Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Watson Begins: The First Fortnight

Day 1: The Arrival

I landed at Chiang Kai-Shek Airport in the International Terminal, though I left Beijing from the Domestic Flights Terminal. Once I got my luggage and made it through customs, I headed over to the ATM to get some Taiwanese Dollars. Once I had stood in line for 10 minutes and it was finally my turn I realized I had no idea what the exchange rate was. So when the machine asked me if I wanted to take out 1000 or 100,000 NT, I had no idea. Unwilling to stand in line again, I leaned over and spotted the price of a Big Mac at a nearby McDonalds and deduced that it must be around 30 NT to 1 USD. Whew, crisis averted. But this was really pretty indicative of my preparation for Taiwan!

I hopped a bus to 忠孝復興 which I was told was close to where I actually wanted to go, 忠孝新生. I de-bussed and looked around without a clue as to where I was. I was in the middle of a giant shopping area. Signs like Gucci and Prada were everywhere and I was nailed by several Louis Vuitton bags as I stood awkwardly in the middle of the sidewalk, carrying my backpack and 2 giant instruments, and sweating profusely. The sweat was both heat and panic induced. I suddenly felt very alone.

My instructions to my apartment were from the subway stop so I knew I had to find that. I asked someone, "请问,地铁站在哪儿?“ I was greeted with a blank stare. I tried English, "Excuse me, where is the subway?" This time the eyes concentrated hard on me and there was some nodding. "MRT?" the young lady asked me. This time I stared back. MRT, MRT, I'd heard that befire. "YES!" I suddenly responded, remembering Shao Min and Ava talk about the MRT, Mass Rapid Transit, in Singapore.

Once in the MRT I learned that here it's called, 捷運, jieyun and not ditie. One subway stop over and I was on the map that the language associate at Carleton had provided for me. She is from Taiwan and lived in Taipei for one month after she was done teaching at Carleton. She is now in Australia getting a master's in education. But she was kind enough to arrange for me to take over renting her apartment when she left.

I followed the map to a 7/11 across the street from my apartment. There I used the payphones to call my landlord, Shiny, and told her to go downstairs and let me in. I was a sweaty mess, huffing and puffing from carrying my instruments in the 100-plus-degree weather. While I waited, I made my first friend in Taiwan, Chen Ying, who worked at the 7/11. She came up and asked if I needed help. I told her my problems were psychological and we've been friends ever since. Whenever I go into that 7/11, which is often, we have a long chat.

But I digress. Shiny, who literally translated her Chinese name to get her English name, gave me the four keys needed to access my apartment and led me upstairs. I followed her up five flights to the very top of my building. That's where I use the second key to open the balcony. On the balcony, I have a neighbor on either side of me, a laundry machine, a sink for washing dishes, and a spectacular view of the city. Shiny's brother is one of these neighbors. The other is Sandy, a mortgage broker who works 12-hour days and is only home when she is asleep.

I used the third key to open a giant metal door that looked like it belonged on a refrigerator. I saw from the hole in the wall that I should not let this door swing open. After carefully opening the metal door, I was left with one more key and one much more normal looking door. Inside my apartment I have a queen sized bed, two desks, a tv, a wardrobe, INTERNET! my own toilet, shower, sink and most importantly of all: AIR CONDITIONING. Wahoo!

I found a couple of notes around the room from Zoe, the language associate who previously inhabited the room. These are my favorite: "Here is my shampoo. You can use it, but you will smell like girl." "Can you take this stamp back to my friend at the Taipei University of Technology? If not, just throw it away." "Taiwan people don't drink water from faucet, we'll boil water then drink but it's up to you. It is not expensive to go to see the doctor."

It was Sunday, the one day that Sandy doesn't work, so she offered to take me to IKEA to buy some sheets for my bed and then show me the neighborhood a bit. I found out that you can do everything at 7/11. You can reload your SIM card, buy a bus/subway card, and my favorite: pretend to be considering buying a drink when you have no intention of doing so and are actually just absconding from the heat and enjoying free air conditioning.

The neighborhood is really great. The richest man in Taiwan lives the block over in a complex called The Palace. Just a few blocks away, where I got off the bus from the airport, is the shopping center of the entire island. Closer to me, there are lots of coffee shops, food stands, parks, daycare centers, and churches. This is really strange, but seeing the daycare across the street from my apartment gave me a rush, a residual effect from hunting kindergartens in the Mainland last December.

After a dumpling dinner with Sandy, I was ready to hit the hay. Unfortunately, unbearable stomach cramps made this impossible. I laid on my bed moaning in agony for hours. Next came the diarrhea and finally, the vomiting.

A Trip to the Hospital

My second day in Taiwan, I didn't leave my room. I couldn't get off the toilet. By day three in Taiwan I had run out of things to expel from myself so I headed out to walk around a little. After wandering for a bit I went into a 7/11 (there is literally one on every corner in my neighborhood) to buy some juice and instant noodles. I asked the clerk where the "Fangbian mian" was. Blank stare. I tried again in English/Japanese, "Ramen?" Realization dawned on his face. Here it is called "pao mian" or boiled noodle rather than convenient noodle. While browsing the drinks, with intent to purchase, I suddenly, and I imagine, quite dramatically, lost consciousness.

The next thing I remember is being in the hospital with an IV in me that said in English, "BANANA." Why my IV said banana, I still don't understand. I asked while I was still kind of loopy, but it apparently had to do with them thinking that I was drunk. That's all that I could understand of their responses anyway. I'm also not sure how I got to the hospital. I have been too embarrassed to go back to that particular 7/11.

I told the doctor that I had been sick and every time I ate anything, that food would would have a strong desire to leave me very quickly. I was shortly diagnosed with typhoid. Which I got in Beijing from eating something contaminated with feces. But the cure is just 2 shots, so that was simple. I checked out of the hospital after 12 more hours of rest and rehydration via BANANA IV. And when I got the bill and saw that my visit cost only about 30 USD, I realized that Zoe was right, it's not expensive to go see the doctor in Taiwan!

Swedish Chocolates and Cockroach Noodles

Once my tri-hourly need for a toilet had passed, I was free to explore my environs. For three days I just wandered around the city. I enjoyed a novel, GRE math prep, and iced coffees in quirky little coffee shops. I never left a cafe without having a really cool conversation with someone. This was great because I got to work on my Chinese, which has improved both quickly and drastically. I've had language pledges before but never have I been surrounded by native speakers for so long. People are soooo friendly here. I have more amazing conversations than I could ever hope to type up on here or you could ever be expected to endure reading. But just talking to average people and occasionally musicians has been really informative on the music scene.

In the mornings I typically jogged to 大安森林公園 and through the park, scoping out the old people exercising to see if any of them were packing musical instruments. By noon I would be back at my apartment practicing zhongruan and trying to get the single-picked Taiwanese style of strumming down. In the late afternoon I walked around and found a new cafe to enjoy some iced coffee and chill. At night I send out tons of emails to everyone I can find online to see if I can meet with them.

In my recovery time, I did tons of observing in order to adapt to the differences between Taiwan. Lots of words are different here. So when I ask for tomatoes on my sandwich, "Xihongshi" means nothing. Here they say, "Fanqie." The word for potato in the Mainland will bring you peanuts in a Taiwanese restaurant. Lots of people don't really distinguish between s and sh here either. This has resulted in me numerous times mistaking the number 10 for 4. And I have to work hard to get rid of the "rrr" that I relished so much in the Beijing dialect. So now when I say door in Chinese, it sounds like the first syllable of money as opposed to a Midwesterner saying something that begins with m and rhymes with bar (as in what you bring to a potluck).

One day in a cafe, I overheard three students talking to each other. One had a GRE book propped open on the table. They were talking about going to grad schools. Then the one with the GRE book said he wanted to go to Sweden because of their famous chocolates. Mixing up Swiss and Swedish is my pet peeve, so I jumped in with, "你的意思是瑞士的巧克力.瑞典的巧克力不是有名的" You mean Swiss chocolates. Sweden's chocolate ain't famous. They looked at me very shocked and then one of them said, "Which one is next to Germany?" "Switzerland," I replied. And that's how I met my GRE study group.

Later I was having dinner in a noodle shop. I had a mouth full of grey noodles when a cockroach the size of a chicken egg scuttled in. The waitress, who proudly told me, "Today is my first day!" screamed and looked at the chef, an older-than-the-hills woman who looked like she was hiding prison tattoos under her long sleeves. The chef stepped on the monster-bug and its green and yellow guts sprayed a 6 inches across the floor. Then the chef picked up the bug with her bare hands and threw its smitten remains into the garbage. She then turned back to making noodles with those same hands. It took a massive effort to swallow the noodles that were still in my mouth. I looked around. The walls and ceiling were covered with spatter patterns matching the one on the floor. I haven't been back to that particular noodle shop yet.

Seeing Fireworks

After my first week, I realized that I LOVE living in Taipei. It feels much more like Japan than China. Everyone is polite and says, "不好意思" Sorry for the inconvenience before talking. Little things make me smile to myself all the time. I bought some really good coffee bread from a stand and the wrapper told me, "Thank for Patronize!" The subway warns me in pleasant English, "When you alight, please mind the gap." This always causes me to burst out laughing on the subway and I'm pretty sure it freaks out my fellow commuters. One day on my walk home, I stopped to admire fireworks in the distance.

It must have been some holiday because earlier that day, I had seen food products set out on tables as offerings and people were burning yellow ghost money in trash cans all over town. Not knowing why the fireworks were being shot off for some reason made me enjoy them more. While I was watching them an old man came up to me and said, "Hello. Go to sleep earlier. Healthier!" I checked my watch. It was 10:15. Little things like this have been making me so happy.


If you ask anyone in Taipei if they can speak English, they will invariably respond with, "A little." This is completely uninformative. Sometimes it is a true statement. Often it is a blatant lie and they are totally fluent in English or, conversely, they don't actually speak any English at all, except the words, "a little."

One day, I walked in to a 7/11 and was greeted in English, "Gewd Eebuhneeng!" I smiled back. Then when I had made my purchase, the clerk asked me, "Do you want a bag?" Usually I would have complemented her English, but for some reason I was sick of this racism. You assume all white people can speak English!? I was mock-offended. And I was especially offended because she was right. I replied in Chinese with, "How embarrassing. I am German and do not speak English." Then I wondered if I too was being racist, assuming that this Asian woman could understand me, so I asked, "Can you speak Chinese?"

Contacting the Professionals

On my second Monday I joined a gym and found the 國家音樂廳, National Concert Hall, right across from it (shown in the photo below). I went in to the ticket office and bought a dozen tickets for about 100 USD. They are all to traditional music except for an intriguing concert called, "Let's Go Traveling With Mandolin" by the Taipei Mandolin Ensemble. I found them on Facebook and messaged them explaining who I was and that I had a mandocello. I thought maybe they would be curious enough to let me meet with them if I offered up a chance to play such a rare instrument. They messaged me back within minutes and told me to be at their rehearsal on Saturday at 7PM. Wahooo!

I also got an email back from the lead erhu player in the Taipei Chinese Orchestra. She told me her English is very lazy, but if I can type her a message in Chinese, then we can probably communicate fine. So meeting number two on my schedule!

The Keymaker

On Tuesday as I was leaving, I realized that had I locked myself out of my room, so I went downstairs to find my landlady, Shiny. She told me that she didn't have a spare to my outer door (the metal one) and that I should just try climbing through the window. I explained that actually I realized I didn't have the key before I closed that one. She told me I was very lucky because she had the key to only the inner door. She emphasized that I was in fact extremely (非常非常的)lucky because she is not usually home in the afternoon but her child was sick. I thanked her for the key but she wouldn't release it from her hand. I tugged it a couple of times chuckling. She said that first I had to promise to go to the Keymaker with my key that she doesn't have a copy of and copy it and take the new copy to her. I promised, slightly troubled by the shadow that had passed over her face when she wouldn't let go of the key.

I walked around until I saw a big picture of a key on a shop. Inside, there was a grandmother and five three-year-olds. They were all eating grapes and watching cartoons. When the old lady saw me she jumped up, wiping purple juice on her oil-stained skirt. I asked her for a copy of my key. I watched impressed as her old hands moved deftly, cutting the new key. She made it in 20 seconds while balancing an attention-seeking toddler on one knee, her thousand-lined face furrowing with concentration.

When she was done, she looked at me. Like really stared at me hard and asked if I was superstitious. I told her I was. She nodded as if this all made a lot of sense. She gave me another key; it was small and brass. She told me to keep it on me and it'll protect me. I asked her how much it was. She looked exasperated. "送給你!“ I'm gifting it to you! All in all, it was the strangest afternoon I'd had yet in Taipei. Very spooky actually.

The Methodist

On Wednesday I met Irene at MOS Burger. I had just gotten my food but there was nowhere to sit. Irene, a 50-something woman dressed up too nicely for MOS Burger, said I could sit with her. We struck up a conversation and she invited me to her church to listen to the music there and meet people my own age. I asked what kind it was. The answer: Methodist. Now most people think Christ is Christ, but probably in Lancaster, Wisconsin alone, there is a weird rift between the Congregational Church and the Methodist Church. I remember my mom distinctly saying, "Andrew, you can become a Catholic or even a Muslim, just promise me you won't become a Methodist."

Nonetheless, I triumphed over the prejudices of my childhood and braved the Methodist Church. It turned out to be right next to my apartment. I met Timothy who just had finished the GRE and promised to bring me his study books on Sunday. I also found out that anyone could come in and play the piano which made me EXTREMELY happy because I had been missing the piano a lot. I told Irene I'd see her on Sunday.

Rain + Musicians = Easy Target

On Friday I met some Taiwanese Tennesseans in Starbucks. They were missionary kids and had spent half of their lives in Taiwan and half in America. We chatted a lot about the differences in culture between their two native lands. Just then I noticed someone carrying a zhongruan case walk by. Then erhu, then pipa! What was happening?

I ran outside and discovered a Chinese ensemble setting up in the park right outside the Starbucks. I ran home to get my camera. When I returned it was pouring rain and all of the musicians had retreated under a tarp. Was this a bad thing? NO! They were trapped and easy targets. I interviewed them and found out that they were part of a community group that brought "Music to the Neighborhood." They said that they had a competition on the 28th in the park where I go jogging and that they'd be happy to talk me then, but right now, they were getting wet! I thanked them for their time and marked the concert on my calendar.

I Go Traveling With Mandocello

Finally, on Saturday I got to go meet the Taipei Mandolin Ensemble. I dragged my mandocello all the way across town and followed the sound of mandolins to the third floor of a residential building. Afterward, I recounted my experience to my friend from Middlebury, Becky who is currently teaching English in Taiwan. When she saw me approach the cafe with a stupid grin plastered across my face, she decided to record the conversation, guessing correctly that it would be hilarious and very embarrassing for me. I have transcribed it for you below:

Becky: Wow! What happened? Sit down, order something.
Andrew: Oh. My. God."
Becky: Stop with the dazed look and explain!
Andrew: Okay, so I went in and there were like 10 mandolins. . . oooh! and they are Italian style and look more like they're from the Renaissance than like, you know, like, the ukulele clones we use in America. They have these giant rounded backs.
Waitress: 不好意思。[Inaudible]
Becky: Yeah, oh you have to order something here that costs at least 80 dollars.
Waitress: 你想要甚麼?
Andrew: 火雞三明治,一杯冰咖啡。
Waitress: 加糖,牛奶呢?
Andrew: 只要糖。
Waitress: 好。
Andrew: Right, so I go in and they are finishing up a mini traditional music recital. The head of the ensemble also teaches Chinese instruments and plays the liuqin!
Becky: What's the liuqin?
Andrew: It's basically the Chinese mandolin. And this 10 year-old boy plays Yunnan Huiyi, Reminiscences of Yunnan, and that's my absolute favorite zhongruan piece.

[I then showed Becky this clip that I secretly filmed.]


So afterwards I flip and tell him that that was the best version of Yunnan Huiyi I'd ever heard in person. And then they all flip cuz I knew the name of the piece. By the way, none of them could or I guess I should say were willing to speak any English. It's so weird. It seems like musicians here are the only people that won't speak English with me. But anyway, it turns out that the girl playing the mandola next to me is majoring in zhongruan at a conservatory.
Becky: What's a mandola?
Andrew: Huh, oh, it's the viola version of a mandolin, except here instead of being tuned CGDA, an octave higher than a cello and the same tuning as a viola, they're tuned GDAE, an octave lower than a violin, so I guess these are really octave mandolins. Anywho, the girl and I have the exact same b-day, same year too. I told her I play zhongruan so they made me play a solo for them. Then they said I had to do a solo with my mando and I was like SHIT! I usually just play chords so I just played Country Roads and sang along and then this one lady sang along in Japanese and it turns out that she is from Japan, so then I said like a really basic greeting and told her in Japanese that I studied Japanese for one year. Then everyone is just basically in love with me. They're like who are you? You speak Chinese and Japanese, play zhongruan and mandocello and sing. And I was just like, ha, don't ask me to play anything else cuz I just did everything I can. That was the full extent of my talents. Then she told me that if I give her English lessons, she could teach me to play Yunnan Huiyi!
Becky: Wait, the Japanese lady?
Andrew: Sorry, no. The same-b-day girl.
Becky: Oh, gotchya.
Andrew: Oh and then b-day girl helped me majorly with that damn Taiwanese picking style and I think I've almost got it. So the first half hour was all traditional stuff and making me perform, then the ensemble began rehearsing and they had sheet music for me! Some of it even had mandocello written on it. Like, how is that even possible? I doubt there is another mandocello on this island. Well, they say I can play along with them and after the rehearsal, which was awesome, they asked if I wanted to join them on stage for the concert!
Becky: (squeal)
Andrew: And I was like, WHAT?! REALLY?! YES! So now I'm gonna play with them at the National Concert Hall! Ahhh! I'm soooo excited.
Becky: Omg, that is fabulous. Do you have lots of rehearsals? What are you playing?
Andrew: We're playing some Italian stuff, Danny Boy, a song from a Japanese cartoon, and a Taiwanese folk song. Umm. . . yeah, there is another rehearsal tomorrow and then about 2 a week until the concert on September 25th.
Becky: How did you do this? How is this possible? You are a ridiculous person!
Andrew: (giggles) Yeah, I know. I think I'm in shock right now. And like, the girl said that on Monday I can go join the Chinese Orchestra that she plays with cuz it's informal and has old people in it. So this morning, I wasn't in any group and hadn't really met any musicians and now I am in two ensembles and getting free lessons.
Becky: Will you buy me a lottery ticket?
Andrew: No but I guess you can have my ticket to the mandolin concert, cuz I don't need it anymore.

My calendar is now full of meetings and rehearsals. People are so shocked that I'm interested in Chinese music and happy to tell me about their experiences with music. The blog entries for weeks 3 and 4 are coming up! Lack of updates just means I'm busy which is way better than being bored! Every week becomes busier than the last as I establish more connections and become more and more familiar with Taipei.

Also, I started a youtube account to post videos from the Freeman trip and the Watson which I will be updating as my internet connection permits. It takes about a day to upload a video! http://www.youtube.com/user/chinesetroubadour

Friday, August 20, 2010

The End of China: Blue Skies and Farmers in Disguise

Nothin' But Blue-ish Skies

On Saturday Ava had a flute lesson. We traveled to the flute teacher's apartment in beautiful weather. Well, actually it was over 100 degrees, but the sky was almost blue-ish, which is really good for Beijing. I never thought about it before, but in polluted cities besides sunny/cloudy, hot/cold, there is also blue/grey. The picture shows the blue sky reflected in a building. There is also someone's shirt hanging out of the window, presumably drying in the heat.

In the Gold Medalist's Apartment

The flutist is a "gold medalist for China" as Gao Hong explained to us many times. Though we nodded enthusiastically, we didn't really know what that meant. Gao Hong had to translate for Ava, so the whole thing immediately became more exciting with things being said, then followed by a glance to the translator, the anticipation for the reply and the wait for comprehension on the other person's face. Occasionally the teacher would say something and it wouldn't get translated and Shao Min or I would jump in. It felt like being a ball boy in a tennis match, running in to get the words that got caught in the net.

The teacher was very impressed with Ava. She learned a piece that represented a duet between two birds. The instructor chose this because it has all of the dizi 'tricks' so learn this piece and you can learn any piece. By the end, our ears were ringing from the shrill sounds. Midway through the lesson the teacher's very pregnant wife suddenly emerged from another room and waddled through with a pleasant smile and, as I noticed enviously, bits of cotton protecting her eardrums.

The previous night, at the if-you-have-to-ask-how-expensive-the-dessert-is-then-sir-you-can't-afford-it restaurant, Ava had expressed her dilemma in choosing which flute she was going to buy. You see, in our ensemble Ava has had to deal with flutes that are flat by half a step. But unlike a western flute, every time we want to change key, she needs to switch to a different dizi. Originally, she was going to buy three but some of her money had been stolen in Korea and now she couldn't afford it. So our gold medalist had a surprise for Ava. He got her D and G key flutes at half price and gifted her an A key flute and a case that would hold them all! She was completely speechless.

Bamboo Under the Bridge

The next day it was Shao Min's turn for instruction. We attended an erhu master class. There, students from age 9 to 24 performed. Shao Min had the chance to be one of these performers but, always painfully underestimating her own talents, she declined. With the exception of one girl with intonation issues, they were all very good. The instructor was excellent at giving constructive, non-Simon-Cowell style tips. He also had a whole comedy routine about bowing and other etiquette.

By the way, when I say 'bow' I mean that action you do to acknowledge applause, not pulling a stick with hair on it to produce an extended pitch, though I realize this can get confusing since they are spelled the same and both deal with erhu performance. Why did the English writing system fail me here?

Anywho, according to the erhu teacher when you bow you should not suddenly snap down to your toes, as he demonstrated with a shockingly acrobatic jerk of his body, and you also shouldn't slightly tilt your head, arrogantly ignoring the applause. Finally, he played a very dramatic version of a folk tune, accompanied by pre-recorded 80s synthesizer music in the background.

That night, Shao Min, Ava, and I wandered through a park at dusk and discovered stray cats, fenced-off pagodas and strange men standing ominously near the entrance to a cave. Upon seeing the last bit, we decided to head home. Along the way, we heard dizi playing and went to investigate. Through the darkness, we saw an old man playing the flute and walking around. Suddenly another man appeared. They were mumbling about whether or not something had been brought. Then they began examining and exchanging items on a park bench. I thought it was a drug deal at first, but it turns out they were swapping flute music. Either way, the park was scary at night and we were tired from walking earlier in the hot Beijing sun, so we headed home quickly, passing through Houhai, a scenic park/bar district that wraps around a lake. We found some people playing Purple Bamboo sitting under this bridge. If you look closely you can see them too!

The Living Buddha

On Monday, we got lost at the train station trying to find Gao Hong and a tea shop. To make matters worse, we realized that the voltage in China had fried our cellphone charger and that the battery was dead. Luckily, Shao Min had her own cellphone and MacGuivered the SIM card into hers and called Gao Laoshi. 10 minutes later we were getting out of car driven by a very powerful Chinese music producer and about to meet with a 活佛, Huofo, or The Living Buddha. He was a great chanter and after Gao Hong charmed him, as she always charms everyone, he served us tea and sang both a chant and a folk tune. He obviously didn't have a problem with music like some Korean monks I've met.

We tentatively asked him about his relationship to Tibet and the Dalai Lama. He told us that there were different kinds of monks but that he was a 'red monk' and of that order and not one of those 'yellow monks.' Personally, I felt he was a rather greasy looking character. If he lived in America, I would expect him to wear a pinkie ring.

All of us, our party now including Gao Hong's brother (who looks exactly like Gao Hong!) drove to a restaurant to eat with the monk. He said a blessing before we ate. We told him about our project and he was in total agreement that Korea had better preserved Buddhist music than China and that most of it had been wiped out. Though he did say that Tibet was still rich with folk music and that if I went there I could search for it. Since I'm having some visa issues and may not have any place to be in February I payed close attention. I told him about my project and how I was studying Chinese music outside of China. But he wanted to know how Taiwan was outside of China!? A quick recovery of "Whoops, I mean the Mainland, sorry my Chinese is, you know, I'm just a whitie. . . " But hearing about Tibet was fascinating. Now I just need to ask the Watson people if I can go. . .

On Tuesday we had arranged with Gao Hong's friend and professional drummer, MaLi, to watch the filming of some music for CCTV, Chinese Central Television. We first visited the military museum. The sign said that you could only get in with proper identification. We all readied are passports and wondered if foreigners would be allowed inside. We decided to send Ava forward to ask in English, thinking that ignorance may be the best policy here. It was. We got in for free without showing any ID because we were so obviously foreigners. Cool?

Inside it was fascinating. There were giant patriotic statues of noble and rather blockish looking Chinese citizens striving for a better communist government.

Ava was very inspired by the statues. We had a lot of fun reading the EXTREMELY biased signs that conveyed China's 'history.'

I'm with the band. . .

Afterwards we walked over to the CCTV building but they didn't want to let foreigners in, so we had to pile into MaLi's car and pretend to carry in his drumming equipment. I told one of the escorts that I was the only person who could carry it, and he may have believed me since I was twice as tall as he was and the drum weighed at least 20 pounds more than him. They decided that we were, in fact, on the list and let us in, though the guards seemed quite reluctant to let my pale face in. For some reason, foreigners sometimes are not allowed into CCTV.

Inside, we met a world-class zhongruan player who was one of Gao Hong's classmates. We got to eat the same food that the musicians ate and see them put on their makeup and lounge around before the performance. The shows were really cool. The group with the zhongruan and percussionist that we knew played and it turned out that the percussion part was prerecorded and that MaLi was just filling in, so it looked more live. There were some parts where he seemed not to know what was going to happen next in the music.

Nonetheless, the costumes were cool, the music was awesome and seeing the lights, the cameras, bubbles and fog machines was amazing. After our friends performed a group of girls called Yinyue Mao, Music Cats, performed. It was completely prerecorded. Their group had two electric fiddles, two electric cellos, a pipa and dizi. They moved about the stage like runway models and struck poses with ferocity. There was no way they could have done their dance steps and play remotely in tune at the same time. Besides their prerecorded selves, they also had plenty of dance track percussion laid down. It was hilarious, but not on purpose.

Disappointing Dissonance

In the morning, Shao Min, Ava, and I headed over to Zhihua Temple. The history of Zhihua Temple is extremely interesting and it was the inspiration for our entire project. It is an extremely small temple, tucked away in a hutong and far off the beaten path of typical tourists. However, the temple is the only modern temple that has purely instrumental music. The music has its roots in the courts, opera, and also in folk tunes. This secular persuasion is reflected in the temple's musicians who are not monks, but men dressed as monks. They are brought in from the countryside, the children of farmers, who were taught by the last generation of monks, who are now all dead. They continue to pass on the traditions to younger generations, though volunteers are scarce. One of the flutists had recently graduated from Beijing Central Conservatory and was learning the unique Zhihua Temple Style.

Our viewing as merely tourists, however, was. . . erm. . . unimpressive. Shao Min and Ava both were a little miffed by the intonation issues of the performers. I was bothered mostly by their expressions. They looked and acted like caged zoo animals. But, I suppose this is what happens when your existence is four 15 minute performances a day. They filed in begrudgingly, played for exactly 15 minutes, and filed out without glancing out at the half dozen spectators.

But, I realized that this lack of conviction really should not have come as a surprise in China. The cultures of the three countries we visited and our daily interactions with everyone could quite accurately predict our experiences at the temples. And quite symbolically, just as most of China has lost religion, this temple has also lost its monks.

Malfeasance at Mao's Mausoleum

Next, Ava was supposed to have another flute lesson but it was canceled because Gao Hong was sick. She had an inflamed intestine and became extremely dehydrated and had to go to the hospital. We were all warned against the dangers of eating fresh vegetables which potentially have been washed with water we are not to use. The irony is that Gao Hong was the one who got sick and she used to live in China! So with nothing to do, Shao Min and I decided to go see Mao's big ole orange head at his mausoleum.

We got to Tian An Men and instantly began sweating in the scorching Beijing sun, which although you can never quite see it due to pollution, is still annoyingly capable of giving you a sunburn. Shao Min and I waited in the line to see Mao. The line never stops moving because even when inside, armed guards with oozies make sure you don't hold up the line. After about 40 minutes in line, we realized our mistake. It took us that long because we weren't listening to the announcements on the megaphone. Shao Min had said, "What's that they're saying on the loud-hailer?" This caused me to double over in hysterical laughter. Maybe it seemed extra funny at the time because I was on the verge of heatstroke in the hot sun, but I just couldn't believe she was calling the megaphone a loud-hailer.

Well after my laughter died down, we eventually heard the message. NO CAMERAS! You are supposed to store any bags or purses you have on you in lockers across the street. To save time, I suggested Shao Min not bring her usual backpack. I knew photography wasn't allowed, but I didn't realize that you weren't even allowed to bring in cameras. I offered to take the camera since a) I am white and therefore expected not to understand b) I've already seen Mao's preserved body and doubt it has changed much in the last two years and c) we didn't have time to go back in line again after storing the camera in the lockers because Mao is only allowed to leave his freezer for a couple of hours a day, lest he decompose.

So Shao Min went through first and then I got taken down by security at the metal detector. I tried in vain first to explain that it was out of electricity (not true, but I had flipped the batteries around the wrong way so the camera wouldn't turn on) and then that it was a cellphone. But the power of the communist government could not be undone. At least not by my pitiful jedi mind tricks. I was then escorted, unnecessarily roughly, past the line and I could hear them all wondering aloud, "Wonder what he did?" "Where are they taking him?" "Is that an American?" They dropped me off at the end of the line, with some bruises on my upper arm and 2000 eyeballs staring at me.

After reuniting, Shao Min and I then toured the Forbidden City. It was nice to see it this time without the scaffolding all over it, in preparation for the Olympics. Shao Min was especially eager to see some giant pots that used to be covered in gold but the precious metal was scraped off by foreigners. Shao Min, help me out, what were those big pots for again?

Wandering around a nearby park, we happened across a kindergarten. This shouldn't come as a surprise knowing my propensity to accidentally discover kindergartens. I reenacted my senior thesis project by attempting to break in with a miniature chair. I was. . . unsuccessful.

Pizza Karma

That night, we picked up Ava, who was finally done talking to boyfriend on Skype, and went to one of our favorite hangouts, a shopping mall. The reason we love it is not the fashion but the air conditioning! We ran around, perusing and causing clerks to gravitate toward us and our presumed large spending potential. Shao Min showed off her flair for fashion by modeling this beret. Eventually I forced us to go to Pizza Hut because I wanted to show Shao Min and Ava how fancy it is in China. American fast food places cost the same amount as in China. This is really expensive here so they have to dress up the joint. People wear jackets and there is jazz music, occasionally performed live.

The restaurant is decorated with modern art and words like, "Night Life" and "Exquisite" are painted in calligraphy on the walls. For some reason we decided that we would pretend not to speak any Chinese and see what happened. What happened was that we giggled maniacally and scared our waiter. He didn't speak any English. Also, we ordered a small personal pizza for the three of us since we were too distracted by our deceit to pay proper attention.

The Seven Arhat

While traveling the Beijing underground, we noticed a very dramatic poster advertising "The Seven Arhat." After consulting a dictionary we discovered that arhat is an English word, meaning a devoted Buddhist. Our obsession with the posters slowly grew and eventually we began to imitate the poses in the posters. We have a lot of photos of us doing this. We also set a very good impression for foreigners by blocking the tunnel to pose in front of this movie poster. Oh, Seven Arhat, someday I will illegally stream you online. . . someday.

Return to Zhihua

On Thursday we met Gao Laoshi at the temple and listened to another performance by the group. They had a drum, bells, dizi, suona (Chinese trumpet/oboe), and guanzi. The group produce a harsh-timbred and to Western ears, abrassive tone, but a little bit of listening (and possibly some hearing loss) and you begin to enjoy it. This time, we noticed a marked improvement in their performance. Upon interrogating them, we discovered that they were all playing their best instruments that day. But they play all of them and switch around. Unfortunately, I still couldn't get over their sad faces. I tried crackin' some jokes, but they would have none of it. I have photos of them dressed in robes as monks, but I think seeing them here in their actual clothes is a lot more interesting.

Hutong Hoedown

Friday was our last free day in China! Shao Min and I spent a good deal of it jamming in the Qing Dynasty courtyard that is the main draw of our hostel. The other guests were unimpressed with our anachronistic hoedown. It was fun, but bittersweet because it was the last time I'll play with Shao Min for a long time :(

Ava Is Kidnapped

We capped off the day by heading to the Silk Market and having fun with the salespeople. Ava was nearly abducted by some girls she bought coats from. They wanted me to buy a coat for my mom. I explained, "You don't make coats big enough. These are all for petite 5 foot 3 Chinese girls. My mom is a big Swede. Nothing doing." Then they asked how I could be thin if my parents were big. I explained that I had stopped indulging in ice cream and dropped 100 pounds. Then I got distracted by a lady who grabbed my wrist. I instinctively twisted violently out of it and I think actually hurt the lady. But that's the result of having Molly as your sister; you get violent reflexes to surprise touching. Then I look over and one of the coat sales ladies is escorting Ava to the ATM. Seems bad, so I follow too. Ava buys the coats, but then the girls physically won't let Ava go. They say they want to go eat ice cream with Ava and they explain that I am not invited because they don't want me to get fat again. Just at that moment, the women who grabbed me earlier, smacked me on the back. That's when I decided I'd had enough of this. So I physically took Ava and repelled the 80 pound waifs that had ensnared her.

The rest of our shopping was much more enjoyable and much less physical. We pretended that I was the only one who could speak Chinese which was fun and confusing for the salespeople who assumed that I was just Ava or Shao Min's green card.

Last Day

On our final day in Beijing, we went back to the temple in the morning to meet and listen to a senior citizen chant brigade. They began in the 90s in order to revive the chants that had been stopped during the Cultural Revolution. The instrumentalists even joined in with them. They had lyrics which I thought had melody markings but it turned out that these were actually instructions for percussionists. So once again, the instrumentalists get scores but not the vocalists.

Our duties for China were all fulfilled and the only thing left for our last 20 hours was pack, so I went to say goodbye to my friend Christina and greet my friend Guan Guan from Carleton, who had come up from Nanjing. Really I just wanted to introduce these two people because I had a feeling that if they were in a room together it would be like dropping a whole role of Mentos into a 2-liter bottle of Coke.

Avoiding my planned carbonated fiasco, Ava and Shao Min went off to the Olympic Center to take some photos at the iconic Bird's Nest and the Water Cube. And they even got me a Water Cube hat to complete my collection of one hat per country. YES!

A Final Drama

We left our hostel at 6 for my 9:30 flight to Taiwan. Ava and Shao Min, troopers that they are, went with me even though their flights weren't until that night, but I think the promise of air-conditioning at the airport made this an easy sell. The driver asked us which terminal and I just thought Crap!. Shao Min told him, "Just go to any one." But he laughed and asked our destination. "Taiwan," I replied. He almost crashed the car when I replied to his Chinese question, but he recovered quickly. "Okay, then it's probably Terminal 3 because for some reason Taiwan is put in international flights." I decided not to respond with, "Yeah, because Taiwan is a different country! Duh!" and chose instead, "Ooh."

We arrived at the airport and my flight was not on the board. CRAP!!!!! I hadn't checked it that morning, but then I thought I found it, maybe I had just remembered the time wrong by 10 minutes. I go to the counter and the lady says, "I can't find you in the system." I tell her, "Maybe I am at the wrong airline." She tells me, "Nope, you are not booked anywhere in this airport." I freak out. I was already apprehensive about getting all my luggage aboard and actually getting to my apartment in Taipei, but I just hadn't considered that I wouldn't have a flight.

It takes me 30 minutes but I finally get online in the airport with my laptop. I check my flight number. What if "Travel Papa" just stole my money. Why the hell did I buy a ticket from a website called Travel Papa? But at information, I found out that my flight was real and just at the other terminal which is a free shuttle bus away. Wheww!!!!!

At this point I'm a little late for my flight and freaked out that my ticket won't be real and seriously sleep-deprived and really emotional over saying goodbye to Shao Min and Ava and really scared at traveling alone for the next year. AAAHHH!!!

So misty-eyed I hugged Shao Min good bye and ran through security. After that, I had an incredibly uneventful time at the airport. I checked my backpack and my mandocello without an extra charge and wasn't questioned about my zhongruan.

Hairy Meat Is Bittersweet

Shao Min and Ava hung out for the whole day in Starbucks and a ramen shop. This hairy piece of meat was their last impression of China. I wish I could think of some sort of nice connecting metaphor for finding hairy meat in your ramen that linked to leaving China, but alas, I cannot.

While flying to Taiwan I was super anxious, but mainly I just reflected back on this incredible month. It's hard to imagine that I get 12 more months of Asian music adventures! It'll be so much harder without Gao Hong's extensive planning and my two trusty friends. I didn't want to leave them! But I need to defer to some advice that I got when I was sad about leaving Carleton. Someone told me, "We don't want to leave because we've become comfortable here. But that means we're not learning or growing anymore. We need to keep pushing and be uncomfortable and move on."

But overall, leaving China I had the same feeling I had when riding on the plane coming in, "I am soooo damn lucky!"

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!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Down to Business

After our R&R in Seoul, we finally began meeting with monks again. First we met Professor Bae who spoke broken English with a thick accent and had to ask us to repeat almost everything we said so he could understand. I was worried because he was to act as our translator, but when Gao Hong was noting the similarities in pronunciation of place names in Korean to their Chinese character counterparts, the professor immediately released some very fluent Mandarin with a Taiwanese accent! It turned out that he had lived in Taiwan for three years during graduate school and had actually written his dissertation on Gao Hong's hometown and its Buddhist practices. "It's a Small World" was stuck in my head the rest of the day.

Trilingual Translation
We visited the first of two students of Sang Juk Wonk Ong. Sang Juk Wonk Ong is the authority on Buddhist chanting in Korea, but his two students took very different paths. The first student thought that music needed to be preserved exactly as it was. Respect for tradition was easy to understand as we watched him read Chinese characters (with their Korean pronunciations) from a book of chants with crumbling, yellowed pages. We sipped our tea, sat cross-legged (except Ava who has mastered seiza) and listened attentively as the monk sang and discussed chant. He spoke in Korean and our translator repeated in Chinese and then Shao Min whispered the English translation into Ava's ear.

Transmission of chants is done without scores. The only part written down is the lyrics. When I asked him what he did when he forgot one of the hundreds of chants, he said that he prayed on it or listened to his teachers recordings. He then taught us, or at least began to teach us, a chant. In the brief tutorial I realized that there were some small, basic patterns of rising and falling that repeated in different orders. So what at first seemed like just random pitches became more. It was like a language with a small number of lexical items and these lexical items were arranged in different orders throughout the chant.

We left with a series of bows and a slight misunderstanding when Gao Hong tried to tell the monk that the book he gave us was too nice a gift but it was translated as too heavy. Before we left the monk commented on how monk-like Shao Min was. There was an ominous silence and then the conversation continued. On the way back Gao Hong marveled at his prowess as a singer, stating that he could have become a professional.

Riddles and Past Lives
The next day we saw a non-chanting monk who was adviser to the president of Korea. Professor Bae drove us outside of Seoul and hiked up a mountain to a picturesque spot that immediately put me into a meditative mood. We met the monk and all of us had strong reactions to him. Our translator was a Penn State grad who was staying at the temple to concentrate on studying for the LSATS. He had a very difficult time translating for us because the monk apparently only speaks in riddles.

The monk, whose Chinese name was 明骏性晓 (Ming Jun Xing Xiao) told us he could see many things about us. He asked us to write down our names and then he could "see" more about the kind of person who would use this name. For instance, us students were not musicians, as Gao Hong had introduced us, that much was obvious. Then he said that I was possibly the most musical and the smartest, but that my anger issues kept me from having many friends. Since Shao Min, one of the smartest and most musical people in the world, was sitting next to me, I immediately became skeptical of his so-called ability to "see." We took a brief break from the monk for a delicious lunch at the temple, all vegetarian, of course, and a climb to the top of the mountain. We drank from a sacred well and marveled at a large, heavy stone that earlier that day had "fallen from the sky," or more likely from further up the mountain a little ways. It landed next to a shrine and I was asked to help 4 Korean dudes move it, but it was too heavy. We couldn't even budge it and we were forced to give up and walk away, losing any swagger our steps had once held. I assume it is still there and now a nice seat to meditate on.

When we returned, the monk put down his book which was on Biotechnology or something equally as unlikely. This time our translator was a Stanford graduate who had decided to become a nun. The monk told us he was going to tell us about our past lives. Gao Hong was previously a monk in Mongolia and a very Asian soul. Shao Min had been a monk 4 or 5 times, every other life. He respected her a lot. He said that her stubbornness and solitary nature were perfect for being a monk. She was a Tibetan monk last and next would be born in Japan. Ava was last in Alaska and I was last from Madagascar or Southern Africa, he wasn't sure.

He asked us if we had any questions. I asked what role music should play in Buddhism. He said "The universe is already a noisy place. Listen to it and don't make more noise." I countered by asking, "Why then chant with melody? Why not just speak?" He replied with something that took 2 minutes and 3 Koreans to translate. "When art meets art, it knows art. When music meets music, it knows music." He elaborated less poetically that he was a calligrapher and painter. He was not creating so much as letting the universe move through him. If that is how "music" arises, then it is good music.

Shao Min asked about physics. She asked if the monk thought that the laws of physics are absolute. He replied, "From a physicist's perspective, yes. There are many perspectives." Shao Min and Ava, the scientists of the group, shifted uncomfortably at this squishy answer. They wanted something more concrete. Gao Hong and I, on the other hand, were eating it up. Looking back on this experience and describing it now, I feel like I should have been totally skeptical and rolling my eyes with the scientists, but something about the way he said it and the atmosphere of the room, with meditative music playing in the background and calligraphy on the walls and the solitude of the mountain affected me greatly. We asked for a photo but he was afraid it would steal his soul. The Stanford nun told us she couldn't tell if he was joking or not, but suggested we not press the matter.

While the others cleared out, I went back and asked the monk via the Penn state translator if I should change my name. He said "Yes, do you have another?" I wrote out "Ender" for him and he told me that this name was much better and much more reflective of who he thought I was. He explained the characteristics of someone named Ender, which I'll keep to myself, but those characteristics seemed much better than the angry know-it-all that Andrew apparently conveys.

That night Gao Hong, Shao Min, and I went shopping. More people asked if I was Gao Hong's son. Is there a close resemblance that I am unaware of? It's getting ridiculous! We saw more camera crews filming in the market because everyone in Seoul is on TV at some point in their lives. Upon seeing the camera, one food cart operator pulled a saxophone Mary Poppins style out of nowhere and began honking away on it, pulling off a decent version of Georgia On My Mind (If you are under 90 you should look that up!) The cameraman loved it. As a foreigner, I was likely to get filmed. As a sweaty person who had climbed a mountain earlier, I didn't want to get filmed, so I was out of there.

The Nuns Who Say Kimchee
We concluded our third day of temple visits with everyone's favorite. This nun was also the student of the same teacher that the first monk was. (If you followed that sentence, you deserve a pat on the back.) The monk had warned us earlier of her evil derivations from tradition, but upon meeting her, it became impossible to feel anything but warmth. She was amazing. She chanted beautifully and puts on shows all the time to introduce new people to chanting. She'd performed with Gregorian chanters and even discovered that the tune, or I guess one of the tunes, for "Ave Maria" exists in Buddhist chant as well, though she was unsure who borrowed from whom or if perhaps the tunes are the same because they are both based on Truth.

I asked her several questions about what music meant to her and to Buddhism and even before I heard the translation into Chinese courtesy of Professor Bae, I felt like I could understand what she was saying. She came alive when she talked about her music and a light glowed around her. It was moving to see someone so passionate. Somehow, despite her elderly frame, she appeared young and full of energy when she described music and it's place in her heart. Her passion for the music, her conception that it was something that lived in you, and her desire to share it with as many people as possible was completely unique and inspiring.

We watched a DVD of their performances. They dance to their music and the melodies are more elaborate than the nuns' male counterparts. The dancing is similar to Tibetan monks' movements. The nun told us that these movements were not choreographed. When watching the tape, Ava, always the scientists, said, "Now wait just one cotton-picking minute! How can all these nuns be dancing in unison if there was no choreography?!" Okay, maybe I'm paraphrasing there a little, but that was the gist of her. . . accusation. It was a total Hermione attacking Professor Trelawney moment, except I was Lavender Brown and totally gulping down the Kool-Aid. That's when we learned that to say there was no choreography meant that the movements originally came from a higher power but then were taught to other nuns by a "recipient." Good thing Ava asked!

The exact history of the chant and how old their traditions were remained a secret because neither the nun nor the first-day monk would acknowledge the other. We also found out that the nun, who is credited with being the best chanter in Korea, invented a musical notation for chants because she would always forget them otherwise and she thought it was a waste of time for students to have to ask their teachers to resing a chant when they forgot it, especially since teachers are apparently also human and prone to forgetting. Her teacher was apparently furious about the notation but she uses it to pass on the chants now.

When we had finished off our watermelon and drunk our lotus tea, we bid the nun a fond farewell. We took a picture and burst out laughing when the nun told us to smile and say, "Kimchee!" The nun gave us all beaded bracelets to wear that were used for praying but would also protect us. Most unfortunately mine has the symbol that is the reverse of the Swastika. I'll continue to wear it in Asia, but I don't think I dare in the West. I really don't want to have to explain to people that I'm not a Neo-Nazi.

The head nun continued the Korean tradition of recognizing that Shao Min's soul was very monk-y right before another nun offered to drive us to the subway station. We all piled into the car. When we got out of the station we were gawked at as we, a Korean professor, a Chinese musician, an American and two Singaporeans burst from a tiny car driven by a Korean nun. Imagine an international clown car.

We completed our amazing evening with special Korean food that the professor located for us. We had two amazing noodle soups, spicy seafood omelets, and Korean rice wine which looked like milk tea but tasted like chardonnay. The professor kept pouring me more and more ladles of rice wine and I left the table stuffed and rosy cheeked.

Shao Min and I Climb a Mountain!
The next day in Korea, Shao Min and I decided to climb a mountain. We didn't have any directions so we just stared at the mountain with Seoul Tower on top and kept walking. This forced us to push our way through an apartment building and up some weird private staircase. Finally we got to concrete steps and were passed by a team of Korean Schwarzenegger impersonators jogging passed us looking angry, presumably from all those steroid injections.
We hiked up further and discovered old people working out in a park. Shao Min was just photographing a lady doing push ups when we heard music off in the distance. We wandered off the path a little following music we heard and discovered pop sensation 2NE1 filming their new music video, dancing and lip syncing in front of a scenic fountain. (The music video comes out this October, so you can check to see if Shao Min and I are in it!)

Finally we made it to the top and discovered that most people took a gondola and didn't walk. So once again I was the sweaty, gross foreigner representing America. (Go Team USA!) We paid for an elevator to the top of Seoul Tower. They had distances to cities of the world written on the 360 degrees of glass you could look out of. The city of Seoul lay stretched out beneath us and the view was well worth the price of the elevator ride. Shao Min stared off toward the city of her birth, Auckland. And I looked out towards home, posing for this emo picture, thinking about how it will be over a year before I go back.

Descending the summit, the strange sights just wouldn't end. We saw Christmas trees with padlocks hung all over them, strange metal-framed sculptures of people flying and boyfriend after boyfriend picking up his weary girlfriend to carry her down the mountain.

After we partly walked and partly (read: mostly) slid down a very sketchy path that looked like it had gone untraversed for a score or more, Shao Min and I discovered what we first thought was a mausoleum but turned out to be the Seoul time capsule which is set to be opened in 2394.

That night I reflected on Korea. It's been just as great as Japan and filled with as many adventures. I was thinking about the feud between the monk and the nun when I noticed that there was a decorative guitar hanging in the Yellow Submarine that has the following message inscribed on it: Each note ever played is derived from the flawless song that is nature. Somehow it seems like this knickknack's message is something that the monk and the nun and even the riddle-speaking monk could agree on. I wish I could take the guitar off the wall and go have a mediating session with those guys.

At six in the morning we left the Submarine with four tickets to Beijing tucked in our pockets. . .