Amendment: I danced with Bidew Bou Bess at a Chinese New Year Festival in Dakar.
Amendment to amendment: I jabbed my hips in arbitrary directions and flailed my arms in floppy circles and fundamentally disgraced both myself and the entire Chinese American community beside Bidew Bou Bess at a Chinese New Year Festival in Dakar.
Bidew Bou Bess is a rap trio consisting of three brothers: Makhtar, Beydi, and Ibiss Sall. It is my understanding that they are minor Senegalese celebrities. Thus, there is a 90% chance that footage of my “dancing” has already graced the television screen. I extend my deepest condolences anyone who has been violated by the sight.
For those of you who don’t love me (i.e., don’t follow me on Facebook; i.e., an easy fix; i.e., love me please), I’ve been living in Dakar, Senegal since January. The full blog post is currently on Draft 5 and experiencing severe creative indigestion. Pray for me. I fear I have read too many JSTOR primary and secondary source articles. I rummage around my brain for good content and come up with “citations” and “abstract” and “religious traditional cultural political cosmopolitanism discourse on contemporary regional secularistic postcolonialism.”
So for now, I’m just sharing one of the most surreal spaces I’ve entered in my 21 years of existence:
One sunny day at the West African Research Center, I pay for lunch and turn to find my buddies, only to realize with a jolt that I’m being watched. A Chinese woman in ovular glasses and a flowered skirt stands ominously in the shadows. She goes, “Ni hao?”
I’m like, “Niiiiiiiiihaaaaaaao…?”
“Ah!” she says. She steps into the light and is immediately less ominous. “Ni shi zhong guo ren! Ni hen piao liang!” [You are Chinese! You are very pretty!]
This is a wacky encounter for two reasons:
- My eyes are scrunched against the sun, my nose is running, and I’m pretty sure I have either food poisoning or malaria. For more explicit imagery, feel free to Google the symptoms.
- I am in Dakar. Senegal. West Africa. Chinese people?!
We end up chatting for a while. Her name’s Christelle, and she teaches Chinese at the nearby Universite Cheik Anta Diop. Our conversation ends like every other Chinese/Chinese meet-cute: we add each other on WeChat. And then she’s engulfed by the shadows again, and I go eat lunch and indeed get sick and self-medicate with all the wrong pills and totally forget about this whole thing.
Two weeks later, I get an invitation to a Chinese New Year festival she’s organizing. I try to imagine what it’ll be like and instead find ghostly screenshots of 90-page ethnographical PDFs forever scalded into my memory. I shut down my brain and RSVP yes.
Saturday, February 10 begins innocuously. I meet my friend Jenn at a roundabout between our neighborhoods; we hail a cab and spend the ride insisting to our driver in mangled Wolof that we each have multiple husbands in The Gambia. (This is a common anti-flirting technique we’ve been instructed to operate in Senegal.) We arrive at the university and wander to the Confucius Institute, where Christelle ushers us to the stage.
Here is what I’ve been seeing for five weeks:
Here is what I see now:
In a daze, I sit down. Bizarre Asian techno blares from the speakers. Voices chatter in Chinese, French, and Wolof. The DJ is Senegalese; the emcees are two Chinese women and two Senegalese men. The audience is 90% Senegalese, 9.9% Chinese, and 0.1% an elderly French couple who look confused and kind of hungry.
Then, the performances begin, and I’m convinced I’m having some insane, malaria-prevention-pill-induced fever dream.
These are traditional acts I grew up watching with my family in Beijing. They occupy the same hut inside my soul as dumplings, Tiananmen Square, and my mom’s favorite mooncakes. Except now…
- These acts are performed by Senegalese students.
- These acts are performed in Mandarin. With a Wolof accent.
- And interspersed with TRADITIONAL SENEGALESE ACTS.
HI. I AM HAVING A MALARIA-PREVENTION-PILL-INDUCED FEVER DREAM.
Because WordPress hates me and I can’t upload videos without a Premium account, here is the brief DL on what goes down in the next four (four!) hours:
- Emcees: Mandarin. French. Mandarin. French.
- Traditional Chinese Fan Dance: The performers are led by a towering man in sweats and a bandana. I am deeply struck by his ability to tiptoe around the stage like a 90-pound Chinese woman.
- “Xiao Ping Guo”: Two hip, stern, smartly dressed young men jiggle their hips to the routine in this music video which will scar you for life and, now that I’m thinking about it, probably far into the afterlife. Consider yourself warned.
- Griots: 100% a historically, traditionally, and culturally Senegalese singing/ storytelling act.
- Wushu, Tai Chi, Qi Gong: I was surprised and decently terrified when qi gong showed up—it’s this special form of martial arts wherein the master channels the air in his body into specific muscles, so that people can break SOLID WOOD OR ROCK over his limbs and head. In the foreground of my shaky iPhone footage, you can hear me shrieking, “NONONONONO,” and what sounds like the guy behind me mumbling, “Shut up, shut up, shut up!”
- Xiao Ping: Traditional Chinese comedy sketches, except in Mandarin and French.
- Fever dream.
- Lion Dance: Expectation: a jingling yellow dragon with six pairs of feet prancing underneath. Reality: a definitively Senegalese act! Two men, leaping and roaring and spitting like lions, dance frenetically before the crowd. Five minutes in, they rush this small Asian dude in the front row, scream in his face, and drag him headfirst onto the stage, where they “eat” him. This happens several more times with various audience members. I fear for my life. The guys on either side of me don’t. They get a real kick out of volunteering me as tribute each time the lions “eat” another “victim.”
- Chopstick Competition: Chopsticks + ping pong balls + dramatic drumming + 300 howling audience members = potential PTSD for the unfortunate contestants, who have never used chopsticks before.
- Lottery: Which I win!
- My prize is six used magazines, a 4gb flash drive, and a small bookmark.
- I am exceedingly proud of myself.
- My prize is six used magazines, a 4gb flash drive, and a small bookmark.
- Singing of Traditional Chinese Songs From My Childhood: I am particularly struck by one girl, who is intent on singing at least three octaves above everyone else, despite her needle-thin vocal chords. She secures a claw-like grip around the mic and fights off anyone who draws near with an inspiring ferocity. The crowd is shocked into silence. We do not believe our eardrums will ever recover.
After Jenn leaves to work on her research project, Chris arrives with the Cheikh of Mermoz.* Barred from entrance through the front doors, they sidle to the back, where the Cheikh of Mermoz shakes some rando’s hand very confidently and promptly gains access to the building.
Soon after they arrive, Bidew Bou Bess shows up. The audience loses its shit, and our friendly neighborhood BBBs know just how to play them: the singers hold the mic out to their fans, touch outstretched hands, and wink at the cameras. Halfway into the second song, they dance up to Alex and Chris—the only non-Chinese, non-Senegalese, non-confused-old-French-couple people in the audience—and invite them onstage.
What a time to be alive.
After filming a video, I zip my bag and run up to join them. Which turns out to be a great humiliation for myself and my countrymen, but. That is okay. It is all okay.
What a time to be alive, indeed. The past year has been a time of cultural identity crisis for me. I never thought the ground between “Chinese” and “American” needed navigating until college, and since the idea got incepted into my head, I’ve been trying to figure out where I stand. This is a whole other obese, convoluted blog post that’s still sitting in the brain bakery, so I won’t say more here. But essentially it’s just me wondering why I wanted to be white when I was younger, why I was proud to be “pretty for an Asian,” why kids made fun of my eyes, and why humans exist and the Earth spins on an axis and the sun is hot and also world peace and leprechauns and carrot muffins.
I came out of this festival feeling some kinda way. It was the first time I witnessed such a definitively-non-Chinese group who cared so much about definitively-Chinese culture. The performers were so intent, the enthusiasm so tangible. After the event, several Senegalese folks came up to me and started jabbering excitedly in Mandarin. We ended up exchanging contact information and setting up a lunch date. So I’m actually getting more Mandarin practice in Senegal than in the States! (Sorry Mom and Dad. I promise this is no reflection of your parenting ability.)
And this, my dear readers, has been the story of the most concurrently bizarre and gratifying event I have ever attended. I write to you from outside a locked computer lab, where I squat on the floor past closing time to mooch myself a handful of WiFi. There is no shame in squatting for WiFi. WiFi is the nectar of the gods.
I have climbed inside a baobab, traveled 380 miles in 20 hours, been in a car crash, slept inside a mud hut, hiked past baboons, and more. No shortage of tales to come. Until next time!