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Friday, June 10, 2011

Timewarp in Jiayuguan (Part 3)

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I am jerked out of this 1991 reverie by the band striking up a jolly tune. I can’t believe it but it’s true. Of all songs one doesn’t expect to hear coming out of a ballroom in outback China, this has got to be top of the list.

Dali's The Persistence of Memory - strangely appropriate!
    Click Go the Shears. Can you believe that? Surreal! I never use that word because its original meaning has been hideously hijacked, but yes, it’s surreal! Dali's stopwatch is oozing over the table's edge; a saddle on the creature trapped in the nothingness of no-time and space. Ah, the Persistence of Memory.... You think I'm raving, don't you? Maybe I am, just a little.

    Yes, Click Go the Shears! What dance are they doing to it? More like a Boston Two-Step than anything else. A few of us had been quietly taking part in earlier dances – Pride of Erin, Jazz Waltz and so on, though my courage failed me in the Foxtrot when I saw how good these dancers were. But anyone can do a Boston Two Step if they’re half a chance at waltzing.

    We, the Australian contingent, all joined the Chinese dancers. They smiled - not in a superior way as they had a right to considering our motley dress, just contented to see us enjoying ourselves. Besides, most of our small number were pretty fair at Saturday night dancing. If you can waltz, then you never look totally stupid on the ballroom dance floor. Except maybe in a Foxtrot or Maxina....

    Then came a Progressive Barn Dance. This was our one and only chance to dance with the graceful locals, so we took it. And oh, how light on their feet were those women!

    In a Progressive, you change partners rapidly. I was in for yet another novel and totally unexpected experience. As I changed partners, my new one was none other than a silverback Army Officer in full official regalia.

    That’s right. Now, I have no objection to dancing with a fella at all, though it’s not really my first choice. I’m used to slipping my right hand on the waistband of a lady’s dress, and the left clasping a delicate feminine hand – not the rough, toughened hand of a man more used to gripping an automatic rifle than my woosy academic ones, no longer hard and calloused by farm work.  But if someone had said my first male ballroom dance partner was going to be a rather severe looking, neatly greying Chinese guy in starched military dress, all the creases perfectly where they should be, smack in the middle of China, I would have been a teensy bit surprised, that’s all.

    It seemed perfectly ordinary to him. Well, it was. He took the woman’s role and we glided (glid?) effortlessly to the next change, which for me happened to be a woman in a pale blue evening gown. My former partner angled his head in a symbolic military salute as a parting gesture, and we changed partners. That was it.

    From what I’d seen, the women wore the minimum of makeup and were at an age comparable with their partners, but everything about them was impeccable, like freshly picked flowers. I’d have had to have lifted my game to dance with one of them all night, that’s for sure. I’d definitely have been more comfortable with Lorraine Rideout....

    But to return to the dancing army officers. At Calliope, when their menfolk were getting a last beer in before bar closing time at 10 pm and there was a shortage of males to dance with, the women often took the male’s part in any of the brackets of dances that were on. Women dancing together on the ballroom floor was no novelty for me. It was normal.

    But never in the country dances in Oz would you ever have seen men dancing together, unless they were just mucking around in beery bonhomie, and it would have lasted just a few seconds.

    Not so in China, where so much seemed quite different. Earlier in the night, here in Jiayuguan, I saw army officers occasionally dancing complicated ballroom steps together, seriously, matter-of-factly, and never missing a beat, whether taking the male or female role.

    Of course, this is nothing more than cultural difference rearing its head. What’s perfectly normal behaviour for one culture is strange and maybe disquieting for another. I remember feeling weird in the early 1970s in India when tall bearded Sikhs would walk down the streets of Delhi hand in hand, but who would have been mortified, affronted and shocked by the sight of a man and woman kissing and hugging in public.

    Even the fact that I dwell on it reflects a social hangup in our way of looking at the world, but the shock firstly of seeing a ball in progress so western in its appearance in the last place I would have expected it simply made the sight of officers in uniform flawlessly dancing a Foxtrot together seem so alien to us westerners. To be so intimately part of it in the Progressive Barn Dance (Tennessee Waltz?) was just unexpected, that’s all.

    At 11 PM on the dot, the orchestra finished a closing bracket with an anthem, and the dancers slipped away through the entrance as quickly and quietly as they had come in three hours before. It was as if the plug from the room had been pulled. The orchestra had almost finished packing up by the time we left.

    Exactly who were these people? I’ve been asked that many times when I’ve recounted this experience. You may be disappointed when I admit that I can’t say for sure, because there was no-one to ask – but from my experience of China I can make some reasonable guesses. Here’s what I’m thinking.

    I’ve said before that western China is not a favoured place for the Han Chinese. It never was. The fearful barbarian attacks came from this western direction all through Chinese history, until the smelly, long-nosed barbarians from Europe invaded China from ships just a few centuries ago (very recently by Chinese standards!)

    Apart from building thousands of miles of Great Walls, Emperors sent armies out to the western regions to protect China, pressing young men into active service, sometimes for their whole lives. It was dangerous, the climate was dreadful, and the food and the company far from Han Chinese liking. It aroused bitter resentment amongst those affected, no better expressed than in this magnificent protest poem by the famous Tang poet Dufu

    More recently, these areas have been ones that the Chinese Government have had to watch carefully, with large Muslim ethnic communities like the Uighurs deeply resenting Central Government control. The Government has responded both militarily and socially, sending large numbers of Han Chinese backed by military power to turn local ethnic communities into minorities in these regions. We all know about Tibet. Same tactic – though to be fair, not all change has been to the detriment of the local people.

    I think the ballroom dancers of Jiayuguan were those who had one way or another found themselves there for these political/military reasons, and had built their own community in their own fashion – a lifestyle reflecting my Shanghai analogy. In 1990, way out there, they had more freedom just after the infamous Tienanmen struggle to do the things the students in Beijing were telling me that they wanted. (In May 1989, a month before Tienanmen exploded, I was lecturing at the Foreign Languages University in Beijing, but that’s yet another story.)

    Oh, one last slightly noonie-noonie thing that may amuse you. Those who’ve followed the stories from my early life in this blog may remember this picture.

Beth and I, in readiness for our trip to China 40 years later!
    Here am I, with my cousin Beth, dressed in ‘Chinese’ gear for the fancy dress ball. Well, Beth went on that very same trip to China with me as one of those 34 people, so she can vouch for the authenticity of everything I’ve told you in this tale, as I’m pretty sure she was one of the half dozen of us who decided to go to that remarkable Jiayuguan dance, way outback in China.
pt 1 | pt 2 | part 3 <<you are here | home | stories from my past | WHAT'S NEW!

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