“Do you have a performance dress?”
I assume this is referring to something to wear for the upcoming kindergarten graduation which is happening two days from now. After being postponed at least two times, it’s finally happening and it’s happening all at once.
“Like a dress? Yeah, I have a couple,” I say. I can’t blame the owner of the kindergarten for asking. I usually show up to teach in jeans and a t-shirt, hair up in a messy bun, and no make-up on. It’s so hot and humid that any effort I put into my appearance is squandered five minutes after leaving the apartment.
My Chinese coordinator (let’s call her Alice) says , “Like the dress you wore when we went to KTV?”
She says something to the kindergarten owner in Chinese.
The kindergarten owner shakes her head. “No, something like this.”
She turns her phone screen towards me. On it, a variety of what can only be described as gowns.
“No,” I say, “I don’t travel with dresses like that.” Subtext: I don’t own dresses like that. I’m a theatre-artist-turned-drama-teacher, not a pageant queen.
Fast forward a few hours and I’m in the car with my Chinese coordinator and another teacher, driving to rent a dress for the three minutes of stage time I have during this graduation show. I’m not looking forward to this endeavor. I’m a very curvy five-foot-nine packing some serious junk in the booty and boob areas. Most of the time, I’m okay with this. But my ‘unconventional’ body proportions can make shopping difficult, even in Canada. But this is China. And they definitely don’t make women who look like me here.
Alice isn’t afraid to let me know.
“What kind of colours do you like?” she asks.
“Anything. Blues, greens… nothing to make me look too pale.”
“Well you’re a little bigger than Chinese sizes, so we’ll just have to see what we can get.”
She’s being polite. Just a couple days ago, while scrolling through another English teacher’s Instagram, she pointed to a picture and said, “Oh, you’re so fat here.” It’s a common occurrence, really. We’ve been told that it’s a way to express concern over one’s health. I haven’t been on the other side of such a direct comment, so maybe I’m just not as cared about as the other teachers. Still, I know enough to understand what she’s eluding to.
I just nod and we continue to drive in silence until we arrive at an underground mall. I’m led through a maze of little stores and stalls until we reach a row of tiny dress shops. All the shop owners are sitting outside of their dress closets. They turn to look at me with wonder and amusement. And thus begins the series of visits to the stalls.
It goes like this: The Chinese coordinator approaches the shop owner and says something in Chinese. I don’t understand much but I can pick out lǎo shī (teacher) and èr shí (20) said a bunch of times, which I can only assume is referring to my size. Let it be known that while I am a full-figured lady, I’m nowhere close to a size twenty. The shop owner looks me up and down, does some clucking, and rummages through her selection of dresses, gestures to my boobs and clucks some more, rummages again. Alice and the Chinese teacher point to many gowns, but each time the shop owner shakes her head, waves her hand, and gestures to my hips. Finally a gown is produced. I take my shirt off, leaving on my leggings and running shoes, and with the help of the shop owner, dive into the gown. It is unceremoniously laced up. I am presented to Alice and the Chinese teacher and everyone looks at me with a slight head tilt. Alice takes some pictures, sending them to the owner of the kindergarten. I am unlaced and freed from the gown, I pull on my shirt again, and we repeat the process at the next shop.
After going through this ritual about 6 times, we go to a bubble tea place. I think they can tell that this experience has been exhausting, so the Chinese teacher buys me a lemonade and gives me a lollipop.
“Which one do you like?” asks Alice, scrolling through the pictures on her phone.
To be honest, I kind of hate them all. My boobs don’t fit in any of them, and yet I manage to look like the mother of the bride in each one. After trying to deflect the question for a solid two minutes, finally I pick the one that shows the least amount of a cleavage.
“How about this one?” I say.
Both the Chinese teacher and Alice are quiet. I take it this is not their first choice.
“I think this one.” Alice pulls up a picture of the sparkliest, most revealing gown.
I’m not completely thrilled about this choice of dress. I get stared at enough in this country, I don’t need this disco-ball of a gown drawing more attention to me than necessary. My small consolation in all of this is that the management of the kindergarten are clearly very concerned with appearances that they wouldn’t let me go onstage looking anything less than passable. So with this in mind, I decide to approach this whole experience with a sense of adventure. I mean, how many times does one get to wear a dress like this? I never went to prom, so I guess it’s the universe’s way of giving me that opportunity.
“Sounds great,” I say.
We return to the dress shop, and after some haggling, walk away with the dress rented for 500 kwai, or about 100 Canadian dollars.
The day of the graduation arrives. We arrive to the venue, a nearby ‘wedding hotel’ ballroom, just in time to catch them testing the LED stage lights before a hundred kiddos and their parents arrive.
With the help of another teacher, I am laced into the dress, keeping my jeans and running shoes on underneath. (In retrospect, this was a bad choice due to the 35 degree heat and insane humidity.) And I’m grateful to find out that it doesn’t look completely awful. With my hair a little more styled and a good amount of eyeliner, we can make this work. Which is comforting, because it turns out that gowns are not mandatory attire for all the other teachers. This great privilege is reserved for the international teachers only. Let me rephrase, this privilege is reserved for the female international teacher. Adam has been asked to wear a grey uniform polo and jeans.
The graduation show is a great success. And by great success, I mean as successful as a show can be when giving four year olds live microphones for the first time. There is singing, dance numbers, English drama performances, a teacher’s skit, much award giving, and finally a lovely ceremony where all of the graduating students are marked with a red dot on their forehead. I asked a Chinese co-worker the significance of this dot, and the answer was somewhere between tradition and good luck. The kids leave happy, parents chuffed that their little babies are growing up so fast, and the teachers end the evening with a dinner at the hotel, which includes the principal chugging beer with her younger colleagues. Oh China…
And that was how I said yes to the Chinese kindergarten graduation dress. While I can’t say I was thrilled about the whole process, I’m considering it a testament to how very seriously the Chinese take the education of their children.
Will I be in any more gowns while we’re here? If nothing else, China has taught me to never say never. If you want to see more of what we’re doing, eating, wearing here, drop your email down below or follow us on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter for the latest updates.