I’ve been of the mindset that “every day is Children’s Day.” I mean, there should definitely be days set aside for mothers and for fathers, but a special day for children? We parents give them so much that they don’t need a special holiday! While there’s a story, now a family favorite, my mom tells about a Methodist church Children’s Day performance she took part in when she was four, I didn’t personally grow up with a Children’s Day holiday and didn’t feel like I missed out.
To my surprise, in mainland China, Children’s Day, celebrated on June 1 of every year, is a pretty big thing. To start with, kindergarten and primary schools spend a lot of time preparing for a performance. In the case of Sophia and Dylan, they’d been practicing for well over a month and in the last couple of weeks I don’t think they were doing much else at school. In fact, on Thursday, the day before the actual performance, Manu walked by the school and found that all the kids were outside in the 90 degree heat in their costumes in the process of a 1.5 hour dress rehearsal.
The actual performance, which also took place outside, was quite a feat. All the kids (ages 2-6) performed in between one and three tightly choreographed dances and/or songs (they learned the dances through videos that they watched as a class and their teachers made a few tweaks). The music ranged from contemporary pop (the majority) to traditional Chinese songs to English songs from CD’s that come with Brown Kindergarten’s English language books (created at Brown’s South Korean headquarters as a four year kindergarten English program). Some of the costumes were pretty elaborate and everyone, boys included, wore bright red lipstick and other make-up.
To Manu’s and my surprise, Sophia and Dylan both fully participated in the show (Sophia even had some anxious dreams about it the couple of nights before, but performed nonetheless). The girls in Sophia’s class, who all wore a white, princessy dress with bead work, opened the show with a dance. A few numbers later the girls and boys in her class did a joint number in which they sort of chanted a poem together (well, Sophia didn’t do all that much of the chanting) in English about loving China that ended with a loud “I love China!” At the very end of the show the girls in Sophia’s class returned to perform one more dance, which included making bridges with their arms in pairs that the other girls went under until there were two side-by-side lines. While Dylan spent a lot of time rehearsing, as well as letting us know in the couple of nights before the show that he didn’t want to perform, his class only did one number together (like I said, I’m impressed that kids his age and a year younger managed to perform a rehearsed dance at all!). Each of the kids in his class learned a particular pose that they had to execute at various points during the song. During the final part of the song, Dylan was right in the center holding his pose (he had to cross his legs and raise his arms in a circle above his head with his fingers curling down to touch the top of his head).
While we had to buy Sophia’s dress (at 80 RMB, or about $13, it was a steal!), the kids in Dylan’s class were instructed to wear a “cool swimsuit.” If you notice some of the other costumes in the photos, there were Peking opera-clad boys; children in Flamenco-wear; girls in frilly, pink dresses; boys in Michael Jackson-esque tux and top hat combos (worn by the boys in Sophia’s class); boys in matching t-shirts and sweat pants that said “10 Dollars”; etc.
One of the most surprising aspects of the lengthy performance was that the teachers also performed. The first dance had the teachers dancing with traditional red fans and lanterns while wearing matching Hawaiian patterned capri-length sporty outfits. In the second dance they wore high heels, matching black leggings with a punkish, ripped look to them, and either a tight black or pink top. As a final contribution, one of the teachers sang a pop ballad in English (she did a great job), where, on cue, a student handed her a bouquet of flowers while she kept singing. Since most of the teachers and staff live at the school, if they don’t have family in Beijing, a hang-over of the work unit culture, I imagine that they must have practiced their numbers in the evenings.
After the performance finished (11 a.m.), school was essentially over for the day (kids in China count on Children’s Day being a half day), so we decided to go with Soren and his family to the Golden Resources Mall, which, incidentally, is 1.5 times the size of the Mall of America, where the kids could play in one of its kids’ play areas. On the way out of the school gate, each child, including Isabel, was handed a very large water gun by one of the administrators. I couldn’t quite essentialize what felt so weird about the kids all wielding the guns they received as a Children’s Day gift, so instead I just laughed to myself and embraced it, snapping pictures of my kids with their new toys.
So it turns out that on Children’s Day in China kids primary school and younger do get gifts. Sophia’s Chinese language tutor brought her a little lip gloss-holding duck and told me that she would usually receive a new piece of clothing on Children’s Day when she was little. On Saturday, which was actually June 1st, I bought a t-shirt for Dylan that I plan to save to give to him later, but was asked by the salesperson if I was buying it for Children’s Day. I also noticed when we were at Golden Resources Mall that restaurants like McDonald’s and the Cantonese restaurant where we ate dinner offered Children’s Day specials.
So now that I’ve gotten a sense of what Children’s Day can be, I come back to my original thought that every day is children’s day. While I still think it’s true, at least with our kids, I can see the appeal of children nationwide dancing and performing in the morning, having fun on a school-free afternoon, and receiving a gift or two. Is American society missing out by not embracing the holiday, which is celebrated in many other countries? Regarding performances, the end of the school-year is a tough time for huge efforts, so unless Children’s Day performances were combined with other spring/end-of-year class music performances, it’d probably be too much (and it’s hard envision teachers embracing performance as they have here – what do you think, Pam & Camille?). Plus, it seems that the goal of the children performing in China is to be cute, especially in imitating adult behaviors (this is why that strange kindergarten wedding I posted on Facebook awhile ago has a strong appeal here). In the U.S., especially at younger ages, the notion of self-expression seems to hold greater importance, so unified dancing wouldn’t probably be the choice mode of the performances (here’s a great example of the countries’ differing social priorities of group activities vs. the importance of self-expression – and group dancing doesn’t stop after primary school, as many restaurants and other businesses have their employees engaging in group dancing and other group exercise in the mornings outside before work! And in retirement group dancing can continue: see my recent post called Parks in China: Breathing Life into Sprawling Cities and What Makes Them Uniquely Chinese). Regardless of these differences, what kid do you know who wouldn’t accept a half day of school and a gift?