China Culture Shock #3: The Talent Show Catastrophe

Welcome to my latest series: China Culture Shock!

Part of the reason I was interested in moving to China in the first place was to explore a culture completely different from my own. I wanted to experience “culture shock” and challenge myself. I’ve been living in China for almost two years now, and I’m still constantly experiencing things that shock me, or just don’t make sense. Here is a collection of my crazy stories and cultural insights as I explore this mystifying nation.

Let me tell you a story of how my last two weeks have gone. Now just to warn you, I’m about to have a MAJOR CHINA RANT. As much as I love China, sometimes I want to punch it in the theoretical face. This is one of those times.

China Culture Shock

Two weeks ago I received a text from one of my friends in my salsa class. She told me the school had to put together a team for an international student talent show for all of the universities in Shanghai and Zhejiang province. The competition would be in December, and it would be televised on CCTV! She needed approximately 10 people, and the school only gave her two days to get a group together before she had to give them a list of names. Yeah, you heard me: two days.

I knew the next two weeks were going to be really busy for me. I have midterm presentations in all of my classes, multiple freelance articles due, guest posting commitments, and my regular blog posts. I also perform with a school dance group called the Shuffle Ladies, where we do choreographed dances to pop, jazz and kpop music. Last week we had a photo shoot, shot a music video and did a flash mob, and tomorrow we’ll be performing at a popular shopping center. We practice three or four days a week, which keeps me really busy. Basically, I don’t sleep.

UNNC Shuffle Crew

The Shuffle Crew- coolest kids in school

Of course, I agreed to participate in the talent show because I’m crazy and I have problems. I’ll also never pass up the chance to be a Chinese television star. Plus, a free trip to Hangzhou sounded nice, and my friend really needed me. I figured we had over a month to prepare, so it wouldn’t be a problem, right??

We met as a group that Monday, and spent a few hours planning our amazing thematic show. We’d have singing, Latin dancing, hip hop and an African line dance!

Then on Wednesday we were informed that we would be heading to Hangzhou for an audition with the judges. What?? We didn’t have anything choreographed or prepared! Our advisor promised us that our audition didn’t have to be the same as our actual performance. We could just show them how talented we are, and hopefully they would ask us back.

So we pulled something together in three days. One girl sang Italian opera with two accompanying pianists. A couple danced bachata. Another girl from Shuffle Ladies and I performed a kpop dance from our recent flash mob performance, and we ended with the African line dance. We practiced over and over for those three days, because we’re all performance perfectionists and we wanted everything to be perfect.

China talent show

We’re ready for the show!

The group of us hopped into the bus on Monday (the school made us skip class!) and headed down to Hangzhou with another group of international students from Wanli University.

When we finally arrived, we noticed that all of the other performances were centered around Chinese culture. They were singing Chinese songs, dancing Chinese dances, speaking in Chinese, and wearing Chinese costumes. This was a bit disconcerting. We didn’t have anything Chinese in our entire performance! While everyone was a bit nervous, I kept assuring my friends that there was nothing we could do at that point. Our routine was already finished! Hopefully the judges would ask us back on our talent alone, and we could put Chinese culture into our final performance.

When it was finally our turn to audition, our performance went very well. We didn’t make any mistakes or have any mishaps, and our routine was significantly more interesting and entertaining than anything the other groups had to offer. From the moment we entered the stage, the auditorium was silent, everyone engrossed in our performance.

China talent show

Nottingham and Wanli talent show participants

The audience seemed to love us, but the judges didn’t look too happy. As we stood onstage, the head judge addressed us. He started by telling us our performance was completely unacceptable. We were supposed to perform a Chinese cultural performance, and we failed to follow instructions. How dare we come to China and perform “Western” dances and songs (I didn’t know Africa and Korea counted as “Western”, but I wasn’t about to disagree with him!) The judge went on and on about how we are in China and should be performing Chinese things. He basically made us sound ethnocentric, like our own cultures were better than that of China. He was so unnecessarily rude to us, I almost started crying onstage!

I had put so much effort into this performance, when I should have been studying or working on my writing assignments. I didn’t need to come all the way to Hangzhou to be humiliated and publicly shamed for something that wasn’t even my fault! 

Hangzhou West Lake

At least we got to visit Hangzhou?

We assured the judge that we could perform in Chinese, and had one member of our group sing a beautiful Chinese ballad. Meanwhile, our school advisor spoke with the judge and informed him that he had no idea we were supposed to do a Chinese cultural performance, and didn’t give us the correct instructions.

After the song, the judge called us down to him and spoke with us about our options. He didn’t apologize for making us “lose face” onstage in front of everyone, but he did acknowledge that it was the school’s fault, not ours. He said that we were obviously talented performers, but our performance was not right for the talent competition.

He would have to choose twelve or thirteen teams out of almost fifty schools, and couldn’t ask us back based on our performance. He told us that we could have one week to create a Chinese cultural performance to the theme “Beautiful Zhejiang” (really? What are we supposed to do with that??), and that we could videotape it and send it to him by that next Monday.

Oh great, just what I need during midterm season!

Hangzhou West Lake

Here’s a nice picture of Hangzhou’s West Lake

Through talking with the judge, we learned that he had held a meeting with someone from our school in August to talk about what he wanted for the competition. AUGUST!! The school only thought to tell us about this competition one week before the audition, and then only told us about the audition three days beforehand! All of this after telling us multiple times that it is really important we do well.

If it was really that important, maybe you should have given us more than three days notice, and maybe you should have informed us of the f-ing THEME so we wouldn’t have humiliated ourselves and the school in front of everyone. Just a thought.

If this were to happen back home in America, someone would be in serious trouble. But it’s China and people don’t get fired in China because it’s too much of a legal hassle. So now it’s me and the other international students that have to pay the price for the school’s disorganization.

Hangzhou West Lake

Making new friends in Hangzhou!

On a positive note, our advisor felt bad for us and took us to Hangzhou lake for about an hour. It was really fun, and the lake was much more beautiful than I thought it would be. Now I know why Marco Polo said Hangzhou is the most beautiful place in the world! I also made a few friends from Wanli University, which is exciting. Hopefully I’ll hang out with them soon and they can show me around their campus!

On a less positive note, our bus driver got lost on the way home and a two-hour trip turned into a 4.5 hour trip. So much for getting stuff done!

Hangzhou sunset

At least we got to see a nice sunset?

Have you ever experienced anything this ridiculous??? Share your crazy stories below. 

Weekend Wanderlust



About Richelle

Expat, traveler, and spicy food lover, I've spent the last few years living in China and traveling around Asia. In my spare time I enjoy salsa dancing, exploring night markets and stuffing my face with street food.

16 comments on “China Culture Shock #3: The Talent Show Catastrophe

  1. I am not surprised, haha. Sounds like totally China.

    I didn’t have anything that bad happening to me personally, but when I was studying in Beijing we would also be forced to participate in stupid events, sometimes during the exams week, because the school wanted to keep face…

    • Exactly! I mean this is a really big competition and it’s going to be on tv, so I understand why the school wants us to be there. Just give us a few weeks notice and tell us what the theme is! I mean I get that it’s Chinese culture to leave things until the last minute, but you can’t do that if you want to win.

  2. I always worry people don’t understand how you can love a place and want to punch it in the face, but China definitely inspires both those feelings. This is so awful, I can’t believe he yelled at you guys while you were on stage! That’s so annoying and I always get so mad that there are no consequences for people messing up so badly

    • I know right? You basically can’t fire someone in China because you have to pay them a huge severance package. At least they stepped up and got us costumes last minute and made an arts teacher design a whole performance for us.

      Me and China definitely have a love-hate-relationship sometimes.

  3. Pingback: China Culture Shock #3: The Talent Show Catastrophe | Travel Tips

  4. That’s a bummer that they barely gave you any time to get everything together! And then yelled at you, not fair at all. Also, rude. At least you got to see Hangzhou Lake, even if it took you forever to get back! Gotta love traveling.

  5. I’ve never visited China, but it’s not hard to imagine the cultural shock this culture would provoke for a Westerner. I admire people who have the courage to cross over their comfort zone like you did.

    • Hahaha yep! I feel like there’s in instant bond whenever I meet people who have spent some time in China. Like they know and understand your love-hate relationship with this wonderful country.

  6. You poor thing, what an awful yet interesting(?) Experience! At least you got to see hangzou and make some friends. Must have been a stressful two weeks, it s over now! I can’t think of anything that crazy or bad to happen to me abroad..

  7. Pingback: The Complete China Bucket List: 50 Incredible Things to do in China - Adventures Around Asia

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