There is so much to recall that I’ll just attack various facets of this month in shorter excerpts. One memorable event was the city-wide Christmas banquet held for all the foreigners living in Xiaogan (population is around 400,000). The event was hosted by several city officials, including the mayor of Xiaogan, and attended by several locals, including President Zhang (my school) and several other school administrators.
This was a rare opportunity to meet some of the other foreigners in the city (about 40-50 or so in attendance), most of whom I’ve never seen, though I think I recognized one gal from the dairy section of the supermarket. Some of these foreigners are teachers, either employed at another university in town or working at a secondary school. Many were businesspeople. And a good chunk of them were apparently here for some sort of military parachute training, such as Haleem from Egypt and I-can’t-remember-his-name from Bangladesh who kept calling me Michael. So I assume Xiagoan must have an exceptional training program to draw participants from such great distances. There were people from India, Africa, Russia, France, even a few Americans...all over the place, really.
The evening began rather late. There is a tendency among leaders here to show up when they show up. Maybe this is common in the U.S. and I’ve just never noticed it before. But city officials do it, and school leaders do it all the time. The event starts when they arrive, which may inconvenience those waiting, but, well…those waiting are not the honored leaders. I’m guessing it is different here, because of the depth of China’s honor culture. But it makes it hard to honor such people when you’re hungry.
The banquet was held at a fancy hotel. It was a classy meal, for sure. Lots of gourmet dishes, and great, prompt service. Within ten seconds of setting down my empty wine glass, one of the waitresses would come and refill it. Needless to say, we were all in good spirits that night.
Once the program got going, several speeches were made, by the mayor, the vice-mayor (I think that was his title), and even me. I was asked earlier in the week to prepare a short speech; the only prompt I was given was to express gratitude to the city of Xiaogan. It was quite an honor, really, as I was the only foreigner at the banquet asked to speak. Though when I read my speech to one of my classes, they giggled at all of the parts that spoke about how wonderful Xiaogan is; they obviously disagreed.
But that night I shared these Xiaogan-affirming words, talking about the experience of living in China, being away from home at Christmas, the hospitality I’ve received, and how Xiaogan has become a second home. Apparently, my comments about the city being “home” really touched the mayor, who then asked for my name and some more information about me. He later came over and introduced himself and toasted me, expressing gratitude for my kind words about his city. He was really touched. So touched, in fact, that I was told a couple days later that my name and comments about Xiaogan made the city newspaper in an article written about the evening. I sense such praise for Xiaogan is rare.
I have yet to track down the article, but that will definitely be one to save. And I meant what I said, mostly. Xiaogan would certainly not be high up on my list of places to settle down. But I do feel a connection to the city, because it has become home for me. Most of my world travels have taken me in and out of cities quickly. Even in America, I’ve not lived in any one place for more than ten months since I was a teenager. So for a transient like me, four months in a strange and different world is enough to give me a sense of connection to a place, enough to call it a sort of home, if only temporarily.
The rest of the night was a blast, aided by delicious food and good and plentiful wine. Some of my fellow foreign teachers and I prepared a Christmas medley of songs. Following this, Joann and I sang “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” a song we sang frequently together throughout her stay in China, so much that I think it kind of became “our song” to many here.
And then, the (what I should have recognized as) inevitable happened. The crowd, especially the mayor, wanted an encore. More specifically, they wanted Joann and I to sing “My Heart Will Go On.” Keeping my resistance internal, I agreed with a smile and proceeded to strum and sing, faking the words with Joann where we couldn’t remember them. The crowd’s response was so amusing and varied. There was one woman—probably an American—who rolled her eyes and covered her face as if to say “oh please God, no, not this song again!” I just gave her a knowing look and a shrug, and kept on singing. But several in the room, including the mayor (!) were singing right along with us. Haleem was in the back, standing up at this point, waving his hand in the air like he was at a rock concert, belting out the words with us. What an unforgettable moment. Just brilliant.
After this, the evening kind of opened up for impromptu performances. A woman from France sang a French song, a woman from Russia sang a Russian song. I accompanied my roommate Will on guitar, who did his usual (and high-quality) MJ-esque dance shtick. After the mayor visited every table (probably 70-80 in attendance) for toasts and well-wishes, all of the foreigners went up to the stage for a photo and a final farewell song. It was then that Haleem came over and told me he so badly wished he could have sung “My Heart Will Go On” with me. Actually, he wanted to sing it right then; he broke out singing it right in the middle of “Auld Lang Syne.” Hilarious and tragic. I cannot get away from that song.