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.

1 comment:

alanpaul said...

Thanks for the review. Drop me a line any time, via my site, which has lots of Woodie Alan photos and videos: