If you had seen me strolling with my colleagues into the cavernous Partyworld, a deluxe marble-and-chandeliers karaoke center in the center of Beijing, you would have been forgiven for not believing me if I told you that I was working.
When you are a visiting speaker/consultant/trainer in Asia, and the evening’s planned activities include karaoke, well, karaoke is part of the job. These activities cement group bonds, and increase (one hopes) the chances that the time you have spent learning together will make a lasting and spreading impact.
Plus, through the karaoke session (which lasted something close to five hours), I learned a lot about China. Sometimes the song texts were translated to me, and the music videos were explained — “this song is coming from the indigenous people in my home province” — and sometimes we just talked, loudly, while others sang. Sometimes I got commentaries: “This song [a lovely woman in a black and white evening gown is crooning about Chairman Mao] was very popular in the 1980s,” I was told. Or: “This girl is from Taiwan [she is dancing in a school uniform, the ambiguous phrase “Taiwan Only” appears often in the video’s background] and very popular”. Occasional English words and phrases like “One Night in Beijing” or “Cinderella” show up in the song texts; those parts I can sing no problem, and then I can pretty much infer, from those little samples and the imagery, what the rest of the song is about.
I brought my guitar to Partyworld, and when it was my turn to sing (it is eventually everybody’s turn), we turned off the sound system and I did a couple of my own songs, “Whole Lotta Shoppin’ Goin’ On” and “Balaton”. I’m actually not very good at karaoke, so by singing my own songs, I avoided butchering too many pop classics — with the exception of “Yesterday Once More” by the Carpenters, which, I confess, pushed my own 1970s nostalgia buttons. Apparently, the Carpenters are very popular in China.
But I wasn’t to get off so easily. My colleague from Sweden, Marie Neeser, recruited me to help when it was her turn to sing, so we played up our Swedish identities and did a couple of Abba numbers. We acquitted ourselves admirably, as the British would say … which is another way of saying we got through it without any major calamities.
Besides the karaoke, I am in China to teach workshops on the ISIS Method, Pyramid, Amoeba, and strategic change agentry to groups of education officials, researchers, and teachers. We did a one-day Pyramid at the People’s Education Press (China’s largest textbook publisher), and an Amoeba session at this eco-conference center on the outskirts of Beijing. Working through interpreters, I can’t follow everything that happens; but I can set the processes in motion, and watch them, and get snippets of translation. Fortunately, the workshop processes appear to be working just as they usually do.
The physical Pyramid built here in Beijing was unique — no wooden sticks, they were “too expensive.” Instead, they found colored plastic tubing, cut it in small pieces, and stapled these together to make the triangles! This “new technology” worked just fine; perhaps this is the version that will spread now into China’s schools system.
If my writing today is less than scintillating, well, let’s just say that I am lucky to be able to write at all, after our celebratory dinner last night. The rice wine was flowing, and as with karaoke, it was very often my turn to perform. I am still recovering today from this “performance.”
I leave Beijing now for Shanghai, where I have not been since 1982. I expect it will be a little different …