BY PHILLIP WILKINSON
In the age of globalization and the Internet, exposure between the East and the West has increased, but is digital connection enough? People sometimes speak of other countries as if referring to a house down the block, as if our international community were just a small neighborhood. If we only get emails from our neighbors down the street, however, and talk to them on the phone (by way of a translator), how much do we actually know about them? Not until we travel to these places and see first hand what these countries have to offer, do we begin to understand them. What we find on the Internet is just a small taste, overly influenced by consumerism, that lacks context and human interaction. The human element is what I hope to expose in this blog post.
I’ve made it full circle in the first chapter of my East Asian adventure. I started my Asia tour in Beijing with my a cappella group, the Yale Spizzwinks, and I’ve finally returned to the capitol of the Middle Kingdom to begin my studies at the Harvard Beijing Academy with the Light Fellowship. Before that, however, our group traveled to and sang in Beijing, Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Dalang, Bangkok, and Yangon. Over the course of the tour, not only did we sing public concerts and private gigs, we sang at dozens of High Schools and worked with their chorus programs. In Dalang, China and Yangon, Burma we sang joint concerts with local choruses.
Beijing’s size and grandeur impressed us. Unfortunately, the air pollution was fairly stifling. We took the metro to get to various parts of the city, which was incredibly cheap at 2 yuan (roughly 20 cents) and newly built for the 2008 Olympics. On our down day, we went to the Forbidden City, Great Wall, and other surrounding areas. The hotel we stayed at was right next to a little restaurant that sold dumplings and fried buns for take out. We ate almost every breakfast there and one of our members, Collin, came up with a rap about it, affectionately referring to it as “The Dumplin’ Shack”. Every morning when we would come down to the hotel lobby to start the day’s activities, we would break into a rap of “meet me at dat there dumplin’ shack.” On Saturday evening, another one of our members, Seth, who had attended Harvard Beijing Academy the summer before, took us out to a scenic bar district called Hohai. People socializing or selling their wears wandered the streets and music filled the air. Bar lights rippled on top of the lake. Sitting on the upstairs terrace of a bar beneath the moon and trees was a great way to culminate our brief introduction to Beijing.
Shenzhen offered us a view of China’s most middle class city. The business manager of the Spizzwinks next year, Drew, had an aunt and uncle who lived there and helped us plan that leg of our tour. After singing at the Green Oasis School, we went to his aunt Mary Ann friends’ houses to make homemade dumplings and share a meal with their families. Mary Ann explained to us how Shenzhen has the largest percentage of middle class population of any city in China and, as a Special Economic Zone (SEZ), became Beijing’s poster child for the benefits of Chinese-style capitalism. The houses we visited were located in a gated community with rolling hills and lush trees. The family’s son had just returned home from a year at Edinburgh and was planning to get married later this year. After dinner, we hung out in the basement singing karaoke and watching Crouching Dragon Hidden Tiger. Some aspects of the night felt very western, yet others stood out as different. Chinese taste for interior design seemed austere yet elegant. Every floor of the house had white tile, cream-colored walls, and wooden edges. Many American houses are often filled with keepsakes, antiques, family photos, and other miscellaneous items, whereas these houses only displayed a few strategically placed paintings, ceramic pieces, and plants. All the women displayed reverence to the male heads of the two houses. I noticed this when the daughter-in-law and wife respectively served him tea, the bowed their heads. Each male head of the house also gave lengthy speeches both welcoming us to their houses and expressing their desire that their sons receive similar hospitality when they come to America. After the speeches, we were all expected to take shots of homemade liquor with the man of the house. Overall, Chinese hospitality was exceedingly warm, with an abundance of food, conversation, gifts and generosity.
After our time in Shenzhen, tourguides from the local government shuttled us to a nearby suburb of Shenzhen called Dalang for two days and a night where we had a concert with a migrant-workers’ chorus. Before the concert, we hung out with the workers and one of them gave us all watches he had made! It was hard to imagine looking at a product with the words “Made in China” etched on to it and shaking hands with the guy who made it. After an energetic concert put on by both groups, we were all bussed to their cafeteria and shared a meal together. While dinner was winding down, we all began putting on small song and dance performances for each other. Our three female tour guides broke out into a traditional Chinese dance while all the guys sang the accompaniment. It was so interesting to see the wealth of Chinese songs and dances they all had known by heart since childhood. The funniest part of the night was when one of our head Chinese tour guide broke out into a Michael Jackson style dance and one of our members, Chase, responded by breaking out with his version of twerking. Soon, the migrant workers put on a group dance they learned and we showed off the “Let’s Have a Kiki” dance we learned for our Jam concert this past year at Yale. It reminded me of a blissful Jets and Sharks interaction sans any tension.
The next day, we left the Shenzhen/Dalang area to cross the border into Hong Kong, a city filled with skyscrapers, shopping malls, mountainous views, and a fusion of oriental and western cultures. Between singing and giving master classes for two international schools, we took a cable car to see a giant Buddha meditating on top of Hong Kong’s Po Lin Monastery and explored the city. At the end of our four days there, one of Aunt Mary Ann’s closest friends treated us all to a beautiful buffet dinner featuring the best of Cantonese cuisine. We were all sad to leave the next day, but I was looking forward to have one more week there at the end of our tour and to learn more about the cosmopolitan center.
The next destination we flew to was Bangkok, Thailand. Colorful Temples and golden Buddha statues lined Bangkok’s streets. One of our friends from Yale lead us around to all the major sites in the center of the city, such as the Temple of Dawn (Wat Arun), the Reclining Buddha, the Jade Buddha, the Grand Palace and others. The next day, he took us to one of Bangkok’s many floating markets an hour outside of the downtown area. Reminiscent of Venice, Italy, canals provide thoroughfares for public transportation. The canal was the lifeblood of the market. Small kids splashed in its waters and old women rocked in boats on top of it frying pancakes and skewers of meat.
The final destination of the Spizzwink tour was Yangon Burma. The group of Spizzwinks in 2007 had forged a connection with a budding music school called Gitameit while Myanmar was still under a dictatorship. In 2009, our group raised funds to bring their chorus on a tour of America, making Gitameit the first Burmese chorus to come to the United States. Over two days, they taught us a traditional Burmese water festival song and we taught them our rendering of “Let it Be” by the Beatles. They also sang us a haunting melody from the Kachim state in the north or Myanmar, which is currently going through a civil war. During one of our rehearsal breaks, I strung up on old cello they had lying around and played duets and trios with the music students and their teachers.
For a state coming out of one of the world’s most repressive regimes, these people were some of the kindest I’ve ever met. They were eager to interact with us, take pictures with us, and speak English with us, a language they were all surprising good at. All the men and women in Myanmar wore a garment called longgyi, which was basically a floor length skirt, tied at the waist. The guys seemed to wear them on a daily basis more than women, who normally wore pants. When we went to Shwedagon Pagoda, all the women dressed up in formal wear with embroidered longgyi and matching tops. Shwedagon Pagoda was constructed 2,600 years ago and harkens back to a time when Burma’s empire was the largest in the region. Supposedly remnants of Buddha’s hair, clothing, and writing instruments are housed inside, but no human is ever allowed to enter. I poured water on the small Buddha representative for those born on Friday. All Burmese names have the day of the week one was born on at the beginning. The kids at Gitameit gave me a Burmese name, and since I was born on Friday, it started out with “Thiha”, the world for Friday. My whole name was Thiha Pyae Sone because I apparently looked just like their friend Pyae Sone. We all took turns ringing a giant bell that must have been five times the size of the United States’ Liberty Bell. I walked barefoot in the rain and explored the secret alleyways as Buddha statues followed me with their gaze.
After we sang our last song in Yangon, we all flew back to Hong Kong for a night. The next day, I bid the Spizzwinks a heartfelt farewell as they flew back to the United States.
I stayed in Hong Kong for a week before returning to Beijing to start my studies at the Harvard Beijing Academy. The last tourist attraction I visited before coming to Beijing was the Hong Kong Museum of Art. It taught me a lot about the trajectory of Chinese art in the past 100 years. It’s interesting how each piece of traditional style Chinese art had a short description as well as a red stamp, which I assumed might be the signature of the artist. I read about the Liangnan school of art started by artists such as Gao Jianfu, who tried to blend eastern art with western styles in the early 20th century. Western artists such as Matisse influenced Chinese artists like Lin Fengmian, who lived and studied in France for a few years in the mid 1800’s. Similarly, when I studied contemporary art history two years ago on exchange in Spain, I learned how Matisse was influenced the bold lines of the Oriental style. After more than a hundred years of interaction, however, these two regions still have much to learn from each other.
Seeing pictures on the Web or reading Wikipedia articles, although informative, is not enough to grasp another culture. Comprehension requires witnessing first-hand what another people have to offer. When I took in minute details such as the interior design of a Chinese family’s home, the canals of Bangkok, or the feel of wearing longgyi in Myanmar, I felt the gaps in cultural understanding begin to close. In every place I visited people opened the doors to their homes and welcomed me in with open arms. Even though I was a foreigner, I felt like a neighborhood friend. I can only hope that people in both the East and West will continue to do so for each other.
Phillip Wilkinson ’16 is blogging this year from Beijing, China. Contact him at email@example.com.