The Beida History Department’s new years celebration was a fairly faithful reproduction in miniature of the national New Years’ show. As all the performers were from the department, it was like watching a department-wide talent show, in which students, staff and faculty all paricipated in equal measure. The event kicked off with an undergrad rendition of “Silent Night” in alternating Chinese, French, and English. The department secretaries performed a wonderfully old school fan dance, and the whole auditorium erupted in laughter when a young male teacher got on stage and danced the last refrain with them. A handful of comedy sketches and routines went mostly over my head, being comprised of mostly colloquial dialogue and inside jokes. Best of all were the professors who got up and sang schmaltzy 80’s style ballads, as only karaoke-loving middle age Chinese men can. A number of professors were so excited for the opportunity that several such additional musical numbers were added to the program last minute. The final event of the afternoon was a prize drawing, in which professors would choose a grad student or undergrad from a randomizing computer program. My students cheered and waved their glowsticks in solidarity whenever a fellow freshman was called up to receive either a photo album or a badminton racket. Unfortunately, the grand prize, a bike, went to an upperclassman. The American professor was called up on stage to choose some of the names amid titters from the audience, making me even more glad that I had managed to preserve my anonymity. Between some two dozen acts and a number of bombastic speeches by department heads the whole event was a solid three hours long.
All and all the event was pulled of with the pomp, enthusiasm, cheesiness, and garish color scheme that Westerners have come to expect of Chinese entertainment. From a Western perspective it’s easy to see the humor and “foreign”-ness in an event like this, and it’s all but impossible to imagine an American university department sponsoring its own talent show. But there’s certainly something to be said for an environment in which so many students feel comfortable getting up and performing ameteur talents in front of their peers. Harvard offered plenty of opportunities for artistic performance, but in most cases only for highly polished performances following weeks of rehearsal. One would certainly be hard-pressed to find an American university professors who would willingly get up and sing oldies in front of their department faculty and students. A lot of this, maybe, can be attributed to karaoke culture, but it also seems to me that departments of study, at Beida at least, are a source of community in a way that certainly didn’t exist at Harvard, nor do I think is common at American universities in general. After all, undergrads all live together by department here, and with the same roommates for all four years. In the first two years, at least, they take a lot of the same classes together. I know that this year as they were dealing with my class they were also all struggling through a particularly brutal ancient Chinese history class together. While I was thrilled with Harvard’s residential system which allowed me to live with such diverse friends pursuing a wide range of fields, there is also something to be said for a system which allows you to tackle so many of the same challenges together with your friends. And, after your agonizing exams are over, unashamedly performing amateur talents for one another.