I was teaching at China Star Asian Games Complex at the time in the evenings along with Guo Mao and a few small business schools. Around Beijing there were plenty of private hotels which would hire you to train their staff to handle foreign tourists. They were good gigs, and often you would be able to eat at the restaurants in the hotel for free (food gratis, my greatest weakness).
So when China Star, part of a complex called the China Star Asian Games Complex, was chosen to host a United Nations event, they came to me and asked me to consult on how to set things up right to to meet the needs of the delegates and to train their staff in the english they would need to handle the influx of guests from countries all over the world.
It was a privilege and an honor to have a small role in this momentous event. If all went well, China hoped to secure the Olympics for 2000. In fact, there was a huge huge billboard on Jiang Gu Men Wie Da Jie, on the roof of the Beijing Hotel (which was the only hotel foreigners were allowed to stay at in the 1980s if they visited). which faced the the main street where all the tourists hotels were (directly on the way to the Forbidden City). It read “Beijing 2000! The world is ready!” or some such slogan. They really had their hopes up but it didn’t work out. (wish I took a picture). As a dry run for a possible bid for 2000, it was good that the world saw how things might go (and they decided to make them wait a bit longer wisely).
So this is where it gets kind of funny, too. See, I was also teaching at Chang Chou Xiao Xue, a little night school for business professionals at that time in addition to being in the band I told them that the UN was hosting this thing, the Fourth World Conference on Women and that I was consulting for the host and teaching the staff. I said to them, “why don’t I invite some of the delegates to meet with us and we can practice our english when they come? How fun!”
Naive as I was, I thought it might be possible. Just invite a few. My students were elated but doubtful. Most Chinese students had been taught from early on to sit and listen, dictate and recite. They were not asked to furnish opinions, only repeat them. When I asked the China Star staff who would be hosting the UN event “There will be self-described feminists coming to this event. Who here would consider themselves feminists?” No one of them raised their hand.
Their most common technique was to stare at the floor until I gave up asking the question to no one and moved on. But I didn’t. I pressed for why they would not call themselves something that so many in the west would right away agree to. One student finally said, “Feminists are angry.” When I prodded them to elucidate, they said, “Feminists want to emasculate men.”
So we had some work to do. I went into equal pay, historical factors of treatment, things that the common delegate would take for granted. They agreed with me that it all sounded pretty good, feminism, but “In China women are already paid as much as men and treated equally, so we have nothing to complain about and no need for that style of complaining.”
And it was true, in terms of equal pay, China statistically does better in that regard than the west. Per recent studies, in 2012 Asian women earned upwards of 92% of what men made, vs about 76% average for the whole world. So I conceded that and went over much about what other women in other countries went through and for them to be conversant with the ideas even if it wasn’t something they took personally. Fair enough. I was an unconventional teacher in order to give them a unique experience, but this was the UN we were dealing with so I proceeded cautiously.
Generally, students knew I was not a particularly cautious person. When I would get up and say “Let’s all go outside! We can name all the buzzing onomatopoeia word we hear, the slams and whizzes and bangs,” they thought I might as well be the pied-piper and were hesitant to be the rats which followed me to their doom. Teachers stand in front of the class, and we repeat what they say over and over until the bell rings. We can’t just go outside.
Of course, after they came around to my style, they then loved me forever. (Each season I told Zhou Lao Shi, the teacher who owned the small business English night school, that it would be my last term teaching since I was now in a band. And for five semesters in a row she conned me into giving in after all and coming back. I loved it, she was great, and we all had a great time).
Well, the next thing you know China was sort of bungling the United Nations event at the political level. This thing was supposed to show the Chinese cold host an international event of a decent magnitude. They had even upgraded the airport and the road going to and fro with all of this in mind. Delegates were going to fly in from all over the world expecting western style comforts, service, and a political climate that was free in the western style of self expression and free press.
But China at the time was still a little too closed. They worried that the feminists and radicals were going to come upend the social order, pollute their wives with divisive claptrap and corrupt their youth with slogans like “Prostitution Power!” and “Debauch your children at an early age: counsel loose western women” or something. They seemingly were really worried about that kind of thing.
So they dictated that all the NGO, or Non-Governmental Organizations, would have to hold their events at a village about 30 minutes outside of Beijing proper and the China Star Complex where the governmental delegates would be coming (including Hiliary Clinton). What that did was effectively make it so that everyone had to shuttle everywhere during the event, from the China Star complex to their hotels to the countryside and back.
Meanwhile, I had promised my students some delegates, and it was delegates they were going to get. I went over the the UN offices in San Li Tun, signed up to be a volunteer for the event, and helped stuff some packets for them several times. While I was there, I asked about the delegates. Was there any possibility to invite some to meet with students? The answer was, not really. They said that Chinese government people had laid out itineraries for all the delegates, and most of the had “chaperons” assigned to them who were supposed to be friendly tour-guides but who also doubled as the eyes and ears of the Chinese security apparatus.
That was disappointing, but I had made a promise. As the UN event finally got underway that September of 1995, things went pretty smoothly at least in terms of my main event– my students and the way they were able to handle delegates.
Some delegates were demanding, some were kind, some were sassy, some were interrogative, some went out of their way to be friendly to their hosts. I was standing in the China Star lobby when a delegate from Nairobi approached, demanding that the bus schedule be changed to her liking. They did an admirable job of handling her complaint (“we’re sorry, but the buses will run ever 15 minutes between your hotel and general session, that should be enough, we promise it will come, here, have a complimentary bottled water, etc, etc” and I was proud.
But I still had no delegates. I had compiled a list of the local embassy fax numbers and I figured, what the hell, I would throw a party and send out some invites, nothing official but just a… private party.
So I faxed invites to each embassy: “Dear Delegates, Come to meet local Beijingers interested in meeting people from other countries for a social event at Guo Mao.” it read. And no one responded. So it was crunch time. I had told my students that class would take place at Fairy’s Tribe at Guo Mao that evening so they could meet the delegates. It was hours away and I still had no delegates. They were going to show up and I was going to have to disappoint them. Well, you can’t fight the official program of the state when they are holding an important international event, right? Wrong.
In an last ditch effort, I made up some more slightly formal looking invites. I had realized that many of the delegates were staying at Guo Mao, The China World Trade Center Hotel, because it was one of the most luxurious and new properties in Beijing, and it was perfectly situated for diplomatic visits– near main roads and attractions.
Armed with that knowledge, I stalked the hotel hallways slipping the invites under random doors on the upper floors. No one was in the restaurants for dinner yet I figured that if they all came back from the day’s events they might spot the invites.
By 7pm the bar was opening up and I was waiting outside the doorway with a nervous look. My students started filing in and I started sweating. It was going to be a let down, the first for them from the otherwise brilliant teacher (besides being constantly ten minutes lat to the class he was supposed to be teaching, damn taxis) who had shown them before several times that he was not bound by normal laws of educational stricture and that he could produce miracles of teaching brilliance by thinking outside of the boxed classroom.
Except, then, a miracle happened. In walked three delegates. One was from Finland and two were from the Netherlands. They approached me, I said hello thanks for coming, set up a mic stand and made introductions to everyone in the room officially like it was an event. It worked!
From there, we had a hour long talk between my students and the delegates, took a break, and had Fa Zi sing them a song.
The delegates both asked and answered questions, and it was a pretty good rap session. The delegates wanted to know, “was it really as good as it looked from the tours the officials were giving?” and the answer was, “Yes, pretty much. Women really do get equal pay and a great deal of respect in Chinese society, but it is still patriarchal and Confucian based so often authority figures were still male. And of course poverty etc outside the cities is a real problem.” So there was some real dialogue. The delegates said to me, “We finally got to talk to some real Chinese people. Other than you, we’ve only met government people and our hotel maid.”
Turns out I had put together my own international United Nations meet and greet event and pulled it off without having the official handlers call it all off (like they would have I’m sure had they found out). The delegates also remarked, after I finally explained to them that I officially worked for China Star not the UN, that they initially thought it was an official UN event since how else would the invites have shown up under their door unless provided by their wonderful Chinese hosts?
Well, they had wonderful Chinese hosts of another kind.
After the hour was up we all went to dinner, and then some of the students and two of the Dutch delegates asked us to show them the real Beijing nightlife, too. So of course we went to one of the new Discos nearby and stayed out until 2am with them, giving them a real taste of life as it was lived in the Middle Kingdom.
So it turned out to be quite the night after all, and I never had to disappoint my students. What a relief! What happened next, however, was another indication of how far China still had to go in terms of hosting international events.