Pirotte’s Post

Simon Pirotte, Principal of Bridgend College.

Around Dydd Dewi Sant, I often think back to a time when I was involved in a trip taking some students to Chongqing in China to support celebrations for Wales in China Week. Our Welsh students were to perform Under Milk Wood with Chinese students.

daffodilsI like to remind myself of this project, especially when I read the xenophobic hysteria in some of our popular press and on social media at the moment. I hope you enjoy reading this account of a special project that had a profound impact on me and all those involved.

Ten students from further education colleges are on a trip of a lifetime, where they are performing a theatre production of Under Milk Wood and hosting workshops on costume construction, makeup and performance for their Chinese counterparts.

After a long flight we finally arrive and start our visit by leading the first workshop.

Any apprehensions we have soon disappear. To stand in this room and see our Welsh students open their hearts to their Chinese counterparts is truly inspiring. And similarly, the students from Chongqing throw themselves into the piece.

We reflect on how we would feel if the situation was reversed – imagine if someone told you that you were going to rehearse a strange foreign play in Chinese in just two days and then you were going to perform it with Chinese actors in various venues across your city and be the centre of attention to the media in a city with a population of 31 million! And yet, this is the scale of the challenge we are setting them. But they are “up for the challenge!”

It is little wonder that this is a city where almost half of the world’s laptops will be made – such is the scale of the “can do” attitude here!

We perform the piece for them and start to fit them into the piece. There are some hilarious moments trying to explain how to say words like “Myfanwy” or “Llareggub” (at which point should we explain Dylan’s joke here? Read it backwards!). We are performing the piece in traverse style (audience on two sides) which our Chinese performers find quite strange – they are used to more traditional settings.

Whilst actors rehearse, design students from both nations are sewing and preparing hair/make up. We are rehearsing in the hotel’s business conference rooms. The man on reception gives me some strange looks as the cries of “what’ll the neighbours say!” in a hybrid Chongqing/Welsh accent ring out. This is obviously not the run of the mill business meeting to which he is accustomed.
If every young person in the world could taste this experience, first hand, of sharing each other’s cultures, of teamwork, what sort of world could we live in?

The next few days sees a continuation of rehearsals with both sets of students from Chongqing and Wales. Chinese students have done their homework and are growing in confidence. The bus journey to the Chongqing School of Performing Arts is a joy. We learn a traditional folk song on the bus. Chongqing students are very patient – each sits next to a Welsh student as Arthur, the leader of the Chinese student group advises me that “one to one tuition is best”. He decides to take on the biggest challenge … me!

I look around and can see each double seat full of earnest concentration. Chongqing students are keen to share their beautiful folk song and Welsh students do not want to let the side down and are tenacious in every element of pronunciation. Our Chinese counterparts have demonstrated a fantastic work ethic as they grapple with the text of Under Milk Wood … the very least we can do is demonstrate our respect for their culture by returning the compliment and getting it right. It is an evocative song, created by the workers at ancient Chongqing harbour, and we sing as the bus trundles through the Chongqing streets.

The pace of the song picks up as we all become more confident. Again there is laughter (there is always laughter!). I am afraid that we have made it sound a little more like a song from the terraces of a football club but Arthur assures us that we sound great. We announce that we would like to share our national anthem … there is a respectful silence … and then we sing: “Delilah”. More laughter…

The day of the first performance arrives. And it is a day none of us will ever forget. More hard work and our Chinese friends impress once more with their application and preparation. Everyone is flexible and we adjust to a changing environment. I worry for the member of the school’s estates team as he frantically fixes a curtain on top of a 30 foot ladder. In my head, I am “managing risk!”

The performance begins with speeches. Mr Wen is here – a very important person from the Cultural Bureau. He is introduced and stands to great applause accompanied by patriotic music through the speakers. I am introduced and music plays for me as I stand for the exchange of gifts. It is the theme tune from The Magnificent Seven. Students are far too professional to laugh at me (they reserve that for later) but we all realise that this is going to be a very different experience.

The venue has become packed. Everyone is so inquisitive. We are inundated. There are cameras everywhere. An unforgettable start to the day! Later that evening we decide to go a local restaurant together and as we leave the restaurant, a Chinese student says “Nos da”. Someone has taught her it.

Boden, one of our Chinese performers, and interpreter for the day, wants to hear me say Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch again. There is no bilingualism strategy here… but Welsh and Chinese blend together amidst the smells of the Chongqing street stalls.

A Welsh student has “to begin at the beginning” translated into Chinese and we plan how we can incorporate this and our recently learned folk song into our performance. Students tell me about the thought behind the gifts they have received from their Chinese friends and we all feel very humble. Learning is everywhere. So is “differentiation” and all those other educational terms and strategies that are sometimes so difficult to grasp in any meaningful way. We are buzzing with it all.

It is finally March 1st and time to start the St. David’s Day celebrations and undertake our biggest performance. Things are a little frantic. There is no sound system set up yet and we have to restage to fit the layout of the room. As usual, the students are real troopers. Nothing unnerves these wonderful students and they are determined to do their country proud. I think they each deserve an international cap.

It is a slightly surreal experience, celebrating St. David’s Day in China. The room is full of Welsh and Chinese and we are all so impressed. As our students work through the piece, everyone who is Welsh is proud and full of Hiraeth and Chinese members of the audience appreciate the excellent performance. It’s a great way to celebrate everything Welsh.

By the time they get to the Reverend Eli Jenkins prayer, it becomes quite moving. “We ask a blessing on the town”… does this mean Chongqing? Or our home town? We are all moved … we are coming to the end of our experience and we will miss our friends. The audience really appreciate adding the folk song and some Chinese text. They join in with the them.

The past week has been unforgettable and it is with heavy hearts we say our goodbyes. There is a melancholic mood on the bus to the airport. I am so proud of our students. I would take them anywhere. They have represented their colleges and Wales so well.’

When I think back to my time in Chongqing, two comments from our students stand out for me. Firstly Taylor, who said ‘Too many life changing experiences. I can’t just pick one. If I was forced to pick one, it would be Arthur saying to me ‘Shung Di Ho’ which means ‘My brother. My family.’ And Kirsty who said “At the beginning of the week, I was disappointed that we weren’t getting out and seeing more of Chongqing. By the end of the week I realised that Chongqing was with us all along through spending time with our Chinese friends. I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything.”.

So today on Dydd Gwyl Dewi remember this:

Education must, be not only a transmission of culture but also a provider of alternative views of the world and a strengthener of the will to explore them.