Midnight on the Water

When I first came to China and tried to play Mark O’Connor’s rendition of “Midnight on the Water,” I sucked.  I mean, the notes were right and all that, but I still sucked. 

I mean, it’s written in such a way that one hardly needs to try at all to make it sound good.  Same with the violin I was using at the time—my precious Meinel, which is awaiting my return from China.  On that instrument, you don’t need to be all that talented to sound good.   So…why couldn’t I get it?

Maybe it was because I was watching Mark O’Connor perform the piece too many times and was trying too hard to copy him.  Maybe it was because I had no sense of dynamics and more or less played mezzo forte the whole time. 

Why was I playing it at all, you might ask?

Because I wanted to sound good.  But maybe, that’s not the point.

I started on the violin before I could count to ten without pausing to think about it.  Honestly speaking, I don’t remember a time in my life when I was not playing violin.  I have played in recitals growing up, concert halls, orchestras, string quartets, and at weddings.  I’ve grown up with a series of violins: 1/8size, all the way up to full-size, lamenting when my dampit got trapped in my violin, and dutifully scraping the rosin off of the strings—ignoring the pained looks of those around me cringing at sound of cloth on dirty string.  I devoted hours to practicing music and then performed it. 

But amid all of this heartache, I never asked: Why?

Here in China, I’ve sent the Meinel back to America, bought a cheap instrument named Mimi, and have entered a completely different arena of violin performance.  Yes, there are classical corners, but I seem not to have found them.  Friends ask me to play something for them in dingy practice rooms.  I bring it into class to saw out Christmas carols come December.   I hack away at bluegrass even though I’m from Minnesota. 

Does it sound good?  Maybe good enough.

And I still never paused to ask why I now owned an extra thing to carry back with me to the US.  I have no ambition to be a professional musician, no dreams to make millions off of my strings.

And then a family that I’ve gotten close with in China got the opportunity to go to America for an indefinite amount of time.  They were having a music party as a sort of send-off.  They wanted me to play.

I took out “Midnight on the Water,” which is something I wanted to perform for a long time anyway.  But there was a problem: I now had less time to prepare, and also didn’t have as nice a violin as I used to.  I had also never solved the problem of why I sucked.

There’s a repeat of the slow, melodic section, and I didn’t know what to do with it.  I figured, play louder, right?  Crescendos are good.  Except, then it ended up being a flat slab of noise.  Pretty notes, no heart.  Why am I playing this?  Why am I playing this when I know I won’t sound the best?

Before, when I thought of “Midnight on the Water,” I thought of myself on a stage, playing it and sounding good and people being impressed.  This time, I had no such illusions.  Instead, I thought of the family, and how kind they’d been to me, and how much I’d miss them when they went away.  I thought of all the times they invited me into their home, fed me, took me to interesting places around Hangzhou, told me stories, and how when I got sick, they were there to help.  When I thought of Future Hannah playing this piece, I thought of how I never really did want that song to end.  I wanted them to know that I cared, and that the time spent with me was not fickle or easily forgotten.

I decided to slow down in the repeated section and not to interrupt long notes with vibrato.  I wanted notes to sound like the pause you make before turning around that last time to see if the person is still waving goodbye.  I wanted to cup each note close to me like a firefly flickering in the night.

I’ll never know for sure whether or not it worked.  But that’s not what matters.  Together, with friends and other teachers, we held onto the time, enveloped in a hush within an otherwise noise-filled world.  And after almost 20 years of playing the violin, I think I finally understood why anybody makes music: because there’s something beating inside, and because there’s someone listening.


Drawing Lessons

It’s a hot summer afternoon.  I’m leaving my cool apartment for the sake of groceries (which becomes a necessary evil when the heat rises) and I see a gaggle of children crossing the street.  They are following  a man, who is wearing a smock and walks with his toes turned out like a duck.  A few children scurry to the front to keep up, many lag in back.

“Look!  A rabbit!” one calls out.  “Can we draw it?”

I turn to see a man carrying a rabbit in a cage. When he sees that he has an audience, he lowers the cage, and the children gather to peek inside.

“This way, this way!” the man in the smock says.  “We’ll go to the park today.”  They cross the street to the park I have many times gotten lost in: a place that is one part escape, one part destination.

“Teacher, slow down!” a boy calls, running to catch up.

“What haven’t you drawn before?” Teacher asks, waddling toward what used to be the pigeon house. He pauses by the bathrooms, but the kids lump around the trees instead.

“We’ve drawn this before!” they say. “We’ve drawn everything.”

“Okay, we’ll find something you haven’t drawn yet,” Teacher says.

I want to linger, to know what they will eventually choose to draw.  Because that’s the challenge of getting accustomed to wonder and beauty, isn’t it? ‘I’ve seen it before,’ or ‘I’ve drawn it before,’ so it’s no longer special. I’ve been in China nearly two years now, and this is the paradox of living abroad: how to find a home, and how to still be enchanted with it when it becomes familiar. ‘I’ve seen this’ or ‘I’ve been there.’ What happens when everything has been drawn? What if there is nothing new? Move on?

In my case, I move on from the children, mostly because there is a fine line between curiosity and just being annoying. I circle the park—this park that I have circled many times before in all seasons. When plants overtake the pond. When grandfathers and grandchildren stoop to gather tadpoles with a net. When strollers congregate in the midafternoon sun.

Just how do we recapture wonder when we’ve already wandered through it?

I hear their voices searching for something to draw on the other side of the park, and despite my resolve not to be annoying, my feet lead me over to where the kids are still examining trees for Teacher’s approval.

“What will we draw?” a girl asks. She’s wearing a long dress and light-up sandals.

“These stones are good,” a boy says. He’s gesturing to a collection of boulders that have steps going up them to a platform on top. I once met an opera singer up there, who only sang once I was back below and he was out of sight.

“You’ve already drawn that!” Teacher says.

“I’ve drawn that tree, and that one, and that one…” the girl with light-up sandals says, pointing at random trees around.

“Oh! Oh! What about that?” a girl asks, pointing beyond the path we’re on.

Teacher looks at it for a while, then says “Okay,” and leads them to a patch of shade.

Their subject? A stretch of lawn with nothing but yellowing grass.

They rest their wooden slates on their knees, putting down small water bottles, picking up other ones, asking Teacher if he likes it, asking for more water, and that’s when I decide to leave the park to continue my hunt for groceries. I want to laugh: after their long search, they have chosen quite possibly one of the bleakest parts of the park.

But there you have it: When you have drawn and wondered at everything, look at a blank canvas until you can turn it into something to wonder at.


Laowai vs Food: Drunk Pig

Disclaimer: This is not a food blog. I am in no way fit to offer cooking advice, nor should you accept any if offered.

Round Eight

Contender: Pork with beer

Level of Difficulty: So easy, even a drunk could do it (and they probably have).

In an effort to learn how to cook Chinese food, I’ve decided to try a recipe every so often from a cookbook given to me by a friend for my birthday. Even though the cookbook is completely in Chinese, I’ve decided to go ahead anyway and of course, share my damage reports along the way. This time, it’s a DIY idea given to me by a Chinese friend I met.

Step One: Materials

Stanley was a Chinese guy who sang opera, was learning how to ride a horse and to shoot a bow and arrow (so he could do both at once), sold apartments and carried their keys around in manila envelopes, and who enthusiastically reenacted what it would be like to ride a rocket to work instead of a bike. I met him downtown, when I took a wrong turn and ended up being recruited to pretend to direct a children’s choir for money (which later ended up not happening, because they were performing in police headquarters, and foreigners are not allowed inside, so I was stopped at the gate as the children went in without me. Stanley had to pretend to be Canadian).

We got to talking about Chinese food.

“Seems to me that it comes down to the sauces,” I said. “Good sauce, good food.”

“It’s more complicated than that,” he said. “There’s a lot of secrets in the kitchen that only Chinese know. You need a Chinese person to tell them to you.”

“Uh huh.”

“Besides, you don’t always need sauce. Do you like beer?”

I admitted that I did.

“You should try putting beer into the next meat dish you make. The juices, the flavor…mmmm” (his words, not mine).

I wanted to ask more about these secrets, but later, as we were upgrading (or downgrading, depending on how you look at it) to beer, a drunk Brazilian came over. “We’re both American! I’m from the south, you’re from the north!” He accentuated the class of the moment by dropping his camera on the ground, picking it up, and dropping it again to show us how strong it was.

Stanley and I ended our chance encounter abruptly.

On my way back to Xiasha, I thought about how weird that would be to cook with beer.

So weird I had to try it.

Step Two: Preparation

I had an ice-cold “Snow” beer, a wad of pork, and my pan. The pork was frozen solid, and since I didn’t have a whole day to keep it in my fridge to defrost, I just cut it up rock-hard. Amazingly enough, it was much easier to cut than when it’s raw slippery to hold onto. I may have to remember this one. I also cut my meat into small strips, mostly because I’m such a novice that I’m paranoid about cooking it wrong.

I then moved onto the beer. It was an ice-cold bottle of Snow Beer. It looked delicious.

But then I remembered that I didn’t have a bottle opener.

Not to worry! My time in college and my older brother taught me that there are other ways to open a beer bottle. I decided to try a method, which is leaning the lip of the lid against a table and hitting it until the lid came off.

“Ouch!” I said when the heel of my hand came back up.

Not to worry! The same thing had happened in college once, and so I had used a hardcover collection of Mark Twain essays to smash the lid. (Because I figure, of all authors, Mark Twain would be least offended by this usage of his written word). I looked around my apartment for a good, hard book. I had a copy of Game of Thrones, but it was actually much lighter than I anticipated. I had my Chinese-English dictionary. But as for a hardcover book…

The Giving Tree.

“I hope the tree is still happy about this,” I said, grabbing the much-beloved children’s book. I hit the lid. Nothing happened.

Then I remembered that I had this deluxe knife that a former teacher had given me. I pulled it out. There was a bottle opener on the edge.

Step Three: The Cooking

I took a swig of beer, and then began. The meat needed longer to defrost, and so I put it in first, with a little bit of water. Once the meat became a whitish color, I then drained the water.

How much beer was I supposed to put in? Stanley never said.

I poured about half of the bottle in. (Chinese bottles are bigger than American bottles).

Poke poke. I took another sip. Poke poke. Sip sip. The mixture was getting kind of foamy, and I wondered if beer was never meant to be cooked like this.

Poke poke. Sip sip.

Eventually, the beer evaporated, and I dumped the meat into a bowl and added rice.


Step Four: Collateral Damage

Stanley was right: this kind of pig was much juicier. There was a hint of beer flavor, but from what I could tell, drunk pig and sober pig tasted about the same. The only difference was that my cheeks were a little rosier than usual after cooking.

Step Five: Clean-up

Pretty painless. Who knew that drunk pigs left next to no traces? (Save for the pan, the bowl, the cutting board, the knife, and the empty beer bottle…)

Result: As Stanley would say “Mmmm.”

The Winner: Situational Irony. Because as I was flouncing about and cooking, I remembered that, not only was I meeting a friend later for a goodbye party, but I had also eaten a little bit of leftover cheesecake for breakfast. So, in fact, the drunk pig was yours truly.

Damn you, pig!