I just got back from witnessing the Freshmen's military training graduation. The weather was sparkling, if not a little warm. Sam couldn't attend this year because he was teaching. I took my place on the dais next to Dean Lisa, the powerhouse behind all of our department's innovative changes. Victor was handsome in his white hat and pressed shirt, his starched appearance absolving the fact that he arrived late. Traffic is bad in Wuhan today, especially in front of the train station because of the National holiday – a peak travel time. Hence, Victor's delayal.
I've attended this ceremony every year I've been here. I am writing about this fifth occasion because there were a few startling changes.
It seemed that the graduates grow more unruly with each successive year. Those poor kids, last year! Standing at attention in the rain while dignitaries delivered their speeches. Apparently, they felt their training and the honor accorded them at graduation did not merit the soaking and chill they were expected to endure. A few fled the field before the ceremony was over. Campus police had to round them up and bring them back. The year before, most threw their uniform berets in the trash cans just outside the sports arena where graduation takes place. That year, troops' marching was disconcerted. Very few marched in step and the salutes they were to snap off at the gallery (we dignitaries) were far less than rigid.
I put a lot of this lack of decorum down to societal advances. Not the good ones. These younger generations, having enjoyed more privilege, more comfort, luxury, food... more everything, and less obligation than any other generation heretofore in China, possibly felt that they should not be put on parade. Or maybe that they should not be expected to stand there while muckety-mucks blathered on.
This year's parade was a return to the first year I was here in terms of diligence, discipline and decorum.
The ceremony started at 9:00AM, when three men in formal dress uniform snapped the flag out and hoisted it in time to the national anthem. Prior to that bit of pomp I noticed, while looking around the field where the cadres stood at parade rest, that each unit had a blue-clad police officer where, in years before a uniformed drill instructor stood. Down the long row of dignitaries, 5 seats from mine, sat a high ranking police officer rather than our school's chief military officer. Also contrary to past experiences, instead of a military color guard of 4 soldiers in dress uniform that stood at intervals in front of the stage where we sat, there were 4 blue-clad policemen. The change was puzzling.
I asked Lisa why our ceremony suddenly included weaponless police instead of military. She averred that those men were representatives of the Navy and Marines, not policemen. She had not seen the uniform shoulder patches that said 'public security' – police markings. However, she was correct in mentioning the Navy: there were 2 drill instructors in blinding white uniform.
Come time to march, the platoons advanced to a line of demarcation at the far end of the field, directed by a police officer who held a flag out, indicating the troops should stop. At the musical downbeat he raised the flag and the officer on the other side of the column barked the order to march. As the platoon stepped out, that leader then moved to the next group to prepare them for launch, while the flag waver stayed at the line, his flag once again lowered. Last year, the squad leader/trainer marched with the kids.
The groups passed in review. They goose-stepped and saluted, as was familiar. Besides them being much more synchronized, the difference this year is that we, on the stage, stood and clapped as they marched by.
There were a few humorous bits. One particularly gangly boy wore screaming blue shoes instead of the traditional green, canvas sneakers everybody else wore. One look at his feet told me why: most likely there were no traditional shoes to fit him. The poor child had boats for feet! I can relate. One distinction of this crop of freshmen is that they seem to be much bigger, in height and in girth than in years past. For many of the boys and a few of the girls, the uniform pants weren't long enough. Their socks of various colors made a startling contrast between the olive drab pants and shoes.
Ceremonies of years past suffered lost hats and, the first year I was here, one unfortunate lost his shoe while marching. Those articles sat like relics on the parade track, mutely testifying that not all that is well prepared can be perfectly executed. This year, after everyone had marched by and fell into ranks on the center of the field, only a sky blue lighter remained on the track, sunlight glinting off its metal head.
More strange takeoffs from tradition: once the graduates took their places, the police force and any military personnel left the field. Several women with purses entered the arena and took their place among the students standing at attention.
Lisa, who by now agreed with me that the uniformed men at attention in front of the stage were in fact from the police told me that those women standing with the troops were the groups' homeroom teachers. Their purpose was to maintain control of their charges to forestall their unruliness. The uniformed men left under orders because, last year, many of the girls fancied themselves in love with, or at least attracted to the soldiers. They made not so gracious plays for them. I'm not sure if the drill instructors complained or if there was some other trouble that led the school to change the way things were done. I do know that, last year, some of the D.I.s (drill instructors) had gotten quite familiar with some of their charges, posing for pictures and hanging out with them after hours.
I know this because I crashed some of their photos. One particularly handsome D.I. was surrounded by admirers on the basketball courts. Several of the girls were posing for pictures with him. As I happened to be walking by, I draped myself around him, grinning lasciviously. Everyone loved it, except for, possibly, the D.I.
When I came here, romantic relationships were all but invisible. Occasionally we might see a couple cuddling on a bench, but boys and girls did not walk hand in hand and public displays of affection were strictly taboo. Some of my first students still don't have a boyfriend or girlfriend, even though they graduated 2 years ago. This year, cruising the campus on my bike I couldn't help but notice freshmen girls, obvious for their uniforms, holding a boy's arm while walking. I wonder how many of these girls already have a boyfriend? How many of them have already snuck off to one of the many pay-by-the-hour hotels around campus? I suppose it is all academic, but it does reflect the rapid revolution of Chinese society.
Back to the ceremony. Usually, after all the speeches the lead D.I. mounts the dais and, accompanied by two lovelies in traditional Chinese dress, confer a banner to the school's lead military official. This year, a Freshmen boy in dress uniform, accompanied by the two women, handed that award to the highly decorated police officer who sat down the row from me. That marked the official end of the ceremony.
This years' students performed admirably. They marched in step and in line, as much as possible. They did not fidget or talk during the speeches. They waited politely as one dignitary after another offered their thoughts. As with the first year I was here, they waited until the stage was cleared before tossing their hats in the air, and even then: only a few sent their beret flying. Hoping to catch that bit of unbridled enthusiasm, I lingered at the stadium entrance... and then nearly got trampled by the hordes of exiting freshmen.
Walking back to the housing area with Lisa and Victor, she informed him there was a foreign teacher position open at a nearby university. Another jaw-dropping event! It seems the school really is intent on replacing him. Maybe replacing me, too. Perhaps Lisa has not found a place for me, yet. Or would she try to place me?
I'm fairly certain it is as Sam avers: this school will do what they have to to keep me. Which means I'll be here for graduation next year. Wonder how it will be?