V for Violin

Okay, I caved.  After one year without a violin, I decided that enough was enough, went to a corner shop, tested out all of the dirt cheap, basically-tissue-box instruments, and by the grace of a “Christmas discount” am now the proud owner of what the owner could only comment as “Why not try a different one?”

I knew it was bad before I even picked it off of the hook.  There were absolutely no details on the thing, which meant that it was probably just a factory chew-toy, and the owner hadn’t even bothered to put the bridge on or tune the strings.

“This one is really bad,” he said handing it to me.

“I know.”  And really, I did.  

But after noodling around on the fingerboard (and this particular fingerboard left black marks on my finger tips) and trying different places on the strings, I concluded that it was still an improvement over silence and went ahead and got it.

Merry Christmas to me.

My new violin is nothing like my old one, which is this incredible Meinel instrument, which one of my friends calls “The Chocolate Violin” because it’s so delicious when it gets to playing.  I named it Gerald.  Gerald came with me to Vienna.  Gerald was my only companion when I first came to China, when my baggage got trapped in Beijing, and all I had with were my backpack and my violin.  (And no, that’s not as exciting and vagabond-y as it sounds).  Gerald came with to Yangzhou in the countryside, and it was with Gerald that I played for the occasional audience.  The back is striped in golds and darker browns, and it stays in tune for weeks, which is an excellent trait for the lazy violinist. 

But, Gerald is a classy fellow.  And when you live in a place that doesn’t have central heating in the winter, you’re not about to leave classy fellows behind to crack and die.  So Gerald went back to Minnesota when my mom came last year.  And there were no sad violins to play him a farewell song.  Poor Gerald. 

My new violin, well.  First of all, there is no name.  I mean, if there was a maker, they did not write their name in it, and so this instrument is like a shadow, a secret, nameless as if having materialized out of nothing.  So I decided to name it myself, just so that it wouldn’t seem so junky.  Her name is Mimi (秘密 mi mi which is the Chinese word for “secret”).  Mimi did not come with a shoulder rest, and there’s a funny ringing sound if I’m playing too far away from the bridge.  It’s pretty muffled, as though I’m playing from under a blanket, and it took a lot of rosin to make the bow actually grip the string. 

But, hell.  I can bang on it as much as I want, I can pass it on to other people who want to play without having an aneurism, and I can bring it anywhere I want without worrying too much about dampits or humidity levels. 

So I brought Mimi to class today to bang out some Christmas carols (which Gerald would have done, too, but would have insisted on more finesse).  We sang “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” and “Jingle Bells” and when the end of class came near, I was sad, because I was saying goodbye to the kind of class I will reminisce about in later months when I face new, confused students. 

“Miss Hannah, can I play it?” a student named Grace asked.  Without hesitation I said sure, because it was just Mimi, and so I tuned it better for her and handed it over.  Grace played the theme from “Castle in the Sky” with very precise, if somewhat stiff fingers.  I’ve heard that song in just about every Chinese old town, in the old ocarina shops, and really anywhere that’s trying to create ambience.  But there, in a cold classroom in China, we had music.

After Grace was done and we applauded her, I said class had ended, and the words sounded weak and stupid even as I said them.  I mean, this was a class that actually ran itself once when we had a debate, and who ran up after class was done to fight over who would erase the board for me and who came with PPT presentations just to share current events.  

“Well, okay, I guess I can play another one for you…” I said.  I began to play “The Butterfly Lover’s Concerto.” 

The thing with “The Butterfly Lover’s Concerto” is that it’s overdone in China.  It’s a gorgeous piece of music, but it has also been translated into a car horn.  I play it for Chinese friends, because they usually get a kick out of something familiar and are mostly just impressed that I know it at all, regardless of whether or not I get it right. 

But this time, there was something special.  Last night, for the first time, a listener at a Christmas party actually told me I was playing too fast and that maybe I should linger more.  I’ll admit that sometimes I go on autopilot for that song, or that I’ll think so much about getting slides and notes right that I miss out on the heart of the thing.  So in that cold classroom, on a shoddy violin, in China of all places, I lingered and tasted every note, especially since it meant more time with some great students. 

Gerald would have played it better, and I definitely stopped before the more difficult fast passage to save face.  But I swear the room was humming with more than the instrument, and the song was alive–a living, breathing organism evolving with each pair of ears listening.  I’ve gotten this feeling playing with an orchestra before, but never on my own.  On my own, it has always been about performing, not participating.  This time, when I was done, I wanted to keep playing and playing and playing all the way until I closed my eyes to sleep.  (But I think my class would have resented skipping dinner for that). 

It’s funny how these sorts of things work out, though.  Who knew that my greatest solo performance to date would be in China with Mimi in a cold classroom wearing a Santa hat?


Christmas with Chinese Characteristics

I had a bunch of balloons wrapped around one arm, a Santa hat comically cocked on top of my head, and was carrying an apple in a small box.  A gaggle of girls stared at me, and then a child pointed and said “Foreigner!  Foreigner!”  And then, as I crossed the road, a girl looked to her friend for support and said “Merry Christmas!” before running away. 

I walked down Number Four Street and heard faint Christmas carols playing alongside the theme song to a popular television reality show “爸爸去哪儿” (Father, Where are we Going?).  I saw cakes and candies, and neighbors crowding around the fruit shop to buy small parcels filled with sweets to hand to children.  The Christmas lights dangled from the entrance to the apartment complex, Christmas trees twinkled in the corner of shops, and the music, off-key and all, tinkered along.  Students periodically sent me text messages (and I honestly don’t know how they manage to get my number) to wish me a Merry Christmas, and friends ask when they can see me and when I can see them to share the cheer.  

It’s amazing, but once you start to look, there it is: Christmas in China. 

I got together with a class of mine for dinner, and there was Christmas amid the games, the laughter and the extravagant toasts (a scrawny kid named George yelling “Merry Christmas!” any chance he had as his girlfriend sort of shook her head and grinned–this was the same student who downed an entire bottle of beer in one gulp–a feat I did not expect from a guy whose legs are about the same width as my arms).  I ate Sichuan-style fish, and then later listened to Christmas music, and there was Christmas, too.  I went to a party organized by a class of mine, and they all created funny paper hats and played games and yes, there was Christmas in the mix of it all.  I got lost in the alleyways of old-Hangzhou looking for the get-together for magazine contributors, and with a guy who looked like David Bowe, a handful of Chinese people, and a smattering of westerners like me along for the ride, there was Christmas.

No, it’s not a white Christmas here (unless you count the smog), nor is it a Christmas “just like the ones I used to know” but it is Christmas in spite of it all.

And that’s just the way I like it.

Out of the smog

They took me to Mogan Mountain because the air in Hangzhou was like something out of an apocalypse.  The sun, which usually rises clean and white, trudged out of bed in an orange lump, oozing light into the air.  Air that was thick and coarse, and as dense as fog.  The latest fashion trend was all about face masks.  (In fact, I had half-decided to write an ode to smog, which would have gone something like “Breathe in, breathe out, and choke!”)

View from my apartment on a normal day in Xiasha


View from my apartment on drugs

And so we went away from all of this, even just for a little while, because the weekend was free and the road hadn’t been overtaken just yet.  We went, half-listening to the report of roads being shut down because of traffic, the airport being closed, and we decided to think of other things.  Of brighter and (dare I say) airier kinds of things.

“Wait, how do you say ‘prostitute’ again?” I asked. 

Well, almost brighter things.

Our aim was the top of the mountain, which I may call more of a hill after being out in western China.  We were to reach the top specifically to tank up on clean air and be in a place where other things weren’t.  And so we climbed the old stone steps, which looked like jagged teeth coming out of the earth.  We walked through thick bamboo forests and stepped over silent pine needles and I shivered as gradually the air got cooler and we could see where we were going without grimacing. 

She and I and her son were at a clearing.  She unpacked our assortment of bread and fruit for a picnic, and he raced for the trees, getting so happily entangled in the branches that he said he wouldn’t come down and would just stay there until the day was done.  The tree-branches curled as if hiding words in them, and bamboo roots curved out of the dirt like finger-bones. 

“The more we talk about the air, the worse it seems,” she said.  So I stopped thinking about numbers, for at least a couple moments, and tilted my head back to admire the sky.

Wouldn’t you know it?  We could actually see it.  And it was a stunning blue, set up behind the crackle of tree branches and the soft green haze of bamboo leaves fluttering in the light breeze. 

The sky…it’s alive!

We meandered over to a hotel patio, where Camellia flowers drifted lazily off of the branches and there was a circle to dance in, if in the right mood.  (And they were, whirling, but mostly laughing, which is what dance is about anyway).  And we finished off the fruit, tromping in leaf piles and then heading back down the path.

Yes, we had to go back down the hill, and as we did the air got thicker, as if the dream was coming to an end.  Once at the base, we drove with the windows closed and listened again as the traffic reports told us the worse.  I looked up at the sky, but this time I saw grey, with a hint of sky. 

The thing was, though, underneath all of that haze, it really was a beautiful day.