Happy Marching in the Rain for the Pride of your University Day everyone!
A flash of lightning woke me up at 4.30am. Seconds later, the roar of thunder filled the sky. I checked the time, and got up to open the windows to let the crisp breeze in. I climbed back into bed, listening to the rain pouring down and splashing in the puddles far below. I wondered vaguely if there was a wet weather contingency plan for today’s Sports Day ceremony as I dozed back off to sleep.
Each year, every university holds a 2-day sports day, with the second day beginning with a ceremony to mark the occasion. I missed last year’s, having already bought tickets to Shenyang for a trip to IKEA, so I missed out on the pomp and ceremony and whilst my life has been made infinitely better as a result of the Swedish chair in my room, I do feel like it might have come at the cost of something special.
An hour later, the rain had eased and so I got up and washed my hair, early enough to avoid a potential no-water situation. After I’d dried my hair, I looked out at the soggy grey world outside and sent a message on Wechat to my students to find out whether today was still going ahead. I was pulled in two directions; my comfy cosy bed was calling me back, but the urge to binge on all things Chinese in my last few weeks here meant that the costumes, the marching, the patriotism could not be missed. The responses to my simple enquiry mostly adopted a similar tone; “Of course! No-one can stop it”, “It must continue!” and “Who can cancel sports day? Not I!” So there was the answer.
At 7.10 we made our way to the sports stadium, passing through crowds of students variously adorned in sequinned baseball caps, tinsel halos, costumes and cardboard automobiles, to reach the Chinese teachers from the Foreign Language College. Thousands of perfectly uniform students and co-ordinated teachers, from every college in the university, were gathered outside the stadium gates, and despite the drizzle there was a sense of occasion, the sort of party atmosphere which comes with having a couple of free days off mid-week. For me, the build-up had been a few hours of will-it-won’t-it-stop-raining; for these students, it has been days if not weeks of careful costume preparation, dance rehearsals, plus the longed-for reprieve of a few classes cancelled (although, I am told that classes missed for public holidays and these such occasions are often made up on the evenings or weekends, which does the shine off it somewhat).
All around us groups of teachers were standing in formation, practising their 4 line departmental mantras and marching on the spot, brollies in the air. The students were pouring into the space behind the stadium, the odd Grecian Goddess or panda-hatted student weaving through the crowds to find their classmates. Our department had hired matching outfits for all the Chinese teachers – macs, waterproof trousers and white trainers. Us foreign teachers were left to our own devices when it came to clothing, either because the department wanted to make it clear to their rivals that that they boasted foreign teachers, or because they forgot about us. Either way, I’m thankful: let’s not even consider how getting into a pair of 1-size-fits-all-tiny-Chinese-girls waterproof pants and trainers would have worked.
I took one of the young American boys, Iain, to have a peek through the fence to see inside the stadium. It was packed with students, all wearing matching clothes, some with plastic clappers, others with those annoying inflatable sticks that you clap together, a few with big red drums. One group of about 200 students were each holding part of long 30ft rows of coloured banners ready to wave over their heads when their classmates marched past. Giant red Chinese lanterns hovered in mid-air, people were excitedly giving the pre-amble over the sound system, the rumbling sound of chatter and music playing filled the place. Drums sounded even louder, and the groups at the head of the march made their way into the stadium.
The Foreign Language department were near the back, and when our turn came we glided through the gates and began our promenade on the track. Iain generated the loudest cheers and screams of delight from the adoring students, and others with huge cameras hanging around their necks were jogging backwards, darting between rows to take our pictures. Every moment was documented by a small army of students with their giant Canons, as well as two drone cameras flying around the stadium, operated from somewhere within the enclosed huddle of boys holding the remote controls.
Half way around the track, the sound system announced our department’s arrival as we paused in front of the school officials, like we were being introduced by the herald at a high society ball. We waited long enough for the students representing our department to perform their ditty, then on we marched to complete the lap, finishing in long lines on the astro turf in the middle. When every department had made it in, we listened to a speech from the Dean, and then turned West to face the flagpoles and listened to the national anthem as the flags were raised. We were able to disperse fairly quickly after that, and whilst most students would remain to watch the athletics, we made our way to McDonald’s for some well earned McMuffins.
Those few hours were a perfect harmony of Chinese culture – crowds of people, deep rooted patriotism, communal spirit, questionable garments, cutting edge technology, age old traditions and shovel loads of pride.