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March 8, 2016 / windlessly

Flute, piano, and beatboxing… at the same time?

So I think it’s been a couple years since I’ve even logged back into my blog… glad to know I still remember the password and username for my WordPress. Anyways, I wanted to share something I’ve been working on for a while. Music projects are always really edifying for me to complete. Take a look and let me know what you think!

 

June 4, 2014 / windlessly

China Chronicles 6.5- Discovering Chinese Dizi (What Playing Bamboo Flute Has Taught Me)

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“It just has to be beautiful. If it is beautiful, it is okay.”

I laughed nervously. Here I was, about to break all the rules I knew about music and preparing myself to go back on years of musical precision, hours and hours of practice and attention to detail. I flexed my fingers, fingers that used to turn numb from working passages over and over again, and found them suddenly at a loss, unsure of how to move.

“Are you sure?”

My teacher, Tony, nodded earnestly.

That was my first big revelation about playing the Chinese dizi, a simple six-holed bamboo flute that I’ve come to love and respect these last couple of weeks. It was never about precision, like it was with Western flute (drilling holes into wild bamboo stalks doesn’t yield the most accurate of instruments, after all). It was the whole mentality that was vastly different. I had a hard time overcoming this obstacle during my first few lessons- I wanted something precise, an exact set of notation that would convey what was expected of me, from the first note to the last. What I got from Tony was:

“Just make it beautiful.”

“You don’t have to be so exact.”

“Make it your own expression.”

Oftentimes he would grab the flute from me and rigidly play a passage, fingers moving robotically, bobbing his head exactly in time with the beat. “No,” he would shake his head furiously. “Like this.” He would play the passage a second time, this time really evoking the emotion of the music, adding intricate trills here and there, maybe an extra warble on this note, stretching and squeezing the phrase as if it were a delicious taffy. It was so strikingly… beautiful. I could taste the sweetness as he finished playing.

“Now you.”

I brought the bamboo flute up to my lips, then paused. “How did you do that…?”

“Just relax. Play whatever feels right.”

I was daunted by the sudden magnitude of possibility, too timid to move my fingers freely, to roam outside the world of set notation and exact playing I’d come to associate with music. “Do you mean I should just improvise, make up whatever?”

Tony shook his head. “You cannot change the music. But you can make it your own.”

I’ve been dealing with that mystery for three weeks now. There are no exact rules on what you can or cannot change in a piece of music. Believe me, I’ve asked. But it has been one long learning experience, starting right at the beginning with the notation. First off, traditional Chinese music looks completely different from Western notation. Jianpu (“simple notation”) looks confusing at first, but actually is very intuitive. The numbers align with solfege (1=do, 2=re, 3=mi, etc.).

A dot above or below a number signifies the octave. Any lines beneath the numbers cut the duration in half, much like Western notation (1 line means eighth notes, 2 lines means sixteenth notes). And that’s it. Of course, dizi has its own special notation as well. A squiggle, a ribbon, and a star, as I like to call them, represent a mordent, a fast slap trill, and flutter tongue respectively.

But like the Pirate’s Code from Pirates of the Caribbean, they’re more like “guidelines” than rules.

Different musicians will create their own unique personalization of any solo work, more so than just stylistic differences that Western musicians talk about. Every Chinese dizi recording that I’ve heard online plays it drastically different- they change actual notes, modify note durations in a way that just aren’t allowed in Western music (except for in cadenzas), and throw in insane “special techniques” that I don’t even know how to describe in words. My old flute teacher would pull out his hair if I showed up to a lesson and was like, “Yeah, I took some liberty with Bach, so I hope you don’t mind. I think it sounds better with extra notes every other measure, so I added those in. Also I changed the key to minor instead. Also there’s a passage where I flutter tongue everything and play some of the notes flat because it’s boring if everything’s in tune.”

I’ve come to love it, though. I’m a little sad that we only got connected to these Chinese orchestra students halfway through the program, but my teacher Tony has been fantastic. In the one month of exposure that I’ve had to Chinese dizi, I’ve come to appreciate everything about it- the tone, the music, the style of playing. I’ve not trying to perfect my tone or drilling my fingers to the bone with intense technical passages like I did with Western flute. If anything, technical passages are the easy stuff in dizi music. What’s hard are the lyrical passages in which you’re expected to internalize and create your own personal embellishments. There’s a degree of creative spirit- playing only what is written on the page is boring or incomplete. Copying someone else’s rendition is plagiarism. I see now that technical ability aside, most of dizi practice is spent actively thinking about the music, trying to engage with the emotional side of the music, and brainstorming how to express that with your own flair. It’s certainly made me a better musician.

I’ll admit that when I first started trying dizi, my ego was up in the clouds and I looked down on dizi as just a simple instrument. “It only has six holes,” I scoffed. “It can’t even play chromatics accurately- how hard can the music be?” I was convinced that dizi, as a traditional Chinese instrument, was just completely overshadowed by the complexity of Western flute. The fingerings were laughingly simple, I was able to produce sound right away, and even sight reading jianpu didn’t cause me too much trouble. To me, dizi was vastly inferior to the Western flute, which had evolved over hundreds of years, been revolutionized by the demands of Western orchestras, and achieved a standard of perfection in terms of tone, color, and technique. Just look at someone like James Galway. It takes several lifetimes of arduous practice to master such an instrument in the way that he does, to really control the flute, to have mastery over three-plus octaves, and to perfect pure, singing tone on every single note. In comparison, I expected to master dizi by the end of next week. How very, very wrong I was.

What I realized later was that dizi and Western flute just cannot be compared like that, just as you cannot take a fork and a spoon and claim that one is better than the other. The two types of flutes evolved separately due to form and function. Western flutes initially strove to imitate the human voice, which was considered the ideal instrument during the Renaissance Era. The complexity of western orchestral music and the rise of the flute as a solo instrument in the 18th century led flute makers such as Theobald Boehm to strive for greater manipulation and control: this pushed for accurate scales, convenient gizmos and levers, efficient design, and better quality of materials.

Theobald Boehm (1794-1881) Progression of Flute Design

Large image of “DESCRIPTION” by AUTHOR

Large image of “DESCRIPTION” by AUTHOR

Large image of “DESCRIPTION” by AUTHOR

Large image of “DESCRIPTION” by AUTHOR

Large image of “DESCRIPTION” by AUTHOR

Large image of “DESCRIPTION” by AUTHOR

As for dizi, you can’t really grow “better” bamboo. And the function was completely different, as well. Historically, Chinese dizi were used primarily in opera as an accompanying instrument. Contrary to western flutes, which endeavored to blend into a larger ensemble or orchestra, Chinese dizi developed a distinct and sharp tone that would carry well through the entertainment courts where operatic performances were often featured. (This also explains the lack of music written for dizi duets, the competition between the two voices would make them incompatible).

Dizi designs haven’t changed for over a thousand years. If I were to describe to you the main differences between dizi and Western flute, the first would be the tone. Western flute is soft and blendable, dizi is sharp and distinct. The secret to its unique sound? I lied about the dizi having six holes- there are actually five more, four tuning holes at the end of the flute, and one more special “membrane hole” that lies in between the embouchure hole and the first finger hole. That’s right. It just chills there and acts as a resonator, sort of like a reed made of super thin rice paper. It was invented during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) by Liu Xi, who also nicknamed the dizi 七星惯 (“seven star tube”), as a heavenly reference. I think that’s pretty epic.

What’s not so epic is that as a flute player, I’ve never had to deal with reeds or putting on rosin or anything of that sort- my flute is complete in itself, and all I need are my mouth on metal to make a sound. With dizi, it’s a whole new world of adjusting and being mindful of the way the set-up of the instrument influences the sound. Apparently, putting on the membrane correctly and being able to adjust it to control your tone is both a practice and an art, and definitely something I still have yet to master it. Tony says I have 9,990 more tries to go before I get any good at it. (Fairly encouraging.)

Aside from the membrane hole, which gives dizi its characteristic tone, there’s only a few other differences that are worth mentioning:

-Dizi are perfectly symmetrical, whereas Western flutes are not. This allows for left-handed people to hold and play dizi the opposite way flutes are typically held.
-With dizi, chromatic notes are difficult, but not impossible. Covering half a hole is a regular practice, in addition to sliding fingers on and off the holes for special effect.
-Each bamboo dizi is confined to one key. Modern Chinese orchestra players will bring a whole case of dizi with them, big and small ones of varying keys, and swap out depending on the piece.
-The introduction of Chinese orchestras and the inclusion of dizi in ensemble playing has led makers to split dizi into two parts, to allow for tuning.
-Special techniques that dizi music has include but are not limited to: tapping, appoggiatura, tremolo, legato, flower tonguing, augment, glide, trill, overtone, prong, and horse-neighing. I’m serious about that last one.  “Like a horse” is written directly in the current solo that I’m working on. Try replacing “dolce” or “cantabile” with that in Western music.

Dizi certainly threw me a curve when I first started, and it took a while to adjust to the freedom of style that accompanied it. But, forks and spoons- I was way too quick to judge the dizi when I first started. There are layers of complexity I have yet to understand in such a simple yet beautiful instrument. And it is beautiful. Ten years of long tones, scales, Taffanel exercises, and etudes during my study of Western flute have impressed upon me that technique, accuracy, and musicality are the core elements to music. Five weeks of dizi lessons with my teacher Tony, a student at Peking University, has revealed to me that in actuality, music is about reaching into the notation and grasping the soul of it, finding the essence of the emotion that inspired it- a farmer in the lowland fields, a yak up in the mountains, a beautiful blossoming flower, the yodels of Tibetan monks- and conveying that story in whatever form speaks most to me.

This particular solo is called “New Song of the Herdsman” (牧民新歌). You can listen to how different these two flutists’ interpretations are. (Additional notes: At 1:26 in the first video, when the accompaniment comes in… it gets me every time. There’s something about the erhu and yangqin at that moment that totally speaks herdsman to me. Chinese instrumentation is also strikingly beautiful. At least to me, every time I hear a traditional Chinese instrument, it makes me think of the thousands of years of ancient Chinese history. The second video loses a bit of that flavor since it uses a Western orchestra as accompaniment, but the soloist really makes up for it with her creative interpretation and that zing she adds with her throat flutter-tonguing. Fierce. I don’t care much for her poofy red dress, but at places like 2:48-2:57, the way she digs into the phrase, throws a few sultry glances at the audience, raises her eyebrows along with the notes,  I can’t help but believe that’s she really enjoying the music.)

“It just has to be beautiful.” Certainly that’s easier said than done. But perhaps that’s the point- music need only to be savored, to be enjoyed, to be experienced and wrought by the musician. For a long time, practicing the Western flute had me focus too much on the audience, the judge, the resulting sounds… when all along, the real beauty of music was in how I enjoy playing and creating– what the music could stir within myself. At least for me, Chinese dizi has reminded me why I play music in the first place. And it’s taught me to appreciate it like nothing else.

May 11, 2014 / windlessly

China Chronicles 5.11- Great Wall

ImageOur trip to the Great Wall ended up being a fantastic time, just long enough for us to enjoy the beautiful scenery, but short enough before we collapsed from exhaustion from all the steps. But it was good exercise for all of us! I loved being on the great wall… minus the swarming gnats and the equally swarming middle schoolers, the view was beautiful, and the architecture of the wall itself was very impressive. I wonder how effective the wall was from actually defending against invaders, but I suspect it was more a forward obstacle that only an attack with a sizable army and planning could’ve breached. 

The whole time we were thinking about re-enacting the scene from Mulan where Shan Yu snaps off a flag, burns it in the fire of one of the watch towers, and proceeds to say, “好极了” with an evil grin. 

We had a lot of fun moments, too. Probably enough to make a pretty good video compilation. The Great Wall seems like such an opportune place to make a great music video, though! If only we had a whole day to chill up there. 

ImageImageImageOne of the best parts ended up being the toboggan slide on the way down: such a smart installation: easy maintenance, low investment cost for materials, and lots of willing tourists. I certainly had a lot of fun: it was basically a board, mounted with wheels, with a stick in the middle for braking. And the slide had plenty of twists and turns that made it as fun as any other amusement park slide! I was surprised at how fast we were able to go on some of the parts. Totally worth it. 

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May 11, 2014 / windlessly

China Chronicles 5.11- Only While Abroad

20140506_203401I’m actually quite proud I got this set up- cheaper and dries better than the service at the laundry place next to our dorm. But I can’t really blame them- washing machines and dryers are hard to come by here, and with such limited space in their place and such high demand from students, they must have to be very time efficient with their washing and hanging. Plus, it was fun improvising with the hemp I usually use for bracelets and seeing if it would be strong enough to hold up all of my clothes. I ended up securing it around a cabinet door and a pipe that connects from my heater through the ceiling.

It turns out Chad was just as creative with his approach, though I still suspect that it’s actually a fantastic piece of modern art:

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More stories about food! Dining hall food is still holding up very well for me- the one thing that could be better is the temperature of the food being served, but with so many students and the need to make large batches of food at once to be efficient, I definitely sympathize with the dining hall servers. They still do an excellent job and I’m sure that when I return to the states, I will miss all the Chinese food here (until I return home to my mom and grandma’s cooking, of course =]).

20140424_181537Occasionally there will be something reaaaally good in the dining halls. So good that people wait in lines and rush to get to the dining hall within half an hour of opening to ensure a spot. We heard from a couple Peking University students of the famous “Campus Chicken Leg Over Rice” dish. Campus is the name of a dining hall, so Bryson, Kevin, Matt and I decided to scope it out. We got there twenty minutes after opening and were greeted by a line that already stretched to the back entrance. Evidently this seven yuan meal was something REALLY good. Initially unimpressed by a mound of rice, a portion of bean sprouts, some sauce and a fried chicken leg, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the meal- they had a special sauce, and the chicken leg was fried perfectly with the right amount of spiciness and pizazz. Mission accomplished.

20140507_111923Another cool thing that the program sets up are these “cooking classes,” which in actuality, are more like “eating classes.” Ryan, our wonderful program coordinator, sets us up in groups to visit the homes of neighboring families who are willing to let us into their kitchen and to try their home-style food. This time, Bryson, Galina, and I were lucky enough to visit someone who worked in a restaurant off campus, and were able to try our hand at making noodles! It was a fun time and I now have so much respect for mothers everywhere (and fathers too) who cook.

On that note, Happy Mother’s Day! (And to my mom: You have always gone above and beyond in caring for me. I love you so much!)

That sums it up nicely.

But cooking can be hard work and it definitely is a skill. It probably took us twenty intensive minutes of chopping carrots and cucumbers into slices (taking care not to dismember our fingers) where Mrs. Liu could’ve done it in a minute. It was funny because she kept mentioning that we were cutting the vegetables too thick, and that it wouldn’t be as good to eat for zha jiang mien (it ended up being true, but that’s okay). Now the actual noodle part was the most fun. We rolled out the dough again and again until it was flat as a sheet and bigger than the table we were working on, then rolled it out some more. The final process involved folding up the big sheet and then slicing apart individual noodle strands. So cool! And a lot of work, but definitely worth it.

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20140507_184902This is just me posing at the end. Mrs. Liu got impatient with us and ending up doing a lot of the actual work haha.

10336751_10203637480240417_2382821838738120574_nAnd finally, another recent fun thing that we get to do while abroad: continue the tradition of midnight showering for birthdays! We have four birthdays in the span of just a few weeks, and we already managed to get James. Things like this make me super grateful to have Stanford friends to hang around with constantly in the dorms.

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May 11, 2014 / windlessly

China Chronicles 5.10- May Holiday Weekend

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I remember that earlier this Fall quarter Mark Zuckerberg came in to our CS106a class to speak. One of the things that he addressed was the controversy over whether Facebook was enhancing or taking away from our social lives. I think that all social media is simply a tool and can be used or misused. Anyway, Mark talked a little about the evolution of communication- the telegram was a huge landmark. Then came cell phones, and soon afterward, the huge explosion of text messaging. With mobile smart phones and data plans came various apps and social media: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, SnapChat, Vines, etc. Where are we now? In between the transition from photo to video sharing, both nearly instantaneous now with our technology. Where will it go in the future? Who knows, except that it will be closer and closer to capturing genuine “real life” experiences, packaging it up nicely with some new technology, and shipping it off to all your friends connected by the interwebs.

Why do I bring this up? Because I wish I could just transport these real live experiences to everyone back home. Taste the food that I’m tasting. Smell the smells that I’m smelling (was that a redundant sentence or what?). See the sights, laugh the laughs, think the thinks (now I’m just heading in Dr. Seuss direction). Imagine the dream catching in The BFG by Roald Dahl, but fifty times better. Pretty cool, no? Unfortunately, we’re not there yet. So I guess you’re stuck scrolling through my pictures and reading my verbose captions for the time being.

Time has definitely flown by- it was still before the May Holiday that I was having a great time playing ping pong against my professors, attending this ginormously massive singing competition held at Peking University, and having deliciously awesome hotpot.

This is Gong Laoshi, my professor for my Communications class, and he’s awesome. He’s already invited us all to play ping pong and badminton with him. He definitely kicked our butts in ping pong, but that’s okay.

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The singing competition was really something else, though. It’s not often that you get to see the whole of Peking University campus mobilize in massive numbers to line up for tickets. The day I tried to line up for tickets, I realized I showed up several hours too late as soon as I saw the line stretching from the east gate all the way to the dining halls. At least 800 people wrapped around two blocks. One of our Peking University friends was competing in the event though, and so we ended up getting seats to watch the show. Fifteen competitors, a mixture ranging from acapella groups to solo performers with ensemble accompaniment, all had five minutes to impress the judges with their singing ability. Our friend Katy, who does, opera, did a really fantastic job. Plus, I was excited to see my Chinese bamboo flute teacher doing an accompaniment for another competitor!

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The Bing program continues to spoil us with amazing dinners. Hai Di Lao hotpot was great- really amazing service, delicious food, good friend. My favorite were the noodles, which a chef would come out and make on the spot via special twirling magic. I’m gonna cheat and use someone else’s YouTube video, but only because it’s pretty cool to watch:

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20140429_182632And of course, I’ve been up to even more food adventures. Because what better food to get in China than good ol’ Pizza Hut? We did get some interesting flavors, like kung pao chicken, but the pizza itself was surprisingly good. We’ve had quite a few move nights in the lounge already, and movie nights aren’t complete without comfort food like delivery pizza or popcorn chicken from KFC.

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Because of the May 4th holiday, aka “Star Wars”/”may the fourth be with you” day but officially National Youth Day in China, we had a four day weekend, which was completely awesome. While a group of us went to Shanghai, I actually much preferred just relaxing back on campus. I was a little tour-ed out, I desperately wanted time to journal and do personal things, and travelling would have just meant a lot less sleep and a lot more to eventually blog about. It was a great weekend. We watched four movies in four nights, which was ridiculous but yolo. I had time to practice both chinese and western flute, sleep in, work out, read my Bible, Skype home, write postcards, and to just enjoy a few days with no real obligations. The change of pace was really welcomed, and who doesn’t love movies with friends?

I watched The Little Mermaid for the first time just because I had to, cried over The Last Samurai, really enjoyed The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and then was very entertained by the whimsical but charming The Cat Returns animated film by Miyazaki. Movies and books remain some of the best inventions of humanity, if you can even call “storytelling” an invention. But it’s an escape from the world. It’s an influx of emotions. It’s provocative in terms of deeper thoughts. Rewatching The Last Samurai was probably my favorite, a touching story of the fiercely loyal samurai who are unable to retain their traditional culture in the face of Japanese westernization and global development. Tom Cruise plays a war hero troubled with PTSD who arrives in Japan to fight the samurai, but finds unexpected peace in the culture and lifestyle of the village he finally comes to understand. I used to love the movie for the action-packed plot and epic fighting scenes. But now I see that the story and emotions behind it have so much more depth. The movie does a good job of illustrating and expressing the culture and intense emotional bonds that the protagonist forms while staying in the village. So many tears.

The Last Samurai

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was very lighthearted and creative in presentation. Definitely a refreshing movie in my book (I might as well blurb about all of them). The Little Mermaid was classic and very old school- but more importantly, I now know the background for “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl,” my two favorite songs! And finally, The Cat Returns… such an entertaining view. Animated films and Miyazaki films in particular seem to be an acquired taste. You simply cannot compare movies like The Cat Returns, Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind, or Princess Mononoke with blockbuster Hollywood movies, or even other mainstream genres. For me, these movies inspire. And they often tug at emotions that are hard to hit. The Last Samurai was very well developed and very satisfying for the emotional investment needed to enjoy it, but The Cat Returns requires a different kind of attitude entirely. The plots of old school Ghibli and Miyazaki films don’t always seem plausible- yup, that cat statue can now talk, and sure, a magical deus ex machina tower suddenly appears that can transport the main character back to the normal world of humans, because of course, she is stuck in a world where she’s being forced to marry a cat prince by a unsavory-but-not-evil cat king. There are rarely “bad guys” in Miyazaki films. Things are sometimes nonsensical. But the flavor of fantasy and the charm of the characters are hard to beat- The Cat Returns managed to pack in more character development in 75 minutes than most modern films do in two hours and a half.

 So yes, it was a very enjoyable weekend. Well spent with the few of us that were brave enough to stay behind, and exactly what I needed about halfway through my quarter abroad.

 

May 10, 2014 / windlessly

China Chronicles 5.10- Preserving Thought

I think, for the past two weeks, that I’ve been having too much fun to even record regularly here. But that’s because I often get stuck behind the writing, which has always proven to be difficult. What motivates my writing? To update friends back home, yes, but also to leave a personal record for myself in the future. But sometimes I wonder if it’s even necessary: we do have this thing called a brain, after all, which handily stores all these things called memories- since when did we need Facebook accounts, Instagrams, blogs, and all of these things to enjoy and remember life by? Does it kill the moment if every time we see a beautiful landscape, we are constantly thinking about taking the best photo possible for our Instagram accounts? Or every time we’re having a good time, we think about how we’re about to post a great status on Facebook, or write an awesome blog post?

That’s probably just my lazy-self making excuses for why I haven’t updated my blog in a while . Or maybe I’m just lagging behind the times. On one hand I hate to think about the notion that my life is defined by the moments I capture with social media. On the other hand, there is something real to the joy and nostalgia I get when I look through old photos, the value of precious video footage from many years earlier, and the laughing that ensues when I read how awkwardly I used to write. I’m having clunky thoughts here.

But I’m also realizing that my blog serves a very different purpose from just recording photos. And perhaps I have missed the goal all along so far- that my writing shouldn’t need to encapsulate every moment that has happened to me in China, but rather the important trains of thought that I’ve had. I have a folder of photos ready that I usually fit in because I don’t want to exclude anything from my experiences here, but that adds pressure to my writing. I should just write about what I want to write about. And do it in a way that is most enjoyable to myself. But there is one big caveat: the fact that my writing is public and that I often need to censor the things that I’m really thinking. I have many more private thoughts bouncing around right now. Occasionally some of them bounce out, travel through my fingers and onto the keyboard, and end up here. And even in those rare instances, more often than not, my lazy complex prevents me from analyzing them critically and polishing them up into complete thoughts worthy of taking up an entire blog post. Oh the struggle. And my poor, poor readers. I changed the title of this blog post halfway through only to have it chug along to this dreary and probably very unfinished end.

May 10, 2014 / windlessly

China Chronicles 5.10- A Second Day in the Church

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The morning air was clear enough to see several hues of blue in the sky. Cars honked as they swerved in between us in the intersection, the street was maybe a quarter full to capacity of pedestrians, and rattling chains alerted us of any bicyclists that were pedaling behind us. They would ring their rusty bells as they passed us by, the guys’ knees always pumping up and down like pistons- if there was not a cart loaded with merchandise in tow, then there would be a girl sitting daintily on the back seat, legs draped over one side of the bike and an arm around the guy’s waist in front.

It was a beautiful day in a beautiful city- just enough smog to give the atmosphere that unique texture my brain has associated so well with Beijing. We walked for maybe ten minutes, a straight shot from the southwest gate of Peking University. The city was already bustling at 10 a.m.

We turned right, then left through another gate, the city suddenly being left behind as we entered in the gated community where Tom lived. Several apartment buildings loomed up high above us, and nicely placed sidewalks brought us past some trees and patches of lawn.

The apartment complex, in comparison with the outside city, was nice and quiet. Mothers and their children, as well as a couple of older folk, were up and about. It wasn’t until we stepped into an apartment that we heard the singing- a joyful, unrestrained chorus of voices from somewhere inside. I turned to Tom and raised my eyebrows, who smiled and nodded in response.

We pushed open the door to an entire but small congregation, all sitting down in fold-up chairs that lined the living room, complete with an upright piano on which someone was playing enthusiastically. Tom, his friend, and I lowered our heads with respect as we walked through to a few open seats. Each seat had two different hymn books.

There was a sizeable amount of people there, ranging from college-aged students to the elderly. Continuing to sing in Chinese, hymn books still held high, a couple of people turned to watch as we sat down: three newcomers, one of whom was white and very tall.

I already felt the overwhelming sense of community there in that room. People on either side of us smiled and helped us find the right page for the next hymn, a gesture that invited us into the group and encouraged us to join in without inhibition. It was a jumble of Chinese to me, but I sang along anyways, trying to match the words I heard to the printed lyrics on the page. It was strangely beautiful, being surrounded by worshipping voices that I felt rather than understood.

It was a very foreign experience, not quite like anything I’ve experienced before. But I was fascinated as I sat in the group, watching and simply observing for a large part of the time. Watching them worshipping with such vigor made me reflect on my own beliefs and motivations inherent in living out my life.

The men were not nearly as timid as their male counterparts in the US when it came to singing. People were belting it out here, joyously and in unison, completely unreserved and truly lifting their voices up to God. The women were present too- but together, the chorus of voices was deep and full, not perfectly blended and pitched as a concert choir, but as conglomeration of jubilant individuals, perfect in its own regard.

It was quite the mix of people- I struggled to imagine what could have brought them all together, or whether they knew each other at all. It was probably the first demonstration of any religious gathering since I had come to China. My mind, left to wander, tried desperately to rationalize and to observe as if it were all a human construct. And yet it felt strangely comforting- something stirred from my past memories, experiences that I suspect are buried deep from when I was only a few years old, listening as a child to the Chinese congregation that my parents and perhaps grandparents had been a part of back in the states. I could never eliminate my bias. But without it, what sense of my life could be made?

One of the guys smiled and passed me his smartphone, nodding for me to take it. I glanced down and saw the English lyrics of the hymn we were singing. I was touched and accepted gratefully. Before long, I heard the guy switch into English, singing just as loudly and enthusiastically as before. These guys didn’t tire of praising the Lord. Occasionally there would be lapses, where instead of singing the lyrics, they would read those same song lyrics out loud, declaring the truths encapsulated in the verses and having the congregation answer in approval. I felt a little part inside of me stir each time someone else jumped in, continuing with utmost conviction. Abundant amounts of “amens” were heard… affirming each other as they all took turns.

I was hard pressed to find the source of their enthusiasm as they cycled between singing and calling out the lyrics to the rest of the congregation. These weren’t quiet, mumbled “amens” that they used, mind you- no, these were rallying cries, nod-worthy calls that called for complimentary snapping, used in a way akin to “hear, hear” or in a more contemporary setting,  “true that.” The ebb and flow of the assertions and responses came in audible patterns- certain vocal intonations of the words were used over and over again, speech-like inflections that at times pulled them into a natural rhythm.

A wafer was broken and passed around. A tiny beaker of wine was poured into thimble-sized cups. The physical reminder of communion was powerful, and I reflected on why the church partook in such practices. But to think that I could go halfway across the world, and celebrate the same death and resurrection of the same Jesus Christ that I believed came to save all of us… it was worth taking a break from worship and spending personal time in reflection and remembrance.

The communion was a very quiet ordeal- I struggled to categorize it. It was too subtle to be purely ritualistic, and yet there was definitive convention. The bread and wine were passed out during worship and consumed individually. It was no longer simply cultural, yet why did this house church service deem it necessary to include?

There was no pastor or figure of authority during the entire house service. The worship was followed up with a look at certain texts from the Bible. People took turns, and it seemed that testimony, affirmation, and calls to action followed one after another. I could see that people were encouraging one another, sharing what they personally gained from the text, summarizing their own thoughts and offering them up to the whole congregation- they functioned as one body seeking the truth. Amen. Another person would stand up, smile and share their own message, speaking powerfully as they preached for a couple of minutes. Amen. Amen! The flow of it all was never broken.

The entire meeting was both individual and communal. Having only a vague grasp of what their testimonies were about, I saw that they were encouraging and clearly moved by the words that each of them spoke. And yet I looked long and hard for any sense of an external force- were they acting out of necessity? Faith? Or the security and comfort of support? They each lived their own lives, yet all of them looked toward the same text in the Bible to answer their questions. Each had a slightly different take-away and shared thusly, yet always mentioned the same God.

I loved hearing the different voices. The elderly women in the corner, the tall man in the front. Some led more than others. Some spoke several times. But no one was self-seeking. It was truly the spectacle of one body gathered for the purpose of lifting each other up and glorifying God. Everyone was present and connected.

I wondered what it was that kept them coming, week after week, what motivated them to warrant such a gathering. What I saw was beautiful, yes- a group of people coming together for a unified purpose and acting as a single body. But there are beautiful lies. 

A simple lunch was served. A pot of rice, several shared dishes, paper plates, and plastic forks. And then came another beautiful thing: Tom’s friend was so moved by service, by this new congregation he had never been to before, by the love shown and the love reflected of a God he knew somewhere deep in his heart, that he felt called to be born again that very hour. The baptism was another humble but practical affair, conducted in the filled bathtub in the bathroom. Brothers laid hands on him and prayed and blessed him, before carefully lowering his head into the water. And I saw that the power of Christ was not limited to huge cathedrals or well-endowed churches, large modern facilities or polished stages, expensive worship equipment or microphones or even a church itself. Church was where the people were. And I could see that here in China, the body of Christ existed in modest apartment rooms, the voices of those exalting their Lord, and bathroom tiles made holy by reverence to God alone.

Traditions and the structure of a Christian service were certainly different from back home, and I saw that I could not rationalize my own familiar experiences being “right” and all other practices being “wrong” without conceding that to everyone else, my practices were just as unfamiliar and wrong. Even believing that every practice was wrong, that Christianity in its entirety was false, was a practice in itself. I left concluding nothing but the realization that each world belief, God or no God, many gods or quasi-gods, were all equal but infinitely thin slices of the pie that is truth. To ascertain whether or not I had the right beliefs- through pure scrutiny, logic, and reason- was at best, a fool’s errand, and at worst, spiritual roulette. And yet I was now back to square one.

The walk back gave me time to reflect, to think and ponder what I had experienced that Sunday morning. An unfamiliar sense of doubt hung around, natural incertitude that accompanies any faith, that perhaps was dug up and exposed by being displaced into a strange and foreign environment. Routine and familiarity, after all, are the enemy of true faith. I went home and turned to James 1:5 in Scripture:

If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.

I got down on my knees and prayed.

 

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