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!"


  1. Oh, and the pots were for storing water in in case they needed to put out a fire.

  2. "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"

    The sun on the other side of a foot-thick lead barrier would still be capable of giving YOU a sunburn :-P