Course Prepares Students for China Exchange

No one, not even Barbra Streisand herself could rain on the parade of the cast of "American Reflections: Broadway in Concert."

That is because after nearly two months of arduous rehearsals consisting of 35 to 40 hours a week and memorizing upwards of 28 musical numbers, this gifted troupe of performers is set to leave a lasting impression when they present their showcase in China at Shandong University as part of Santa Monica College's cultural exchange in October.

However, there could have been one damper capable of breaking the merry flow of these fine thespians as more work would be added to their already jam-packed schedule.

With no wiggle room to possibly include a mandatory 2-unit Chinese Humanities class, SMC did just that and required that the 20 students representing the college in China take part in the lectures taught by Professors Joe X. Wu and Nancy Grass-Hemmert.

The class entitled Humanities 28S, Contemporary Life in China, consisted of three four hour lectures and an additional nine hour day to fit in with the rehearsal schedules. Suddenly, everyone's face took on the semblance of the girl on the Playbill for "Les Miserables" at the thought of having to sit through an eight hour lecture.

"I didn't personally have a thought about China," admitted Geoffrey Going, one of the cast mates of "Reflections." "It was never a top choice of any destination for me," he said.

Alex Edlefsen added that it wasn't so much a lack of interest in learning of their hosts' history and customs but that their grueling rehearsal schedule took up so much of their energy. "We all started rehearsing months ago," he said. "So this whole trip had basically been spent on the show but finally we started this class and I realized that there's this other part to the trip that we didn't see at first."

The class, which met for four Friday's, was split between two sections. Wu taught China specific culture while Grass-Hemmert focused her teachings on intercultural communications in general.

Prior to the first day of class, the students were handed a manual which included basic guidelines for acceptable and likewise unacceptable behaviors while in China. This turned out to be their first taste of culture shock as most read that hand gestures while speaking, biting your nails and public displays of affection are deemed inappropriate in China.

"I think it's funny that with such a reserved culture the college decides to send a bunch of actors," said Lauren Blair. "I mean look at us. We're so spastic."

If anyone were to pass by room 106 in the HSS building on the first day of this course, they would have seen index fingers pointing in all directions, mainly towards Wu. Although much of China's rich history had been covered that day, the main concern on everyone's mind was to what degree was pointing considered offensive.

After that initial session though, a most welcome transition and shift in attitudes occurred. Suddenly wearing a green hat, which in China symbolizes a wife's infidelity, became the least of their worries and all started taking a genuine interest in sharing with their gracious hosts.

"My concept of China has changed initially from the start of our first class," said Brittany Batson. "It changed my perception in a good way," she said.

Now their main objective is to not necessarily be the perfect guests as most of them agree that there will inevitably be pitfalls, but to good partners.

"That sense of exchange is priceless," said Darren Giglio who also added another concern. "I don't want them to think that we're all like Michael Phelps," he quipped.

"They're asking more sophisticated questions now," said Wu as he too agrees in the new positive outlook his pupils now have on China.

"I was at first only thinking about food," said Melissa Harding. "But now I hope we could come and find common ground and not have it be about what separates us but what we can find that's the same."

As for the initial qualms of having to take essentially a crash course in humanities Giglio said, "I'm proud to say that I sat through a class that was that long," referring to Grass-Hemmert's eight hour lecture.

"She's fabulous," added Leslie Szabo. "I did not want to leave until it was done," she said.

And with Wu, they're all convinced that he's a performer by nature. "Deep down he's an actor," said Blair with Harding referring to him as a "funny bunny" after he donned Australian and British accents to emphasize the importance of precise pronunciation in the Chinese language. His was a revelatory performance.

"After having all this information it is a much more interesting country than it was to me personally," said Going.

In the end, SMC along with Wu and Grass-Hemmert have pulled off a most impressive feat in the span of three lectures; producing 20 bona fide global citizens.

"It would be horribly arrogant otherwise to not spend a little time and learn a little something," said Blair. "I just hope they don't mind that we're overly excited to see them."