Saturday, March 31, 2012

That's All Folks

Thanks for reading! I will no longer be using this blog to post about my adventures with Chinese instruments and the musicians who play them. But, I'll leave this website up, so no need to blow all your printer ink on printing out all of the posts (cough. . . Mom!. . . cough).

So, if you'd like to start from the very beginning, click here.

If you'd like to start from the beginning of my research on Buddhist chant in Kyoto, Seoul, and Beijing, click here.

If you'd like to start from the beginning of my Watson Fellowship, researching Chinese musicians outside the Mainland, click here.

Thanks for reading everyone! Your support over the last TWO YEARS has not gone unappreciated. It was so comforting when crazy things were happening to me to know that at least it would make a good story!

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Watson Conference: The End of a Journey

Fly Away Home

I flew via Iceland back to Minneapolis and returned to Carleton College for the Watson conference which, in spite of the one in forty chance, was held at my home institution! Yay! First though I participated in a very random scavenger hunt across Minneapolis. Here we are dressed up as Malt-o-Meal taking a photo with a "family." Ahh, American culture, I didn't even know I missed you.

At the Watson conference, we stayed in Watson Hall. It's named after a different Watson who actually has a statue at a hospital in Fenyang, Shanxi Province, China, where I did my senior thesis field work. Picture below:

Just to make things even weirdly more full-circle-y, Watson hall was also my freshman year dorm AND I stayed just one room away from my original room. But I didn't think about it too much as I was really nervous to meet the other Watson Fellows!

When I walked in to Watson Hall (once again, no relation to Watson Fellowship), I was greeted with a, "If and only if you bring the Mandocello, may you come to rehearsal!" shouted simultaneously by three adults sitting at a table. I was baffled. What? Who the hell even knows what a mandocello is??? It turns out that that quote, taken from one of my quarterly reports, and referring back to my first email correspondence with the Taipei Mandolin Ensemble, was printed on the back of my Watson Card, a laminated baseball card-esque thingy that gave us the scoop on each other's projects. And those guys sitting at the desk at the entryway were the people belonging to the familiar names that I'd been corresponding with. I was like, Oh you reviewed my quarterly report! And, Oh, you told me to get the hell out of Japan! Good call!

The first thing on the agenda was a welcome dinner. It began, like so much else that weekend, with an open bar. Scarred from my Christmas market carding in Vienna, I tentatively approached, passport at the ready, but much like all the other apprehension I felt toward this conference, it was unnecessary. Within minutes all the fellows were chatting like old friends. The calibre of people there was so intimidating. Everyone was so knowledgeable, engaging, inquisitive, insightful, accepting, and of course unusually well-traveled. I met up with Professor Grow, the Watson liaison who literally spent hours reading and re-reading drafts of my proposal, and Dean Ciner who likewise had been so encouraging and gave them a run-through of my Watson journey. Talking with them was such a relief. Somehow in my mind, since I'd had such a good time on the Watson, I felt like they were going to ask for the money back. . . But no! It was all just a celebration that night and for the rest of the conference! This was a major weight lifted off of me, one I realized I'd carried all the way around the world.

The next day we had small discussion groups which were amazing. Everyone had such incredible stories to tell and insights into strangely specific, niche areas of study to share. But the general experiences of being on our own in this strange situation of being sponsored but not part of any institution gave us tons of common ground. The whole time I just kept thinking YES! that's exactly how I felt! Ahh! Why do you get me so well?! The conversations didn't end at discussion either. They kept going straight through all meals and walks from activity to activity. There was none of that awkward bubbling/group clickiness that usually happens. Everyone was so interesting and wanting to hear everyone else's stories that the convos just wouldn't stop. Sleeping did not happen for the rest of the conference. We just talked from dinner to breakfast, shifting from booze to coffee somewhere around 4:30.

The next day the presentations began! First we watched this video, which you can watch it by copy/pasting the address below into another screen (this blog is old people friendly).

It's made of our photos we sent in and quotes from our quarterly reports. It was so breathtaking to see all these people I'd just met and realize that we had been having these adventures all simultaneously. At the end it shows those Watson cards I alluded to earlier.

Five-hundred-twenty-five-thousand-six-hundred Minutes

To summarize our one year of travel all over the world, we had an excruciatingly brief 10 minutes. Hearing everyone's summaries, I felt like I'd aged 40 years because I was now carrying around 40 slices of these powerful, formative years of adventure and exploration. I heard about spoken word workshops, children's games, electronic art, climate change, parkour, boofing, cocoa production, video game culture, emergency rescue and so much more! There were too many amazing stories: people fleeing Egypt during the Arab Spring, people being required by law to be topless on the island of Yap, two Watsons running in to each other in a hostel and slowly realizing that they were on the same fellowship!

But I was especially worried about representing my year since Dean Ciner and Professor Grow, who had trusted me to represent Carleton, would be watching my presentation. How do I get across my year in just 10 minutes? Thinking back over the experiences, the different people I met, the different foods I ate, the different books I read, the random conversations I heard next to me in cafes, the music I played and composed, the concerts I attended, it just became a big swirling mass. Sure I could go by the numbers:

92 books

21 flights

14 airport crying sessions

11 concerts

9 ensembles

7 stitches

5 1/2 countries (Does Japan count?)

4 elementary schools

3 car accidents

2 destroyed Kindles (thanks Amazon for free replacements)

1 time falling in love

But that doesn't really express it. Insert obvious Rent reference here:

(Also, in case you're curious, these are the books I read on the Watson. They were picked partly out of what I wanted to read and partly out of what I found in hostels and the minute English sections of book stores in rando countries:

The Magicians Lev Grossman

Huck Finn Mark Twain

A Briefer History of Time Stephen Hawking

A Clockwork Orange Anthony Burgess

Confessions of a Shopaholic Sophie Kinsella

Eat, Pray, Love Elizabeth Gilbert

Ender’s Game Orson Scott Card

Ender’s Shadow Orson Scott Card

Shadow of the Hegemon Orson Scott Card

Shadow Puppets Orson Scott Card

Great Gatsby F. Scott Fitzgerald

A Home At the End of the World Michael Cunningham

How I Paid for College Marc Acito

Attack of the Theater People Marc Acito

How the Irish Saved Civilization Thomas Cahill

Precious Sapphire

Oxford Murders Guillermo Martinez

1Q84 Haruki Murakami

The Sound and the Fury William Faulkner

Sophie’s World Jostein Gaarder

Castle in the Pyrenees Jostein Gaarder

The Solitaire Mystery Jostein Gaarder

The Orange Girl Jostein Gaarder

The Help Kathryn Stockett

Boy Meets Boy David Levithan

World War Z Max Brooks

The Geography of Bliss Eric Weiner

Geography Club Brent Hentenburg

Order of the Poison Oak Brent Hentenburg

Golden Compass Philip Pullman

The Subtle Knife Philip Pullman

The Amber Spyglass Philip Pullman

Brideshead Revisited Evelyn Waugh

Unbroken Laura Hillenbrand

A Visit from the Goon Squad Jennifer Egan

The Next 100 Years George Friedman

New Rules Bill Maher

Outliers Malcolm Gladwell

Committed Elizabeth Gilbert

The Hunger Games Suzanne Collins

Catching Fire Suzanne Collins

Mockingjay Suzanne Collins

The Possessed Elif Batuman

Room Emma Donoghue

The Piano Teacher
Elfriede Jelinek

Skippy Dies Paul Murray

A Wrinkle in Time Madeleine L’Engle

Many Waters Madeleine L’Engle

The Curious Incident of Dog Night-Time Mark Haddon

What the Dog Saw Malcolm Gladwell

Never Let Me Go Kazuo Ishiguro

I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell Tucker Max

Lost on Planet China J. Maarten Troost

The Sex Lives of Cannibals J. Maarten Troost

Life of Pi Yann Martel

Genesis Bernard Beckett

Pride and Prejudice Jane Austen

Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! Richard P. Feynman

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Stieg Larsson

The Girl Who Played with Fire Stieg Larsson

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest Stieg Larson

The Passage Justin Cronin

Siddhartha Hermann Hesse

David Copperfield Charles Dickens

The Road Cormac McCarthy

Ancient China Simplified Edward Harper Parker

A History of China Wolfram Eberhard

The Giver Lois Lowry

Brothers Yu Hua

哈利波特与魔法石 J.K.罗琳

The Strain Guillermo del Torro

The Imperfectionists Tom Rachman

Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me Chelsea Chelsea Handler

Lies that Chelsea Handler Told Me Chelsea Handler et. Al.

My Horizontal Life Chelsea Handler

i know i am, but what are you? Samantha Bee

Official Book Club Selection Kathy Griffin

American On Purpose Craig Ferguson

流浪的終站 三毛

The Bedwetter Sarah Silverman

Bossypants Tina Fey

Earth Jon Stewart

Dress Your Family in Corduroy David Sedaris

Me Talk Pretty One Day David Sedaris

Naked David Sedaris

When You Are Engulfed in Flames David Sedaris

Dry Augusten Burroughs

Magical Thinking Augusten Burroughs

Running with Scissors Augusten Burroughs

Stories I Only Tell My Friends Rob Lowe

Freedom Jonathan Franzen)

I decided that I would just explain my daily routines of morning cafe/reflection/reading, afternoon practice sessions/rehearsals with groups I'd met, dinners with crazy cool interesting people, random accidents that I had, usually involving traffic but also sometimes lightbulbs and contrasted with my usual bizarre knack for meeting exactly the right people at exactly the right time in exactly the right mood, and finish with apologetic (due to my still recovering hand) samples of new Chinese folk on my zhong ruan and the campus folk of Taiwan by accompanying myself singing on the mandocello.

First I played Good Flower, Round Moon(花好月圆) and explained its often lied about history. The campus folk example was The Olive Tree橄欖樹), which I first heard Shao Min singing on a bus during senior week before the Watson started. I continued to hear it throughout the Watson. The lyrics were written by San Mao (三毛)who had a crazy interesting life. She wrote diaries from diaspora that became wildly popular amongst Chinese populations. She was born in the mainland but moved to Taiwan when she was young. She fell in love in Taiwan and had her heart broken which is when she decided to go as far away from Taiwan as she could. So Sanmao lived in Europe, North Africa, and Central America, falling in love with a couple of Europeans along the way and writing over 20 books about life abroad. Eventually she returned to Taiwan though it didn’t feel like home to her. After teaching for awhile, she hanged herself with silk stockings from 7/11 (though some claim she was murdered). Although I hoped I would cope better with return to my homeland, I really found myself relating to the lyrics in my year of exile. (Not that I'm at all trying to compare with the older generation of Taiwanese who waited their whole lives in vain to return to their hometowns in the mainland.) Here’s a really breathy cover:

Don’t ask me where I came from.
My hometown is a distant place.

Why must wanderers wander so far?
Wander so far?

For the little bird soaring across the empty sky,
For the little stream lost in the mountains,

And for the boundless grasslands,
the wanderers wander far, far, far away.

And still there is the olive tree of my dreams,
that olive tree.

Do not ask me where I came from.
My hometown is far away.

I learned the song the night before I performed it, but it went better than I’d ever practiced it which was a nice surprise. I think I somehow managed to ride the conference’s emotional waves of nostalgia and squeezed out some tears from the audience too.

After the final presentation, we watched that slideshow again, and wow did it have different meanings. Now it wasn't just oh yeah, there are two Mayas, that's confusing. Now there's Topless Maya (because of her photo on Yap) and Conflict Maya (because of her work informing the Israeli/Palestinian conflict with South Africa and Ireland). And that's not the "girl who did the Voices Behind the Veil project." It's Roxy! The amazing poet who performed so powerfully for us, who gave women around the world a stage and a method to express themselves, and who is an astonishingly talented hugger. (BTWz, Roxy and I shared some sort of strange past-life type bond from the second I met her and she even inspired me to write a song using her poetry as lyrics.)

Something was different on that second viewing. After rewatching the slideshow, I think we were all secreting ocularly.

The final night wrapped up with a last supper and then a ridiculous dance party (again with an open bar socially lubricating the entire event). Somehow everyone ended up topless and I did some sort of very strange capoeira drunk dance that left me sore for days. When the DJ packed up we moved the party over to the Watson Hall-adjacent cottage and talked until sunrise. We all just couldn’t shut up. I don’t have a way to do the night justice, but it was an evening I’ll remember forever. Bittersweet, but also only possible, because of the weekend’s brevity.

In the morning I bid farewell to my 39 new best friends.
Having the conference at Carleton (staying on my freshman floor!) in Watson Hall was bizarre. Much like my conclusions about my year, the symbolism makes sense in my head but when I try to explain it. . .

But I’ve never been around a group of people who were simultaneously so impressive and accepting, fascinating storytellers and engaged listeners. We bonded over our stories of intestinal distress, imagining Cleveland, the Watson president, as an obese black man when he is in fact a skinny white dude, and the general shock we felt upon return to find out the world had continued on without us, The conference was one of the top highlights of my whole year and I just was not expecting that at all. What a collection of people. I feel so incredibly privileged to have gathered with them.

When the conference was over I felt exhausted physically from dancing and not sleeping for three days but mainly I was emotionally exhausted. I felt like I’d taken 40 years of travel in one weekend. I was full of questions I wanted to keep asking all the fellows. I also wanted to ask Jennifer if the dances usually got so naked. Here's the only other photo I have of the conference as we get in to the elevator to Watson Hall to pack up to go home.

So I was full of so many raw feelings. Relief in having passed the Watson test. Joy in having met so many amazing people. Excitement for continuing life in this same passionate manner that the Watson had taught me. Fear that when the Watson bubble burst, that I’d grow cynical again. Loss: it was rough losing this community of people shortly after finding out that they even existed. And though we had such different years, we shared something in common, both in preexisting traits that the Watson people were looking for and in the lessons we’d learned on our Watson journeys. Hopefully, I'll see my fellow Watsons fellows again on some Ides of March reunion. The only other Watson Fellow from my hometown chatted with me and said that more than 20 years later, she still goes to the traditional Ides of March Watson reunions.

Ashes to Ashes,
Watson to Watson

After the conference, I stayed awhile with Miss Hannah Trees who was still in Northfield on a political philosophy study grant. Walking around the place I'd called home for the four years previous to the Watson was eerie. Carleton didn't have the emotional impact I thought it would. But a large part of that was that I never was particularly attached to the buildings or that specific combo of latitude and longitude. It was all about the people there and with the exception of the Poetess Hannah Trees, they were all diasporated. So we had fun walking the ghostly campus, drinking boxed wine (tip it!) and making midnight runs to Dacie Moses a.k.a. Cookie House. It was good closure. I think it's kind of like seeing a dead body at a funeral. You need to know that the person isn't really there anymore. Likewise, Carleton as I knew it is gone. Times change blablabla

It's also hard to think about all the friends I made and probably won't see again. Places aren't just colored regions on a map anymore. For me, Taiwan, France, Austria, Singapore, Japan, and Hong Kong are full of faces and memories now. Ok, I'm officially the most corny person ever, but it's how I feel so shut up.

Anywho, now I’m sitting in a café in Oxford, two-thirds done with my master’s degree in musicology (photo of matriculation with my housemates on the right). I didn’t want to finish this post because I had this idea that it would be the final nail in the coffin of my Watson year. But as Jennifer, Watson email respondent extraordinaire pointed out to me, the way I lived my Watson life can be the way I live the rest of my life. You get back what you put into it. So finally, I’m ready to move on with my life, taking with me the incredible life lessons learned on the Watson. But will I ever be able to escape a Watson in my life? Now Emma Watson is at Oxford. Who will next year's Watson be?

I’m taking a gap year between my master’s and PhD, teaching English in an elementary school in Shanghai. Somehow I just can’t seem to stay pinned down to one place for very long. Maybe I’ll always be a chronic drifter. No place really does feel like home anymore, which is a strange feeling, but I’ll keep searching for that olive tree, bearing in mind that the search may be the best part.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The End is Nigh!

If You Just Look to Your Left. . .

As soon as I'd gotten into the swing of things, I had to become a tour guide for my pals Emily and Wade. I led them around my favorite sights, back to Lamma Island, and around the Avenue of Stars leaving plenty of time to rest from the oppressive heat in various cafes. At night we watched the stupid, stupid light show where these buildings flash to EPCOT Center-esque music.

We went up the Point in a cool little trolley (the gears to which looked straight off the set up Wicked) and ate Bubba Gump's shrimp while enjoying the panoramic views of Victoria Harbour. We did not however enjoy good photography from me as evidenced by the shadowy figures in this photo's foreground.
Emily and Wade had planned to go to Tibet, but totally unfortunately for them and me it was closed to foreigners due to feared protests. So instead they headed on to Japan leaving me with a list of 11 possible places to go after my apartment contract ran out. Here you can see a less shadowy picture of Emily and Wade getting fancy drinks at Hong Kong's most expensive hotel.

Strange Randos

I've collected strange friends while in Hong Kong. I met all of them by chance either by wandering into their restaurants or tea stands or by literally running into individual people. I actually don't think I've literally run into any buildings . . . yet, I should say. I'm knocking on wood.

Besides Jia Jia and Ying Ying (the pandas to the right who insisted I pay them a visit) I have met an Italian Sommelier who for some reason is working in Hong Kong and an Argentinian cantor who works in a Jewish Temple in Hong Kong and knows tons about music theory. Then there are the locals who always give me updates on their extended families as I wait for my order to be ready. When I get my bubble tea, I usually find out about one woman's son Henry who gets into fights in school. Henry is 22.
I haven't asked for further explanation. When I wait for my noodles, I usually find out about the latest weather in Houston because the man who works there has a nephew studying political economy in the States. And I continued to hang out with Jafi and his friends. Here he can be seen getting way too excited at the arcade.
I can't explain how nice it is that Hong Kong no longer feels like a city full of strangers.

The Butterfly Lovers

The crowning moment of my time in Hong Kong was seeing the violin concerto Butterfly Lovers (based on what is often called the Chinese Romeo + Juliet) be performed by Lu Si-qing himself!!! His version is one of, if not the highest, selling traditional Chinese recordings of all time. There are also hilarious dialogues that exist where people who play Western music congratulate him on bringing Chinese flavor to the violin and then people from the Chinese tradition vehemently argue that he is bringing Western flavor to Chinese music.

I arrived late to the concert and was totally disheveled and frustrated with being so lost, but the performance was beyond any I'd yet seen. It was just so damn good, and after this whole year of concert going I can honestly say it was my favorite musical performance I’ve ever seen. Here’s a link to a version where he’s backed by a western orchestra which just doesn’t do it justice at all. There’s also something very compelling about seeing Lu Si-qing live that doesn't translate to video. I think his presence doesn't come across but maybe it's something else.

We gave him four standing ovations before he finally gave in and played an encore. After the performance I cued up to speak with Lu Si-qing and managed to actually talk with him. His interest was peaked because I knew the other concerto artist as she was Gao Hong's classmate at the Beijing Central Conservatoire. She owned the disturbingly expensive restaurant that our group dined at in Beijing. She asked, "Hey, what are you doing here? You are Gao Hong's student, right? You play Chinese instruments, right?" Then Lu Si-qing looked at me and asked in very nice English, "Wow, do you really play Chinese instruments?" I explained my dealio briefly and he told me I should talk to an ethnomusicologist in Heidelberg because she was working on the same issues I've been looking at. After I said a quick good bye I skipped out of there. I can't remember even going home but I do remember the feeling of being ridiculously, face-numbingly happy.

Hong Kong was an interesting experience. People were very friendly and the environment was reminiscent of Singapore, but there are a lot more arts events. I also didn’t play in any ensembles the entire time, mainly due to my hand injury. I think this was actually beneficial. I hung around a lot more talented or "professional" musicians and listened more. I also began composing a lot! Somehow after hearing all of this music this year, stuff is starting to come out, and I really like it. Though it sounds totally Western to me, everyone keeps telling me it sounds Chinese. . . hmm. . . .

Return to Wienerland

On my way home, I went the other way around the world and decided to revisit my friends in Vienna. The entire Taiwanese community was gathering to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Republic of China. There was a special guest: Taiwanese born criminologist Henry Lee. I'd never heard of him, but he worked on such infamous cases as OJ Simpson and JonBenet Ramsey. We bonded over living in America, but I didn't mention to him that he seemed to work on cases where things didn't seem to work out very well.

I sang in the choir in Taiwanese and German. The shock at feeling comfortable doing these things now caused me to become all reflective. I’ve really changed so much. I used to dread meeting new people and speaking in foreign languages. But that old fear of embarrassment has been conditioned out of me. I feel more confident and less apologetic for being an incompetent idiot. I guess being abroad for a year has made me more American. When I talk to people I feel interesting, and, actually, I think I kind of am interesting now.

When I was writing my Watson proposal I wrote it in the mindset of, alright, this is what I would want to do if I were good enough, or smart enough, or talented enough. But you know what? I don’t need to pretend to be someone else anymore, and that is so liberating. But now the Watson conference is looming and I'll have to figure out how I stack up next to the other fellows. And I'm actually quite nervous about heading home. It'll be so strange to go back when everything just went on without me.

Right before leaving Hong Kong, I saw this ominous warning that seemed more like a fortune cookie for my emo soul than a warning of physical danger.

Before leaving Austria, I saw these guys enjoying sheesha/hookah midstream. The meaning for this is less clear to me, but definitely optimistic.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

When It Rains, It Pours

Lamma Island

A lot of Watson Fellowships take Americans deep into the wildernesses of third world countries, far from the luxuries of modern living, challenging urban dwellers to cope without indoor plumbing or electricity. Whereas my project has had the opposite effect on me. While I usually do have to squat unless I can find a Western style toilet, in Hong Kong my greatest challenges are hunting elusive open seats in airconditioned free wifi cafes. I'm a little bit confused as to whether I love living abroad or just in cities. I mean, I guess I could also enjoy public transportation and Starbucks in America; I've just never had the chance before. To the right is a shocking example of the local standards of hygiene.

But recently I grew weary of city life and took a 20 minute ferry ride to Lamma Island. It's a sleepy little island that takes only a strenuous 2 hour hike to traverse. It has lots of really cool restaurants and shops that sell handicrafts and freshly caught seafood, irrespectively. Many expats live on the island because it is cheaper than living in the city and also much quieter. And unlike local Hong Kongers they are unconcerned with the prestige of living in a good location. The brightly painted buildings and chill vibe also come off as oddly Caribbean. (Bonus: I just noticed that in this photo upove there is a dog peaking out of a backpack!)

I passed through the one road that leads through the northern village, through some hills which featured lovey-dovey graffiti commemorating honeymoons. Pictured below is the meanest public defacement I could find. After a 15 minute hike I got to the first beach, plopped down on a bench and began reading when a girl my age asked me if she could sit next to me. She then scoffed at the other people on the beach. I looked up from my read and noticed a pattern. There were roughly two dozen couples and they ALL consisted of a youthful Asian girl who looked good in her two-piece and an obese white dude with more hair on his back than on top of his head. I made a face and told my benchmate, "Yeah, that's pretty gross."

"The worst part is that those guys don't realize that most of the girls are Vietnamese immigrants looking for a green card. Ugh. Don't look now, they're snogging." I didn't want to look but like Lot's wife or the Four Tops, I couldn't help myself. I paid the price for my curiosity, my eyes burned like lasik gone bad.

"I'm Ling. I'm also hungry. Do you want to go get some organic vegan food?" How could I say no? I had eaten more than my fair share of chicken feet in the previous week so I was keen to escape meat and the gross couples. We passed by the water (which is supposed to be safe because of the shark net but the fact that one is needed kind of freaks me out) to get our feet wet but decided against it since the water was filled with plastic bags and bottles. This plastic manufacturing plant is the main source of the pollution.

While eating beans on vegan toast at the Bookworm Cafe, Ling told me that she was from Suzhou (about an hour from Shanghai) and was traveling to Hong Kong for holiday. She is an English major and after finding out I was American, switched her vocabulary and accent accordingly. I was thoroughly impressed since I still can't do a British accent and English is my native language. But I'm inspired by Ling and Amy Walker to keep trying.

She, Ling not Amy Walker, confessed her fanaticism for comic books so we headed off to the discounted movies to see the new X-Men movie, only mildly concerned that we looked like the couples we had previously mocked. Here' Ling on the scenic hiking trails on Lamma Island. In the picture of me you can't directly see it, but my shorts are being held together with about a foot and a half of ducttape.

After the movie, I told her it was my turn to suggest a geeky event and we went to Zhongying music concert. Zhong means Chinese and Ying means English. It was a concert in a park done by senior citizens. They played traditional Chinese folk tunes on western instruments. Violins for erhus, guitar for plucked instruments and saxophone for bamboo flute and suona. I was impressed with their ability to get extremely authentic Chinese sounds from their extremely not Chinese instruments.

Keeping My Composers

The next week I went to an amazing concert where almost all of the pieces were world premieres. They were introduced in either Cantonese or Mandarin by the composers in person! There were 10 pieces which ranged in size from a comical duet between erhu and pipa, depicting an argument two travelers have on the road, to pieces for the entire Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra. Not all of the pieces were knockouts but what some lacked in realization, they made up for in ambition. Every piece involved novel ways of making sounds on instruments. One piece, a trio between flute, sanxian (a three stringed cello-type instrument), and pipa called for the pipa player to pretend to hack up a lung. She was thoroughly convincing.

The best part of the concert was that afterward the composers were to linger in the foyer to mingle with the plebes. The two composers from Beijing looked lonely so I went up to them and introduced myself in Chinese which always gives people way too good of an impression on my Chinese abilities since I've thoroughly practiced my spiel of who I am and what I'm doing and it involves lots of obscure vocabulary. But I soon had drawn a crowd around me of mostly gawkers who were pointing at the whitie speaking Mandarin. But since the rest of the composers were carrying on in Cantonese, the three of us Mandophiles kept up our conversation. They both were postgraduates at Beijing Central Conservatory in composition. For one of the composers this was his first time composing for non-Western instruments so we discussed the different challenges of composing for Chinese orchestra.

Then they announced that the composers would go out for drinks and I got invited along. Yes! Some of the other composers looked at me and asked in an 80% joking sort of way, "Are you old enough to drink?" Sigh. I have been for 5 years in Hong Kong. At the bar, I discovered that composers are very serious about their music and possibly even more serious when it comes to drinking. But I'd learned my lesson from my previous encounter with Mongolian musicians in the Swiss Alps and nursed my one drink while the others had 6 rounds. Once the slurring of words began to affect my comprehension of my inebriated friends, I got email addresses for the Beijingers and escaped before things got too out of hand.

Another Near-Death Experience (辣肚子)

Jafi decided to take me to a place that has a spicy food eating competition. He had had enough of me complaining about food not being spicy enough and was ready to shut me up for good.The noodle shop in question has a contest; if you eat their spiciest noodle bowl in 10 minutes then you get it free. I was starved and ready for the challenge. Jafi ordered me the "Star Challenge Spice Bowl" and ordered himself a bowl of the least spicy noodles. The waitresses teased him in Cantonese so I couldn't understand the words but the drift of it was clearly, "You pussy."

The noodles came and I took a bite and the waitress started the timer. My first thought was, "Huh, it's not that bad." On my tongue the spice was totally tolerable but my face immediately flushed a deep crimson and my stomach gave an audible turn before I'd even swallowed that first bite. My eyes sprung tears like I was watching the Notebook which ran down my face and converged with a steady stream of snot that was shooting down my upper lip. I tried to breath in cooling air, but my lungs seemed to have seized. I just panted for a minute. I couldn't breath and wasn't convinced I had control over any of my orifices so I did the only sensible thing; I took another bite. My symptoms doubled instantly and I began hiccoughing obscenely. My body was rejecting this food and telling me it was poison, but my psyche said, "Don't lose face!" which was pathetically unrealistic since most of my face was melting in a gathering puddle of sweat, snot and saliva on the tabletop. I rushed to the bathroom setting some sort of digestive landspeed record. This is definitely TMI but how could it already be spicy coming out?

With the poison emitted from my body, I returned to the table covered in sweat and 10 pounds lighter than when I left. Jafi was also covered in sweat but his perspiration was guffaw induced. The waitstaff would have none of this though. They scolded him and asked him how he could treat a guest like this and how he could really be from Hong Kong and enjoy such bland noodles. Just then the buzzer went off and I waved my white flag and paid for my noodles defeated more completely than I would have thought possible.

Pictured right is my favorite mode of transportation in Hong Kong. On Hong Kong Island you can take this double decker trolley. The wind blowing on your face is a great way to recover from a near fatal dose of peppercorn.

The Death of Hobbies

After weeks of playing email tag, I finally had meetings with all of my musician and ethnomusicologist contacts all in the same week and everyone had very similar things to say. It's interesting how Hong Kong manages to be simultaneously similar to Singapore, Taiwan, and the Mainland in different facets.

It's similar to Singapore in that it has a strange mix of British and local culture. It's also similar in that it's sort of one big city with lots of people that are very work oriented. This stinks for the music scene because, as almost every random person I meet in Hong Kong tells me, they used to play piano, violin, or even Chinese instruments, but then had to give it up when they started high school because the academics were so rigorous. As an American, where high school seems set up to accommodate extra-curriculars, this seems totally bizarre. Also, as one ethnomusicologist preached to me with intense eye contact that contained unsettingly few blinks, "People work so hard that they just collapse when they get home. They definitely aren't going to spend that money, let alone the time on a hobby like a musical instrument."

Hong Kong is similar to Taiwan in that it is sort of part of China and sort of not. It's not disputed like Taiwan. Hong Kong is a special administrative region which means it enjoys such privileges as free speech, but the Chinese government still has its ways of controlling its denizens. One local told me about the exodus in the 90s that occurred when Hong Kongers realized that they were going to be under the control of the same government that was responsible for the student massacre at Tian An Men. One quarter of the population left, heading to the USA, Australia, and especially Canada.

Finally Hong Kong is actually part of the People's Republic of China and you can now take a train straight to Beijing. There are tons of Mainlanders working in Hong Kong trying to save up money to make a triumphant return back home. One ethnomusicologist told me his idea for why traditional music is in decline which I can't quite wrap my head around. He said the problem with traditional music in Hong Kong is everyone is too impressed by it. And it's true. When people heard I played zhongruan, they would say, "Wow! You are so clever. I couldn't appreciate that kind of music." So apparently there's too much reverence for it, so it's dying out. Does that make sense to other people?

Marketing Misnomer

I bought a CD of the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra which was called Music for Tranquility. This struck me as bizarre because it was full of lively pieces like Golden Snake Dance and Dragon Boat Race. It also heavily featured gongs, guanzi, and suona, an instrument that rivals bagpipe for its ability to imitate nails on a chalkboard. But I suppose it's hard to advertise Chinese music as music to get you pumped! with all the techno and heavy metal floating around out there.

Korner Karma

The other day I was carefully moving about the apartment disaligning right angles when I realised that I was suffering from the very same compulsions I had previously been mocking. I had developed an obsession with sliding chairs, napkins, towels, toothbrushes slightly askew. At first, it was just to marvel at the thoroughness of my roommate's inspections. Even if I turned the salt shaker in the cabinet it would inevitably be corrected upon my next inspection, but I wasn't so sure of my true motivation anymore. After 20 days in the apartment, I had to seriously question my sanity. I explained my predicament to my landlady who immediately instructed me to practice Taichi. I figured it couldn't hurt and joined the elderly in the park near me for the rest of my time in Hong Kong.

Up Next!

A visit from Emily and Wade forces me into the tourguide business.

I see the best concert of my entire life.

I meet strange expats including an Italian sommelier and an Argentinian cantor

and I discuss my continued struggles to reclaim my sanity.

Monday, May 30, 2011

A Week in the Life

Getting My Act Together

Wow, there's so little to tell after just a week. A lot of my time has been spent prepping the last of my Watson plans. I'm incredulous at the idea that there are only two months left and then I'll be back in the US after 13 months of exile.

Unfortunately I waited minutes too long to buy my ticket back to America. The prices suddenly doubled as you can see from the screen capture below. But most fortunately, it looks like I will coast out of the Watson having spent exactly the amount I was allotted. That's good because it would be too painful to be underbudget and have to give the money back.

I'm also working on the back and forth of attempting to go to Tibet. I originally thought I might return to Kyoto. Then the possibility of seeing a new place and the ever-alluring promise of altitude sickness tempted me to move inland. But just today I've discovered that Tibet is closed. There are expected protests in late June/early July and the Chinese government doesn't want foreigners witnessing unrest, so I may end up going back to Japan after all. It's all up in the air. But I'm all for the suspense and random changes in plans. It usually leads to exciting adventures.

A Previous Engagement

Last Saturday I went to two concerts. The first was in the afternoon and featured solos by the "young musicians" of the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra. They were all amazing virtuosos on their instruments and I managed to speak with three of them after the show. Two replied that they did this because they were good at it. It was a job, not who they were. The third, who was the only one who spoke Chinese with me, was very different. The best way I can describe her is "eagerly alive." When she talked about why she played music, an aura of passion radiated from her. I know it sounds all mimsy pimsy to say things like radiating an aura of passion, but even just reminiscing about being in her presence forces me into using such language. It was obvious that she did this because she loves the music, the culture, the history, and her role within it. We were getting along very well and she invited me to go to dinner with her afterward. I winced and she felt badly like she had totally overestimated the level to which we were getting along. I tried to explain, "No, it's just I have a. . a. . a. . a previous engagement." I didn't want to tell her that I was going to see a Maroon 5 concert since she had just bashed popular and rock music, but this covering of the truth came off as just generally deceptive. She thought I was lying to get out of eating with her. I tried to convince her otherwise, but she looked seriously bummed. I took down her email address, promised to arrange a meeting with her later, and headed off to see Maroon 5 with Tree's sister's ex-boyfriend, Jafi.

Jafi studied in England so his English is excellent. He's a classic fool for the ladies. He waited a year between high school and college for a girl. Then they broke up. After graduating university, he waited another year in England for Tree's sister, Mandy. He put his economics degree to good use, making his living performing diablo and Chinese juggling sticks for primary schools. Then he and Mandy too broke up. I asked him what he wanted to do next, and he said go to Japan. Why Japan? Japanese girls. . .

We met his friends (all female, of course) at the concert, the ticket for which cost more than all of my other concert tickets in Asia combined. I justified this by claiming that contrasting Westerner pop concerts in Asia with traditional concerts was necessary to get the full picture. Despite the pain in my wallet we had a blast mocking the crazy antics of the other concert goers juxtaposed with somber-faced security guards wearing red berets. Maybe it was just my sobriety amidst the boozed up fans, but it seemed like everyone else was dancing especially idiotically. I joined in, mocking them at first, but at some point my "dancing" became sincere.

The Marooned 5: Walking After Midnight

After the concert Jafi, his three friends and I went to eat at an area by his house and I tried a few local dishes which were supposedly spicy, but nothing in Hong Kong so far has seemed spicy after Singapore, though I've been told I might be getting the white man treatment. Damn you traveling Minnesotans ruining white-spice-tolerance reputations abroad!

After eating and chatting I tried to head home but the MTR, the subway, was already closed. I talked with an attendant for awhile and tried to figure out how to walk home. Hong Kong is totally walkable. It's a small place, but I keep accidentally taking really circuitous routes everywhere. This doesn't bother me because I have plenty of time and every time I walk from my apartment to the station I encounter new food stands and sights. But when it's after midnight and you are tired and afraid of being attacked by the Triad, it's kind of an issue. I kept walking past groups of Indian men who would silence their talk as I approached, eye me menacingly, and then burst out laughing after I passed. This happened at least 6 times. It was all thoroughly creepy as I thought about how long it would be before anyone realized I had been captured, tortured, and murdered. After 2 hours I finally found my way home and I now finally know the area. I'm saving so much time now! If only I had somewhere to rush off to. . .

Linguistic Barriers

This sign, especially with the picture, makes me think that cars should be afraid of pedestrians with superpowers and not the other way around. But I'm new here. Maybe that's the way they do in HK.

When I get food it's super awkward to guess which language to speak. People usually understand Mandarin, but depending on their age they may have been well educated in English. People educated before the British handover know English well. Then Mandarin became more important in education. Young people typically know English, but the ones who work in restaurants typically aren't very studious. I haven't copped out and gone to McDonalds (although for the first time I'm tempted because a value meal there is sometimes cheaper than food at more authentic places) but if a restaurant is called Tastes of Taiwan, Shanghai, or Beijing then I eat there knowing that they'll speak Mandarin. But this means I'm missing out on Cantonese cuisine!

Hong Kongers are the fattest Asians I've seen. I suppose it's possible they were subject to British rule for too long, But I prefer to think that Cantonese food must be awesome. Delicious things I've tried have included pan-fried noodles, rice noodles (河粉), seafood soups, deep fried fish balls, and congee (rice porridge) with a century egg for protein. All of the flavours [sic] of sauces are all vaguely familiar too, because Cantonese stuff it is usually the authentic variation of the food in American Chinese restaurants. It's like I'm tasting the real food instead of the shadow cast on the cave walls. Pictured above is another odd combo of a traditional junk for tourist in front of very modern skyscrapers.

The Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra: Blown out of Proportion

After getting a taste for the HKCO at the last Chinese concert (figuratively, not literally, I'm not a zombie!), I finally saw the full ensemble. I snapped this bad photo right of the empty stage right before being yelled at. Enjoy. On the floor of the stage, to the left of the blurry person, you can see the gehus. The HKCO instrumentation is very different than the orchestras of Singapore or Taiwan. Each of the three sections is made up of different variations of the same instrument family. This seems to be in an effort to create a theoretically elegant ensemble, but it loses something in the nitty gritty of reality.

For the bowed instruments, they have tried to emulate the string section of a Western orchestra. They use the entire huqin family for this. So for first violin they use gaohu, the screechy, higher-pitched cousin of the erhu which fits better as an occasional solo by the lead erhu player (like a picolo to a flute player) than as an entire section for the strings. The second violins are the erhu. The violas are the zhonghu and the cellos are gehus (an instrument with which I have previously expressed my beef). Finally they use the bigger version of the gehu, the diyingehu(低音革胡) as a double bass.

One interesting thing to note is that the HKCO has gone ecofriendly and no longer allows any of their instuments to be made of snake skin. They say they have found a synthetic substance that is just as good. I think it's great that they no longer have to kill a couple dozen pythons to make gehus, but I did notice that a few of their drums used by the percussionists looked like they were still made of snake skin. And after hearing the result, I think they have let their ideals lead them away from something that creates a better sound.

The plucked section had the entire ruan family. Of course there was the typical zhong ruan and da ruan but they also opted for the seldom used xiao (little) ruan instead of the much superior liuqin. There were also pipas, two guzheng (zithers) and two yangqin (hammered dulcimers), and one of the gaohu players jumped up from her seat for one piece to play a miked guqin.

Their wind section was truly bizarre. There were soprano, alto, tenor, and bass versions of both suona (Chinese oboe/trumpet) and guanzi (a double reed instrument with a short tube body). I'd never seen these variations before.

There were also three different types of flutes: bangdi (which I think should only used in operas because they‘re so shrill), qudi, and the xindi. Sometimes the xindi had problems blending when it played with the other flutes which I guess had something to do with its being the only flute without a bamboo membrane.

Finally there were the typical variations of sheng, which are the uber cool free reed mouth organs, pictured below.

Overall the concert was fine. There were old favorites and new compositions. It was the first time I'd seen gender neutral uniforms for any orchestra. The audience were small and old and nervously tried to help translate things the conductor said before I assured them that I could understand the guy's slow, deliberate speech. But to be honest, the HKCO was not up to the standard I expected. I know they are all excellent musicians, and there were terrific solos on the concertos: erhu, oboe, and violin, but the instrumentation of the orchestra is not as successful as I've seen elsewhere. I think a large amount of this had to do with the synthetic snakeskin instruments. They sounded too smooth, a little Western even, and this upset the balance of the compositions. And when the full, overly bloated wind section played, it totally blocks out the string section.

Walking on Waterfront

Later, while walking along the harbor front and enjoying a fish cake that I hoped wasn't made from a fish caught in the polluted Victoria Harbour whose vistas I was enjoying, I happened upon a middle school wind ensemble playing outdoors. They played stuff I played in high school. They were realllllly good. Way better than the cuddlefish cake.

My daily life in Hong Kong is maybe the best it's been anywhere. With the exception of how expensive everything is, stuff is also convenient. There are beautiful beaches, parks named after dead white people, delicious moderately spicy food, and plenty of concerts to see. I'm even going to suffer through some Chinese operas to see if I can acquire a taste for them.

It turns out that the Avenue of Stars is actually named after the celebrity hand prints in the sidewalk further down the avenue than I originally traveled. Don't tell my granny since it's bad luck, but I copied all of the other tourists and spent a happy hour comparing my hand size to famous celebrities like Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee, and Chow Yun Fat. Is this what people do in Hollywood outside of Grauman's Chinese Theater?

Hmm. . . I claimed to have little to report but this blog post has grown so long. Maybe I'm only capable of posting long blog posts and this more frequent method of blogging only waters down the content. Any strong feeling either way, faithful blog readers?