It was Tuesday night, the eve of the last day of camp and the kids' last chance to show us their appreciation. When the final whistle blew Wednesday, most of the kids, all of whom were members of minority groups, would head back to their villages for a few days of rest before beginning one of two equally grueling activities: life on the farm or a semester of school.
Our team had eaten a quick dinner after classes adjourned at five, and we were back at school around 6:30, the 24 foreigners slowly being herded into an upstairs dance studio with an open floorplan and mirrors on the walls. We had held music classes there this week, trampling the green-carpeted floors with endless rounds of the "Hokey Pokey" and "Row, Row, Row Your Boat." Our normal set-up included rolling the slightly out-of-tune piano to the center of the room, and having the 50-or-so kids surround us as we taught them words and motions to accompany the songs.
But tonight, we were the ones being directed. Parents, teachers, and the entire mass of students (over 100) filled the room and watched with eager faces as we filed in. Many of the students (the girls) were dressed in their traditional minority garb: the Akha students their navy blue get-ups accented with colorful fringes and pom-poms, the Dai kids in vibrant silk dresses, heavy make-up and elaborate hairstyles. Others wore normal school clothing, t-shirts emblazoned with strange designs and slogans. My favorite? A yellow shirt with navy blue lettering that said "Nuke: Don't Do It" with a warhead and its fiery tail forming a Nike-esque swoosh beneath. The teachers lingered in front, waiting for our procession to stop and for us to take our seats.
Front and center in the makeshift auditorium, the students had set up a long row of stools topped with plates brimming with fresh pineapple and crabapples. Each stool was flanked by two or three unopened bottles of water, and the line of stools formed a barrier between the crowd and the open area that would serve as the stage. We sat behind the stools, our eyes wide at the fruity feast before us, our stomachs wondering if we could handle it so soon after dinner. The barred windows to the room were open, letting in a humid breeze and mixing the sallow remnants of sunlight with the bluish tint of the weak lightbulbs in the room. We were the guests of honor, and we couldn't wait to see what the program would hold.
The students' shy murmuring stopped as a male teacher, presumably one of the school's administrators, began to speak. He welcomed us to the celebration, stating clearly what we already knew: this program was to honor us for our generosity in coming to teach their students. He called for us to sit back and enjoy the program they had prepared for us.
The first few acts were minority songs and dances performed by both Akha and Dai students. The Dai students had been studying a dance their people had inherited from Thailand. The kids in the spotlight had looked so childish in their t-shirts and jeans, but they transformed into elegant performers when the music switched on. During my high-tension visit last year, there was no room for cultural experiences like this, and I was glad to finally be able to see some Dai traditions in action.
While the Dai dances were characterized by delicate, sweeping hand motions and steady, soothing rhythms, Akha dances were more masculine in nature, and their activities were more animated in general. One of them required crowd participation. Four pairs of parallel bamboo poles lay on the floor. There was an Akha student stationed at each side of each set. On the teacher's count, they would begin a sequence of banging these rods on the floor: open, close, open, close, open, open, close. The object was for a pair of foreigners to get through this gauntlet without getting their foot trapped by the bamboo poles, which slapped together whenever the teacher said "Close!" Luckily, I'd done something like this in elementary school P.E., so I was prepared. With Katy as my partner, I was able to hold my own even as the speed increased.
Other acts included: a magnificent harp player, a very entertaining rendition of a Britney Spears song, and a Dai dance at the end that had us in a circular conga line learning how to twirl our wrists in the air and bow gracefully. When the circle broke, the mass of people became a frenzy of gift-giving and camera flashes. The young girls had made friendship bracelets, and they began sliding them on the wrists of their favorite teachers. They had also crafted tiny pillows that hung on yarn necklaces, and they put them on the male teacher of choice. Someone told us later that in Dai tradition, to accept someone's bracelet was to accept their marriage proposal. So we joked that Stephen, who had a neck wreathed in colorful yarn and bracelets up to his armpits, would have an ample pool of prospective wives if he ever came back to China.
Sensing that the festivities were winding down, the students began disposing of the leftover pineapple, and not with a trash bag. Running around the room, giggling, they stuffed slices in our mouths until all the trays were empty and our stomachs were about to burst. The adults in our group called for us to gracefully peel ourselves from the kids. Tomorrow would be the last day of camp, and the students would need some rest after such an exciting night. They snapped pictures and fed us fruit until the very last of us made it to the door, where we retrieved our shoes from the huge pile that had accumulated there.
The mood on the way back to the hotel was exuberant. The kids had shown us through their actions how much they appreciated our work. But as the cliche goes, they taught us much more than we could've ever taught them. For a long time, their faces, smiling in gladhearted appreciation, will fuel my fire for missions. Although we couldn't directly give them the Gospel, they felt the love of Christ as we imparted it to them, and in that, we were faithful witnesses.