My Journey Through China: Chaos and Harmony

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The Chinese have a special word for the hustle and bustle that makes up a lively gathering of people. It’s called renao, and you can find it anywhere Chinese people gather together. Literally translated, it means hot and noisy, and it’s meant to be taken in the most positive context: the din erupting from a large group eating dinner together, the yelling and shuffling of people vying for street food, or the counterpoint of negotiations in a marketplace.

It has always vaguely intrigued and bothered me. Being of mixed Chinese and Caucasian heritage, it annoyed me when outings with extended family devolved into chaos and noise in cramped minivans or restaurants. But nowadays, strolling through a single street in Chinatown seems to recall all the excitement and activity I love about living in New York City.

I finally had a chance to get up close and personal again with renao this past month, and from its original source: China. Touring in a freelance orchestra, I played New Year’s concerts across China for three weeks, in nine different cities, for thousands of local Chinese. China was always just a myth to me, a patchwork of anecdotes, news reports, and a weird middle-name given to me at birth. And now, it was about to become real. 

 

A day after arriving, we took a bullet train to Ji’nan and jumped right into concertizing. At the first venue, I could hardly believe my eyes. The front facade of the concert hall had giant, Greek-inspired stone columns guarding the entrance, atop a long, gentle flight of stairs. These things were big as corn silos and had been wrapped all the way around with bright red wrapping to advertise our concert that evening. That was in case you missed the red, billboard-sized banner at the very top, or the red carpet going all the way up the stairs, through the lobby. They say Chinese like the color red: confirmed.  

That first concert started off pretty good, we played those Strauss Waltzes like proud international emissaries of culture. It wasn’t until we got to a really quiet section of the piece that we got our first real culture shock. 

Now let’s step back for a minute. You remember the iPhone-guy who recently interrupted Mahler’s Ninth with his unstoppable marimba alarm? That incident still reverberates in the blogosphere, not to mention complaints against candy-wrappers and program-rustling. So let’s just say that Western audiences are expected to be quiet. Even sleeping is begrudgingly acceptable. Anything but noise. 

Back to our concert: the entire hall was filled with rustling, murmuring, chatting and coughing. Constantly. The kind of stuff you hear before a concert starts. It wasn’t a reaction, this was a constant presence, sort of like the background radiation that scientists say fills the entire universe – only much louder, no radar needed to hear it. At intermission, it was the talk of the orchestra. What is up with this audience? Are they bored? Are they trying to tell us we’re not very good?  

The puzzle of the noise would have to wait, as there were plenty of other adaptations to make as well, like boiling our water and constantly dodging cars and bikes. Still, the strangest and perhaps the hardest to accept was the persistent smell of smog. You can read about it in all the news reports, of course: the pale yellow air, decreased visibility, burning in the back of your throat. What we never expected to see was smog inside the concert halls. In Xi’an, it was so dense that the stage lights illuminated it like fog beams. Ironically, this is a country that still loves to smoke, indoors and out, and cigarette smoke would join the fumes at intermissions. Some of these halls were truly gorgeous, inspiring places to perform, in stark contrast to the air inside.

Coal is often cited as culprit for the smog in China. Smugly armed with news reports and a dust mask, I imagined overbearing coal power plants spewing smog into pristine cities. But on the back streets is where I found the everyday reliance on this flammable rock. Walking along these alleys, in front of long rows of food vendors, I would see the piles of black, glistening lump coal. Throwing a couple fist-sized blocks into their stoves and turning up the fan would quickly send a wok into a hot sizzle or send soups into roaring boils for hungry customers. Billowing clouds of steam, catching the glow of neon signs, would send exotic spices and acrid fumes straight into my head. It was an intoxicating mix of future and past.

Of course, those who live there aren’t immune to this heavy air. Face-masks have become something of a fashion accessory for women. I saw patterns inspired or copied from Burberry, Hello-Kitty, or with bow-tie adornments, made of fashionable fabrics, shapes, and colors. I’ll never forget one little girl riding on the back of a moped, clutching a fake bouquet of pink roses to match her coat. Her intrepid eyes, peeking out from behind a cheerful, zebra mask in pink trim, seemed to beat back all the grayness of the street and sky with a hopeful determination.  



By the time we played our last concert, we thought we had seen it all, but we had one more surprise waiting: half of the seats in the hall were filled with Chinese soldiers. They had a striking presence, a forest of olive green uniforms accented by red sashes, glinting buttons and stoic composures. Despite being exhausted and now a bit nervous, we played our hearts out to this crowd. After the final applause, while waving to the civilian audience up front, one or two soldiers in the back actually waved back at us. They were shy at first, and then suddenly, bunches of them were vying for our attention, even making whoops, and we found ourselves giving thumbs-ups, A-okay’s, and other international signs of goodwill, from across the theater. I still can’t find Zhanjiang on a map, but can this count as international diplomacy?  

In a cold rain, the soldiers packed themselves into open-back transport trucks to go back to base, while we filed into our buses back to the hotel. I began to think back about the rest of our audiences, the noise and din, and audible chatting that filled the hall during quiet moments of the concert. I pondered how this could be normal, here, amongst even the audiences that seemed to love us the most.  

Remember that word I mentioned at the beginning, meaning hot and noisy? I've begun imagining that’s what we heard out in the audiences, that we had found renao in the concert halls. Billed as a “cultural exchange,” these concerts were more of a cultural marketplace, like we were selling tourist trinkets right back to our hosts. Unburdened by having to decipher ponderous messages from old masters, this was instead, a familiar alleyway where the Chinese could come with their friends, be themselves, and gab over a long row of musical dishes being served up, hot and noisy.  

So I’ve got my fingers crossed for the next trip – and I might actually be looking forward to the chatter of the concert hall. I’ll take it over cell phone rings and candy wrappers any day of the week.


A hot and noisy dinner after a long day's work (Kevin Mayner/WQXR)