full of Chinese tourists and half full of my friends. But that was in the spur of the drunken moment. This was different. Really, really different. Westerners, especially Australians, are not in the habit of casting aside their insecurities and hang-ups for a sing-a-long on stage in front of a group of strangers.
“Ahh, but I haven’t played for a long time,” I lied. “And I can’t sing at all.”
Incidentally, the second part of this statement is agonizingly true.
“Oh, but we really need someone. And I told my friend you would be able to perform,” she said, indicating the man in the suit. “We have many Chinese students performing and everyone is having a lot of fun. But we told everybody we would get a wai guo ren to perform.” They both looked at me with big, beseeching eyes.
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see my girlfriend doubled up with silent laughter at my situation.
“Umm,” I stammered trying desperately to think of a way out, “I am really out of practice. I’m not sure if I can do it.”
“Oh, it’s very relaxed,” she assured me. “How about you came and take a look?”
“Please come,” added the suited man, who turned out to be one of the concert organizers. “We really need a wai guo ren to perform.”
Against my better judgment I allowed my girlfriend and I to be escorted to the concert hall. My condition was that I would need to assess the situation before I would perform, but I knew then it was already almost impossible. Walking behind my language partner and the suited man, we discussed possible escape routes very quickly in English so they would not understand. My girlfriend happily came to the conclusion very early that I was doomed to severely embarrass myself. But I knew that neither my language partner nor her suited friend understood my situation. At that moment, I was the poor dumb foreigner perched on the cliff face of the cultural and linguistic divide. A lamb to the slaughter.
Arriving at the concert hall only increased the sick sense of foreboding deep in my gut. Word had got out that my friends were coming with the singing, guitar playing foreigner….. who for some reason had arrived without a guitar. A group of men in identical suits gratefully and earnestly shook my hand outside the entrance. “Thank you so much,” they said, oblivious to the churning mess in my stomach. “We really need a wai guo ren to perform.” They ushered me into the hall…… and there it was; four hundred odd people sitting in darkness with their eyes glued to the bright lights of the stage. Nobody was even talking. To say I felt faint was an understatement. At that point I seriously considered abandoning my girlfriend to run screaming out the door. It would serve her right for her lack of sympathy.
“It’s ok, right?” smiled my language partner. I wanted to punch her.
The next few minutes were a blur of miserable anxiety and frenzied, whispered instructions. There were guitars on hand but none suited to my style of playing. Worse, was only one song I could think of singing off the top of my head – “Old Man” by Neil Young. I know, I know, it’s a ridiculous choice. Preposterous, even. But it was all my befuddled brain and loose bowels could come up with.
The MC was introducing me. Despite the short circuit occurring in my cerebral cortex, I could grasp the words ‘wai guo ren’ and felt the weight of several hundred pairs of eyes, along with several hundred people’s expectations, lift me to my feet and drag me screaming into the void. The stairs up to the stage were a rocky mountain path. There was a cliff face at the edge of the stage. The stage lights in my eyes blinded me to the safest path forward. Hands shaking, I accepted the microphone from the MC.
It’s an odd experience, being put in a position such as this. Nobody in the crowd really gives a damn too much about the quality of the performance. It’s not like you are experiencing something truly dreadful like a car accident or being fired from you job. And yet you feel as if the eyes of the world are on you. They are waiting for you to make a complete and utter jackass out of yourself, so they can dance and laugh in unholy glee on the rotting corpse of your self-respect.
“Old man, take a look at my life” I croaked into the microphone….and the next few minutes dragged by in excruciating slow motion.
When the dismemberment was finally over, the crowd was polite enough to clap. My language partner was supportive, if somewhat “surprised” by my singing skills. My girlfriend thought it was the funniest thing ever, and couldn’t wait to tell everybody, yeah! The suited man invited me to stay and watch the rest of the performances.
I declined. My heart was still thumping, and my hands were still shaking. Guitarless, talentless, and now also self-respect-less, I left the hall and the cliff face behind me. With my oh-so amused girlfriend in tow, I walked away from that graveyard of music and vowed never to get caught on that rocky path of cultural misunderstanding again.