Sunday, January 29, 2012

Chinese exchange students learn about jazz, jambalaya

Yesterday, I had a rare opportunity to meet Chinese students who attend one of Beijing's most elite high schools. They're visiting New Orleans, following students at one of our top magnet schools, Ben Franklin, on the lakeside campus of UNO.

Despite language impediments, we managed to communicate. They admired our landscape, our skies and particularly our air quality. I explained that the Gulf of Mexico's lovely breezes clear away most of the pollution. We're luckier in that regard than many U.S. cities, particularly Los Angeles.

When I arrived, the group was choosing team members for an impromptu basketball game. Everyone knew Chris Paul. They all seemed to have iPhones and Internet access, despite hearing about a countrywide crackdown. America was pretty much as they'd expected - not a lot of surprises for them.

Dressed in T-shirts, sweatshirts and warmup pants, they were almost indistinguishable from American students. Their U.S. tour had begun in New York City, Boston and New Haven, visiting Harvard and Yale - perhaps with an ambition to attend university there. Were these my mortal enemies? Either idealistically or in global trade? It sure didn't seem so. They were adorable and very polite.

They'd recently attended classes with their American buddies, visited Audubon Zoo, the French Quarter and ridden the St. Charles Avenue streetcar. The next day, they would take a bus to a plantation upriver and a boat for a swamp tour. They hoped to do something "fun," though, like going shopping or to a music store. Was there any music that was special to New Orleans?

Say WHAT?! New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz, I shrieked, and they perked up.

I tried to explain that Louisiana had been a colony of France, then won by Spain, ceded back to France before being sold to the United States. During all this, the colonists were cultivating sugar cane, which required workers. The Dutch and other Europeans captured Africans (I skipped mentioning the shackles) and brought them here as slaves to work on the plantations. (I did not even see a flicker of recognition about our sordid history. Perhaps this episode is passed over in an egalitarian educational system.)

In 1865, the slaves were all freed, sort of. The Africans brought their music, particularly their drum rhythms, and it mixed with the songs of Native Americans. Voila! jazz. The students' eyes were wide. Now, they really had to find a record store.

I asked them if they knew about Mardi Gras. They cocked their heads. I tried explaining Catholicism, Easter (Christ rising from the dead) and, of course, Lent with its 40 days of self-denial. Before that, we PART-Y!

Anyplace the French colonized celebrates Mardi Gras; we just do it better, except maybe Brazil - but that's different.

I wasn't sure if this was the kind of information China hoped its best and brightest would acquire through international travel, nevertheless. At home, they take 8-9 classes a day in school, then study until midnight. They work that hard because the competition is stiff. There were SO many people in China! American students seemed more optimistic. Hmmm.

We enjoyed a pot luck, which mixed jambalaya and noodley dishes, accompanied by Coca Cola. A Ben Franklin student explained that in China, they couldn't drink tap water because it wasn't safe. Everyone drank Coke. I think I will invest in that company, now that I know billions choose it. That's a lot of caffeine, perhaps keeping them awake until midnight and staining their teeth.

Finally, the kids performed a sort of variety show, culminating in Chinese Idol. They were terrific handling the microphone while crooning pop songs that sounded strangely Western, except with totally incomprehensible lyrics.

The afternoon made me feel more optimistic, knowing that these youngsters would be tomorrow's leaders. I didn't think they'd cash in our I.O.U.'s right away and sink the U.S. economy. In fact, they might make good tourists to visit in 2022! Maybe the Saints will be winning again then, too.

1 comment:

  1. Lots of people want to learn Mandarin Chinese as their second language because they are interested in it. Even outside of China, most people of Chinese origin are familiar with this language. Thanks.