In honor of the upcoming Chinese New Year, I wanted to relate how the Beida history department rings in the biggest holiday of the year, though it may take me several posts to get through the whole story. One of the constant frustrations of this job has been the consistent lack of communication between the department and its most junior member. Friends have asked me whether there is any sort of department-wide email list, or even department faculty meetings, but if these things do exist then I haven’t been invited. My only contact with the department administration outside of Wang has been with a secretary in the main office, who provided me with a list of students and the other bare minimum administrative materials. This is not to say that the department is not active; in fact, students at Beida participate in a whole range of activities organized by department. On quite a few occasions I have announced the time of my office hours that week in class only to be informed that the presence of all of my students would be required somewhere else at the same time. Some of these events would not seem out or place at an American school, such as the week they all had an obligatory meeting regarding study abroad opportunities. More unexpected, though, was the school-wide freshman singing competition, in which the new students in each department were required to rehearse a choral number together and then compete against other departments. This event was apparently organized by a student club, funded by the university and separated by department. The same went for a freshman class-wide debate tournament, organized by the Beida debate team (the history team was tragically knocked out by the biology department in the first round this year). This profusion of department activities made the scheduling of office hours a little more difficult. On quite a few occasions I would announce the time in place of that week’s office hours in class only to be informed that most of my students had a department-wide obligation and couldn’t come. I was only really miffed, however, the week that I found out my Friday-afternoon office hours coincided with the department-wide New Years party, which I had not been invited to. My students, however, were very gracious, and the class captain even offered to wait outside the auditorium for me in fear that I would otherwise not find the building.
The “party” proved to be the department’s rendition of the type of Wan Hui 晚会 variety show that dominates national airwaves at every major holiday. On the national scale these shows are a combination of big-production dance numbers, routines by famous comedians, and performances by famous singers, all smarmily hosted by famous Chinese TV anchors. Escorted by the class captain and a couple other excited students, I found myself in a medium-sized performance hall attatched to Beida’s main auditorum. As we entered to take our seats we were each handed a large glowstick and a small light-up pin which flashed epileptically in diferent bright colors. As we took our seats, I noticed the slogan emblazoned in giant characters across the backdrop of the stage: “我们的历史系，我们的家” (Our history department, our family). The stage was flanked on either side by two large projector screens displaying a looped slideshow of photos of students from the past year. While I sat among my students near the back of the theatre, I noticed that the first row of seats was reserved for bigwigs in the department and special guests from the university adminstration. The visiting American professor had also been granted a seat of honor.
(this post is already too long, stay tuned for more on the New Year’s party next week)