Thursday, April 4, 2013

Things that Don't Fit in a Drawer # 6: University Students

A big thank you to the students from the University of Shanghai for Science & Technology that came to my workshop at the American Culture Center last Saturday! The workshop theme was hat-making out of ordinary household items like the specialty hangers for drying underwear (see row 3, left & center, & below.) Not everyone bought into the idea but a lot of fun & invention filled the day. The students come to USST from all over China, and even from as far away as Ulan Bator, Mongolia (top center) and are as sweet a group as I have met in a long time. (Photos above are thanks to the photographers of the Center's new Media Center...below thanks to a Snake in my neighborhood...)

Jenny Tarlin, the director of the American Cultural Center, does some amazing programming (I say humbly) in her mission to introduce students to American Culture beyond Hollywood & the Big Brands. Two days after my show opened there, we had the wonderful culture-juggling experience of attending a workshop version of Pearl: the Opera, conducted by Sara Jobin.

Named for the daughter of Hester Prynne, the heroine of Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, the libretto for the opera was written by Carol Gilligan and her son, Jonathan Gilligan. Jobin, the first woman to ever conduct the San Francisco Opera, and Gilligan, the author of In a Different Voice, a hugely influential book on women's notions of morality, have together founded the Different Voice Opera Project; their mission is to foster the production of contemporary operas in which female roles come to something other than the traditional dire end. The music for Pearl, DVOP's first production, was wriiten by Amy Scurria. Click here to hear the "A" duet of the child Pearl and her mother.

(Fair warning: it's a long one...)
Jobin, Gilligan & John Bellmer, the American tenor who sings "Faust" in Spielberg's "Lincoln," staged Pearl "without wigs" (as my friend Lynn Pan calls opera in its recital version,) working with Chinese singers of western opera from the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. The role of the child Pearl was sung by a beautiful 10 year old girl whose poise in her scarlet dress was a thing to behold; the setting,  the University Music Hall, recognizably the former Chapel of what was, in pre-revolutionary China, the Shanghai Baptist College, spoke on all levels. 

Once, a very young American friend told us that his favorite food ever is Kung Pao Chicken Pizza, a fusion of cultures that really sends my mind (& my stomach) reeling. Meeting this amazing group of Americans, whom I'd probably never have met otherwise, in China; thinking about how sin & evangelical piety & western opera might be understood by young Chinese students raised on communism & filial piety & maybe Beijing Opera; Chapel turned Music Hall...well, it was definitely a Kung Pao Chicken Pizza sort of experience. But the performance was truly transporting.

Post-performance, Jobin, very sweetly & bravely, opened herself and the performers to questions and observations from the primarily student audience. The Americans, several times, spoke with deep feeling about how "universal" the story was while I wondered how-in-the-world the students were understanding this completely un-chinese concept of "sin." When I asked one of the students in my workshop about the opera, she said, "Well, I have read some things about this thing "religion" but..." followed by a makes-no-sense-to-me face. 

During one of our periodic bouts of serious Chinese language study, when we'd hit a grammatical construction or an idiomatic expression that mystified us, our lovely teacher would say, by way of explanation, "hen zhongguo de concept" (a very chinese concept.)  We've adopted that phrase as a survival mechanism: something gets done in a way that seems crazy to us but routine to the chinese,   it's a "hen zhongguo de concept."  

Reflecting on Pearl & on "universality" this past week, I can't help but think: "hen meiguo de concept" (a very american concept.)

The Chinese, historically, thought of themselves as complete onto themselves. When the Chinese named their country ZhoungGuo, Middle Kingdom, back in 1000 B.C., they understood themselves as a highly evolved civilization surrounded by barbarian hordes from whom they could not benefit; they didn't think much differently about the foreigners who arrived from the west in the19th ct. Today, in conversation, they tend to emphasize their difference as Chinese, the unknowability of their culture, their language: they are intent on communicating their culture's singularity, not its universality. 

But Americans, cultural mongrels that we are, yearn for universality. The idea that we are able to, & that we should, reach across the barriers of difference to transcend what seperates us from other cultures/people is so important, so deeply rooted in us, it's a touchstone of our cultural values. So much so that we don't even recognize it as a cultural value: we think it's universal! 

But then again, there's this: the pure, sweet voice of the girl Pearl, its simple clarity weaving in thru the trained voices; the beauty of the human voice as an instrument; the bright eagerness of the students that entirely filled the auditorium for an experience as foreign to them as the caterwauling of Beijing Opera is to me; the joyful engagement of the students in my workshop, creating something with their own hands; the desire in all of us to "only connect."

(Many thanks to everyone mentioned above for such a rich experience... and to all of you who bore with me down to the bitter end of this post!)

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