For those who are not familiar with the mainland education system, the high school years are super stressful as the students prepare for their gaokao, or university entrance exams. High school lives in North America is like play time in comparison. My wife’s nephew has a very very common surname, which I will say is Wong, and is especially common in his home town. Every year, those of the same lineage celebrate the year’s new university entrants. It’s a celebration of pomp and circumstance, primarily for the parents. Today was TheNephew’s turn, and so we tagged along.
In the southern small towns of China, a lot of areas look strikingly similar, in the same way a lot of suburbs in Canada and the US do. We parked around the corner from the event, but it was clear that we were heading in the right direction with the sounds of symbols and pipe flutes clashing and chirping their songs. We wandered further in and enjoyed some traditional Chinese snacks. It wasn’t long, though, until the cameras started coming out. My nerd-tan only helps to exacerbate my inability blend in with the locals. In small towns, a foreign presence is quickly recognized and is a complete novelty. When we finished our snacks we continued to wander around, stopping for a few more posed photos, until we were cornered by a more well-to-do Wong invited me to sit down. I graciously accepted and as I began to sit, he called over his university bound daughter. He pushed her forward, strongly encouraging her to speak to me. I figured she would have some basic English fluency, and I prepared myself as such. She introduced herself as Marjorie and asked a couple of questions. My assumptions were smashed when she kept talking. She had been going to high school in Ohio with a sponsor family. She was pleasant enough and we chatted for a bit. Her father, very pleased with her daughter’s ability to speak English, then asked me to give a few words when the ceremonies began.
I thought, ‘why not.’ I had forgotten how much celebrity gets thrown at white guys in small town China. By agreeing to participate, I was also giving “face” to those in charge–and by extension, my nephew.
I really didn’t know what to say, and what’s more, I knew the entrants really wouldn’t want some random white guy to drone on about things. So I kept it short, exiting stage right, thinking that my responsibilities were concluded.
Wrong. It was group photo time. I was lead to the back row with all the organizers and such–which was fine. I wasn’t there for very long, though, as I was then lead to the front row between an entrant to Qinghua University (very prestigious here), and Marjorie, who got accepted into Virginia Tech.
I think this is a problem I faced the last time I was here. I’m not saying the false celebrity was the problem, but its effects on perceived self-worth. Events like this can quickly go to your head if it happens frequently enough. I will have to be sure to keep myself in check this second time around. Gotsta stay humble.