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