Friday, October 31, 2014

Heart-flutterings on Halloween

Happy Halloween from Urumqi! While we won't be getting trick-or-treaters, we have put up some decorations left by the last occupant of this apartment, who apparently had a penchant for theme parties and acquired a nice collection of masks and color-changing LED pumpkins. I accessorized one of the masks with a dopa, a traditional Uyghur hat, and made a DIY tampon ghost, so the place is officially tricked-out.

A photo posted by Audrey Woz (@audreywoz) on

A photo posted by Audrey Woz (@audreywoz) on

I've also been getting in the spirit by practicing Eugène Ysaÿe's "Obsession," the first movement of his second sonata for solo violin. Ysaÿe's series of solo violin sonatas was the Belgian violinist's response to the solo violin sonatas of J.S. Bach. This one in particular starts by quoting the light and joyful opening of Bach's E Major Sonata, and then quickly takes a dark turn, evolving into an exploration of the "Dies Irae" chant for the dead. I have a practice room on the Uyghur music floor of the Arts Institute, and so when I practice violin there the music coming out of my room stands in stark contrast to the Uyghur muqam coming out of the other practice rooms. Bach, and of course Ysaÿe, are unfamiliar sounds around here, and I have been struck by how excited people are to hear solo Bach--certainly more enthusiasm for Bach than I've ever encountered in the States! Whenever I practice Ysaÿe in the Arts Institute my ghijak teacher comes out of his office to listen; he told my housemate to tell me, "I love hearing Audrey play violin--when I hear her play violin my heart flutters!" (He made very sure she understood that it was my violin-playing he was in love with, not me.)

And if that didn't put you in the mood, here's Franz Liszt's even more blatant take on the "Dies Irae" tune:

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

BFF = Baijiu Friends Forever

Given that, in describing my entrance into Xinjiang, such terms as "traumatic" or "agonizing" or "consuming all truth and reason" would not be amiss, it seemed that as I finally got settled in Urumqi there was no way things wouldn't start going my way. But three weeks in, that's just it--I guess I assumed that once I arrived I would get my bearings and things would just fall into place immediately. In fact, every single day around here feels like an uphill battle, and an especially frustrating one at that because so much of the time I find I don't have a clue about what's going on (even when I thought I did)! Even the smallest tasks can require wading through many iterations of bureaucracy and procedure (not my natural proclivity, as you may know). Lest you think I'm just complaining about language barriers and culture shock--yes, there's some truth to that, but it's more than just that.
For instance: 
Instructions for enrolling in school as foreign language student 
1) Email school at address posted on official website
2) Wait for email to bounce
3) Track down current exchange student to give you email address of exchange program director, send message
4) Receive no response because "she doesn't check her email during the summer"
5) Get cell phone number of exchange program director
6) Call and explain that you would like to take classes, get vague directive to fill out application
7) Submit application and receive no confirmation
8) Show up months later at school, hope for the best

Even now that I am theoretically enrolled in the Arts Institute, I deal with a host of daily challenges. It took me nearly two weeks to get the correct card to check out a key to a practice room because no one in the Music Department seemed to know the correct procedure--professors would direct me to other professors, who would point me back to the original person I asked. For a few weeks my ghijak teacher was not responding to my inquiries about when we could meet for a first lesson--I thought he had dropped me as a student. Classes change meeting times sporadically, or are canceled without warning (at least for those who aren't connected via social media with the teacher). Xinjiang also operates on two timezones--the official time, which like the rest of China is calibrated to Beijing, and unofficial "Xinjiang time," which is two hours behind. This is a constant point of clarification that recently was only further convoluted by the school's take on daylight savings time--shaving off thirty minutes from class start times in two directions. My ATM card still hasn't arrived, although I discovered that it had been languishing in the Urumqi FedEx facility for a week and a half because they didn't have the right address on it. Even once I contacted them and they assured me that they would deliver it within a few days, it is nowhere to be found and I am no closer to paying my rent. In other words, even the things that seem like they should run like clockwork, well, don't. Even the clock! When my sister and I were little our mom used to give us these stickers of frogs wearing prize ribbons with sayings like, "I tried my best!" and "I solved my own problem!" I'm keeping morale up now by mentally awarding myself a frog ribbon daily.

Besides my frustration about how difficult it has been to get started in Urumqi, I also was feeling a bit blue about how codependent I am on my host. She's absolutely lovely and I am learning a lot from her about local music and culture, but the fact remains that she has her own life, work, and circle of friends that I can only encroach on so much. In addition to such trivial tasks as calling FedEx Urumqi and getting student ID photos taken, I set myself the goal last week to "make friends." Hong Kong was such a crutch--between the vast sea of English speakers and the easily accessible online events postings, I had no trouble connecting with new people. Not so in Urumqi--for one, there is virtually no English except among the few expats here*, and you're considered lucky to come across a non-belated concert poster. Beyond that, I just have had trouble finding opportunities to plug in with the community at the Arts Institute because it is so insular.
*A side note about the expat community in Urumqi--from what I have been told the expats here are  largely divided into two distinct camps: researchers and missionaries. While religion does underly many of the tensions in the region, I guess the missionaries are either discreet enough, or more likely considered a religious buffer against extremism by the government, to avoid notice. Still, they aren't discreet enough for the tastes of some here--my favorite anecdotes are the Uyghur who complained that the leaders of his English language circle "only want to talk about Jesus," and the missionaries in language classes who use biblical references in all of their example sentences. 
This downtrodden note seems like a great lead-in for what shall be hereinafter referred "The Great Uyghur Baijiu Bash of 2015." A little background: months before I departed for my Watson year, I came across this gem of a video--a Uyghur music rendition of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean." 

It turns out that Abduwali, the musician himself, is an instructor in Urumqi, and the former teacher of a friend who just left the city. She had introduced us, and one evening I ran into him as I left the Arts Institute. We chatted and he invited me to come watch his ensemble's rehearsal, a Uyghur jazz combo-type affair. I eagerly agreed and watched them jam out until the bassist literally wore out his fingers. The musicians were great, and afterward some of them invited me to join them for dinner. We bonded over hotpot, one of them telling me about his Uzbekistan conservatory days and showing me videos of his award-winning performance in an international competition. They were excited to hear I was from Texas, and insisted they take me to Urumqi's aptly-named Texas Cafe after dinner ("It's owned by a Texan!" they exclaimed). Sadly, Texas Cafe was closed, but the night was just beginning. We went back to one of their homes, where they pulled out naan (Uyghur bread), a dutar (two-stringed lute) and a large bottle of baijiu, China's infamously pungent and potent alcohol of choice. After the musicians launched into singing muqam songs from Islamic poetry and Uyghur pop, they pulled out a shot glass. 
"Us Uyghurs, we like to make long toasts and tell stories when we drink." 
They filled up the glass. 
"We are so glad to have met you tonight. We are your friends for life, and if you ever need anything, ever, let us know and we will help you! Hosh!" 
They passed the shot glass to me.  
" makes me so happy to have gotten to know you tonight and heard your wonderful music. Ours was truly a fortuitous meeting tonight. I am so grateful for your help and hope that I, too, can help you in the future! Hosh!
We toasted many things that evening ("To music!" "To friendship!" "Hosh!") and as we approached the end of the baijiu bottle, one of the musicians emptied it completely into the shot glass and handed it to me. I tried to politely refuse, but:
"This is me giving you my good luck! You cannot refuse!"
I figured that at least that would mean the baijiu consumption would be over. But then they pulled out a second bottle.

I just want to take this opportunity to clarify that until that evening, I had been drunk once in my life (one month prior) and had certainly never thrown up from drinking. In college, my exposure to extreme alcohol consumption was as the person keeping friends from choking on their own vomit. And so after I returned to my apartment that evening and slapped myself in the face to retain consciousness while throwing back liters of water, I had a chance for hazy introspection about the evening and where things had gone awry. My head was spinning and I was stumbling and slurring as I vocally coached my liver: "Hang in there--you can do this!" Barf. This is probably a sensation most of you have experienced long before I did last week; however, now that I have finally been naan-tossing drunk, I can confirm that the baijiu shots hellhole is one into which one should never descend, and that I have no intention of drinking to excess ever again. That said, I did feel a strong glimmer of pride as I stared into the toilet basin--I had gone to a Uyghur drinking party with fantastic musicians, held my own (at least in terms of speaking Chinese language), and left with self-proclaimed lifelong friends. Culturally speaking, this felt really significant because these types of get-togethers are a huge part of the social culture; moreover, as a female it was amazing to have had the chance to attend since gender divides are so strong in Uyghur culture.

As for less alcohol-soaked social gatherings, the girl who had introduced me to an erhu teacher at the Arts Institute has been very sweet and invited me to visit her family home in Shehezi, a town two hours away from Xinjiang. Her parents come from Gansu Province and speak Mandarin with a really strong accent, and so they would say something to me and she would translate it to more standard Mandarin. That said, we had some pretty eye-opening exchanges--for instance, they were amazed to hear that there are Chinese people in the United States who own Chinese restaurants where they make and sell dumplings. I gave her dad an English name, Mark, and then was at a loss when he immediately asked, "So what does it mean?" I looked it up and got "Mars" and "warlike," which I didn't tell him, so I settled for a happy medium: "It means you're fiercely awesome!" He seemed placated. Her family was welcoming to a fault, insisting that I sleep in their daughters' single bedroom while both of their daughters slept out on the couch. I felt bad (also stuffed because I had gorged myself on the aforementioned dumplings) but they wouldn't have it any other way. As for Shihezi itself, if you have the chance to go, I wouldn't--the city was constructed fifty years ago in the middle of the desert as a semi-colonial project. With massive streets, empty monolithic buildings, and a gentrified Han population it has all the charm of a waiting room. (Surprisingly it is home to a university of 40,000 students and participates in many international exchanges. Regardless, I can without a doubt say I have seen it, and helped you dodge a bullet in the process...)

I have had my first two ghijak lessons, and while it's still to early to offer any serious commentary on the learning process, it's a great time to post a new video of lackluster stringed instrument playing! Ghijak presents unique challenges from erhu, especially since it has four strings instead of two and the bow, which is not attached to the instrument, has a higher contact point with the string than it does on the erhu. My biggest challenge right now, beyond keeping the bow on the string, is keeping the bow on the right string--the whole instrument pivots on the spike that rests on one's lap, so there is a swiveling motion to account for when playing that I have never dealt with before. I really like my teacher, though. He's a really nice guy who is seriously picky and sounds like he is screaming all the time; in fact he just cares a lot and tends to talk loudly, especially about the history of Uyghur instruments and music. He showed me this very cool instrument which he called the "grandfather of the erhu"--it looks like a large erhu with a metal body and five sympathetic strings (not played but  that vibrate when the two main strings are played). Because of the sympathetic strings and the metal chamber the instrument echoes the notes long after they have been played, and the sound has a distant and haunting timbre not unlike a sitar. He complained that no one wants to study the instrument these days, and I told him I was very interested, so tentatively I am going to take lessons on both instruments! In the meantime, here's the video status report on ghijak and erhu:

I regret that there are not more pictures in this post--I haven't been toting my camera as freely because I don't want to draw attention to myself and also don't want to jeopardize anyone whose image I might post. That said, I'm working on it--more pictures to come!

Saturday, October 18, 2014

First Quarterly Report: the spider was a metaphor

While the Watson Foundation does not require its Fellows to produce a research paper or findings from their year abroad, they do ask for quarterly reports in the form of a "long letter home." Mine is due today, and I thought I'd share it on the blog as well.

Dear Chris, Michelle, and Sneha,

Greetings from Urumqi, where at the moment I am sitting in a muqam performance class at the Xinjiang Arts Institute. Since the class is taught in the Uyghur language and thus I can’t really appreciate much more than the music, I’m also practicing writing the Uyghur alphabet in the hopes that picking up even a bit of the language will serve me during my time here.

I want to let you know that starting off my Watson in Hong Kong was truly a phenomenal experience, daunting though it was at the beginning. My first few weeks were overshadowed by trying to salvage my Wall Street Journal internship, only to find out that a variety of circumstances had made it impossible to do it at all this summer. (WSJ is happy to have me come back for the internship next summer/fall after my Watson year, which is my current plan.) So in my first week I was without a plan or established network.

On my first day of ‘funemployment’ I went to lunch by myself, and then decided I would walk uphill for as long as I could. Four hours later I was at the top of Victoria Peak, where the usually panoramic view was entirely obscured by thick mist. I resigned myself to a contemplative walk down the mountain, which went smoothly until I spotted a huge, face-sized spider dangling nonchalantly overhead. I am deathly afraid of long-legged spiders, and seeing this one I felt myself start to hyperventilate. I suddenly realized that Hong Kong is in a tropical environment, as is Indonesia, another of my Watson year destinations, and if I were going to survive this year I would have to accept the inevitability of spiders and learn to keep my cool even if they were hanging over my head. And I’m pretty sure the spider was a metaphor.

Later that day I walked into a random music school and signed up, sight unseen, for erhu lessons. My teacher ended up being a patient, talented, and generous young guy who, beyond teaching me how to play the instrument, shared his insight on attitudes toward music acquisition and preservation in China, and also invited me to join his Chinese orchestra. I performed with them for their Mid-Autumn Festival concert on erhu and as a solo violinist, playing a Cantonese opera piece and a violin showpiece.

One of the biggest things I took away from my time in Hong Kong was how interconnected the world is if you are open to it, and proactively seek out new connections and opportunities. I was warned by multiple previous Watson Fellows that this year would be lonely and miserable. Thus, expecting this would be the case, I made an events calendar, attending everything from an experimental jazz vocal concert to a dramatic reading of short fiction. I set up meetings with acquaintances of acquaintances, and then volunteered to help them out on their projects, no matter whether they seemed related to my own project or not.

And in fact, even those activities and connections that seemed so tangential ended up serving me in major ways I would never have foreseen. I worked closely with a composer and music critic who I met through a markets editor at WSJ. She invited me to a concert she was reviewing, at which time I discovered she had done her graduate studies with composer Lou Harrison and played gamelan on the recording of his work that inspired me to play it and write about him for my senior honors thesis. I volunteered to assist her in her work in any way I could, and soon was regularly going to concerts with her, traveling out to the island where she lives to help her with her work, and play her music (which draws on both ‘Western’ and Chinese influences).

Through the composer I met multiple wonderful people, including a Chinese linguist and professor at Hong Kong University who became my Mandarin teacher, mentor, and closest friend. He is a renaissance man with a self-declared ‘perfect’ memory and extremely strong democratic leanings despite having grown up and studied in northwest China. Discussing notions of cultural purity and propaganda in music with him in Mandarin helped my language skills, and made me think about the potential political and cultural implications of performing music from an “outside” culture or with ideological ties. “The thing with propaganda music is,” he said one time, “you may be singing ‘The Sun is Red,’ but the melody is really nice!”

I won’t go into the play-by-play of how I fell into all of these projects (I have recounted them on my blog) but here are some of the other highlights, in no particular order:
  • Coaching chamber music for a quintet of middle school boys
  • Becoming a classical music reviewer for TimeOut Hong Kong
  • Meeting John Thompson, a preeminent scholar and performer of Ming Dynasty guqin, on a far-flung island
  • Taking a few-day trip to Hangzhou, where quite by accident I met some of China’s top erhu players. I traveled with them to a rural village to meet their master teacher and join their family reunion, and then put on a recital of my own in a public square
  • Working at Hong Kong University’s Centre for Journalism and Media Studies a day or two each week in exchange for free housing at one of the Residential Colleges (I was named a “Junior Visiting Scholar” and a “good role model for the students”). I also joined HKU’s Gamelan Ensemble and played violin and erhu with HKU students
  • Spending multiple nights observing the Hong Kong democracy protests
Without realizing it, I had found a really wonderful niche in Hong Kong through the incredible relationships I had formed, and the prospect of leaving the place that was never supposed to be part of my Watson project became overwhelming. Many people, including my mother, suggested I not leave Hong Kong at all. But while there was so much more I could have done had I stayed longer, it felt important to stay faithful to my initial proposal, and that I would be cheating myself if I didn’t get out of my comfort zone.

And so, I arrived a little past midnight in Urumqi two weeks ago, a trial-by-fire start to my time in Xinjiang because my host had mixed up the date I was arriving and wouldn’t be returning to the city for two more days—which I discovered after the airport shut down at 2 am. Also, I had discovered a few days prior that my ATM card had expired and was subsisting on the cash I had borrowed from a friend. (I am still waiting on my new ATM card to arrive—fingers crossed it makes it!) I ended up getting in an unmarked car with a strange man and going to an airport hotel I could barely afford, where I started freaking out. Thankfully my host got in touch the next day and put me in contact with my first friends in Urumqi.

Things have steadily improved from that low point, although adjusting from a largely English-speaking, generally politically free island financial capital/culinary paradise to a frigid Uyhgur-speaking [SELF-CENSORING] that subsists on carbs and lamb has meant some significant culture shock. I am in my second week here, but only now starting to get my Xinjiang sea legs. I am planning to take a week long detour to Taiwan and Shanghai at the beginning of November to shadow Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble for part of their Asia tour. I was only planning to spend two months in Xinjiang, but because it has taken me this time to settle in, and because I will be taking that week away, I am thinking that for this part of my year to be productive (in terms of learning erhu and ghijak, a Uyghur stringed instrument, and Uyghur and Mandarin languages) I should stay longer than I originally planned—possibly through some of the winter (so much for my plan to avoid freezing climates). I also am really enjoying learning erhu, and am vaguely entertaining the notion of going back to Hangzhou to find those erhu musicians and study with them—they offered to teach me after all! I am still wrangling with questions about how to prioritize my time, energy, and focus, so of course, if you have any insight I absolutely welcome it.

Okay, muqam class is out—time for Mandarin! Hope all is well with you.


Scratching out my first Watson quarterly report

Friday, October 17, 2014

Carmen in Uyghur-land

I attended a fantastic concert tonight, and my first in Urumqi--the opening concert for the 3rd Academic Conference on Traditional Chinese Medicine, Western Medicine, and Uyghur Medicine. (Can you imagine if academic conferences on any subject in the States or U.K. devoted an entire evening to hosting a three-hour musical gala?) The performers were faculty and students from the Xinjiang Arts Institute, and the ensemble was a Uyghur music take on the Western orchestral setting--ghijak standing in for violin, bass rebab comingled with cellos and actual upright basses, many other instruments whose names I don't know that most certainly don't have direct equivalents Western classical music...

Arranging Uyghur instruments in an orchestral layout is a phenomenon of the last fifty years (as it is with Chinese instruments such as in the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra). It's an interesting aesthetic--trying to emulate the composition of a Western orchestra with different timbres, and certainly different instrumental techniques and musical styles. The concert included many traditional and folk songs from Xinjiang as well as Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan arranged for the ensemble and featuring singers and solo instrumentalists. My absolute favorites were the ghijak soloist (Track 5) and one of the singers (Tracks 3 and 4). I will post the video later, but one thing that was so striking about this performance (and the concert in general) was that it seemed like there were no barriers, but rather a fluid connection, between the performers and audience. The performers and audience members were active participants in the concert, each equally providing an essential service of sorts. As you can hear in the audio, people would start cheering when they heard something they liked.  The onstage solo players, on top of being excellent musicians, were extremely expressive performers and treated the act of performance very holistically--they had chops and were great at engaging the audience. They looked like there was nothing else they would rather do but play for the crowd, and their passion shone through.  

There were also a few ritzy opera arias in the concert for good measure. If I have learned anything about cross-cultural musical exchange in these few months, it is that no matter where in the world you are and what instrument you are playing, people go wild for Bizet's Carmen (Track 6). There's a story in that somewhere (and I won't settle for "sex sells")--I will have to keep probing for the reason and report back.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

First steps in an unfamiliar China

I am extremely glad to report that I have survived my first full week in Urumqi. Given how rough my transition here was, I suppose any stability could be deemed an improvement--but by all standards things are really looking up. 

First, let me address some initial questions--

Where the hell are you?

Good question. I am currently in Urumqi, which is the provincial capital of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China. Like Tibet, it is a region of China with large ethnic minority populations (in particular, a large Uyghur population) that theoretically (if not in practice) have control of their own regional government systems within the province. 

What's a Uyghur?

The Uyghur [wee-grrr] people are a Central Asian ethnic population of Turkic descent. They are distinct from people of the Han ethnicity (the predominant ethnicity of Chinese people) in their religion, language, and culture; they practice Islam and speak Uyghur (which is a Turkic language that uses Arabic script and is closely related to Kazakh and Kyrgyz).

Why do you care?

My first experience in China was in the summer of 2009. I had taken one year of high school Mandarin and was studying abroad in Beijing through a one month language program. Seeing the sights and getting immersion experience piqued my interest in China, but what sparked my passion for learning about Chinese politics, current affairs, and foreign relations was what I couldn't access--my Facebook, YouTube, Twitter...That summer, thousands of miles away from the Great Wall and the Forbidden City, massive ethnic clashes between the Uyghur and Han populations erupted in Urumqi. Images of the large scale violence were considered so potent that the Chinese government blocked all mention of the riots online and shut down social media networks across the nation. [Self-censoring further discussion of details.] 

As a fifteen-year-old with an active Facebook presence, I was astounded that a government could block an entire citizenry from freely accessing information and communicating with each other. From that point on, I immersed myself in learning about Chinese politics, history, culture, domestic and foreign affairs--everything I could to understand how a government that proclaimed it was "serving the people" could justify censorship and media manipulation. My interest in Xinjiang grew further after reading journalist Peter Hessler's Oracle Bones, an account of his experiences in China. The book in part delves into the story of one Uyghur man and explores the racial tensions between Han and Uyghur ethnic groups in China, as well as the frequent accusations that Uyghurs are separatists and terrorists.

After coming across with Uyghur music in one of my many moments of browsing the Wellesley College Music Library, I was even more intrigued by the music and culture of Xinjiang. And so, when it came time to identify the places where I would conduct my Watson project to study local music cultures and their interactions with 'outside' influences, Xinjiang seemed like an obvious choice. Besides folksong and popular music, Uyghur music has a style called muqam, which is a form of ensemble playing heavily influenced by Islamic poetry. Muqam music has regional variations across Central Asia and the Middle East, and so in the spring when I go to Azerbaijan (whose music I have also come across and really enjoyed) I will have the chance to compare and contrast the similarities and differences between muqam styles.

Some music from Xinjiang--

As I mentioned, this was my first full week in Urumqi. Considering how much time I have spent in Chinese cities as well as the fact that the Chinese government firmly considers Xinjiang to be part of China, I was pretty surprised at how much culture shock I have experienced. Having come from Hong Kong, which climate-wise and politically speaking is far warmer than Mainland China, it was a drastic change to arrive in the northwest desert oasis of Urumqi, where it snowed a few days ago and military police with tanks and assault rifles stand on nearly every corner downtown. On top of that, I am living in a Uyghur ghetto where ethnic tensions between Han and Uyghurs seem particularly tangible; furthermore, the dominant language is Uyghur and so I am experiencing double language immersion. I've been bewildered by the time change--China has a single timezone for the entire country, so Xinjiang runs on two times, official "Beijing time" and unofficial "Xinjiang time," which is two hours behind. Also, for this first week the water heater kept tripping the electricity and the heating was not on, so I was taking sponge baths every few days and sleeping in the same wool coat I have been trekking around in daily to stay warm. In other words, it has been a lot to take in all at once, but I am slowly finding my way.

My plan is to enroll as a Mandarin Chinese and Uyghur language student at one of the local universities, and separately study with teachers for erhu and ghijak (a bowed Uyghur music instrument, this time with four strings, that has parallels with violin but is played similarly to an erhu). Earlier this week I walked into the music department of the university and asked the front office about an erhu teacher; a student overheard me and said she could ask around for me. That evening, she said she had found me a teacher: Fan Fan, an erhu performance student who was happy to give me lessons for free because she thought it "would be cool" to teach me. I had my first meeting with Fan Fan, who is extremely cool herself, and offered to pay her or offer some skill in exchange; she said that "I'm getting your friendship and that's enough!" (I may also show her some things on violin, but nonetheless I am getting the better end of this bargain!)

The prospect of learning all of these languages and instruments at once is definitely feeling really daunting at the moment, though, especially since I am in the early stages for nearly all of them. In particular, I went to my first Uyghur class yesterday and tried in vain to make out some of the sound correspondences with the writing system as the class has already met for two weeks and gone through the Arabic alphabet and basic grammar. Basically, I am going to need to teach myself the Arabic writing system before I can even consider the possibility of getting anything out of the class. Since I am only planning on being in Urumqi for about two months, I find myself wondering if there is even any point to trying to learn Uyghur. Still, I think that it is so important to at least make the effort , even if just as a gesture, because in Uyghur culture music and language are so closely tied. In any case, I already have been given a Uyghur name, Pazilet (which I have been told that like "Audrey" means "noble maiden"), so I will at least work on saying, "Hi, my name is Pazilet. Sorry I don't speak Uyghur!"

If mastering Uyghur language in these next weeks is a futile cause, I can at least say that mastering Uyghur dance is not. On my first few days here I met a Uyghur guy who gave me the break down on how to do Uyghur dance:

"Put your arms in the air and move them around. Put your feet on the ground and move them around."

What could go wrong with those instructions? This weekend, my host here and some of her Uyghur and American friends invited me to go out to a Uyghur nightclub for dancing, an invitation I happily accepted. That evening when we walked in the club, I confronted not a grimy scene of debauchery, but rather a lavish palace with chandeliers, enormous couches, and a large central dance floor overlooked by a main stage on which singers and dancers would come out regularly and serenade the 'clubbers.' There are three types of songs they would play: Uyghur pop, tanza, and disco. Each one comes with its own dancing style--people dance Uyghur dance to Uyghur pop, do a sort of couple's waltz to the slower tanza, and do a sort of enthusiastic middle school dance circle to disco. By American standards, the clubbing was absolutely tame--between songs, there would be a few minutes break so everyone could collect themselves, women wore long-sleeved dresses, and there was absolutely no bumping and grinding on the dance floor. I actually thought it was a huge blast, particularly the Uyghur dancing. The men do a slightly more 'masculine' dance with outstretched arms and some more abrupt shoulder/hand action, while the women complement them, using more slow, delicate, and graceful motions that are almost like poses rather than "dance moves." I copied the motions I saw the women around me doing, and found that the dancing was really fun and intuitive (key: pretend you are a peacock in slow motion). I knew I had hit my stride when one of the Uyghur guys told me I was "naturally perfect" at Uyghur dance. Who knew!?

The club
I can't attest to whether this is popular at the moment, but this Uyghur pop sounds like what we were were bobbing and weaving to on the dance floor--

And to leave you with some images--a new friend I just made who is a former Fulbright scholar who lived in Chengdu for a year and has spent many months in Urumqi took me around this neighborhood that is slowly being demolished to make way for new housing developments. Residents of the old neighborhood are forced to leave and sometimes compensated fairly; in some cases, they refuse to leave their homes and remain for as long as possible (even without electricity or water). These images are from the demolition zone and the nearby area.

Some families are still living in crumbling homes marked for demolition amid the ruins of the neighborhood
A still-occupied home in front of the new high-rises

Military training base in Urumqi


Notices prohibiting women from wearing the veil, men from wearing beards, and Uyghurs from displaying the Islamic symbols of a crescent moon and star
Coal-burning stove outside a home--one of countless such stoves contributing to air quality problems in the city
"My Chinese dream - my dream, my purpose"
"The Motherland is in my heart"

On the way out after eating a hearty meal at this restaurant, we realized it had received a 'C' for food safety. Thank goodness for cultural exchange--in the form of probiotics...

Tuesday, October 14, 2014


This building is one of countless residences and businesses across China marked with the character 拆 (chāi, "demolish"). It will be torn down to make way for new high rise buildings and infrastructure projects intended to buoy China's economic development. Residents are evicted and sometimes compensated fairly.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Grievances and mourning

After spending my last night in Hong Kong sleeping in a gutter with student protesters, I left the city where I had spent two and a half months to travel to my next destination—Urumqi. Urumqi is the capital of China’s northwest province of Xinjiang, which borders Kazakhstan, Russia, Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. There are no direct flights from Hong Kong, and so I took a late morning two-hour high speed train to Guangzhou, where I took the subway to the airport, crossed my fingers that the airline wouldn’t hassle me about checking my overweight bag and bringing two instruments and a carryon onboard (they didn’t), waited four hours for my flight, started to feel my separation from Hong Kong, and then got on the five hour, 7 pm flight to Urumqi. Thankfully it was exceedingly smooth, but as I looked out the window and didn’t see any lights for hundreds of miles, my sense of isolation began feeling more acute. I told myself that it was okay—my host, M, would be meeting me at the airport and I would soon be around people who cared about my survival again.

I arrived without fanfare after midnight at Urumqi’s Diwopu Airport and waited for M, who was arriving in the airport from vacation in another city in Xinjiang ten minutes after my flight landed. Ten minutes turned into thirty, and then an hour. Flight delays in China are a common occurrence, so I knew I just had to be patient and she would show up. As the number of people waiting to pick up friends and family at the airport dwindled and M was still not around, I began to worry—she was my point person here and the person I would be living with, and without her I was essentially clueless about Urumqi.

At 2 am all the flights had landed, the airport was shutting down, and M was nowhere to be seen. I was losing my shit. A few women advertising hotels had come up to me in the previous two hours; one came up to me as the gates started coming down, and I asked her how much the cheapest room would be, mentally calculating how long I could stretch the money I had with me (remember that I discovered a few days ago that my ATM card is expired). Seeing no other options, I consented to letting her arrange a room for me, and then was directed to the ‘free airport shuttle’—an unmarked black compact car ferried by a strange man. My brain was too haywire to do more than recognize my internal alarm bells going off, and I deliriously contemplated a life of sex slavery.

Luckily this particular shuttle did not take me to a life of destitution, but rather to a barebones Super 8 Motel outside the airport, where they let me lowball the room deposit because I couldn’t scrounge up the full amount. The internet worked long enough for me to send a telegram-like email to my family assuring them I was still alive, and re-read my email exchange with M, discovering she had mistook my arrival dates and would be arriving two days hence. I got in bed still disgusting from the day’s travel. I wondered what I would do, where I would stay, and how I would pay for the following nights, realizing that regardless I would need to come up with a plan before checkout at noon the next day.

I slept until 10 the next morning, and then realized I had one other number—the international student program director of the Xinjiang Arts Institute, with whom I had corresponded briefly in the weeks prior. I called her, explaining the situation as best I could, and asking if there was a hotel close to the Institute where I could stay. She gave me a recommendation for a place next door (“The rooms are not big, but they are cheap,” she said) and I haggled with a driver outside the Super 8 to take me across town to the Institute, which is firmly nestled in the part of town dominated by the Uyghur ethnic minority population.

I made it to the hotel and arranged a room, but needed to first change my Hong Kong currency to Chinese yuan to pay for it. The banks in the area were closed for the holiday of Qurban, so I used my remaining cash to take a taxi to the main Bank of China branch. I didn't even end up changing my money at the bank—a slew of ‘money peddlers’ lined up outside the bank, and I consented to let a very persistent one buy my Hong Kong dollars. I undoubtedly lost a few dollars in the process, but he took all of my loose change off my hands, which the bank would not have done (and remember I was physically and emotionally drained). I finally made it back to the hotel and checked in, and felt my bewilderment and seclusion swallow me up.

Just as I felt myself succumbing to utter sorrow and fatigue, I got a text from M: “Do you want me to introduce you to some of my English-speaking friends at the Institute?”

“Yes, that would be amazing!” I tried to text her back. My phone was out of minutes.

Half an hour and two China Mobile stores later, I was back in business. I got the number of some of her researcher friends at the Institute and called them, explaining my situation and asking if I could become a barnacle to their metaphorical ship. They told me they were at lunch with friends, but graciously invited me to go along with them to meet another friend in a few hours. I went to a hole-in-the-wall restaurant that thankfully only served one dish, and sat there contemplating all that had transpired in a mere twenty-four hours.

Meeting M’s friends was a godsend. They were incredibly kind and good-natured—taking me out to eat, doing my laundry (!) and telling me about their struggles and successes adjusting to life in Urumqi. Just having someone who could sympathize with my tremendous stress and culture shock made the next day and a half bearable. 

I am currently coming to terms with the fact that for now, and likely for a long time, it will be impossible for me to write freely about the things I see and hear on a daily basis. I will still, to the best of my ability, write about my own experience studying music and language in Urumqi. But until I can tell a more complete story myself, I urge you to learn what you can about current affairs in Xinjiang and know that there is so much more that remains unsaid.


There hasn’t been a day since my arrival when I haven't cried, when I haven't been overwhelmed by waves of acute emotional pain. There is much to look forward to in my time here, and I am safe. But I am in mourning—for the relationships I left behind in Hong Kong, for Hong Kong itself, for my current self-censorship, and for the reasons I have to do so for the foreseeable future.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

The highest of tables and lowest of gutters

As I mentioned in a previous post, one of things that had been keeping me busy in Hong Kong was helping out at Hong Kong University’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre (JMSC). A close friend introduced me to Ying Chan, the director of the program, and I volunteered to help out with the JMSC’s work in any way I could. This has entailed everything from writing press releases for their website to writing the English language press kit for an Oscar Award-winning documentary filmmaker. In exchange for my work, Ying has hosted me at one of HKU’s residence halls for the last month and a half—an amazing and unbelievably generous arrangement given housing costs in Hong Kong. I had to laugh when I moved in, though—I would not have thought that so soon after graduation would I be living in student dorms, eating in a dining hall, and shuttling to campus in a school bus.

And then came High Table Dinner. For those of you who are unfamiliar, High Table Dinner is a tradition from the British education system in which students don robes and eat together at long tables overlooked by a ‘high table’ at the front of the hall where the distinguished faculty, masters, and tutors sit. (For those of you who are familiar with the Harry Potter dinners in the Great Hall—it’s the exact same concept, minus floating candles). I didn’t actually know any of this when Ying invited me to join the High Table Dinner at her residential college, but happily accepted the invitation, which instructed attendees to dress up or wear their national costume. Since draping myself with a large American flag or dressing up like the Lady of Liberty seemed fairly out of the question, I decided to wear someone else’s national costume and showed up wearing my newly acquired qipao (the high-necked ladies’ dress of China).

When I arrived at the Great Hall, I was given a long black robe (denoting post-graduates, distinguished faculty, and masters) and told to line up outside behind Ying and the other faculty while the students took their seats inside. Out of the blue I heard a trumpet fanfare, and the procession started to move. Suddenly I found myself filing down the middle aisle past lines of students who rose deferentially. I followed the procession all the way to the front, where I stood by a seat miraculously marked with my name. Little did I know that Ying had actually seated me at the High Table itself, seated among the distinguished faculty members. A few days earlier, one of my friends who lives at the residential college, a master’s student in music composition, had asked if I was going to ‘crash the High Table Dinner.’ As I stood at the front regarding the students in my regalia, I saw him rolling his eyes, gesturing with mock-indignation as I smirked from the front. Ying introduced all of the very accomplished college masters and tutors, and then introduced me.

“This is Audrey. She just graduated from Wellesley College in the United States. She has this very fantastic scholarship to travel to five countries and do nothing! Please talk to her so you can find out how to get scholarships.”

So, quite the introduction! But the meal went on and I found myself chatting amicably with the student organizers and a professor of architecture. Ying had asked me to play violin at the dinner, so after everyone was done eating, one of the tutors set up a music stand immediately in the middle of the students and I launched into my piece. I had asked a good friend about something short and pleasing to play for this gathering, and he had recommended I listen to Swallow Song (燕子/Kharlygash), a very melancholy love song about two lovers stuck between the border of Xinjiang and Kazakhstan. The lyrics are simple but adorable:




Swallow, ah…
Listen to me sing a swallow song.
Dear please, listen to me say a few words
Swallow, ah…

Swallow, ah…
Please do not forget your promise and change your heart.
I am yours, you are mine.
Swallow, ah…

Eyebrows arched, eyes bright
Graceful neck, long hair
She is my girl.
Swallow, ah…

After watching this video I was completely sold (on both the song and the outfit) and transcribed it for violin. It seemed to go over very well with the High Table dinner crowd, and I was glad because afterward it gave tons of students the excuse to come talk with me. I felt so lucky—in that one night I made about twenty new friends. (A large group of them invited me to come out partying with them later that evening, another episode that again reminded me that I am no longer in college.) In particular I got to know an entire floor of girls in the residential college, with whom I relived my college experience through a couple of rounds of late night snacking, watching videos and movies, and gossiping about secret crushes. It was fun to witness their college experience now that I am on the other side of it and having such a radically different experience—I was just in their shoes a year ago, but now our concerns on a daily basis are so radically different from each other.

I scored a terrific gig writing classical music reviews for TimeOut Hong Kong, the city’s cultural and arts magazine and website, and so had the tremendous good fortune to get free tickets to the concerts I was planning to attend anyways, and then foist my opinions of them on the general public. What’s not to love!? I felt lucky to have taken a class at Wellesley partially devoted to writing concert, record, and book reviews, but nonetheless, before writing my first review for TimeOut, I felt pretty insecure to be judging musicians far more accomplished than myself. As I attended my first concert, however, I found that my reaction to the performance came easily—I didn't need to worry about coming up with the substance for a review. I reviewed three concerts in total before my time in Hong Kong came to a close, and the exercise of articulating what was successful and unsuccessful in others’ performances was really illuminating for me as a performer. I think in particular I came to appreciate how much of music performance is visual—the audience wants to see the players onstage interacting and engaging with each other and the music. It also became blatantly clear that even those concert-goers who aren’t music aficionados can appreciate the difference between players who are just playing the notes, and those who are so in touch with the music that they can inflect their own interpretations naturally.

My last days in Hong Kong were somewhat bizarre. There were some in the company of close friends, enjoying each other’s company for the last time in the foreseeable future. I went on a final junk boat trip, which was a beautiful day devoted to relishing island life. I had my final erhu lesson with my teacher, after which he took me to get lunch, erhu accessories, and my phone repaired. I had a last night in the dorm, spent watching a terribly acted Cantonese movie about prostitution in Hong Kong with my new friends from HKU. I went out with a few friends and their mothers for amazing food, and had a really nice outing with pals from the HKU gamelan ensemble I had joined for the last few weeks.

Hanging with the po'
My evenings for almost the entire last week, however, were spent helping my former supervisor ABC News with their coverage of the pro-democracy student protests in Hong Kong that have been going on in full force for about a week and a half. (See my previous reaction post regarding the Hong Kong protests.) My ‘schedule’ for my last week in Hong Kong was spending the day working on various tasks or meeting up with friends and acquaintances, and then sometime between 8 and 10 pm meeting up with the news team, gearing up with cameras and gas masks, and then staying out to help them film segments and report live until 2 to 4 am. My role was that of ‘protest sherpa,’ guiding the team around the protest area (which I had visited before they arrived), providing real-time facts and rumors, carrying tons of bags, finding people for them to interview, and turning on my benign Texas charm to get past huge security blocks and police cordons. Rumors about what would happen were spreading like wildfire, and on the first night we went out (the day after police used tear gas) the reporter told us to treat the situation in the field like a warzone, prepping us on protocol in case of riots or violence. The atmosphere was tense, but for the first few nights the protests in Admiralty resembled a music festival more than a demonstration of civil disobedience: tons of couples, singing and cheering, street art everywhere, and people offering free food at every turn.

We kept anticipating some dark turn for the protests, whether that be students storming the Hong Kong Chief Executive's private home or police using any means necessary to clear the highways for National Day, which commemorates the founding of the People’s Republic of China. There was certainly was hostility, especially in the Mong Kok protest area, where paid thugs and/or disgruntled locals used their fists and not their words to address the protesters occupying the streets. But at least for now the prophecies of a second Tiananmen Square massacre have not been realized.

Staying up late every night and then trying to function during the day soon began to catch up with me. I started forgetting small and big things. My mind became occupied by the protests—I compulsively checked for reports and new developments, thinking something would change and I would miss it. I felt myself becoming consumed with worrying about the protesters, worrying about the future of Hong Kong, worrying about the fate of Chinese citizens on the whole. When I dragged some of my belongings I planned to send back home down the hill to the post office in torrential rain and found out my ATM card had expired, I basically lost it. I felt out of control of so many things. I confronted my sudden destitution, impending separation from my newly familiar and comfortable home and friendships in Hong Kong, and the fact that I could only observe the course of the protests. My good friend came to the rescue, fronting me cash and reminding me that I was cold, wet, hungry, and overtired.

My last day in Hong Kong was a string of get-togethers with close friends, after which I planned to go out for a last night of protest coverage. That evening Hong Kong's Chief Executive had publicly promised to clear the streets, and so tensions were high as rumors flew that there would be a massive crackdown. Before I went out I had one final ferry ride with a violin and erhu out to the island to see Alexis. She and I played erhu duets as well as her music, Mozart, and Arensky on violin and piano. We had intended to put on a final chamber music recital together with her former composition student, a cellist, but the cellist dropped out a few weeks prior, and then the protests took over my schedule, and the space we were going to use for our performance was already booked, so the odds were against us. Getting to see her and have a peaceful moment of music on an island so far removed from the Hong Kong hullaballoo was a godsend—and in many ways a final moment of calm before the storm.

After a lovely afternoon of playing Mozart, Arensky, Alrich, and erhu duets, a bittersweet farewell and "see you again" with Alexis on Lamma Island
After seeing Alexis, I got together with Paiyu (renaissance man, Chinese linguist and historian extraordinaire, and my very close friend and Mandarin teacher) for dinner. He has been incredibly generous with his time and energy helping me in Hong Kong, from editing a paper I am publishing to prescribing me traditional Chinese medicine. Like me, he has strong feelings about the student protests, but on that last night we agreed to not talk about politics. Instead, we talked about classical music and inane topics over dumplings while we watched a propagandized news report on the protests come on the TV, watching images of students and police shaking hands flit across the screen. We parted ways, and he urged me to stay safe that evening as I got in a cab heading toward the protests. “Send me a progress report on your paper!” he called. “See you again soon!”

I arrived at the protests, where the number of protesters was significantly less and the mood was palpably fearful. The ABC news team was prepared to stay out until 6 am to witness the protests, and so we got to work. I spotted student leader Joshua Wong in the crowd near Umbrella Man, the newly erected wooden sculpture holding aloft a yellow umbrella that is to the Hong Kong protests what the Lady of Liberty statue was to the Tiananmen Square protests. After a brief interview and a quick report for one of the news programs, we were in a holding pattern waiting for something to happen.

As the night dragged on I walked around the area, watching students drag trash cans to reinforce barricades meant to prevent attack by police buses and rogue taxi drivers. Others studied in an effort to keep up with the classes they had been skipping the entire week. Many were asleep, spread-eagle on the pavement or wrapped tightly in saran wrap or sleeping bags by highway medians.

At 4 am I found myself drifting off as well, curled up in the gutter next to a pile of cigarette butts and the drain. It didn’t seem to matter.

At 6 am the producer woke me up. It was time to leave, and for me to travel to Urumqi.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

On the Hong Kong protests

I am long overdue on writing, and as I do so now it is a particularly climactic time, both for myself and for Hong Kong. Much has happened in the last few weeks that I would like to write about, but for the last week, the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong have occupied my nearly every waking moment as well as mind space. I had heard discussion of the student movement and “Occupy Central” before this week, but as I watched the live stream of peaceful protesters bombarded with tear gas by heavily armed police, I became absorbed in the news and felt the same helplessness and vulnerability that I felt during the week of the Boston bombings. For the past six nights I have gone out to the protests with my former supervisor from ABC News’ Beijing bureau to help with ABC’s coverage of the unfolding events in Hong Kong. I have heard many perspectives—students who are fervent champions of democracy, mainland Chinese who believe Hong Kong citizens are selfish and should stop complaining, apathetic or unsympathetic locals who just want their everyday lives (and ability to use main road arteries) to return to normal…I believe that wanting to nominate and elect one’s own leaders in a free and fair election is not an unreasonable desire, although as someone pointed out to me today, Hong Kong for most of its history has not been democratic (though it has benefitted from having free markets).

A Hong Kong financier observing the protests told us that the protests are a symptom of the younger generation of Hong Kongers feeling trapped in society—the Hong Kongers don’t have high enough Mandarin language proficiency to work in mainland China, nor high enough English proficiency to work in the States, Canada, Australia, or Europe (and the available visas for these places are dwindling as well). In the meantime, the banking and finance jobs that have powered Hong Kong’s economy are going to mainland Chinese, who are also buying up real estate in Hong Kong and driving housing costs through the roof. In other words, the future the young generation of Hong Kongers face is bleak—even if they find a job in Hong Kong, they are unable to move out of their family homes or face twenty-five years of paying loans to just afford tiny apartments.

I feel strongly that people have the right to freely disseminate information and express their own views, and the massive censorship and information manipulation in both mainland China and Hong Kong that has accompanied these protests is extremely disturbing to me. Statistics show that online censorship of posts relating to the protests in Hong Kong is at an all-time high in mainland China—far exceeding censorship rates on even sensitive days such as the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Instagram has been blocked across mainland China in an effort to prevent images of the cell phone light vigils, the incredible street art, the huge police presence, and of course the tens of thousands gathered, from being seen and potentially emulated across the entire country. I want to hope (or be idealistic, a word that has been used to describe many of the student protesters) that such a public demonstration in Hong Kong, the final frontier of democracy in China, can fundamentally shake the Chinese government at its core and proliferate across China. I also realize how many factors are working against the protesters, not the least of which is the antipathy of much of the population of Hong Kong. Whether they are paid mafia thugs beating up students in Mong Kok or local shopkeepers incensed that their businesses are suffering because of the protests, perhaps an even greater strain on the protesters than the threat of a crackdown from Beijing is the pressure from fellow Hong Kongers to stop disrupting society. Rather than a large showdown between protesters and the People’s Liberation Army, this movement may die at the hands of Hong Kong citizens themselves, urging it out of existence.

I have tried to remain neutral as I assessed the situation this week; indeed, in the past few days I have both spent time sleeping amidst protesters on the occupied highway and standing among police behind the barricades and cordons. Nonetheless, my natural tendency is to sympathize with the pro-democracy protesters. By many measures American elections, with just two candidates who have achieved their status through corporate lobbying, can hardly be called free. Nonetheless, I find it very difficult to imagine a situation in which I could not feel any concern about the potential implications of infringement on my ability to express myself freely. As it becomes more and more absorbed into the Chinese system, the Hong Kong system is not becoming more independent, and I worry that the entire society will suffer in the long-term as it undergoes the process of assimilation.

I have absolutely fallen in love with Hong Kong. It is hands-down my favorite city I have visited, and I could imagine myself living here in the future. After this week, however, I worry that the future is not bright for Hong Kong, and that this city I have come to love is transforming into a shadow of its former self.

(posted late due to internet accessibility issues--follow-up on my last weeks in Hong Kong, and notes on my current locale, to come soon!)