China trip I

In less than four months, I’m flying off to China to sing in the Pre-Olympic International Choral Festival with the Rochester Oratorio Society. My group will be first U.S. choir in history to perform in Beijing’s Great Hall of People, a venue usually reserved for political events.

To get ready for the trip, I’m learning new music and reading Fodor’s latest travel guide. But nothing captures the spirit of a place like a novel or movie.

With that in mind, I checked out The Last Emperor, the 1987 Academy Award-winning epic about the life of Puyi, the last Emperor of China. It was filmed in Beijing’s Forbidden City, and I inadvertently got the director’s cut, including all four hours of quiet ceremonial splendor. Unfortunately, I'd asked my dad to watch it with me, and the slow-moving plot line seemed to be putting him to sleep. I felt self-conscious, even though I remembered loving the movie when it first came out. We turned it off. (Note to self: next time get Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.)


Nicole Mones’ slim novel The Last Chinese Chef is a contemporary fictional travelogue about a youngish American widow sent to China to write a magazine profile about a Chinese-American chef. Romance and history get tangled up while Sam, the cook, chops celery and Maggie, the writer, watches.

Americans have little attachment to food. Thanksgiving is pretty much the only national holiday where certain dishes have symbolic meanings. In China, by contrast, every meal is rooted in centuries of history and philosophy. What you serve for dinner says volumes about you, your guest, and the nature of your relationship. There are centuries-old stories of meals told and re-told in China right down to the sauces serves with which roasted duck. Reading The Last Chinese Chef made me think I’d feel quite at home in that country, since I ascribe meaning to everything. I love symbolic gestures.

I just finished Ha Jin’s newest novel, A Free Life, set in 1989. The main characters, Nan and Pingping, have emigrated to the U.S. from China following the Tiananmen Square massacre. They struggle to make ends meet and provide a good home for their young son, Taotao. It’s micro-fiction in the sense that every mundane detail of the characters’ lives is spelled out over 659 pages of lines such as,

“He didn’t make breakfast the next morning and just ate two chocolate cookies and drank a large mug of coffee provided by the motel in the lobby around the clock.”

You’d think this kitchen-sink realism might be boring, but it’s not. I found it hypnotic.

In a New York Times book review, Walter Kirn focuses on the political implications of the novel. But I was more interested in the psychological portraits of the characters, especially in Nan Wu. Still hung up on an old girlfriend from his past, he decides to seek her out, years later, to see if the dream woman in his head resembles the real, flesh-and-blood person that truly exists. (Read the book to find out what happens.) If anything, A Free Life illuminates universal qualities we all possess; desire, worry, love.

Finally, I’ve been perusing the most essential trip-related reading material of all, Birds of China, a small book full of color pictures and descriptions of some freaky-looking fowl. Many birds are circumpolar. I might see the very same kinds of falcons swooping around Beijing as those nesting atop the Kodak headquarters in Rochester. But there are a few unfamiliar birds I hope to glimpse. I’ll be happy if I spot an azure-winged magpie, a slender bird with a glossy black head, white throat, and long, pointed wings of azure blue.

It must be beautiful in flight.