8, the lucky number in China.
The piano has 88 keys.
My street number: 688.
If not luck but through coincidence I found the Yunnan restaurant a few blocks from my flat. It’s easy to see with its large neon signs on the third floor. But I passed it for a long time without knowing it was there.
But right now at 6am I’m in a Starbucks on Canal Street in Manhattan. I’m talking to a gentleman from Singapore who’s an eighteen-year NYC resident.
He and I are wondering, actually, about tables and chairs—specifically, the lack of them.
There be no dragons. But time travel, yes, there is.
In Shanghai and every city there are gems and treasures scattered here, there, everywhere. But, like the Yunnan restaurant I found just a few days ago, they’re easy to miss.
For example, Janet and I call this road snack street because. It’s filled with vendors all of whom offer amazing street food. How would you know it’s snack street except by wandering and finding.
So, we were walking in the former French Concession where it borders Laoximen, our neighbourhood. We’ve wandered there a lot.
Behind the Boxing Cat——which we’ve passed a million times—but the pic isn’t the Boxing Cat—there we found a complex of streets, shops, restaurants, a bookstore, and more. We discovered a coffee shop that doubles as an antique dealer—which in turn doubles as an upstairs bar with a backyard garden. The whole enterprise is open until 2am or when the last patron leaves.
Some of the stuff on display induces time travel to when that area was The French Concession, but not, as it’s now known: The FORMER French Concession.
The difference: The French Concession was France and colonialism and its laws projected out to China. But the former French Concession is simply and of course 100% China.
But it’s one of those interesting things. Younger generations don’t know that area as the former French Concession much less the French Concession.
As for colonialism, younger generations don’t, best as I can tell,, think much about it. But, read articles about strategic business planning in the free magazines that litter hotel lobbies and such. There, in those sorts of publications you can see the the imprint of former colonialism. An imprint in the sense that some of what’s happening now that’s clearly the result of if not a response to what occurred then.
But what’s now and what’s then, and the relationship between them—now and then—is a complex nuanced subject better suited to books about history and politics—much more so, for example, than than blogs about experiences acquired while traveling.
I walked past our local dry-cleaning shop. The owner and I waved at each other. In fact, I walked earlier tonight past one of the local noodle shops. The owner smiled and waved.
That sort of thing—friendly gestures with local residents—when we first moved into our Shanghai flat, of course, none of that happened. So, something that stands out as something learned goes to the kindness of individuals, rather than Shanghai’s massive skyline.
Kindness from individuals makes all the difference. For example: during a rainy night several months ago, a women stood on a street corner and held an umbrella over Janet. That, while I stood in the street trying to hail a taxi.
Or there was the time we took the Metro to the wrong stop. It happened only because the difference between where we wanted to go and where we actually ended up was one letter attached to the name of the stop and we missed that letter.
As if on cue, a couple came out of a restaurant. They could tell we had no idea where we were.
The give-away for those who don’t know where they are is looking up and around in every possible direction—with some moderate amount of distress. But that couple—they explained where we were. Then they called a cab and explained the same exact story to the driver. Twenty minutes later and a few miles elsewhere and then we were at the right location where we hoped to be in the first place.
Changsha Train Station
Last night we were in the Changsha train station waiting to begin our trip back to Shanghai. Deciphering where exactly to stand on the platform to get on the right car is the art we haven’t mastered.
Someone noticed our confusion—again, it’s the looking here, there, and everywhere that’s the giveaway. That’s when those around you know you need help.
The same person who took in our confusion—he looked at our ticket. Then he walked us over to the correct spot on the platform.
People say Shanghai is a large, friendly city composed from 26 million people or so—give or take a few million. That’s exactly what we’ve found. Shanghai is a friendly city. But we’d also say that same friendliness extends, in general, across China.
Yunnan And Chengdu
Yunnan is a province in the far southwest of China. The far southwest meaning go further west and there’s Myanmar. Or, instead, go southeast or southwest to Laos or Vietnam, respectively.
Or go north to Sichuan province. But first, time travel, as in:
Today, right now, I’m in Chengdu—in Sichuan province. I’m in a bookstore, The Bookworm, to be precise. There are three of them across China, I think. An Irish expat opened them as second homes for other expats.
I was playing the piano at the Bookworm, getting in a little practicing before the concert I’ll play tomorrow. All of a sudden Miles Davis and his Kind of Blue recording came from speakers on the wall.
I think that was a message: Stop playing the piano! Alternately, cacophony is welcome.
Later that day, still in the Bookworm, Miles Davis and Bitches Brew came from those same speakers. Earlier, I had stopped playing the piano to listen to Kind of Blue. Now I stopped everything to hear Bitches Brew.
If you’re of a certain generation, Bitches Brew is treasure from another planet.
And why is it a treasure from another planet? The answer is because there was jazz before Bitches Brew and there was jazz after.
Meanwhile, Bitches Brew, improvised as it was from a combination of acoustic and electric instruments, projected timbres, or sound colours—that, in turn, required new improvisation techniques that didn’t come from playing over the changes or within a mode. Or outside of a mode, for that matter.
My opinion is it really is as simple as radically change the timbres one might usually use when improvising and other things will change as well.
Ribs And Such
My Yunnan-style dinner in Shanghai: ribs and panfried mushrooms. All with peppers, hot ones, piled on top.
Things get spicy hot in Sichuan too. Among things we ate there was something that, in translation, is known as beef boiled in water—it’s a well-known local dish.
But, that translation, beef boiled in water, that doesn’t tell the whole story. That’s partly because you can also get beef boiled in water in Vienna. That’s a well well-known local dish there.
So what’s the difference between beef boiled in water in Chengdu and Vienna? In Chengdu, the difference is beef boiled in the water is heaped with chile peppers and more chile peppers and chile oil and more chile oil.
It’s an amazing kind of hot and spicey that, at least for me, says eat more rather than less! In other words, hot needs more hot.
Food Bookworm-style And More Kindness
Dinner the following night, was not where we had beef boiled in water, but, rather was once again in the Bookworm: a Western-style: a steak sandwich and a salad. Nothing special.
But nothing special, depending on context, can be very special. That’s the beauty of an expat venue.
And going back to the theme of kindness: when I needed a taxi to return me to my hotel, the Chinese manager of the restaurant pulled out his smartphone and booked a cab for me and then he paid for it.
Of course I reimbursed him. But the point is the entire transaction wasn’t about how much that cab ride was going to cost or convenience or inconvenience for the manager. Rathert, it was just a question, of how best that particular individual could best get me back to my hotel.
A colleague of his told me that he does that often for customers. It’s not a job requirement. It’s just him being kind.
Let it be said: receiving aid from someone when you can’t otherwise do something yourself, something as simple as hailing a cab: well, it’s a something that stands out. It’s something to think about.
Chengdu is a fascinating city of about 20 million with huge buildings that, when we walk amongst them, feel, well, huge hugw.
We went to the top of one, all of 26 floors.
Now, 26 floors may not seem like a lot of floors. It’s less than the 70 floors up where I found myself recently in Guangzhou.
But, what I’m used to at 26 floors up is a view through a locked window. Typically, what I’m not used to is a view through am open-air waist-high iron fence.
Let’s say that again: a waist-high iron fence. 26 floors up. Open, unfettered access to nothing but a long way down. Thats casts 26 floors night as a spectacle.
So there we were, 26 floors up, at a tea ceremony. The thing to understand is in China, there’s art to preparing and pouring tea. And a tea ceremony is something that one experiences. It’s a time to slow down and contemplate: tea.
Janet’s friend explained: The experience and wisdom of the person who’s preparing the tea—it’s crucial in the sense that the preparer’s experience and wisdom infuses the tea.
That wisdom, in turn, is passed on to the tea drinker. So there’s a philosophy of giving—and not just serving—that’s part of the tea-making process.
In that same tea ceremony, there’s live hot water, tea leaves, small tea cups, and of course, the tea made specially by the preparer. And a few small snacks that go along with everything.
To raise things a notch, live tea water, as I think it’s called, ideally comes from the top of a mountain and it’s prepared (ideally?) over a charcoal fire. Roasting over charcoal, that’s how the water becomes live.
But, we haven’t yet attended a tea ceremony with that level of detail. But, at that level, if and when the water cools down such that it has to be re-heated, in that case it’s dead water.
Filters And Expats
Meanwhile, with tea and a ceremonial tea set, Janet and I return to Leicester on 1 June having been In Shanghai since early January.
Our return to the UK—it’ll be spectacular to see our house and friends and all other other familiar things. We also know from time abroad elsewhere that during those first few weeks home we’ll see the UK through the filter of China, just as we’ve experienced China through filters of the UK and America.
Of course, our homegrown filters from the US are much stronger than our UK filters much less our Chinese filters. All that means is we’re Americans who live as expats in the UK who’ve just spent five months as expat expats in China.
I’ve spoken with many friends about the filter of expat experience. The thing about living abroad—it’s a challenge and a blessing—is after leaving a home country, things feel, well, different. Amiss. It’s something about which I’ve heard many comments.
Then returning to a home country after a long stay in a destination country, once again things can feel amiss. But It’s an amiss of adifferent sort..
It has to do, in my opinion, with filtering and perception Filtering as in how we go about perceiving daily business in a destination country. How we get used to daily business in a destination country. How we solve daily problems in a destination country.
None of that is to be underestimated. For example, someone I know from the US sat by a Danish lake with a friend from South Korea. The one person said to the other
It’s going to take a while to get used to Denmark! It’s all very different from being at home. The other person agreed: Yes, living abroad was going to take some getting used to.
Long before our current trip to China but shortly after I had my visa application for a Chinese visa processed, an officer in the Chinese consulate—this was the day after the presidential election in the UK—asked:
What did I think of my new president?
Now, at that point President Xi in China hadn’t yet been given a mandate to serve a lifetime term. And in China, rather than the UK, that’ question the consultate officer asked me is not a question one typically asks about a president.
Not to mention that #45 in America hadn’t yet said we should try the same thing in the US. Nor did #45 in America know he was soon to be pursued inexorably—by Elliot Ness in the guise of Robert Mueller.
But, then again, #45 should have known the investigation was coming. He should have known if only because years ago, Bob Dylan, with some folk wisdom said so. And he should have known because he’s carved a career not from the art of the deal but from the misrepresentations of lies.
However that all may be, the sooner the affront known as #45 permanently leaves the White House, the better. I’m optimistic. It’ll happen.
Language, Learning, And Common Sense
Janet and I believe learning begins precisely where and when we admit how little we know. Having taught for most of my adult life that that makes sense.
It’s a lesson that’s perhaps even at the level of common sense. Although as I like to say (maybe too much):
There’s nothing common about common sense.
On their other hand, It’s not hard to come up with those kinds of statements—truisms?—when you’re used to speaking to groups, such as when teaching.
As regards learning Chinese, Janet and I studied with a language teacher who came everyday to our flat. We’re made progress but measuring that progress wasn’t in any way linear.
So, when our wonderful Chinese teacher upped the pace at which she spoke—we had to be challenged, right?—thus the faster pace! That faster pace felt and sounded like words were bouncing off all surfaces in the room—ceiling, floor, walls, windows, etc.
Still, last night when we arrived back in Shanghai, Janet managed to make a complicated arrangement with a taxi driver, all in Chinese. It was a moment not dissimilar to when in Cracow she ordered a pizza, successfully, for delivery to our flat.
The Piano—The Iron Instrument
The music department at Southwest Minxu University in Chengdu has a fabulous Grotrian Steinweg piano—a rare beast anywhere, much less in Western China.
Although Grotrian Steinweg would probably disagree re: my categorisation of their brand as rare. And I did find a Grotrian upright in a Shanghai music store, guarded, sort of, by a no-nothing salesperson.
I know he new nothing only because that was one of the most unmaintained, out-of-tune pianos I’ve ever come across. I say maintain the pianos, the iron instruments—as they’re very literally called in Chinese.
After Chengdu and our return to Shanghai we had upcoming trips to Guangzhou and Hunan. Yes, Hunan where hot peppers live.
And, actually, I’m sitting right now in a coffee shop in Chengsha in Hunan—a different locale from Chengdu and Sichuan—as I write and edit all above and below.
The thing is, it takes a while to write these posts. Where they take begin relative to my writing process and then where the end subject to the same thing: they’re often are in various locales separated by many intervening locales.
Therefore, before this day in Changsha, I would have said I have one more concert scheduled—Guangzhou. Except the concert, which went very well, occurred a few days ago.
I’m not sure the preceding makes sense in terms of a time line or a story clearly told. But, as I read it, it’s definitely rings for me in the same way one can wake up somewhere—as has happened many times over the last five months—and say:
Where am I?
These days, I’m calling all of my concerts It’s About Time, which is the name of the CD I released several months ago. If you’re one of the very few who hasn’t yet found a copy, it’s available on iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, and all other places where digital music can be legally downloaded.
What I’m doing in my It’s About Time Concerts is a mixture of pianism and sound art. I complement both with electronic instruments of the day. That means I use electric devices to project the extra sounds I’d like to hear—in addition to sounds and resonances from the piano.
I’ve been putting speakers inside of the piano as well. That’s another story … And tonight in an Italian restaurant in Shanghai, I mentioned to the owner, a very nice guy from the UK who grew up in Italy, that I had just released a solo piano CD. Then in all of two seconds, we were listening to It’s About Time. He simply downloaded it onto his phone—actually he didn’t even download it, he streamed it—and from there it went right to the restaurant’s sound system.
I have a friend I haven’t seen in a long time. He plays the heck out of the tenor saxophone. He brilliantly combined final and analysis into: finalysis. Why not abbreviate when and what we can?
In the finalysis, now that we have our rudimentary understanding of China and Chinese culture, I was thinking about a friend whom I knew initially as a former student. That would be back from days when I taught at Central Washington University.
The friend is Jenna Hilbert—from time to time we converse on social media.
Jenna said something not long ago right after her recent year-long trip around the world . That’s right, a whole year of traveling around the world. THAT is traveling!
What Jenna said after that year and here I paraphrase, is:
The hardest part about traveling is traveling. Just when you know how to do it, after having spent so much time traveling, then you return home.
What’s upcoming is, actually, a lot. Isn’t it always like that?
In July, I’ll be presenting an improvisation course at Finchcocks in the UK. Finchcocks was, formerly, a museum with a large collection of historical instruments.
I’m also working out details for upcoming solo piano concerts—of course, if you’re interested in having me perform at your educational institution or some other venue, let me know.
Meanwhile, I continue to go deeper and deeper back into the world of electronic music—which for years for me meant through the software mediums of SuperCollider, Pure Data, and Max. But my previous commitment to digital and new media: it’s since transformed into and ensconced within my solo piano practice. AND vice versa.
And I’m looking forward to working again with students with whom I couldn’t connect to over Skype while in China. Actually, I was lucky I connected to anyone with Skype from China! The internet here can be slow.
But, even if Skype from China hasn’t been the easiest medium, slowly but surely my Skype adventures expand. I’ve had or have students in Hong Kong, Iran, Saudi Arabia, New Zealand, and South Africa as well as students in the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, and Sweden.
But, right now, it’s Friday 25 May, I’m sitting in in a coffee shop in Changsha and thinking about at week from today—my first full day back in the UK.
And wil we return to China at some later point? The answer is, affirmatively, yes. We had amazing andventures on this trip. Fortunately we both have enough contacts now in China to reprise those adventure and have more—but that’s for the future.