Last column: about the band

Music: True Agent Of Globalization


I stood on the broad stage, feeling very alone, my bandmates invisible behind me. The five of us are often packed on stage elbow to elbow. But this was different; we were in South China, about to kick off a headlining performance at the Xiamen Beach Festival, and we were on a giant stage, surrounded by smoke machines and illuminated by colored lights. A local TV station employed a five-man camera crew, and one guy was kneeling in front of me, lens pointed my way. I blinked into the blinding bank of spotlights and felt my knees wobble for a second.
[Woodie Alan] Jacob Paul

The MC had just announced us, in Chinese, to 5,000 cheering Xiamen residents as “Beijing’s best band.” I stepped to the mic, apologized for my bad Chinese and gave a short but rambling thank you: “I am American, my friends here are Chinese. Together, we are one band. We believe that with music, there is one people; no Americans, no Chinese, no Xiameners or Beijingers; just people.”

There was a loud cheer that calmed me and then our rhythm section kicked off a hard-driving beat. I shut my eyes and laid into the opening riff of our original song, “Beijing Blues.” Fifty minutes and eight songs later we walked off the stage to applause, filled with a tremendous sense of accomplishment.

A full moon shone overhead and the Taiwan Straits stretched out behind us, waves crashing into the shore. Saxophonist Dave Loevinger and I rejoined our kids and his wife (my wife and two youngest children were in the U.S.), who had proudly watched our performance from the front row, waving light sticks. As we headed out, Dave and I were surrounded by well-wishers asking if they could take pictures with us. It was a heady moment for a couple of middle-aged Americans in China.
Talk with Alan

Readers, over to you: When has music broken down barriers for you? Share your thoughts.

“File this under ‘Never thought it would happen,'” Dave said. It was a feeling that continued for the better part of a week, as we played one more time at the festival and then three shows in Changsha, Hunan (though without Dave, who had to return to work). The six performances felt like the first we had ever done in China; there were few foreigners at any of them, no one in the crowd knew us or was there to support us. They were just there to hear some music. And their reactions were gratifying.

At one show in Hunan, I raised my hands and clapped rhythmically before beginning to belt the traditional American song, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” When the crowd began clapping and stomping along I felt a chill and was overcome with emotion. Since I was a young teen, music has shaped much of my self-image and been a prism through which I’ve seen the world. A song like “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” is all about death and redemption. It has heavy religious overtones, but to me it’s about optimism in the face of unthinkable burden, and about an almost ecstatic sense of freedom in the face of adversity. Now I had a sense that I was conveying some of this feeling –even if almost no one in the audience could understand the words I was singing — and that notion prompted me to dig deeper and give more of myself.

Even while I feel that music can break down barriers, I have never felt prouder or more aware of being an American than when singing these songs in China. And I know that I never could have figured out how to express what was in me without these talented Chinese musicians prodding me. To me, this is the very essence of globalization. The real potential for cross-cultural communication and understanding lies in many small moments of interaction rather than in anything large, state run or commercial. And so it is that the same vehicle that has put me so in touch with what it means to me to be an American has also granted me so much insight into China.

One of the most moving parts of the trip was returning to Hunan with Lu Wei, our drummer. A native of the province, he hasn’t been home for eight years. He is a third-generation drummer and his father told him when he left for Beijing not to come back until he was a big success. The fact he has not returned despite growing acclaim in Beijing and being an endorser of two large European drum companies made me think they were estranged, but it is not the case.

When we landed in Changsha, Lu Wei immediately called home: “Father, I am in Hunan!” Even though his hometown is on the other side of the province, about a 10-hour drive away, and he had never been to Changsha, Lu Wei was beaming our entire visit, reveling in the soulful, spicy food and walking around with extra pep in his step. He also played like a man on fire. I had urged him to have his father come see the shows, but it didn’t happen and over a bowl of noodles he said they both thought the moment would be too intense.

On our second day in Changsha, we did three radio interviews, where we also performed a few songs live on air and had the thrill of hearing them play music off the five-track CD we hurriedly pressed for this trip. “I’m proud of us,” guitarist Woodie Wu said to me, as we sat there hearing our song through the studio speakers. “Just really proud.”

The last appearance was at the biggest station in town. The glass-enclosed studio sat high above the biggest intersection in the city. The two DJs were highly professional, and in and out of commercial breaks they played a very well done clip promoting our appearance. It featured some of our original music, with a loud classic radio voice intoning, in Chinese, “The Woodie Alan Band — Beijing’s finest blues band. Live in Changsha. Right here on the Live Show!”

They opened the lines for phone calls, we answered a few questions, played another song and then there was a break.

Bassist Zhong Yang finally acknowledged the elephant in the room. “It’s too bad you’re leaving Alan,” he said, “Look at us.”

Indeed, my impending departure hung over the week, giving everything both added emotional intensity and bittersweet shading. The Xiamen promoters have already called offering a more extensive tour of Fujian province and one of the radio hosts in Changsha says if we return she can book us onto one of China’s most popular television shows.

It’s unlikely we will manage either before I leave, but Woodie Alan will not go quietly into the night, either. We are finishing work on our full-length CD and Friday night, we will perform at the U.S. Ambassador’s Residence. I will come back to China for some gigs, and I am working on some ambitious plans to bring the group to the U.S. this summer.

My Chinese bandmates are thrilled at the prospect of performing in the U.S.; only Woodie has been there, and he visited only Los Angeles. And I think the more Americans who can see China as a place with real, regular people, the better. After three plus years here, I am still shocked by how people misunderstand the country, with many Americans still seeming to hold one of two diametrically opposed stereotypes: China is a raging dragon about to gobble us up; China is a land of peasants riding bikes in Mao jackets. I’ll be happy if my band can come to the USA and dispel some of this misinformation for even a handful of people.
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Write to me and I’ll post selected comments in a future column. Please let me know if you want to share your thoughts but don’t want your letter published. Read comments by readers on my last column about “halfpats.”

You said it! “The novelty of being a foreigner” is the true reason many foreigners come live in China. A normal John or Jane becomes “foreign expert” and receives novel treatment. As local staff boosts their foreign language skills and more Chinese natives return with foreign education and working experience, the landscape is changing.

— Ying
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Many foreigners like you find their positions successfully, thanks to China’s rapid economic development. I must feel happy about your success. However, in a certain sense, your success is a touch of irony as we graduating students in Chinese mainland find it very difficult to find satisfactory work, even if our academic qualifications are equivalent.

There are many Chinese students studying abroad. Their families are rich, but most of them are not good students. They hope for better conditions of employment and clearly this is not fair to the students of poverty-stricken families.

— Zhong Lei

Thank you for sharing your interesting and different perspective.
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It doesn’t surprise me to read about the rise of younger, cheaper expats in China now. That’s very similar to what was happening in Japan when I was first posted overseas from 1987-90. There was a growing community of English-language teachers, as well as recent college graduates who had studied Japanese, and some foreigners whose spouse was Japanese. Japan then, as China now, was seen by some as a way to develop a career at a time when books like “Yen!” were promoting the idea that soon Japan would be #1. For me, it was a fabulous exposure to a very different culture, to being a big fish in a small pond, where I could add lots of value, giving me the opportunity to leave a legacy. One difference: For corporate expats the pay package for Tokyo was over the top, not only compared to local compensation, but globally.

There might have been many more “halfpats” in Japan in the 90s, except for the bust that followed the boom of the 80s. The opportunities here now and future potential of China seem even greater. I encourage all your readers to come and follow this path, whether young, middle or later in life. It’s not easy, but it’s well worth it.

Lastly, the “novelty” of being a Caucasian foreigner is not wearing off in my case. People of all ages still stare at me when I get on the subway. Mothers will point me out to their young children and are very pleasantly surprised when I kneel down to the child’s level, wave and say “Ni how.” Perhaps they are also -surprised that a foreigner would use that means of transportation. Or perhaps it is my beard.

— Charles Kimball
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My wife and I are on the other end of the spectrum. I am 51 years old and moved to Shanghai with my wife a month ago from Raleigh, N.C., to lead Caterpillar’s district office. No kids on this move as they are out of high school. We kept our home in Raleigh and live in a furnished villa. When the time to move came, we brought several suitcases and sent a 200 cubic-foot air shipment and that was it. It was a more expensive move for our company than moving a single person or young married couple with no kids, but much less expensive than moving a family with several children. Ended up being a win-win situation for us and our company.

— Gary L. Ringenberg

This is an interesting phenomenon that is also becoming more widespread. I will try to look more into it down the road.
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The downside to coming out here so young in one’s career is that professional standards of practice in China are generally a good deal lower than in the West. Although there are certainly good partners/directors/EVPs in China, they seem to be the exception to the rule in most industries. As a result, good mentors – and thus solid training in hard job skills — are difficult to come by in China.

I currently live in Shanghai. I first moved here in 1998 right out of college, looking to start my own business. I returned to the U.S. in 1999, but moved back to Shanghai in 2005 as an attorney with a large U.S. firm. My above opinion is based not only on my observations in the legal field, but also speaking with friends and contacts in professions including accounting, real estate, and consulting.

— Carson Block

Thanks for raising another interesting angle to this discussion.

I am from China, came to the States for graduate school several years ago, stayed, married a ’round-eye,’ and am currently working in corporate America. I love reading your experience about living abroad, but more intriguing to me is the look at the life in a new China through Western eyes.

America is without doubt more immigrant/foreigner friendly. Most importantly, people in the U.S. treat a newcomer as a regular human being, which is not common at all in China. Most Chinese have this ‘us’ versus ‘foreigners’ (especially Westerners) view, caused by a common lack of confidence, a perceived weakness fanned by government propaganda, and an attitude typical of a society dominated by a single race. They (“we”) are more comfortable working for/with a foreigner than going out for beer with one. To me, living in China with blonde hair and blue eyes would be like living in a fish bowl.

I applaud your efforts to try new things and go outside the expat ‘fish bowl.’ However, I was shocked when I read about your family trip to some remote parts of the country. Personally, I would never do trips like that out of concerns for food safety alone. Thank you for sharing your stories, and best wishes to you and your family.

— T. MacLeod

I have really enjoyed traveling in China’s interior and would not give it up for anything. We make sure our kids have all their vaccinations and always carry things like cereal, granola bars and peanut butter with us. Knock on wood, we have not had any bad illnesses.

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