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Fashion Show!

One mid-November Friday, right after picking the kids up from school, I was approached by a tall good-looking man who asked if the girls would be interested in participating in a fashion show that coming weekend. Since we didn't have any plans for the weekend, and since Miranda seemed reasonably interested in the concept, I said we would be happy to give it a try.

The next morning we were picked up by a minibus, along with other kids from school: a very shy little Russian girl, who was there without any parents; and three young Spanish kids with their mother in tow (as it turns out, one of the Spanish boys was a classmate of Sami's, which of course made her instantly regret signing up for the whole experience!).

After trundling across the city for more than 40 minutes, we finally parked in front of a nondescript building that was some kind of a cultural center. I had tried to pry the details of the day's activities from our chaperones on the bus, but had had no luck. This wasn't so unusual -- as we've been learning, it's quite normal in China to plunge into a new experience without any inkling about what's in store. This isn’t just because we don't speak the language fluently; it seems to be quite normal for event organizers to withhold information until the last possible minute. In this case, it shortly became clear why…

The second floor of the building was occupied by some sort of large rehearsal space that was already filled with lots of little kids running around as their parents watched proudly from folding chairs set up on the perimeter. "Chaos" would be a generous term -- it was the kind of scene that Exedrin commercials are made of. As the girls peppered me with questions about what they were supposed to do, the people supposedly in charge had me fill out forms for each girl that included the normal contact information, as well as questions like “favorite hobbies" and "favorite color."

After a while, the parents were gathered together and told what would be happening. We needed to stay with our children in the room until four o'clock in the afternoon so that they occurred be matched with a series of outfits that were hanging on racks across the room. A simple Chinese lunch would be served. We then needed to be back the following morning (a Sunday) at 9 a.m. sharp for further clothing adjustments, after which we would be bused back across the city to the hotel hosting the fashion show (which, as it turns out, the hotel was about a 10 minute walk from our house). We would arrive at the hotel at around 2 p.m., rehearse the show, and then actually start the show at around 8 p.m. that night. We would be finished at around 10 p.m. For all of this, each child would be paid ¥400 (about 50 US dollars).

It was at this point that I realized why I had had such difficulty getting answers to my questions about the plans for the weekend! Had I known what participating would entail, I would have certainly politely declined. At that point, however, I had already filled out the forms, and the girls were already starting to debate excitedly about which outfit they would be asked to model.

About 90 minutes later, each girl had successfully tried on exactly 1 outfit.

Aren't they Cool??


Of course, the whole process was incredibly complicated, both because there were no changing rooms, and because the 10 adults responsible for organizing the process were perhaps the most disorganized bunch I had ever seen in action. The last straw was when the photo assistant yelled at Miranda for removing her costume before she had been officially photographed -- which she only did because yet another assistant had just told her to change back into street clothes!

At this point, Miranda (ever the practical person) announced that she no longer had any interest in participating if it was going to be so disorganized. Sami was reluctant to renege on our promise to do the show, but was game to go along if I could somehow get us home gracefully.

In a show of fatherly prerogative, I tracked down the man who had recruited us in the first place and calmly told him that we had had enough and were going home. He literally started sweating, and called over the show director. After a hasty discussion, we reached a compromise: we would be able to leave immediately, and meet them back the next day at 2 p.m. (rather than at 9 a.m.) directly at the hotel (instead of at the rehearsal space). As it turned out, they were desperate to have Caucasian children participate, since the clothes were destined for the American market. I felt badly about taking advantage of our relatively rare ethnicity, but it seemed somehow fair given how often we had been treated brusquely because we were “foreigners”…

We showed up the next day at the appointed time and place, and were briskly directed to makeup stations. The girls caused a bit of a commotion, since only the most senior makeup artist was allowed to touch them (we didn’t care, the makeup people were quite hyper about it).

As they were being made up, they were constantly surrounded by the other kids in the show, who were fascinated by the process. Both Sami and Miranda were able to answer the kids’ simple questions in Chinese, which only generated more questions (as in, "how come you can speak Chinese?" and "are you a famous fashion model in America?"). It was fascinating to watch how much attention the girls generated, even in the country's capital. It was clear that most of the other kids had never had the chance to talk directly with a foreign child. (It was also SOO gratifying to watch the girls interacting with other Chinese kids, in Chinese, a mere two months after starting school!).

Over the next five hours, we suffered through the hurry-up-and-wait process so typical of last-minute productions. In this case, it was accentuated by the crew’s Laurel-and-Hardy approach to managing a cast of 30 children. Fortunately for my sanity, I decided early on to sit back and try to enjoy the humor in the entire experience (plus, we all had brought good books to read!).

The show was rehearsed several times that afternoon.


I tried to take photos and be helpful, but just couldn't stomach joining in the backstage stage-parent chatter about whose kid looked best.

At one point a TV crew came backstage to interview "these so-cute kids!" The parents' sharp elbows started flying as soon as the leig lights switched on... I always knew I could never be a beauty pageant parent -- thank goodness neither girl has ever expressed an interest!

Finally, it was show time!

The kids appeared onstage singly and in groups, and then sashayed down a 25-meter catwalk, accompanied by music blaring from a super high-tech sound system, and illuminated by a light show worthy of a Rolling Stones concert. The whole thing was being taped for national TV, and the catwalk was lined with photographers shooting with super-long lenses.



As it turned out, the show was a Very Big Deal. It was the opening show of China’s Fashion Week, which is the country’s biggest fashion confab all year. Now that Chinese factories clothe the world, it was no wonder that the seats were filled with buyers scribbling notes on their order forms. We’re not sure when the show will be telecast, but we were told we’d get a tape. The whole thing looked FABULOUS on the little TV monitor they had set up backstage.

It was amazing to see how it all came together in the end.

Best of all, the girls had fun, despite the interminable waits and the overall confusion. I suppose its every girl’s dream to walk down a fashion show runway. In this case, it was the Real Thing, and they were a perfect age – not too self-conscious, and truly ready to try just about anything!

So rush out and buy that latest fashion rag – you may see Sami and Miranda staring out at you from the Beijing report!

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