Duke University Alumni Magazine

China in Duke Blue
by Megan W. Trevathan

    n January, the members of the Duke Chapel Choir and Chorale were given an astounding gift by H. Keith H. Brodie, Duke president emeritus, and Brenda Brodie: a thirteen-day journey to China to discover its treasures, learn about its culture, and meet its people. In four cities in mainland China, 200 Duke students and Triangle residents of all ages became a troupe of singing ambassadors for the university, the United States, and the tradition of Western choral music.

         I am still trying to make sense of all that I saw and heard and experienced. For someone who has traveled only within her own country and Western Europe, it took a while to realize that that wasn't going to be so easy to do. It's hard to put a value on two weeks of utter wonder, because that is what I felt at almost every instant--wonder. We were more than just tourists in China; we had something of our own to share. Through our singing and simply through our (very unusual looking) presence, we brought something to every person we came in contact with.

         Almost every minute of our days was planned by the China International Travel Service, an agency of the Chinese government, which provided our truly outstanding guides. At the beginning of the trip, I went through several days of trusting every word of the guides, and then several more in which suddenly I was suspicious of all they said, as if every sentence was scripted for them by the government. In Beijing, we were told that while religion is not encouraged in China, it is not criticized, and that while young people in the Communist Party of China have a "bright future," if they are religious, they must keep it quiet. Religion isn't criticized? "It doesn't sound like it to me!" I wrote in my journal. But it was my American ears hearing the criticism. I had to remind myself that our guide was probably not trying to deceive us; she was just listening with different ears, and speaking with a different mouth.

         In Hangzhou, I learned a corollary to the Chinese one-child policy that I did not know before: Outside of the cities, a couple may have a second child if their first is a girl. What?! I made my way to the front of the group and slid in next to the guide. I asked to make sure I had heard correctly. Of course, I had, but I hadn't gotten what I wanted yet--I wanted her to tell me why. I prepared myself for the worst. But her answer fit into my world view more comfortably than I had anticipated: the need for labor in the countryside. Even so, I couldn't help looking for some sign of discomfort in the face of the female guide, but I found none. I gulped and realized how naively I had assumed the existence of some basic common elements among the perspectives of all the people in the world. Our guidebooks had warned us, but I had to go to China to learn it.

         We weren't always quite sure where the real China was. Our restaurants, always large enough to accommodate all seven busloads, posted "tourist-approved" signs. We were rushed through a crowded, colorful market area in Nanjing, but were given more than enough time to browse in the large government "Friendship Stores." Three of our four hotels were four-star, providing us with almost any amenity we could have thought of.

         So sometimes we went out and looked for China ourselves. One night some of us wanted to go dancing, and one of the guides recommended J.J. Disco as the best in Beijing. We set out in taxis, armed with slips of paper on which she had written our destination in Chinese, and a little apprehensive about how we would get back (at least I was). Not long after we got there, however, my worry turned into total amazement as a British disc jockey started his set of mostly American music and after a few minutes (having apparently talked to a few people in our group) announced, "If you're from North Carolina, scream!" In our search for China, I was surprised that we ended up coming face to face with ourselves--and that we had become a genuinely welcomed part of the mass of people on the dance floor.

         In Hangzhou, the destination of one of our little impromptu excursions was a night market. Our group of about ten arrived only to discover that our idea had not been unique. It's hard to escape a group that fills seven buses. The streets were filled with trinkets for tourists, but off to the side a few of us noticed one spot that looked fairly untouched by tourists, even though it was only steps from the tables of decorated chopsticks and porcelain busts of Mao Tse-tung.

         We ventured over to a bright, bustling little restaurant filled with laughing and chattering natives enjoying the food that was being prepared right there. It looked enticing. "Want to try our first street food?" one of our group asked. The other two of us weren't too sure about that idea, but he persuaded us. From the moment we stepped up and pointed at what we wanted (large round pieces of dough filled with greens frying in a large wok, which many of the Chinese customers were already eating), everything we did sent them into hysterical laughter. So we laughed along with them. Besides, whatever it was we were eating was delicious. And we were actually glad to be laughed and stared at--those were the very real reactions of very real Chinese people.

         No matter how odd we looked to them, those real reactions were always, I found, expressions of true welcome. On Sunday, that observation was reaffirmed for nine of us who visited a church in Shanghai. When we got there at seven in the morning, we found the service didn't actually start until 7:30. Still, the sanctuary was already almost full. We scuttled in and sat down near the back, but we were soon invited to sit in the balcony, where there were listening units through which we could hear the sermon translated for us by one of the elderly female ushers.

         After the service, she and another usher, who had quickly become our caretakers for the morning, invited us to tour the church. They showed us something even more amazing than the large sanctuary packed at the crack of dawn: several more large rooms where those who came too late to get seats in the sanctuary--many of them in colorful knit caps, since the church was not heated--could watch the service on televisions. As the two women warmed us with cups of steaming tea, we talked to them about our school, their church, and the growth of Christianity in Shanghai. Twice someone asked them a question that I was surprised to hear: "Is it difficult being a Christian in China?" They never really answered, but I don't remember their showing any real signs that it was. Later, after we left, I learned that theirs is a govern- ment-sponsored church, and that underground churches do exist. I began to understand, just a little.

         For every moment that I have spent grappling with all of these snatches of memories, trying to understand all that I saw of the Chinese people, I have spent another wondering just what they have made of their memories of us. The salespeople in the department store who stared and chattered as a couple of us wandered through the aisles; the waiters and waitresses who served us magnificent meals; the street vendors who targeted our buses as promising sources of business; the beggars who, dragging their children along, flocked to us; the tour guides who got to know us well during the few days we spent in each city; the people who came to hear us sing at each concert. Rodney Wynkoop, the director of both choirs, expressed to me his hope that the trip would help us to experience in a new way what it means to share something of our own--our singing--with others, and to be able to sense their reactions; to grow as a group that not only sings well but communicates with people and sees the transforming power of its music.

         At a hotel in Beijing, we sang a performance for--and with--two local choirs. We served as each others' audience and, at the end, all sang together the most joyful Hallelujah chorus I have ever experienced--Duke student next to Beijing conservatory professor next to Durham lawyer next to Beijing hotel employee. In Hangzhou, a small group of us visited a "Welfare Court," a home for elderly people, who answered our performance with their own singing, poetry, and painting. All of us longed for more opportunities to engage in this kind of two-way communication through exchanges of music and warm smiles and handshakes with the Chinese people.

         Our first concert was to include in its audience the new U.S. ambassador to China and his wife, James and Mary Sasser, whose daughter Elizabeth graduated from Duke in 1993. On the way in the bus, our guide puffed up our egos when she told us that the Beijing Concert Hall, where we were to sing, was the best in the country, and that the Chinese people were so excited about our coming that they had run out of tickets. But when I peered out from the curtain, I saw many empty seats. After some of our songs in all the performances, the applause was not nearly so wholehearted as I had expected. As we sang, I began to realize that my expectations had been built on familiar Duke audiences, rather than adapted to an audience of a very different culture whose response I had no way to gauge.

         As we went along, I made an effort to spend less energy trying to analyze our audience's response and more energy just singing for them. I began to feel that we were gaining momentum. Coverage of our Beijing concert by television stations and newspapers preceded our arrival in the other three cities. In Nanjing, the audience's approval was hard to miss: They broke out in applause and started singing along when the Chorale began singing a Chinese folk song. The audience in Hangzhou encouraged an encore by clapping in time and presenting us with a standing bouquet of flowers so enormous that Rodney, our director, jumped when he saw it. He turned it around to show all of us, and we all started clapping and laughing, and maybe even crying just a little.

         After all the hours of sifting though my memories and trying to put my finger on what the Chapel Choir and Chorale accomplished in China and why we were even there, I have finally come to a very simple conclusion: We were there to sing. In airports, on the Great Wall, at many meals, and, of course, in concert halls, we sang. The less we understood--about our audience and about their impressions of us--the more passionately we sang. It was our only way to communicate, and we did it wholeheartedly.

         Next time I take a trip far off into the unknown, I wouldn't mind doing it with some singers. When you're singing, no one seems quite so distant anymore.         

    Trevathan, a member of the Duke Chapel Choir, is a Trinity senior majoring in chemistry and English. The Chapel Choir and Chorale, led by Rodney Wynkoop, director of chapel music, and Donna Sparks, program director and assistant conductor, traveled to China under the auspices of AD International, a cultural and educational institution based in New Jersey.

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