Monday, August 9, 2010


The Struggle of the Zhongruan

The four of us had just checked in at the airport and were heading through the metal detector when I was pulled aside and told that I could not take my zhongruan aboard and instead had to check it. If this were a movie, this would be the point when the violins would repeatedly bow the same high note over and over as the camera zoomed in on my face simultaneously frozen in and stricken with terror. "No," I assured the lady. "It's okay, I've taken this aboard before. It's how it got here." But she wouldn't let me through security. They told me I had to get it okayed by the people at the counter. So I walked quickly back to the counter with my face beet-red and covered in sweat, trying not to look too much like a guilty terrorist.

The attendants said that the bag was too big. I countered with, "Then how come I could bring it here in the first place?" They were uncharmed by my American sass and said, "If the flight is full then we can't let you take it." The manager sensed a disturbance in the force and swooped in like a vulture. "What seems to be the problem?" The way she posited this inquiry made it seem like more of an accusation than a legitimate question. I begged the woman. I pleaded. I told her that I was a musician (not exactly) and that the only reason I was going to China was to play this instrument (well that's stretching it) and that this instrument was irreplaceable and that I've never had a problem flying with it before and it is like my child and how can you ask me to part from it (where was this stuff coming from?). I hadn't slept the night before because, while reading a novel just outside the hostel room, I had been locked out by Gao Hong. This lack of sleep turned out to be an advantage as I found the fatigue made crying very easy.

So at this point, tears were flowing steadily down my cheek and a large percentage of the people checking in at the airline were staring at me, the manager and Ava, who had floated over and was dishing out her own encouragements and lies whenever I paused to sob or choke down some excess mucous. The manager noticed that for her this scene, what with the crying, young foreigner begging for his zhongruan to be let on, despite the fact that the case is technical 3 inches too long, didn't look that great for her or the airline. She said, "Fine, take this to the gate. Then they will have to check it there, but you can carry it to the gate." I thanked her theatrically for her pseudo-generosity. Now I would have another performance ahead of me. . .

At the gate, I covered the bright orange sticker that said "GATE ONLY" with my hands and at the opportune moment accidentally-on-purpose dropped my passport just as the lady was about to scan her probing eyes over my ever so subtly oversized zhongruan. She apologized profusely as we bumped heads attempting to pick up my dropped passport. And in her embarrassment she waved me through. When we were seated and I had hastily stashed my zhongruan into the overhead compartment (with no problem fitting it in!) I looked over and noticed that Gao Hong was gawking at me. "You are sooooo lucky!" she proclaimed. "Really! You are too lucky." This final iteration was complete with synchronized head shaking and tongue clucking. And as our plane took off for Beijing and all of my luggage was stored safely overhead, I had to agree that I was pretty damn lucky.

We Ain't In Kansas Anymore

We landed and there was suddenly a woosh of movement as everyone struggled to step over everyone else. I had barely woken up and everyone from toddlers to the elderly were pushing to get off the plane. What's the hurry? I thought to myself. But that's when I realized it. We were now in China and those last little bits of facade that we'd dealt with in Japan and Korea, the thing that made people wait politely at crosswalks for the light to change even though there was no traffic, or that courtesy that prevents people from staring at you because you're a foreigner, all that politeness had melted away once we touched down. "Welcome to China!" I expressed allowed. I saw Ava shiver out of the corner of my eye.

In China, there is a mentality that everyone needs to look out for número uno. Gao Hong has had a problem dealing with people here because of it. People ask her why she is studying this temple music, why she wants to save it, why she bothers with students when she could make more money just performing. But, as anyone who has ever met Gao Laoshi knows, she is driven by a passion for the music and not the paycheck at the end of the concert. And she loves her students. In America this is a valued trait. In China it is considered more of a liability. And this is something that modern Chinese people, especially her musician peers, have a hard time understanding.

Here, people push in line and haggle prices. Few favors are done unless it is an attempt to build guanxi, a complicated Chinese idea, usually translated as relationship but it's used almost like currency and might be better translated with more correct connotations as connections. There aren't the same concerns about politeness in public settings either.

A green light at the cross walk doesn't mean a car won't fly passed a red light and smoosh you. People spit on the street. And I don't mean just that they have extra saliva and spit it out. No, I'm talking full on hawking a loogie and sending that harvested phlegm, that collected bile soaring out into the street or onto someone's head if it was too inconvenient to turn away from the crowds. My friend Laura explained jokingly to me once in her Virginian drawl, "That's why everyone's got tuberculosis here. Cuz they're always spittin' on each other."

The other very bizarre thing is that every Chinese male, it seems, has a midriff that is just too overheated to cover up. So in the heat of July in Beijing every man and boy has his shirt pulled up to expose his stomach. There's no shame about having a beer belly either. It seems the fatter the man, the more likely he is to become overheated and hoist his shirt up. But enough about culture shock, back to the story.

We got to our hostel where Shao Min, Ava and I were to live (Gao Hong was staying at her mother's place) but, just like Korea, the booking had disappeared and there was no room at our Qing dynasty inn. Unlike Korea, these people were not about to bend over backwards for us and arrange a hotel room with a competitor. So we were homeless for awhile until, after some reluctant shuffling under Gao Hong's supervision, they came up with three beds for us in their sister hostel about 3 blocks away. The only catch was that instead of having a room to ourselves we would now be sharing it with two new randos every night. At this point we were so tired and hot and thirsty and hungry that we just said, "FINE!" We attempted to jam, but I actually fell asleep holding my mandocello. And Shao Min was kind enough to photograph me in this vulnerable state.

McDonald's Progressive

After settling in, meeting our roommates, realizing that the AC just was not going to work, and napping, I met up with my old friend from Middlebury, Christina, or as I knew her at Middlebury under the strict tutelage of a language pledge, LiNa. I had an exciting adventure navigating the Beijing bus system. I thought I was at the stop where she said she would meet me but every time I asked someone, they suggested "Search around the corner," or "Just across that park I think," or "Don't ask me, I'm a cop!" or "If you buy a fried dumpling, then I'll tell you."

Finally, I asked a woman in Chinese with a stern face who was wearing a pantsuit to put Hillary Rodham Clinton to shame, "Where is this stop?" Without hesitation she grabbed me by the wrist like a petulant child and told me to get on the bus that had just pulled up. Ha, as if I had a choice with her steel claws dragging me aboard. I wondered vaguely if I was about to be mugged. We rode one quick stop over in silence. She released her grip on my wrist and I actually felt the blood return to my hand as she told me very brusquely, "下车吧。你的朋友在这里等你。你的中文不错。“ "Get off the bus. Your friend is waiting for you here. Your Chinese ain't bad." I got off the bus and Christina ran into my arms screaming my Chinese name, "WeiAn!!!!" I turned back just in time to see the bus pull away with Chinese Hillary still aboard, smirking smugly to herself.

The rest of the night proceeded in an orgy of fast food and gossip. LiNa and I had a whole year's worth of information to exchange with each other. We realize that this would take the entire night, so we decide that we would make a pilgrimage from McDonalds to McDonalds since they are the only things open all night in Beijing. One thing we hadn't anticipated was the quality of the interesting people that would be in McDonalds at ungodly hours of the night. There were studious students studying studiously and plenty of napping homeless people. Both groups had bought coffees and drunk them halfway so that when the McDonalds workers approached them to ask them to leave, they could point to their unfinished drinks and say, "Now hold on, dude. I'm not done enjoying my beverage yet!" We even ran into 8 members of an NBA basketball team. All of the attendants behind the counter immediately recognized them and began saying their names. Christina and I looked at each to confirm that neither did we know any NBA players names, nor did we find them sufficiently interesting to stop our intake of fried chicken.

Every hour, LiNa and I ordered a chicken sandwich or a hot chocolate or a lychee drink or a tarot pie and then moved on in search of another McDonalds. One time we arrived at one only to find that it was closed for construction. A middle-aged woman and a young man whom LiNa and I hoped was her son and not her gentleman caller, saw that we were similarly disappointed when we saw the closed Mickey D's and offered to give us a ride to the next one over. LiNa and I exchanged meaningful glances. Mine said, "Never take a ride with a stranger." Hers said, "I'm pretty sure we can take 'em if it comes to that." Since I realized I was more afraid of Christina than our potential kidnappers, we hopped in the car and rode to the next McDonalds without incident. Though later the young man handed me his number and it turns out that his English name was Prancer. LiNa and I laughed at this for probably 90 minutes.

Eventually we wandered into a McDonalds-less area and had to contend ourselves with 7/11 ice cream. Around 4:30 we found a karaoke place that was still open. We went in and belted out some Lady Gaga which was a little weird because the attendants all gathered around to watch us. (For those of you who don't know, karaoke in China is not like western karaoke. You get a room with just you and your friends and then sing with just yourselves listening, so the fact that the guys would stand in the tiny room with us was pretty strange.) The signs on the wall of the karaoke room reminded us "No Gambling. No Drug Taking. No Whoring."

After leaving karaoke and blinking dazedly at the sunlight all around us, we realized that we had made it to 6AM when the subways restart and could take us home. Feeling disgusting from sweating, lack of sleep and so much junk food, I headed home for a quick nap before we began our day.

The Delicious Delights of Beiing

The day began in the afternoon (thank God!) with lunch. Amazingly, we can order food here and I actually know what we're getting since it's Dongbei Northeastern style food. I ordered my favorites, Hometown-style eggplant, Three Earthly Delights (they are potatoes, eggplant and green peppers, in case you were wondering) Spicy Tofu, Kungpao Chicken, and Sweet potatoes covered in sticky caramel that you have to eat quickly so that it doesn't solidify into an inedible mass on the plate.

My First Chinese Orchestra Concert!

Later in the afternoon our music studies in China officially began when we attended the concert of the best Chinese youth orchestra. They had had a summer camp and learned seven new pieces in as many days. They were terrific and it was a real pleasure for me because this was the first time I'd ever seen a full Chinese orchestra live. It was awesome! My favorite part was a lively piece in which the melody was passed around the orchestra. When it was passed to the dizi (flute), the first chair flutist popped right up and began playing. Then, for the repeat, two more dizi players jumped to their feet, somehow maintaining their embouchures and harmonized the melody. The pieces ranged from traditionals to a modern composition. It seemed hard to believe they only had a week to learn it all.

The Way Too Expensive Restaurant

That evening we drove over to the Gu Qin Restaurant. Gao Hong's old mahjong partner and her husband are the co-owners. It is by far the nicest restaurant I've ever been allowed to enter. The walls are decorated with ancient instruments, creeping ivy, and all sorts of pottery. We walked past the diners who were either seated on pillows on the floor or in booths along the walls with silk curtains draped around them for optional privacy. All of the people looked young, artistic and extremely interesting. I immediately felt boring, underdressed, and like I didn't belong, but then I remembered that at least I am exotic.

We were led into our own dining room with a 40-foot-long dining table made of one solid piece of wood from Brazil. We all marveled at this mammoth mahogany monolith as the maître d’ told us that the shipping of the wood from Brazil alone cost 50,000 RMB (about 8000 USD). Before our hosts arrived, Ava and I took this dramatic picture reenacting the gravitas that we imagined must accompany owning such an expensive tree corpse.

The food we were then served, I estimate, cost more than our entire food budget for the trip. Everything from shrimp to duck to spicy fish soup. There was wine and beer (though Gao Hong wouldn't let Ava have a sip of alcohol since she was too young in America to drink???? The logic didn't seem right, but we were all too preoccupied with the food to really care(except maybe Ava...)) and then they brought out a special treat from the kitchen. It was creme puff version of mochi with ice cream at the center. The combination of cold ice cream and hot dough and sweet powdered sugar and tart fruit flavoring was more than I could handle and for the second time in two days I welled up with tears. I couldn't tell if I had actually gone insane or not, but in my mind right then, that was literally the best thing I had ever tasted in my entire life.

After dinner, a student performed for us and we went to the guqin classroom and got to play around with the 7-stringed, fretless instrument. Ava, Shao Min and Alida spent a lot of time in the bathroom looking at the expensive lion-head sink faucets.

When I walked past the women's bathroom, the attendant asked Gao Hong if I was her son. Am I spending too much time with Gao Laoshi? This is getting ridiculous!

Finally, the guqin player decided she would play for us, which was amazing. She is one of the best guqin players in the world and it is always such an experience to hear a top player. She played Liu Shui Flowing Water and we all could hear the stream flowing past. For some perspective on the fact that she is the number one guqin player in the world, imagine if Yo-Yo Ma invited you to his restaurant and played a private concert just for you.

Before leaving, she casually gave Gao Hong a block of aged tea that was worth about the same as a plane ticket across the Pacific Ocean. We headed home that night full of delicious food and beautiful music--happy, full and content.

The rest of China is coming very soon! Sorry for the backlog (I can't believe that's a real word!), but I have just recovered from Typhoid in Taiwan, so I'm a week behind on everything. Post a comment, so I know you've been reading!


  1. Andrew! What amazing adventures!! I continue to be amazed at your (scary?) jedi powers of persuasion in getting your stuff on board the plane. I can't believe you stayed up all night wandering the streets/mcdonalds of beijing; sounds awesome. I'm sorry to hear you got typhoid!? that sounds awful. I hope you have recovered, and good luck jamming with this weekend!

  2. Dear Andrew,
    I loved your stories. You are such a good writer. I really liked the airport story. And what about Prancer? I also liked the dilemma of choosing to take a ride or if you could take them.

  3. I would give anything for some of those sweet potatoes right now!

    Also, re: the strange English names of the Chinese -- one of our roommates in Hangzhou was named Cookie, and another was named... wait for it... Dinox. We all said, "You know that's not a real name, right?" And he said, "Yes. But I dreamt it." (He is also the best person ever.)

    But Prancer is pretty solid.

  4. All I can say is that reading this is massively entertaining. :)