“IT IS NOW BREAK TIME!” – A Singing Contest in Taoyuan
Saturday December 22, 2012
9:00 a.m. 7-11 on Chang-Ang Road in Taipei
This is pretty much the same setup as every other morning this past week or two. I’m here at the 7-11 a bit later since I managed to drop back to sleep at some point late this morning and sleep in a tiny bit. So it’s 9:00 a.m. It’s a bit of a weird day because it’s one of those holiday make-up days. Everyone is getting a holiday on December 31st, a Monday, so that we can have a 4-day weekend over the New Year weekend. New Year’s Day is on Tuesday. However, that means everyone has to make up that day by working on a Saturday. And it isn’t just my company. It seems to a Taipei-wide if not Taiwan-wide policy. Looking outside the window at Taipei, it looks as busy as a weekday, not like a quiet Saturday. This neighborhood is usually totally dead on Saturday mornings. But today it looks like an ordinary day.
I took the day off, of course. Doug Don’t Work Saturdays. Besides, I have a bunch of holidays to use up. It’s weird how put-upon everyone at my company was acting yesterday. They all moaned and groaned about how they had to work on Saturday. And they all said I was so lucky that I didn’t have to work. Lucky? What’s lucky about it? I just took the day off. They could, too. But no one does. I often wonder if people’s personal budgets are so tight. Everyone worries about taking time off because they’ll lose money from their paycheck. I’m not going to go hungry for a week because I lose a bit of pay. I’d take a lot more time off if I could, and I didn’t have to fill out all the forms. THAT is a chore. Losing the money is no big deal.
Anyway, I have the day off and most people are working. I have one more story to tell from the week – one more school event. This is the school event in Taouyan. The details on the schedule were that it was a drama contest at a school and it involved 1,000 students. I was supposed to be at the HSR station, exit 8, at 11:40 to be picked up by the sales rep.
I bought a ticket for the 11:00 train in advance. It got into Taoyuan at 11:19, giving me enough time to get my bearings and hit the bathroom before I found exit 8. I went to a 7-11 in the morning before I went to the train station and wrote the previous day’s post. I had not slept well and I was still stressed out from the classes in Sanxia, so I was a bit worried about how the day would go. Plus, it had been semi-confirmed that instead of going home after the contest, I had to return to the office to do some emergency recording. I didn’t really mind. I figured it would give me the chance to go to a nearby bar after work for dinner and a beer.
The HSR trip was enjoyable, as always. I had my row of seats to myself and the 19 minutes flew by. It was sunny and bright outside and I took in the scenery while reading about Dexter’s adventures. I kept reading at the station in Taoyuan until the sales rep showed up – just a few minutes late – and we zipped off to the school.
The school was a brand new one located only a short distance from the HSR station. A brand new community is being built at that spot to take advantage of the HSR station and how it allows people to commute to Taipei easily. I understood from conversations I had with the teachers that this community was an expensive one. At the moment, it was more like a real estate development project with lots of land staked out and fenced in but with very few completed buildings.
The school building was very new and was having a huge new section being added to it. It billed itself as an international school, and that seemed to mean that the students get to create posters about countries around the world. France and Spain were the most recent countries they’d studied, and the hallways were full of posters about them.
The contest I ended up judging did not resemble the one listed on my schedule. It was not, in fact, a drama contest for 1,000 students. It was a singing contest for about 120 students. That was a nice surprise. I was anticipating another full-blown extravaganza like the one on Wednesday. This competition was quite small and informal. It took place inside a classroom rather than inside a theater or auditorium. And it wasn’t entire classes performing. There were groups of 3 to 6 students performing from each class. It must have been difficult for the students. Rather than singing as part of a class of 45 students on stage with microphones and loud music blaring, they were singing in small groups in a classroom while standing just five or six feet away from the judges. They did quite well considering. An equivalent set of Canadian students would simply refuse. They would not be willing to sing like that in front of their classmates and a judge from another country.
There was a dramatic element built into the singing as each group had come up with actions and skits to accompany the songs. Many of the students had solos and did quite well. Some of the groups had elaborate costumes and sets. Others had nothing at all. When there is that much variety, it at least makes my job as a judge much easier. There were 18 groups performing and out of those 18, 15 were pretty basic and 3 were quite good. Choosing the top three was, therefore, quite easy.
There was a casual atmosphere about it all, so I managed to insert myself into the proceedings a little bit and make things a bit easier for myself. Their idea, as happens at many schools, was to judge each group on a separate slip of paper. And they would take away that slip after each performance. This is a big problem, since you don’t have a chance to get a feel for the range of performances and the scores you should give. You also get no chance to go back and revise anything if you made a big mistake. I had a chance to talk to the other judges beforehand, and we convinced the organizers to give us slips for 5 groups at a time. Seeing the first 5 groups would give us the chance to establish some kind of baseline for the scoring and that would make it easier and fairer.
There were still oddities in the system. The slips, for example, were completely blank and we judges had to write in the group number and the name of the song(s) they were performing. Not a big deal, but the timing is so tight that having to do even that much more writing is a bit of a problem. It would have been better to have had all that information printed on the score sheets in advance so we wouldn’t have to waste our time doing that. Everything was also in Chinese, and I had to spend some time getting things translated so that I knew what I was expected to judge the groups on.
Having the competition in a classroom made it more informal and relaxing, but that adds other elements. Classrooms, unlike theaters and auditoriums, have loudspeakers hooked up to the school’s PA system. And at this school, they were in love with their announcements and they were LOUD! Fully a third of the groups were interrupted by something blasting out of the speakers – bells, gongs, beeps, sirens, blasts, and long recorded announcements in English, Chinese, Japanese, French, and Spanish. “IT IS NOW BREAK TIME. IT IS NOW BREAK TIME” repeated over and over again in multiple languages while the poor students are trying to sing. The first time it happened, I thought it was part of the performance – some sort of performance art avant-garde thing. But it kept on happening. You’d think someone would unplug the speaker for the duration, but either that never occurred to anyone or it wasn’t physically possible. In any case, no one seemed bothered by it in the slightest. Even the organizers, who had to speak to the audience to announce the next performers etc., simply kept talking while the announcements went on. That we couldn’t hear what they were saying didn’t matter. They just kept speaking – totally drowned out by the announcements. That struck me as both very strange and also very typical of Taiwan. I was interrupted twice by announcements when I gave my speech at the end. Just as I was handed the microphone, another set of sounds and announcements kicked in. I simply stood there at the front and smiled and waited for the announcements to end before I began. Yet, I’m sure no one would have thought it odd if I just started speaking despite being overwhelmed by the speaker above my head. When it was done, I, of course, said something about the announcements. The first set began with a very loud recording of church bells. I made a lame joke about how those bells were very appropriate for an international school. I felt like I was at Notre Dame Cathedral or someplace like that. Laughter… The next time it happened, I had to ask the audience after it was over, “Was that really Japanese?” They all assured me that it was.
When the contest ended, one of my fellow judges invited me to the teacher’s lounge for a cup of coffee. After much running around to find someone who knew how to turn on the coffeemaker, we settled back and chatted about this and that. The teacher, Louise, had lived in England for a year and gone to school there. Her English reflected that and was quite good. She had plans to travel to India next summer, since her roommates in England had been girls from India. So we had lots to talk about.
The sales rep eventually came by and I was hustled off to the HSR station. A shortish time later, I was back at Taipei Main and I called my company to confirm this recording job, and it was still on. They needed my golden throat pronto. Big emergency. So I got on the MRT and made my way to the office.
Not surprisingly, the recording was hardly what you’d call an emergency. In fact, 90% of the recording was for a woman’s voice. They just needed me to read the words. A fellow editor would then read the sentences and all the long passages. I just sat there most of the time – and ran the computer. They could have done all that recording by themselves long ago and anyone could have recorded my words in a couple of minutes. There was hardly any reason to force me to come all the way to the office from Taoyuan at 4:30 on a Friday afternoon to do it – making me face a full commute there and then one home in rush hour traffic. But ours is not to wonder why… And, as I said, I didn’t really mind. I get brownie points for doing it. And I never mind recording. If I had to come back to do 40 minutes of editing or writing, that would be different. But recording even at its worst is still fun.
It took me until past 6:15 to finish the recording (I was editing the sound file), so everyone was already clocking out while I was still there. Hopefully, that made the bosses feel suitably guilty and I built up lots of brownies points.
Well, I guess that is the end of my week and the end of my story. I have no plans for today or tomorrow beyond the usual. The weekdays were sunny and nice, but now that the weekend is here, it is gloomy and rainy. Amazing how that happens. So no scooter trips or hiking.