February 15, 2010

No means no, except in Chinese

One of the most interesting things that has happened to me in the last few weeks was meeting my new friend John from Beijing. He is a professor in China and a visiting scholar here, and he needed help at the library, so that's where we met. He is still learning English and has difficulty speaking it well. Anyone that even attempts to learn English earns my respect, especially native speakers of tonal languages. The English language is a mess. So John often comes up to me in the library with a list of things written down that he wants to tell me. I think he was happy to find someone that was nice and patient with him, so he kind of latched on to me. He has trouble saying my name. At first he called me Kim-ber-ler and kept that up no matter how many times I sounded out Kim-ber-lee for him. Now he's started calling me Kim-burger, but I'm trying to stamp that out, too.

John is a pianist and very talented musician. When he found out that I play the piano as well, he was very excited and insisted we play the piano together. The first time we played, I brought along a Nat King Cole songbook, and played some old jazz standards, or as John said, "American jaws." After that, not only did he ask when we could get together to practice English conversation, but he started asking repeatedly when we could play piano together next. Also, every time I see him, he tells me to go to China, where he could get me a really good job as a professor making $10-20,000 a year. You work too hard at the library, he says.

I learned from Katie and now from personal experience that there is not really a word in Chinese for no. Seriously. So my attempts to turn him down gently for after-work meetings, piano rehearsals, and moving to China haven't gone well. At first I say, "Maybe," then "We'll see," then "I don't think so," then "I can't," then "No," and I still think something's lost in translation.

And I feel so guilty that I can't stand it. I'll never forget how frustrated I was when my family and I visited China. I couldn't figure out the currency or the subway system, the ticket machines didn't take credit cards, and the attendant didn't speak English even though he claimed to. It was a nightmare. I can't imagine how frustrated John must be.

Not only do Chinese people never say no, they're also incredibly giving and would do anything for a guest or friend. In Taiwan, one of Katie's friends that we'd only just met bought us dinner, a birthday cake for my mom, and as we were about to leave on the train, she even took the barrette out of hair to give to Katie - they're that eager to give. John took my picture and drew a pencil sketch of me. It was very beautiful - not that I'm beautiful, but the sketch was very good! I'm getting enough Chinese paraphernalia from people I've helped at the library to decorate my office with an Asian theme.

John kept inviting me to go eat Chinese food with him at Lin's Chinese Buffet. I took him to China Town instead. He ordered the food, and we had salted duck and bamboo shoots with a brown sauce. I thought I was pretty open-minded when it came to food, but I could only eat a few bites of that meal. I concentrated on my hot and sour soup. John saw that I liked it and sent for another bowl over my protests. John kept repeating that we should go to Lin's Chinese Buffet. He described the huge room full of good food, to which I said, "No. I do NOT go to Chinese buffets," but he couldn't understand me, so he kept asking, undeterred.

Last week John asked me if I would perform a piano solo at the TTU Chinese Students Association Chinese New Year party. He asked me to play some American jazz. He doesn't take no for an answer, so despite my qualms, I finally agreed to play "Night and Day" by Cole Porter.

He had written down the time for the rehearsal: 1500. I understand the 24-hour clock, so I said "Three o'clock?"

John answered yes, that it was at "One o'clock."

"Oh, ONE o'clock," I repeated.

"Yes, thirteen o'clock."

It was the same routine trying to find out what time the actual performance started. I wasn't entirely sure if it started at six or seven until I saw a formal printed invitation.

Saturday afternoon (at three o'clock) I played my song at the rehearsal. I was pretty nervous because I was one of the only non-Chinese speakers in the whole theater besides the sound and lighting techs, who seemed to be as confused as I was. My heart was pounding because I had no idea what was going on or what I might be asked to do. Sure enough, John asked me to accompany him on a traditional Chinese song he was going to sing. I ended up sightreading the music he had handwritten, and his singing, although good, was not in rhythms, pitches, or words that I could follow, so I was pretty sure this would end in disaster.

At the performance, I told the stagehands to push the piano onto the stage when it was time for John's song, but they either didn't believe me or couldn't understand me. They were late pushing the piano onstage, so John improvised and spoke to the audience in pure Chinese - again, I had no idea what was happening. The stagehands put the piano directly under a vent, so my music was blowing off the stand the entire time. I had to hold the music in place with one hand while playing with the other (see minute 1:48 in the video).

As for my jazz performance, I was the only American in the middle of two hours worth of Chinese performers singing and dancing to traditional Chinese music.

Chinese New Year Performance

It was COMPLETELY WEIRD that I played my song at that program. I know that the audience was thinking 'What the ?' when I got onstage. I felt like the pianist in this Seinfeld episode.

Mom, Dad, Katie, and Porter attended the performance and confirmed that my inclusion in the program was as out of place as I thought it was. It's not as if I'm some honorary member of the Chinese Student Association, or like I asked if I could perform, but there I was, crashing the party and bringing the coolness level down.

Who's the foreigner here?


Steve said...

The pictures you posted are exactly how I imagined the perfomace to appear.

I have a question. Is it customary for a pianist to always have his or her right side to the audience, or does it just happen to be that way? I can't think of an instance when the performer's left side has been facing me.

Kimberly said...

It is customary for the right side/treble to face the audience. It's easier to understand why when you look at a grand piano (studio pianos don't matter as much), because when the piano is opened, the sound is projected to the right of the instrument. It's easier to see here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/franganillo/486889404/.

There are probably other reasons, too, such as the treble/bass balance. Bass is on the left side of the piano, so the left side should be farther away from the audience. Sound is longer and louder on bass strings than that from the short treble strings. Similarly, bass instruments are situated behind higher-pitched instruments in bands and orchestras for better balance.

It could also be partially because the right hand usually plays a more interesting music line than the left hand (which often plays chords) and doesn't have as much flying finger action to excite the audience. However, that's certainly not always the case, so that reasoning might be a stretch.

There are probably other obvious reasons that I'm forgetting. Violinists always perform the same way - right side to audience, but on some instruments, performers face their audience directly. Harpists usually point their left side toward the audience and break my rules about bass being farther away. Interesting.

I made all that up.

Steve said...

Awesome, thanks! That makes perfect sense.

You have a talent for explaining things. You should be a piano teacher!

Kimberly said...

Ha ha, and sorry about the wordy answer. It's a habit I've picked up from my day job.