Teacher's Day - 10th September 2011
10.09.2011 - 10.09.2011
8.40pm and the rush for the doors was akin to the supporters of a team soundly beaten by their local rivals; only the hardy few remained to witness the bitter end. Tables lay deserted of inhabitants with only the stains of food and wine to attest to the decadence of just a few moments earlier.
Teacher’s Day in China has no equivalent in the UK. From a few days out, artistic students graffiti the blackboards around the school with poems and drawings intending to display the high and affectionate regard they hold their teachers in. A day or so before, presents begin to arrive on your desk (a rather spiky cactus in my case – one is left to wonder its symbolism.) By the time the day itself arrives your desk is littered with cards and notes from various classes explaining how important you are as a teacher. Oh and the ego boost is also thrown in for fun.
Stemming from a re-establishment of the importance of teachers following decades of the oppression, Teachers Day is now an institution all over China. The biggest tradition, outside of the student’s rather overly sentimental accolades, is the teacher’s meal where all of the academic staff gather to celebrate together.
The host for this years bash was the ‘restaurant across the road’. Part of a 5 star western-styled housing development no expense was spared. Walking through the thick oak doors was like surveying a scene from the Great Hall in Harry Potter. A head table lay at the far end of the room with close to a hundred smaller ones filling the cavernous space between. It was only at that moment that I realized I had unintentionally been moving in time with some music I recognized. Struggling to recall the lyrics, they came in a flash as the chorus struck up and Anna launched into a full-blooded rendition of Cotton Eyed Joe.
After speech upon speech by increasingly senior members of the school, and a glass-breaking rendition of some Chinese opera music, wild cheers broke out as our Chinese friend yelled across the din that dinner was only moments away. And what a dinner it was, ranging from expensive and exotic seafood to crispy goose breast.
Being a veggie in China is no mean feat, especially at major dinners where the Chinese attempt to sate their lust for meat; so when Anna had a ‘veggie dish’ placed before her the shock was on the scale of ‘water-into-wine’ proportions. Desperate to know what it was so it could be re-ordered, a sea of blank faces reached for their English-Chinese app on their phone, triumphantly a phone was thrust towards her with its owner looking particularly pleased. The colour drained out of Anna’s face almost as quickly as she had drained the bowl of its contents, confused I reached for the phone… ‘Jellyfish Blubber’ was the hilarious, almost ridiculous, phrase that indicated Anna’s 17 years of vegetarianism had been shattered in the most stunning of fashions.
As with most experiences in China they often end where you would expect. Having eaten dinner the toasts began. Throughout the meal glasses of wine had sat untouched on our tables and when the principle launched into a speech declaring to one and all a Happy Teacher’s Day the toast seemed complete, the wine dispatched with. Not a bit of it. Despite wine being a luxury item suddenly access to gratuitous amounts was a simple as taking the smallest of sips from you already full glass.
In Chinese culture the act of a toast is important; it represents a persons status in society and also serves as an opportunity to cement friendships. Like a pyramid the most important and influential make their way round the various tables to ‘toast’ the underlings. After this process is well on its way, other people in senior management and academic positions continue the procession around the tables. Finally it is the chance of the masses, and a chaotic and frenzied period of drinking breaks out. Unlike the UK no wine is consumed between toasts, yet when it is consumed it is knocked back in one severe gulp, to fail to do so is a sign of disrespect to the other party (or parties) in the toast. As the night wore on the gulps were ever larger and the event that had started in almost stately elegance had descended into a free lock in at the local; that was until 8.40 when it was time to return to school.
As the best part of 600 inebriated teachers undertook the not inconsiderable task of walking 10 minutes back to the campus, a procession punctuated with occasional vomiting and public urination, a question had occurred to me; what of the 2500 or so students left behind at the school? Certainly every teacher had been at the meal and as it was a boarding school they was sure to be chaos left behind. Upon inquiring I was told that they had no idea of the teacher’s adventures, and had instead been told the teaching staff had an important meeting to attend and thus they must behave especially well. Unthinkable in the UK, yet as we wandered through the gates barely a sound was detected from the students; it was just left to ones imagination as to how even the most hardened drinker was going to explain away their state for the remaining hour of evening prep most had with the students.
Red eyes and silent offices the next day attested to the indulgencies the night before, and with it Teachers Day had served its end once more, as what surely must be the worlds most entertaining, if not bizarre, team-building exercise.