Sunday, September 23rd, 2001:

Maple leafs and corn?!

Today, after a cramped three-hour flight on China Southern airlines, we arrived in mainland China. Gaining entry into this vast communist nation was almost too easy; even when I broke the rules and took a baggage cart into the immigration area there was no international incident.

Instead of checking in at our hotel we went straight to our gig, along a rustic old highway through a sea of corn, some of it growing in the usual manner, some of it shucked and laid out to dry in huge piles, and some of it spilling out of the cargo beds of run-down three-wheeled trucks.

The driving skills of Beijingers are either very or not at all advanced, depending on how you look at it. Every street is a one way express until an oncoming vehicle appears, and cars and trucks alike are thrown into blind curves with only a quick tap of the horn to warn anyone around the bend.

Yet our hired van got us to our destination with nary a scratch, and just in time; my legs were getting numb from the lack of legroom. We disembarked onto the campus of the CCSC, a private institution that immerses its students in English, towards getting them scholarships in Canadian Universities. A one-hour workshop with some drama students went well enough for a promise of stage time that night, and after a western-style dinner of chicken cordon-bleu and fries it was showtime.

Outdoor comedy shows are hard; I did one in Peterborough back when I was in the Second City Touring Company. Having to slow down and over-articulate your speech so that it carries adequately for an acre or so really messes with the timing of jokes. But here we were, on a soccer field flanked by strobe lights that could have been visible from space, with almost two thousand English-as-a-second-language kids seating themselves in geometrically perfect rows and columns with seats they brought from their classrooms. As the show got underway I was faced with a decision needing to be made pretty quick — slow things down for the kids in the back and turn the evening into an English comprehension exercise, or play to the teachers in front two rows. We performers are suckers for validation, so the grown-ups won. Even when the drama students performed their first improv set for their peers, the faculty answered by joining our encore in a free-for-all improvised song.

To be fair, the principal presented us with flowers and gifts at our curtain call, but the feel-good vibe was abruptly cut short when an old Chinese woman grabbed the mic and started barking orders for the students to return to their dorms.

I think I gained a fan on the other side of the world that night: A shy young drama student asked if she could have a photo taken with me. I had to do an interview for the student-run station Sino-Canadian TeleVision first, and she was nowhere to be found afterwards. Oh, well… At least I can now say I’ve been on SCTV!

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