JISHOU, HUNAN — TV people are the same all over. They are just plain weird.
At Sunday’s Engish Corner, James, one of the older participants, told me that the provincial TV network, Xiangxi TV, was planning a Christmas program. They wanted to invite me to talk about US Christmas customs. James said he was also going to ask Michael, an American who teaches at No. 1 Middle School, to participate as well.
Toward the end of the evening’s meeting, James approached me again and said that the TV people wanted to meet us right away. So, we grabbed a taxi to a tea room at a local hotel near the railway station. With us was Shelldy (庞肖狄 Pang XiaoDi), a junior music major who runs English Corner and hosts the daily campus radio broadcasts in English. She was to be my interpreter.
Awkward moment #1: I was the only person there with no command of Chinese. Meanwhile, the TV people had no command of English. So, Shelldy, my translator, was kept very busy. The TV people (James’ sister, two camera guys and the hostess of a weekend features program) were planning to take us to Dehang to talk about Christmas. Michael, who has been here a year already, was reluctant to join in, so we roped Juliann and Stephanie in from the Teacher’s College to join us.
Wednesday afternoon was the best day for this media extravaganza. Shelldy had no classes, and I had only one at 8 am. She treated me to lunch, then a driver from Xiangxi TV picked us up at the university. Another car followed us as we drove to the Teacher’s College to fetch Juliann and Stephanie.
About 45 minutes later, we arrived in Dehang, home of another Miao village organized rather like colonial Williamsburg, but much smaller. It is nestled between spectacular karst peaks similar to those in Zhangjiajie. Just damned beautiful.
Anyway, it turned out that the focus of the program had changed from Sunday’s meeting (or maybe I misunderstood it). The program was still going to be broadcast around Christmastime, but the TV crew was instead going to feature Dehang village and the three westerners visiting it. I think.
The crew had already taped Juliann at her English Corner and Stephanie in her flat. All three of us were also going to be filmed today on our respective campuses. My session resulted in a major awkward moment. (Film at 11.)
So, we were filmed walking over the bridge to the gate of the village. There, Miao girls sang a song, and we were supposed to respond. Stephanie did a fine solo, the girls sang again, but for obscure TV purposes neither Juliann nor I had to sing. Then we all partook of the traditional bowl of rice wine, a requirement of entry into a Miao domicile.
We walked around (being taped, naturally). A older Miao woman was working at her loom. The TV people wanted the three westerners to try our hand at weaving. The Miao woman spoke only Miao, and not Mandarin, so learning the technique took a while for all three of us. I think we managed not to ruin her work in progress.
We all took an incredible number of pictures, and by “we” I mean all of us, including the TV people. We posed with the hostess and her tall co-host, with the camera guys and other crew members, in as many permutations as you could imagine. We snacked on some local delicacies, including fried flower bugs (kind of like caterpillars), fried bananas, and powdered rice cakes, while being taped, of course. The attractive hostess and her tall handsome co-host did their reportage thing, presumably explaining for the audience the type of foods available, etc.
Then, we joined other tourists for regularly scheduled performance. The local Miao performers modeled different kinds of Miao clothing. (The Miao are spread out all over this part of the China, and have regional differences in custom and dress. They are identified according to the predominant color of clothing, blue Miao, red Miao, etc.) The hostess herself was wearing an elaborate Miao style outfit throughout the entire afternoon, and did some drumming for the camera.
They insisted we three Americans don Miao-style clothing and come onto the stage. This time, I did NOT have to wear women’s clothing, but put on a man’s tunic and circular hat. I was handed an elaborate reed instrument that looks a bit like a tiny pipe organ made of bamboo. Juliann and Stephanie wore red Miao style clothing, and we proceeded to prance about on the stage.
Then we had dinner, where we received the traditional smear of charcoal on our faces for good luck, and went back to Jishou.
So far, there was not one mention of Christmas. The whole escapade was a Travel Channel-like feature on a tourist spot.
At 3 pm today, I was supposed to meet a group of freshmen on one of the greens for an impromptu class/English Corner. The two senior teaching interns had already organized a debate (in Chinese) between two halves of the group about choosing big universities over smaller ones, which was well under way when the Xiangxi TV people showed up. Although they taped me listening to the students present their arguments, while my student, Kasurly, translated, the crew wanted me leading the students in a debate in English.
So, we regrouped, but the plan fizzled. The vervor of the debate waned with the change in subject. Now the crew finally decided to work the Christmas theme in. They wanted the students in a circle, with me teaching them a Christmas song. (“We Wish You a Merry Christmas” is what I chose.) Then the students had to greet me in unison with a boisterous, “John, Merry Christmas!” Yeah, it was all contrived, but remember, it’s TV.
Soon after, things got really weird. The cameraguy was taping the hostess doing her hostessing monologue, and we were all supposed to keep quiet.
Awkward moment #2: Either we were too loud, or something that someone said got one of the crew angry. The next thing I know, one crewman (I think he was a driver) is bitching at one of the senior teaching interns, looking like he’s going to punch poor Jason out. More students approached the two, and more words were exchanged. Meanwhile, I am sitting on the grass, witnessing this furor, completely ignorant of what the hell is going on.
One girl was in tears. Others were flushed, looking like they could cry any minute. Three girls pulled one of their male classmates away, perhaps because he looked like he would get violent. The tearful girl (whose name I will not divulge) blamed herself for the argument. She told me that someone had asked if the crew was from CCTV, the national network, and she had made a joke that they were from some other provincial TV network. Apparently, the hotheaded crewman got insulted, and went off on Jason, saying his students were disrepectful and unruly, blah, blah, blah.
It was all just plain effing weird. It really did look like there was going to a brawl right there on the green. Things did eventually calm down. The TV people soon left, after talking to some students and taping me playing games with the kids, but without doing the planned one-on-one interview with me. I am not sure if they intend to talk to me later. Why keep the subject of the interview informed? Sorry, Xiangxi TV, I am not impressed.
Several students (especially the tearful one, who skipped the games to go to her dorm room) apologized to me for the argument spoiling an otherwise pleasant afternoon in the sunshine, as if they were somehow responsible for the cameraguy being an asshole. Meanwhile, I felt bad, because the whole reason for the meeting was to tape me interacting with my students.
Michael was a wiser man than I. This is one Christmas broadcast I won’t want to miss.