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DIGITAL ONLY CONTENT: We are related: a few extra stories from China
Rambo meets Rocky
"We are related!" said the young communist translator assigned to us in Guangzhou. We had been warned that the official translators were there to watch us closely, so I was caught off guard. "How is that?" I asked. "Because you are Rambo, and my American name is Rocky."
As unexpected as it was to find Sylvester Stallone mentioned at the beginning of our journeys, it was just first of many warm and happy connections throughout China. Yes, the translator was there to watch my 'cellist and I as we made our way through the city and worked with students from the local conservatory (I did get reprimanded once, however. See photo below). However, his English was good and we enjoyed long, meaningful conversations over several meals. For the last part of the week, we were left alone to travel around the city with students for shopping and meals, and we taught lessons and masterclasses without his presence. Since this was the first city we visited, my assumption was that it would be the same everywhere.
"Where have you been? The concert is tomorrow night."
We flew to Xi'an, where we were met at the airport by a huge cluster of teachers, officials, and students at midnight on a Monday. "Where have you been? The concert is tomorrow night." This was a bit of a shock to us, since we had spent the last few days running around Guangzhou having fun without any thoughts of practicing. Imagine my gulping surprise when the next thing said was, "Your concertos are on Wednesday night." I replied that Steven was playing the Tchaikovsky, but that I wasn't playing a concerto. He said, "No, you will play Beethoven Three! We sent a telegram. We sold tickets." I had learned and performed the third five years earlier, but had not touched it since. Oh, and no telegram had arrived, so I didn't even have the score along. Somehow, in the fog of little sleep, the aftermath of a horrifying flight (a story for another day), and a sudden "what the heck" attitude onset, I agreed to play. The next two days are a bit of a blur, but when they were done—and I'd safely played Beethoven without disaster—we were ready to work with students and visit the city.
We should have known things would not go so well when it was apparent that our translator didn't speak any English. We were watched constantly (I stirred one morning at around 6 am to find the translator looking in my room through the not-quite-wide-enough drapes), but one dauntless 'cellist from the orchestra hatched a plan. He arranged for bicycles to be delivered near where we were playing ping pong inside a walled compound. The three of us fled at full speed and biked for several miles to the 'cellist's home, a small one-room apartment, where his wife had prepared a feast.
Afterwards, we were spotted by the translator who stood, with arms crossed, at a street corner as we rode by—still several miles from the conservatory hotel. As we toured the city with him over the next few days, nothing was mentioned of our escape and the translator mostly just sat in the van in stony silence. However, we asked the translator (through his translator) to bargain for us at local flea markets, we asked his advice on things to buy our relatives, and we treated him to a dinner out on the town. We eventually won him over, as well as the translator's translator, and the van driver.
In Jinan, the auditorium where our concerts were held was also being used for meetings of party members who had come from Beijing. From what we understood, the administrator of the orchestra was the communist official in charge of the arrangements for both events. During an odd string of misunderstandings (not brought about by us), the administrator invited us to his private residence for an impromptu after-concert party. It was several beers and a discussion about a toilet paper mishap in our hotel rooms that finally broke the several-day-long tension. The wife of the administrator gifted us with "the best toilet paper in China," and we all had a great laugh (and another beer, if memory serves right). The next morning, we were treated to an unexpected all-day trip to Tai Mountain. That evening when we arrived back at the hotel, the administrator, the conductor, and several others in the group (all communist party members) each gave us small fireworks to light—because it was July 4, and because they knew we celebrated Independence Day with fireworks.
I have thought of this trip often and how many times rigid boundaries melted during our three weeks there. None of us did anything extraordinary. All of us were just there.
The cold-hearted way is not the path for most musicians I know, and I am thrilled for the stories in this January/February 2018 issue that point the way to true connections with people from around the globe.