Sunday, March 25, 2012

Big in China

Big in China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising a Family, Playing the Blues, and Becoming a Star in Beijing by Alan Paul is a book about finding one's self while living abroad.

Paul, a journalist with Guitar World and Slam magazines in the US, went with his family in 2006 to live in Beijing because of a job opportunity that came up for his wife. Like so many westerners who go to China (myself included), Paul finds expat life in China to be the stuff that dreams are made of. Big in China is his chronicle of taking full advantage of almost every second he lived in the Middle Kingdom.

Paul, his wife, and kids knew hardly anything about China before they went to live in the country. They had no language skills, no real cultural background, and no idea what they were getting in to. It was particularly interesting how Paul's children, normal suburban kids from New Jersey, adapted to life in China. Not too surprisingly, the kids found things easier in a lot of ways than the adults did.

Paul and his family were provided a nice living space on the outer edges of Beijing in a community where other foreigners living long-term in China were placed by their companies. I saw countless foreigners come and go when I lived in Xi'an, but I didn't have much of an understanding of how such expat communities are set up in Beijing. I appreciated reading about how the expat life goes down - where their kids go to school, interaction with people from all over the world, etc. - for many expats in China's capital. It's much different than what I saw in Xi'an.

A majority of Paul's book focuses on the band he starts in Beijing - Woodie Alan. Woodie is a talented Chinese musician that Paul is fortunate to meet early on during his time in Beijing. Woodie introduces Paul to other Chinese musicians that Paul can start a band with.

Although Paul had been a writer for Guitar World magazine in his previous life living in New Jersey, he had never really transformed himself in to a proficient musician. He could jam out no problem, but he had never refined himself in to a guitarist who could play in a band or pull the music that was in his soul out to the surface. Paul had been more interested in interviewing and writing about the likes of Gregg Allman than playing guitar or singing like him.

Watching Paul develop confidence as a musician and, ultimately, as a person with his Chinese band mates was a really cool thing to witness. China was a land where Paul felt he could try anything and didn't feel as though he had to worry about making mistakes or failing.

The following passage from page 143 really captures the sense of fun and excitement and experimentation that Paul developed the longer he stayed in China:

This passage is what China is all about. My friends and I in Xi'an used to use the expression "livin' the dream" when experiencing what Paul is describing here.

I can completely relate to this notion of "livin' the dream" and Paul's story of developing confidence through experimentation in China. I, like Paul, had a few "Big in China" moments while in Xi'an.

Long-time readers of my blog and friends of mine will remember that I too was part of a music project in China: The Xi'an Incident (an explanation on the name). I went from being a truly terrible guitarist who couldn't keep time or play scales worth a lick when I went to China in 2006 to playing lead guitar at live shows and on a studio album in 2007.

The Xi'an Incident formed after a friend of mine from London who I met in Xi'an, Natan, and I wrote a few songs together in the early months of 2007. We took a few ideas he'd been working on and a few chord progressions and ideas that I'd messed around with and melded them together into nine original tracks.

Working with Natan on the early stages of our songs was something I'll never forget. Natan is a great musician and a particularly gifted song writer. Watching him weave together the fabric of a song - lyrics, chord progression, chorus, etc. - was a thing of beauty.

As we were writing and reworking these songs over the course of a few weeks, we met up with friends of ours to see about getting a band going. Will, a drummer from Boston, and Zhang Ke, a bassist from Xi'an, were co-owners of a jazz bar in a central part of Xi'an. Natan and I brought what we'd worked on and played what we had with Will and Zhang Ke. Being formally trained musicians with a background in jazz, our rock tunes were a piece of cake for Will and Zhang Ke to pick up quickly and add a lot to.

After about a month of song writing and jamming, Natan, Will, and Zhang Ke, and I played a few shows at the jazz bar and recorded an album in the summer of 2007.

Indulge me and let me post the following two videos. They're my favorites from the show that my brother sat in on drums for (Will was in America visiting and my brother, a drummer, happened to be visiting me in China) that we played in front of a full bar of about 75 people:

The first pages of the introduction to Paul's book talk about playing music on TV in Fujian Province in front of millions upon millions of TV sets. That is big in China. The music experiences I had in Xi'an are pretty small potatoes in comparison. But they are my big moments in China and I'll always treasure them.

I haven't played tons of guitar since this period of my life and have not played in a band since The Xi'an Incident. I'm not sure I ever will rock out like this again (admittedly, I've got a bit of time left to see if this will be the case). These memories I have of developing confidence in my playing, writing songs, and playing shows - experiences that Paul writes about in great detail in his book - will always mean the world to me. I have no doubt that these experiences had positive impacts on my life well outside the realm of music as well.

Back to wrapping up the review of Paul's book, I enjoyed it a lot. I really only had two issues with it.

The first issue I have is the cover. It just looks, well, hokey. I heard some hype about Big in China several months ago on the Chinese blog and Twitter-sphere. I remember looking it up online and, after seeing the cover, thinking that Paul looked like some sort of Neil Diamond-esque musician (ie. lame). I decided to pass.

This first impression I had was completely wrong and I'm glad I eventually picked up the book. Paul jammed out to raging psychedelic Allman Brothers and Grateful Dead-inspired tunes all over China. He's no Neil Diamond! I wish the energy of those bands that inspire Paul had been captured in the cover. For better or worse, I didn't bother reading this book based upon my initial negative first reaction to how it looked.

My second issue with the book is with Paul's countdown to leaving Beijing. Paul loved living in Beijing. That was obvious. It's completely understandable that he was sad about his eventual departure from China. But his anxiety about his leaving Beijing felt like it began halfway through the book and only intensified as the book drew to a close. The last several chapters are all about how hard it was to leave. Leaving China after living there for years is difficult; I know this from experience. But this leaving China theme was too dominant in the book, in my opinion, and wore on me.

All in all, Big in China is a fun, quick read. Paul lived life to the max for almost every second of his time abroad. I'd especially recommend this to someone who is on the fence about going to teach or live in China for a few years. After reading Paul's book, you'll have a tough time saying no to "livin' the dream" in China.

Saturday, March 17, 2012


I’m writing this post from a train between Liege, Belgium and Köln, Germany. Qian and I are using her two-week spring break and almost all of my vacation time for the year at work on a European sojourn. A week in to the trip, it has been incredible.

So far we’ve been to Amsterdam and Maastricht, a small town in the south of the Netherlands. My brother is in the second year of his master’s degree program at the University of Amsterdam. We spent four days in Amsterdam doing the touristy stuff – the Van Gogh Museum, Rijks Museum, and Anne Frank House – and hanging out with my brother and his girlfriend. We then spent two days taking in Maastricht.

Maastricht is my European hometown (in a similar fashion to Xi'an being the place that I hold dear in China). I spent four months studying abroad in Maastricht during my junior year at Saint Louis University. Being in Maastricht was my first real time abroad (save for a spring break trip to the Caribbean my senior year of high school). Maastricht blew my mind. Studying abroad as a twenty year-old without a care in the world was a whirlwind, truly the time of my life. My positive experience there certainly primed me for wanting to go abroad after I graduated, which is when I went to Xi’an.

Qian and I had a wonderful time these past couple days in Maastricht. We couldn’t have asked for a more storybook romantic European experience. We strolled up and down the city’s cobble stone streets, took in the Roman-era architecture and city wall (a cool fact of my life is that I’ve lived in two cities with city walls built centuries ago), window shopped, bought chocolates, fruit, and bread at the city's Friday market, and rented bikes that we used to ride over the border to Belgium where we imbibed on delicious Belgian beer (when in Belgium…).

We’re going to spend the next two days in Köln and then will have five days in Paris. I’m confident that the second half of the trip will live up to the great time we've had the first half.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Life and Death in Shanghai

Nien Cheng, the author of Life and Death in Shanghai , is a beautiful person that you will never forget after reading her book. I was struck deeply time and again by her bravery, logic, and unique sense of life as I read her lengthy memoir. The writing in the book, which was published in 1988, is focused on her brutal experiences during Mao's cultural revolution. Her stand against the evil and irrationality that engulfed everything around her is inspiring.

Cheng was born into a patrician family in Beijing in 1915. She doesn't talk at length about her parents and her grandparents, but it is abundantly clear that they came from a blue-blooded lineage of wealth and influence. She experienced a long list of things that hardly any other Chinese person of her generation did. She studied at the London School of Economics for a couple years in 1935. She spent lots of time abroad traveling in Europe, Australia, and the United States. And she hobnobbed in English with foreign intellectuals and dignitaries in China from around the world.

As one might guess, this background did her no favors once Mao and the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949. She and her husband, a member of the Kuomintang government and then an executive at Shell Oil, debated whether to leave China with their daughter at that time. The ultimately decided to stay in China. Cheng regretted that choice later in her life.

All of this is background to the beginning of the cultural revolution in 1966, which is when Cheng begins her story. The following passage is the first page and a half of her book:

Life and Death in Shanghai is written in three sections: "The Wind of Revolution," "The Detention House," and "My Struggle for Justice." Those three section titles can give an idea to what the book is about and how it progresses.

"The Wind of Revolution" captures the moments before, and the first days and weeks of, the denunciations, campaigns, and persecution that marked the beginning of the cultural revolution. Life wasn't exactly normal in the early parts of 1966; China had already suffered through the great leap forward a few years earlier and was completely isolated from the world community. But there was at least the semblance of normality on a day-to-day basis. Cheng describes the final days in her house, her art work and literature collection, her servants, her relationship with her daughter, and the other things in her life that were soon to be destroyed.

Cheng is eventually targeted in the political campaigns herself. Her house is ransacked. Red guards went out of their way to destroy many of the centuries-old cultural relics that Cheng, an art collector, had accumulated. She is denounced as a "capitalist roader," or someone who is against Mao and the party's policies. She is removed from her house and put into a political prison.

"The Detention House" is about Cheng's years-long detainment in solitary confinement. She had been singled out by higher ups in the party and they wanted her to confess to a laundry list of crimes that she had not committed. This section is about her long, brutal struggle standing up to constant bullying, manipulation, and torture.

"Struggle for Justice" is about her time once out of prison. I'm not going to go into much detail about this section since there are a lot of potential spoilers. But I will say that it holds up with the rest of the book.

Life and Death in Shanghai is a painful read. It's long, repetitive, and there are sections that are hard to get through. It's not Cheng's writing or story-telling that is the problem, though. It's what she's going through. Day after day of arguing with illogical prison guards is insane and Cheng's writing captures that. One particularly section where she is handcuffed for eleven days straight without reprieve is simply excruciating to digest.

Conceding that the book is hard at times, Life and Death in Shanghai captivated me. The book is 550 pages and I got though it in just a few days. It's very readable despite the distressing experiences described in it. Cheng is a wonderful writer (she wrote the book in English herself). Her writing shines light on the darkest corners of the cultural revolution.

I highly recommend Life and Death in Shanghai to someone wanting to understand China's violent recent past. I also recommend it so that you can see heroic bravery in the face of pure evil. Nien Cheng, who died in 2009 at the age of 94 while living in the United States, was a truly special soul.