“They ambushed you in the hallway?!” I sputtered, shaking the rain from my Sesame Street umbrella as Camilla and I trudged up the slippery stairs of our 宿舍楼. “Did their purses also happen to be big enough for bodies? Say, involuntarily immobilized ones?”
“What, do you think I can’t judge character?” Camilla challenged, smiling.
Earlier that day, when Camilla was escaping the torrential price of living in a beautiful but rainy locale, a pair of girls had approached her in the stairwell. “Wow, you’re beautiful! And foreign!” they’d expressed admiringly, “Can you sing?” A surprised Camilla had hummed a few bars, and they’d collected her phone number, convinced. Their intention? To put her on stage during a festival and have her 表演.
This was not the first time I’d heard of ‘random acts of foreign entertainment collection.’ In fact, I’d been recruited before myself. One day in 口语课，a marginally unhinged but fun Polish-American had informed me that he liked to jam, and had been paid to play at a business function with a few of his international friends. I told him that ‘OhmygodIlovetosing’ and after making me prove it by singing to him in the dorm lobby, he gave my name to his agent (i.e., a bandmate’s ex). She emailed me the next day about a singing function, asking for my measurements and pictures of me– but not for a clip of my voice. If she wanted me to sing, shouldn’t she know whether or not I could?
The prevalence of jack-of-all-trade entertainment agents, who simultaneously serve as Chinese teachers, real estate agents, modeling agents, travel/passport acquisition agents, and probably secret agents, is due to the fact that EVERYONE IN CHINA IS OBSESSED WITH FOREIGNERS. I have a friend who was paid to stand at a door for an hour in a tux and do naught but say ‘Hello’ and smile (with gritted teeth- he felt a bit demeaned, but of course ‘sold out’ of his own accord). Essentially, it doesn’t matter if you can sing, dance, act, juggle plates, juggle lawnmowers, whatever; it just matters that you look foreign and that you look good doing it.
Though I’d declined to follow up with the first agent (I hadn’t met her and was a bit sketched out that she didn’t care if I could sing or not), I ended up getting scouted by a foreign singer herself at a loft party one evening.
“I have two gigs tomorrow night and I can’t make both of them!” she fretted, leafing through her planner. My ears perked up.
“What do you have to do?”
“Sing three songs, for like $100 each.” While there are a lot of agents and a lot of people who want to see foreigners perform, there aren’t that many foreigners, making them a hot commodity. Agents will literally stand outside classrooms, ready to poach a foreigner with potential for stage presence.
“I can sing,” I ventured, excited and nervous.
“Can you sing these songs?” she asked, her eyes brightening as she pushed a scrawled list of tunes into my hands. I suddenly became acutely aware of just how much of an aberration my musical taste is, and how much I’ve only ever memorized the lyrics to musical theater songs.
“I can memorize them quickly. When is the concert?”
“From 1pm-8pm tomorrow.” Oh. Rockstar dreams dashed again.
“I’m meeting my language partner, but please let me know if you ever need a backup?” I received an affirmation, and that was that.
Camilla had met her new friends in person, however, swore they were the real deal, and knew what the concert would be like; she had enough to go on to think the gig was both safe and that it would actually come to pass.
“Camilla,” I started nervously, “would you give them my name, too? If they need other singers, of course.”
“Sure, why not?” My heart leapt higher than a roundhouse-kicking monk.
Two days and many hours of agonizing over which song I should sing later, I put down my hairbrush microphone and went to meet the girls with Camilla. Insofar in my life, I’ve only sung songs that I sort of liked in legitimate performances (musical theater—I’m trained classically as a vocalist) and performed songs actually really like in karaoke bars; I’ve never had the opportunity to sing a favorite song at a real concert. With that in mind, I was really intent upon making a good impression. I wanted this.
The girls sat us down in the first floor of our dormitory and explained what would happen in Chinese. Of the twelve people in the performance, Camilla and I would be the only two singing. The entertainment, it turned out, is multitalented: dancers of all designs, musicians, you name it. When asked about our accompaniment, Camilla and I realized that it’d been a good idea to download the karaoke versions of our songs for practical use; we’d be singing on stage, by ourselves, with karaoke accompaniment. Not as real of a concert as I would have liked, but there would be a real stage and real speakers and real lights and real people listening to me try to be a fake rockstar, so I was appeased. Rather, I was in no position to make ultimatums. Camilla and I were asked to sing our songs again (I’d chosen I Think I’m Paranoid by Garbage, a band with a statuesque redheaded frontwoman whose voice is even deeper than mine), right there in the lobby. We complied, received positive feedback, and let down our guards a bit to get to know our ‘agents.’
An hour and a half of Chinese conversation later, I finally felt like I had a reason to be in China. The girls were students in the Fine Arts program (the Chinese have Fine Arts programs in college, kids, it’s not all Math and Science) who had planned the concert all by themselves—this was their pet project. The Chinese music scene is alive and well, and as someone with an interest in the music industry, it’s encouraging to think that a nation with over a billion people could be tapped as a potential audience, were I able to communicate with them effectively. The girls were genuinely interested in us and learning about our personal language histories, too—it wasn’t simply a business transaction. What’s more, they told us we were outgoing and pretty and that I was ‘sunshine.’ It always boggles my mind how much Chinese people think literally ANY foreigner is pretty, but I’m not complaining. I liked them already. The best part was getting to practice my Chinese in a real world setting—they knew a bit of English, but not much, and we both had to whip our trusty dictionaries out of their holsters to complete the lingual transactions.
Sometimes, though, even if the words themselves are understood, the meaning gets lost. When 天主 asked me if I could dance, I told her that I like to dance but that in America I’m considered to have two left feet. As I laughed to myself, I noticed the two girls eyeing my feet with surprise. They’d actually thought I had two left feet. Five minutes of laughter later, I managed to explain that I’d used an idiom.
The dress rehearsal is tomorrow, the concert the day after, and a huge after party with the girls’ friends right after that. I have a lot to look forward to, a lot of practicing to do, and a lot of artistic reasons to continue my Chinese education.