Tuesday, December 23, 2014

X(ian)-mas Party

I hosted a Christmas party for my friends in Xian, which ended up being a wonderful night of dancing (Uyghur dance, Viennese waltz, the Macarena, and the "Little Apple" dance), singing carols in three languages, and exchanging Secret Santa gifts. My friends took some wonderful photos (and even put together a terrific video!) that I thought I'd share here.

Xian respite

A view of Xian (hazy)
While it was difficult making the choice to leave Urumqi earlier than I had planned, in these last few weeks seeing the connections as well as musical and linguistic progress I have made in Xian has affirmed that this was a good move, literally.

(Yusi and Liu Zhang are on my right)
I am currently unofficially affiliated with (read: loitering around) the Xian Conservatory of Music thanks to Liu Zhang, a faculty composer who has gone above and beyond to connect me with students and resources at the school. He has been incredibly generous, driving me to and from the airport multiple times, finding me housing in Xian on about one week's notice, and connecting me with many of his own students who have quickly become my good friends (as well as erhu teacher and violin student). For the first time I have been having a complete Chinese immersion experience, as around here I don't encounter anyone who speaks English beyond basic greetings. It has been exhilarating to experience my own Chinese proficiency increase daily; my Chinese is probably not becoming more pleasing to the ear, but my ability to interact verbally with unabashed confidence continues to grow while any shame I have about speaking a language I'm not fluent in is certainly shrinking. And everyday situations and obstacles are definitely expanding my vocabulary—when I sprayed myself in the face trying to get the washing machine to work I learned the hose is called a guǎnzi (管子), when I helped my beginning violin student with her bow technique I learned to tell her that her pinky finger should be wānqū (弯曲) and not straight, and when my friends in Xian went out for dinner and marveled at our good fortune to have met, I learned the word yuánfèn (缘分)—destiny.

I’ve been taking regular lessons with Zeng Chu, a petite girl who is a terrifyingly fierce erhu player (she’s come in second place in national competitions and played erhu for stadium concerts with pop star Wang Leehom). She has proven a tough but wonderful teacher—our first lesson was an hour and a half of playing open notes while she corrected my bow technique. By our third lesson, she remarked that I had made some improvement: “Finally it looks like you’re playing like an erhu player, not a violinist!” Zeng Chu pays attention to the smallest details and is enthusiastic about making sure I grasp the fengwei, or distinct local flavor, of the music. She also draws comparisons between Chinese musical ornamentation and regional cultural and linguistic variations, likening the relatively lyrical and melodic Jiangnan musical style to the lilting accent of the region and asserting that Mongolian music is more brusk and forceful because of their fatty meat-based diet. Still, I find that musical interpretation is becoming more intuitive. Once she had me pull out my violin and play the same passage I was practicing on erhu.
“Show me how you Western musicians would play this part.”
I obliged, not only putting in the requisite trills and slides, but also taking liberties with dynamics and phrasing—intense vibrato one moment, a breath before reentering the phrase much quieter.
“See!” Zeng Chu exclaimed. “How you naturally play this piece on violin is not so different from how you should play it on erhu!”

In addition to working on Chinese erhu music (and staring at my bow arm in the mirror while playing long open notes), I have also had a blast with Zeng Chu playing baroque duets for two violins on erhu and violin. I showed her Telemann’s Gulliver’s Travels Suite, which portrays the giants, tiny people, and other characters from Gulliver’s Travels through creative musical methods (for instance, using outlandish time signatures such as 24/1 to render “giants” as whole notes in the written music). We sight-read the duets for fun, and actually didn’t sound half bad! She had such a good time that she asked me to bring more duets for us to play. I’ll try to record us next time!

These days I have been both student and teacher—I have a beginning violin student, Yusi, who is another student of Liu Zhang at the conservatory. She is a pianist and singer, and apparently a desire to become a violinist as well. Although she has a musical background she has never played violin before, so we started from square one: Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. I am a product of the Suzuki Method of teaching music, so I’m doing my best to draw upon my own experience to teach Yusi. It has been enjoyable and nostalgic to hear such blasts from the past as “Lightly Row” and “Long Long Ago,” since the last time I played them I was preschool age. I’m lucky to have Yusi as a student—she is completely focused and extremely diligent about practicing, and she already has an ear for music. In other words, my job is more to teach her violin technique than to impart the overall concept of music-making (though I certainly enjoy the latter).

One thing that has been fascinating and a bit disturbing to learn about through my now two unofficial affiliations with conservatories in China is the extent to which under-qualified students make up the student body of music schools. Because admission standards to good universities in China continue to increase along with the exponentially growing number of applicants, students sometimes look to music conservatories as easier routes to obtain a college degree. The gaokao (college entrance examination) standards are much lower for music schools; even more than that, money talks--families with financial means often pay hundreds of dollars for lessons (and thus to develop guanxi, or connections) with conservatory teachers to ensure their children's admission. Music schools in China are notoriously expensive with very few partial scholarships awarded annually, and so the schools' faculty members view students as veritable cash cows. Even after admission, teachers sometimes encourage students to take expensive "supplemental" lessons with them or to give them lavish gifts to guarantee high enough marks on year-end tests. A faculty member at the Xian Conservatory (who estimates about 20% of his fellow teachers financially exploit their students) told me his sister, a current student, was pressured into purchasing a 2000 RMB (around $325) necklace for her teacher before her final exams last year. Trying to break into the arts world also subjects students to other vulnerabilities; I have also heard firsthand multiple anecdotes about exploitative or even nonconsensual personal relationships between teachers and students at conservatories from friends at three arts and music institutes in China. 

To add insult to injury, musical standards are apparently dropping annually at the Xian Conservatory. The same professor told me that many students enter not knowing how to read musical notation, while another current student told me that about 60% of her classmates paid their way into the school. I heard a similar figure describing demographics at the Xinjiang Arts Institute--my friends there estimated that half of the student body had paid their way in. I have attended a handful of student recitals at the Xian Conservatory these last few weeks, and while some players have blown me away with their high-level performances, others were frightfully mediocre. It's hard to conceive of committing four years of your life entirely to music if it is not your passion; it's also difficult for me to wrap my mind around the fact that a music conservatory (theoretically a place specifically devoted to students honing their musical talents) would allow, and perhaps even promote, a non-meritocratic admissions environment.

With Helen and Yuting in Shanghai (again...)
I have gotten behind on writing my blog as of late. I can partially attribute it to being in a transient state--I took a weekend away to go to Shanghai (I used getting a Japanese encephalitis vaccine as an excuse to go see my dear friends Helen and Yuting again)--but also a deeper sense of impermanence and lull as I confront my next big move for my fellowship. I haven't been practicing as regularly for the last few weeks, and have found myself somewhat unmotivated to "do" anything productive. My one daily guarantee is that I'll be speaking a lot of Chinese, whether teaching my violin student, doing Uyghur dance with old women in the nearby public square, or roaming around the outdoor nightmarkets as I have been frequently.
Xian nightmarket
I'm not too worried--I had a low week or two like this in Hong Kong, and ultimately came back from it more energized than ever. Still, it's bittersweet and frustrating to feel like I am passively observing the end of the year, and even more imminently, the end of my time in China. Nonetheless, I can appreciate the significant strides I have made in Xian--in these last few weeks, it has been incredibly rewarding to find confidence in my Mandarin language ability, and to develop meaningful relationships with people with whom I can't speak English. I no longer feel constrained by my vocabulary--it's by no means expansive, but now I don't fear that it will inhibit my ability to express complex thoughts and opinions. In particular, I marvel that I have been able to discuss how people make and experience music and the world using a completely different vocabulary, and therefore think about my own process differently as well. Being able to talk with Zeng Chu about relaying musical expression and hearing her marvel that our ways of thinking about music are so similar is a huge affirmation that we can understand each other, despite our apparent cultural differences, in terms of language and in terms of music.
Dinner with Xian friends (Zeng Chu is on my left)
Catholic Basilica, Sheshan, Shanghai

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Accidental montages

My camera, bless its heart, has an endearing tendency to, from time to time, simultaneously record and juxtapose a series of short videos when I take pictures. The unintended effect is a series of bizarre brief films merging scenes from each of the places I have been. In a way these accidental montages are perfect encapsulations of my experience of a place--they show what I wanted to capture but add a second, human layer and perhaps a little context beyond the still image--the security camera by the cathedral, the dress rehearsal before and the tour bus after the roaring applause, the music trickling out of the snow-covered Xinjiang Arts Institute, the construction heard resonating in the bamboo forest. They are mostly silly, but maybe also a little bit poignant. I thought I would share some of them below.

Monday, December 08, 2014

When cultural barriers become cultural barricades

Snow on the ground at the Arts Institute
I left Urumqi about a month earlier than I had planned. It was a decision I grappled with for days. At first leaving felt premature, like I was giving up, like throwing in the towel because things got hard. Indeed, after the cushiness and glamour of life in Hong Kong, Urumqi was a stark contrast—gray dusty buildings against gray skies, freezing weather (coupled with a broken heater), a diet that consists primarily of starch and oily lamb dishes.

(Here's some listening for the rest of the post--first, a recording of a Uyghur music troupe touring in Urumqi; second, the Hami ghijak, a now-rarely played Uyghur instrument; and third, a muqam performance).

What struck me far beyond these superficial adjustments, however, was the unease that permeates the city and infects the populace. From my first day in Urumqi the divides that estrange the Han and Uyghur ethnic populations were tangible; for one, armed military police and tanks omnipresent at bus and train stations, shopping centers, mosques, and other major public areas were blatant reminders of past violence that has erupted as a result of tensions.

As a third-party observer, I was privy to the racism and xenophobia coming from both Hans and Uyghurs. I heard the rampant discrimination against Uyghurs, whether it was the Han taxi driver telling me that “Uyghurs are bad in the head,” implying that they have psychological predilection for being evil people, my Han acquaintances warning me that Uyghurs were backwards and to watch my belongings and guard my safety around Uyghurs, getting evicted from a predominantly Han nightclub for “dancing while Uyghur,” or hearing countless instances of police intimidation of Uyghurs, often arbitrarily through late-night “house calls.” Uyghur men are by default assumed to be terrorists, and are disallowed everything from the right to grow facial hair to privacy in their own homes in the name of counter-terrorism. Perhaps the most disturbing is what we don’t hear—the ongoing incidents outside of the city that don’t make the news, whispers and rumors of the clashes whose true catalysts and body counts we will likely never know.

Uyghur musicians lecture on muqam performance 
At the same time, it became increasingly clear that the Uyghurs around me were extremely disdainful of Han Chinese people, who they consider to be haram, or culturally and spiritually dirty (opposite of halal), because they are secular and eat pork. I found that Uyghurs tend to self-segregate, often only eating in restaurants run by Uyghurs (or at least Muslims) even when they travel to other cities. The Uyghurs I encountered didn’t consider themselves to have any Han friends (or even seem open to the possibility), and avoided speaking Mandarin except as necessary—even mocking the language among themselves. There’s even a term, mínkǎohàn (民考汉), that refers to Uyghurs who have studied at Han-run schools and speak Mandarin as their first language (sometimes better than, or instead of, Uyghur language)—they are often looked down upon by other Uyghurs, viewed as traitors to their own people, for selling out to their cultural oppressors.

It’s harder to fault the Uyghurs for this disdain—they are largely unwilling participants in the manipulation, and some argue diminution, of their own culture and customs. It’s not that Uyghur culture isn’t without flaws—for example, being a woman in Uyghur society is extremely oppressive in its own ways, including being valued based on one’s virginity, having to forfeit a career for a marriage (that almost inevitably will be marked by the husband’s marital dalliances), or hearing a lifetime of Uyghur idioms proclaiming the stupidity of the female sex. Beyond that, more conservative forms of Islam that prohibit music and dancing, for instance, are entering certain Uyghur communities in Xinjiang (much to the dismay of the musicians I spoke with).

Regardless, the current relationship between the Han and Uyghur populations, fraught with suspicion and mistrust, seems seriously flawed. “You could hardly find two more different groups of people,” a researcher told me. (This particular researcher speculates that at this rate Xinjiang could devolve into a Chechnya-like situation). I don’t think that the cultural differences between Hans and Uyghurs are actually the root of the problem; instead, I think that ignorant and rigid approaches toward multiculturalism (in particular an increasingly segregated education system) are supplanting efforts towards the mutual understanding that would lay the foundation for a success relationship.

It would be wrong to say that there is no future for Xinjiang Uyghurs musically; however, the traditional ways in which musicians have created music and thrived as artists certainly seem in jeopardy. Musical evolution that deviates from traditional modes of expression is a phenomenon arguably seen in all music cultures; the fact remains that artists will continue to be exposed to outside influences and new techniques and want to use them to create new, distinct modes of expression. In the case of Xinjiang, however, musical evolution is largely manipulated by overarching political motivations, and music does feel like it’s being used as a tool of mass distraction and pacification. To quote an earlier post:
This politically-informed gauge of what will be well-received, what’s appropriate, and what sends the “correct message” is shaping the Uyghur musical canon….It is degrading when an entire group of people is reduced to a few token songs and dances with funny hats.
Limitations on the content of songs and the size and number of Uyghur music concerts, as well as the dominance of state-sponsored platforms for musical performance (such as national “ethnic music” competitions and the annual nationally televised New Year’s Gala), artificially control the market for Uyghur music. (For instance, a Uyghur musician was severely punished for writing a song called “Mother Tongue,” which encouraged Uyghurs to learn their native language.) Illegal downloading of music de-incentivizes musicians from recording their work, and musicians scratch together a living working the wedding, club, and restaurant scene, which these days is hardly lucrative. Piracy and the difficulties of making it in the music industry are issues facing musicians in the States as well, the difference being that the government doesn’t control one’s ability to produce and consume music. Maybe one’s electro-grunge cyber-folk band that sings exclusively about promoting an agrarian society won’t gain traction with the mainstream public, but it won’t be because local officials are threatening the audience base or publishing dictates about permissible music tastes.

I write this post as a critical observer. I won't be so bold as to assert that I have clear-cut solutions (indeed, I would be skeptical of anyone claiming she did); however, I would argue that music doesn’t mask the unease in Xinjiang, but rather, upon close inspection, exposes the tensions pervading every aspect of society in the region. Perhaps the only suggestion I’ll make here is that in terms of the Han-Uyghur relationship, as with music, there should be a lot more listening and a lot less conducting.
A muqam ensemble

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Hitched and hitching

In addition to the enormous adventure that was getting to shadow Yo-Yo Ma and Silk Road Ensemble on their Asia tour, my last two weeks was full of interesting highlights, including briefly putting myself on the Shanghai marriage market, having my fortune told at China's equivalent of the Oracle of Delphi, concocting new plans for my Watson project, and of course seeing good friends over amazing food.
"Touch the hand..." (Christine's photo)
During the Silk Road tour, the players got a day off in Shanghai. Nick wanted to walk around the city and wasn’t keen to spend the day in museums, so I suggested something far more interesting—checking out the Shanghai marriage market. I had read that Shanghai parents congregate for hours every weekend in People’s Park with signs advertising their unwed children, and was eager to see this manifestation of China’s gender imbalance. Nick was incredulous—how interesting could a public park full of desperate Chinese parents trying to match up their eligible but rapidly aging sons and daughter be?—but agreed to humor me so I could see what the fuss was all about.

We got to the park and were immediately blown away—this wasn’t the handful of people we had imagined, but rather thousands of parents with signs listing their child’s age, education, occupation, height, salary, whether or not they had a car and an apartment, and the qualities they were seeking in a potential mate. There were also matchmakers, or perhaps match brokers, who sat in front of dozens of signs while offering consultations. There were far more daughters being advertised, and most seemed to be in their thirties or later. (This is reflective of the social stigmas surrounding “leftover women,” or women are over age twenty-eight and still single.) One mother told me she had been at the park advertising her daughter every Saturday and Sunday for the last few months (much to her daughter’s dismay) saying that the daughter works too hard to date and doesn’t have friends who can set her up.

I was reading some of the advertisements and translating them for Nick when an elderly woman with a mouth full of silver teeth and a floppy hat came up to me and started asking me if I was looking as well. 
“Yes, I am!” I figure it’s good to always keep my options open. 
Almost immediately a flock of middle-aged Chinese women surrounded me, complimenting me on my Chinese and my appearance and asking me how old I was.
“You are too young for this!” they exclaimed after I told them I am twenty-one. 
“Oh really? Well, I’m just looking.” 
“I will show you some pictures!” The old lady pulled out an envelope of photos of a non-descript young man on a dock.
“Is this your son?”
She didn’t answer, but instead said, “Isn’t he so handsome?”
“Oh yes, but why isn’t he married? Is something wrong with his personality?”
“Oh no, he’s a very happy boy!”

A photo posted by Audrey Woz (@audreywoz) on
In the blink of an eye the seemingly frail old woman had linked arms with me and was dragging me through the crowd while dialing her phone, ostensibly to connect me with some potential matches. I decided that this would be a good point to make a swift exit before I broke too many hearts, and Nick (who had been observing all of this from a safe distance) and I dashed off while her back was turned. I looked back to see her surprised and disappointed expression from afar, and waved goodbye while trying to make the international sign for “It’s not you, it’s me!”

The rest of the day was really lovely as well—we walked through the French Concession, a well-shaded series of streets home to many niche boutiques and chic cafes. We stopped in a Dutch designer’s store and I briefly dusted off my Japanese to talk with the store attendant (who said I was the first foreigner he’d met who could speak Japanese) and went to a violin shop and talked with a teenaged violinist and her overeager stage mom about studying music in the U.S. We also stumbled upon the underground Shanghai Propaganda Museum (which I visited last time I was in Shanghai), and I had a chance to rave to the gallery owner about how much I love the exhibit. After I told him that we are musicians, he pulled out a flute inscribed with Mao’s quotations, and another one he cavalierly threw down on the table. (“This one's from the Qing Dynasty.”)

In Shanghai I also got to hang out with my good friend Helen, who took me out for the city's best xiaolongbao, curry soup, and shengjian mantou. We met about a month ago in Urumqi, where Helen was wrapping up a Fulbright year following a year of learning Chinese in Chengdu and the Tibetan grasslands while working in a Chinese restaurant. She’s absolutely amazing—we haven’t known each other for long but I feel like we have been best friends for our entire lives. We really enjoy wearing matching clothing and jewelry; for instance, we both have bracelets from Urumqi that ward off the evil eye. In Shanghai we stocked up on matching earrings with the Chinese character 囧, which is used an emoticon to express embarrassment, and also got blouses from an ethnic minority clothing stall. The latter have special significance because in Urumqi (and around China generally) people would frequently ask us, “What ethnic minority are you?” or assume we are Russians (often a euphemism for prostitutes). Even the guy who sold us the shirts was way off when guessing our nationality—to be fair, “Belize” was really not a terrific guess on his part. In any case, that evening we proudly donned our new “ethnic” attire, came up with an elaborate fake back story about our minority origins, and planned to play our Uyghur instruments (Helen plays tambur, which is a plucked long-necked lute-like instrument) in People’s Park and totally confuse all passerby. We also planned to go to a dance club in our garb and do Uyghur dancing. (Sadly, neither plan came to fruition due to my long afternoon nap, and then us forgetting the address of the dance club after we had set out. We’re postponing until next time.) 

I also saw my friend Yuting, who was a year ahead of me at Wellesley and just moved to Shanghai a few weeks ago to launch an organic baby food delivery service, the first of its kind in China. Baby food is a sensitive subject and hot item in China because of the 2008 scandal in which melamine, a chemical in plastics and fertilizer, was found to have tainted milk powder and poisoned hundreds of thousands of infants (fatally, in at least six cases). I remember Yuting telling me two years ago, right before she graduated, that her dream was to study and improve food safety in China; now, I am so impressed that she is following through with this dream and addressing the very real need for trustworthy and high-quality baby food in China. When I saw her in Shanghai, she had been in the city for all of a week and was already going from meeting to meeting, talking with industry leaders, government officials, and potential angel investors. “This is just a stepping stone,” she said. “Once this company is started and going well, I’m going to move on. I’m really interested in focusing on sustainable energy in China.” I’m convinced she’s going to save the world.
Yuting, me, and Helen. I introduced the two of them and I think they have become fast friendsat least, days after I said goodbye to them they sent me pictures of a cookie baking session they had just had!
I parted ways with Helen and Yuting (who I hope to see again before I leave China) and took a fourteen-hour overnight train to Xian, where my close friend and another Wellesley classmate Christine, who is researching waste management on a Fulbright in villages outside of the city. She’s particularly interested in biohazardous waste management—many villagers have no means to properly dispose of waste from medical clinics, for instance, and throw used needles and empty blood packets into the river. To quote Christine, “It’s a major health disaster waiting to happen.” She is having a blast with her work and life in Xian, and while she may be far from home is hardly missing her family—her parents have been staying in Xian as well for the last month or so and using Christine as a home base while they tour around China. They were there when I visited and were overwhelmingly kind to me—her mom did my laundry, her dad took us around the scenic spots of Xian, and both of her parents constantly stuffed us full of food.

As I haven’t seen my family for four months and will be away from home until summer of next year, some family R&R time was exactly what I needed. And, for a those few days it was like my own parents were actually there: her mom lectured me that I should stop running around the world and going to dangerous places, while her dad bragged about my accomplishments to everyone we encountered. I was truly touched when he declared, “You are Christine’s friend and classmate, and Christine is our daughter, so we consider you to be our daughter as well.” After two weeks of traveling and months of going it on my own, their parental love came at just the right moment.

(brief interlude for photos of the Xian sights)

Dowager Empress Cixi, last empress of China, apparently did the calligraphy on this rock
Chiang Kai-shek, wearing only pajamas, hid from arrest in this crevice (Christine's photo)
Imperial bathhouses in the middle of the city
A terracotta workshop in Xian
Outside hall of terracotta warriors (Christine's photo)
These terracotta warriors look like they will be cold in winter
I was surprised to discover that most of the terracotta warriors are in the excavation process or still entirely buried 

Huiminjie (Hui Minority Street)

In addition to seeing the terracotta warriors, Mount Li, and Huiminjie (the Hui minority street, which is full of food and craft stalls), Christine and her dad and I went to a temple we were told Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek had gone to have their fortunes told. For 10 RMB (under $2) it seemed like a no-brainer to also have our fortunes told (at least to Christine’s dad and me—Christine herself was skeptical and elected to roll her eyes at us). We kneeled at the altar, did some bowing, and selected a numbered stick from a bucket. The number correlated to a piece of red paper with a fortune written in old Chinese, which we asked the temple fortune teller, an old man with gnarly hands, a top knot, and a thick accent, to interpret for us. He asked me my day and time of birth, and proceeded to do a seemingly complex set of numerological calculations, and then told me something to the effect of:

“You are generally healthy but you need to be careful of your 胃 [wei, traditional Chinese medicine term associated with the stomach]. You need more earth and water in your life. Your hands are cold in the winter.”

At this point I was very incredulous—aren't everyone’s hands cold in the winter? But Christine and her dad clarified that he was meant that my hands are frigid at all times in cold weather, which is not something everyone experiences (and in my case, is true). The fortune teller went on:

“You are a good person, but between the ages of twenty-four and thirty-six you need to protect yourself and be careful of the people you trust—watch out for wolves around you. Your career will be very successful, but not your marriage.”

Christine’s dad was told that he was a worrier and apparently got a less-than-stellar fortune as well. We were told, however, that for a fee, we could burn our fortunes and make them go away. The temple staff showed us the donation books from others trying to avoid destiny, and saw donations averaged between 100 and 200 RMB. Quickly our attempt to learn our fortunes was turning into a veritable investment to trick fate. Feeling the pressure, Christine’s dad and I chipped in 100 RMB between the two of us (“Don’t tell Christine’s mother,” he said), received red ribbons to tie around the temple courtyard, and descended from the altar to go burn our fortunes. We quickly realized we needed a way to burn our fortunes, and looked towards the piles of already-smoking incense. And then we heard: “You can’t use someone else’s incense to burn your own fortune!” Of course one had to buy incense (for another couple hundred RMB)—at that point we hoped frugality was a virtue that would outweigh whatever misfortunes would come our way, and left the temple still clutching our red papers.

(interlude for temple photos)
Lamenting the fortune telling racket (Christine's photo)

With Christine outside the temple complex (Christine's photo)

Where we didn't burn our fortunes after all

I had been complaining to Christine about the things that had been making it difficult for me to adapt to life in Urumqi, including the food, climate, bureaucracy, and methods of music teaching. More than anything, I was frustrated that I had spent nearly a month in Urumqi with little to show in terms of musical progress or a solid network. I have mentioned before, it has been a struggle to figure out how things work on a daily basis in Urumqi; in terms of learning Uyghur music, the conservatory approach here prioritizes rote learning and adherence to a written score that makes it difficult to actually acquire or intuit the wèidào, the inherent flavor of the music—in fact, at times it seems like this is being totally suppressed. Additionally, connecting with the community at the Arts Institute hasn't really gone as planned. I have some Han Chinese pals who view me as a token American friend (kind of a status symbol—not a terrific basis for a meaningful friendship), some lovely friends who are expat researchers, and Uyghur acquaintances who I know through them. I have learned a lot merely through getting to know them, but ultimately I feel like a fly on the wall rather than a participant in the musical community.

Lunch with Christine, her parents and friends,
and Xian Conservatory students (Christine's photo)
Solution-minded as she is, Christine didn't just sympathize with my concerns but also took it upon herself to reach out to her friends and acquaintances in Xian to ask about musicians with whom I could connect. In a matter of hours, she had tracked down multiple students at the Xian Conservatory of Music, one of China's top music schools, to meet with us. Early the next morning, Christine and her parents and friends and I set off to go take a tour the conservatory with a few current students, including an opera singer, a guzheng player, and erhu player who had recently come in second place in a national competition and is excited by the prospect of teaching me. They showed us around the campus, gave us an impromptu concert (and had me play as well), and took us out for a delicious lunch. Christine also found Zhang Zhang, a faculty composer who is willing to sponsor me, arrange my housing in Xian, and give me a job teaching violin at his non-profit music school. "Just go back to Urumqi, grab your stuff, and come back here right away! Why do you need to be miserable in Urumqi?" I was struck by their kindness and generosity to all of us, especially me, a total stranger—it is sort of amusing that midwestern hospitality is a concept that pervades China as well!
(Christine's photo)

Erhu and guzheng students jamming out at Xian Conservatory
I had initial misgivings about abandoning my self-assigned post in Urumqi; however, this opportunity is really amazing on many levels, and I have come to realize that another month or so in Urumqi would not be as productive or enjoyable as a month in Xian. It's not that I expect to be playing in ensemble rehearsals (though that would be great), but I feel like there are various cultural, linguistic, and logistical barriers that prevent me from even being an active observer of music culture here. It certainly is not an overall impossibility, but I have come to realize that achieving the kind of connection with people and music here for which I strive is going to take time I currently have. It's not that I expect to waltz in and know what's going on and immediately have complete linguistic, cultural, and musical faculty, but in this case I believe that the steps I can make toward that point of understanding in the next few weeks will be far larger in Xian than in Urumqi. 

I leave at the end of this week—I will be leaving with the knowledge that I have learned so much from my time in Urumqi, and that there is so much more that remains to be understood. 

Xian Bell Tower
Looking forward to our upcoming reunion...