Kalim and I have been in China for three weeks and are fully involved in the latest Hua Dan project, working as volunteer Arts Practitioners alongside the Hua Dan Sichuan team workshop leaders, Zhao Nan, Hu Gang (the men), Jin Lian and Yang Yang (the women). Yang Yang is actually a part of the Beijing Hua Dan team and is staying in Chengdu for the duration of this project to support and assist the Sichuan Team. She is a very experienced and talented actor, singer and director and we are hoping to work with each other in the future on a creative project. Yang Yang (whose name means ‘Sunrise’ as she was born at 6am – and my middle name, Talieh, also means sunrise – yet another connection) has been our stalwart translator, enabling an easy flow of communication both in the planning and feedback sessions and in the workshops themselves, which we have really appreciated.
For the last two weeks we have travelled for over two hours by train together to a smaller city called Mian Yang to run drama, music and Step workshops with a Primary/Middle School and another Primary School. On the Monday we plan the week’s workshops, Tuesday-Thursday we deliver them, then travel back Thursday evening, reviewing the week on Friday afternoon back at the Hua Dan office in Chengdu. The Hua Dan team wrote and performed a play about a young Chinese boy who lives in London during the Second World war, who is evacuated to the Welsh countryside of Tintern the week before – and the workshops since then have explored the themes presented through the play.
The journey takes just over two hours, most of the time spent sleeping, chatting, looking at photos on each other’s phones and listening to music. The Sichuan Hua Dan team are very easy company, with all of us doing our best to understand and communicate with each other. The most disconcerting thing about the train travel is that every now and then someone will pop their head over the top of the seats to stare at Kalim or myself and have a good old listen to our conversation. We also get stared at from the moment we get on the train (often a couple of people in opposite seats, just settle down to an hour of unashamed and curious looking), to the time when we walk to the hired bus, to the time when we walk through the town or eat somewhere – and then people often take surreptitious photos of us while we eat. Literally the only time someone is not having a good look is when we are alone in our rooms. Our Chinese friends feel a bit uncomfortable for us, but we all do a good job of ignoring everyone.
In Mien Yang We are working with children who experienced the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, many of whom live as boarders in the school while their schools and home are being re-built in the earthquake area. Another common experience of the children in this area (and throughout China) is that many children (and the recent generations of children are mainly only-children due to the one child policy in China) live with their grandparents in rural areas or smaller towns while their parents work in the larger cities, and often only see their parents for short periods of time during national holidays. So the Hua Dan team have been working with the themes of separation and love reaching across distance as well as the China-Wales connection that the play and Jessica Naish (the Creative Consultant for the Hua Dan Sichuan team in Chengdu, formerly head of Learning and Engagement in Sherman Cymru in Cardiff), myself and Kalim are bringing to this project.
The experience so far has been a great way to get to know the Hua Dan team as co-workers and as friends through our travels, co-facilitating workshops, eating together and participating in daily feedback sessions. Learning how to come to decisions together with different viewpoints and through translation back and forth from Chinese to English has been challenging and also very rewarding and I feel we are all learning from each other. Kalim and I see our role as one of empowering the Sichuan team, who are a relatively new group and who have a small amount of experience in this field. We both facilitate our specialist subjects, Kalim teaching Beat-Boxing (which all the children of all ages adore!), myself teaching Singing and both of us teaching Step or African Body Percussion. I have also utilised my skills as a Drama teacher (alongside Jess Naish’s ideas and approach. I always learn so much from her!), especially in the planning and review stages, guiding the rehearsal and performance planning while encouraging the different personalities in the group to make their contribution.
The children have not been easy to manage, the second primary school class getting over-excited to meet Kalim and I as ‘exotic’ foreigners (wanting autographs and shoving paper and pens into our faces as they compete to be first in line, screaming so loud in the small room that I had to stick my fingers in my ears to stop my ear-drums bursting), the Middle School young teens half wanting to participate, half wanting just to keep their cool in front of the opposite sex and in every class the boys and the girls do not want to mix. The students are not difficult or challenging in the way young people can sometimes be back in the UK, there is no back-chat, no sneakiness or undermining of the teacher’s position or the lesson being taught – there is just a constant buzz of noise, giggling, squabbles amongst themselves, a wanting to sit down all the time rather be actively involved in the workshop and a seeming inability to just be quiet. China itself, with her enormous population, is a very noisy place to be – especially in the city and in schools where there are over two thousand children in one school it is rare that a quiet moment is found. Adding to the distraction, every hour a very loud, sentimental song that blares out of the tannoy speakers – signalling the time – which is meant to assist good emotions in the students rather than the shrill sound of a bell. Hmmm, if the song was ten seconds long, then maybe – but it goes on for at least if not more than a whole minute!
There is also the challenge that all the classes are so large (fifty students in every class), the floor is pure concrete and is dusty, uncomfortable and dirty (also full of small flying insects once the evening workshop is over as the room is too hot to keep the windows closed) and the children have never experienced drama classes like this before, Hua Dan being the first NGO drama company in China to run such projects. The children are used to a very strict and often (in my opinion) cutting teaching approach from their Chinese teachers. We are asking the ‘actors’ as we call them, to listen to us without us shouting at them – which is new to them – to participate in activities that encourage their creative sides – different from the Chinese rote-learning methods – and to co-operate together as people from different cultures and sexes without making a big deal of the differences – again very unusual for them. Kalim and I are probably the first, or maybe in the case of the Middle School students, the second experience of talking with non-Chinese people they have ever had. They probably find it all very disconcerting and strange – far more than we do!
So as we’ve been approaching the final week of rehearsals (which starts tomorrow), and the classes have now had in all three workshops with the Hua Dan team, it was becoming increasingly important that the ‘actors’ settle down, co-operate with each other without silliness, listen to the facilitation and work together and with us as facilitators to create a performance in front of the entire school (a couple of thousand!) for International Children’s Day on July 1st.
Last week’s session went far better than before when we insisted (through a game) that the ‘actors’ as they are learning to become, stand in a circle in the formation of boy/girl/boy/girl. Half way through the session, Kalim and I were still fed up with the amount of effort it was taking to get the students to listen. Our previous thoughts and ideas of class management (and Jess’s ideas) had been heard during the planning and feedback sessions but not implemented and possibly forgotten in amongst all the translation. So we nipped out of the room when the class were involved in an activity that we were not leading and had a quick (desperate!) consultation, deciding to implement – without discussing with the others (and for the sake of our own sanity) the warning system suggested by Jess in the previous planning session during the following section where Kalim was to lead one half of the group beat-boxing and I was to teach song-composition with the other half, and then review later with the team.
In our respective classes we both solemnly introduced the football style of ‘Yellow card, Red Card’ including a ‘Green Card’ for positive reinforcement. With the threat of having to write ‘I am sorry for being disrespectful’ twenty times if they were sent to the back of the room with a red card and a promise that I or Kalim would personally talk with their teacher about their disrespectful behaviour if they got the red card a second time and also the positive re-enforcement of praising those who were working well and showing them the ‘smiley face’ green card – suddenly both Kal and I found that the wrist-wrestling fighting among the boys, the girls slapping the boys, the constant whispering and shuffling and just not paying attention 98% stopped! Only one boy received the red card in all three classes and Kal and I were both happy that Yang Yang made the warnings, as we didn’t want the system to seen as foreigners being mean to Chinese children – but more as: this is the system of play in this workshop.
All the Hua Dan facilitators were quite amazed how this simple system of keeping order changed the atmosphere of the workshops. Kalim and I were so relieved that they agreed to use this and had recognized the importance of having a discipline system that connects up with the activity in practise – shouting and trying to make yourself heard above the noise in arts classes never works – you and the children feel exhausted afterwards, and very little creative development, mentoring or co-operation can be achieved. It made me realize how the team are really at the beginning of learning and yet are so willing to develop their understanding and implement new ways of working that are quite different from their own life or cultural experience. I felt quite humbled by this and hoped I would be the same if a person from a different culture was assisting my development in the UK, that I would adopt the willingness to learn from them. Also, isn’t it interesting that you can discuss an idea or principle at length, but it’s only when you experience it in action that it has an impact on you, reminding me of the line by a wise man from the East ‘Let deeds, not words be your adorning’.