On New Year’s Day fifteen years ago I made a solo trip across west Texas in a rental car. There were not many vehicles on the highway, and once in a while a cluster of tumbleweeds chased one another across the road, blissfully, bleakly, betting the mood of the American southwest. The landscape was vast, and the pale wintry sky, too. The scenery would be best accompanied by some music about the harmony and the disconnection between men and nature, between the small loneliness within an individual and the boundless loneliness without.
But the car radio could only pick up one station: a man was preaching the second coming of Jesus Christ with a maniacal passion. Outside El Paso, just when the highway lost its last sign of urbanity, a man was trekking by the roadside, away from the city, carrying on his back a giant white cross. It must have been heavy, from the way he leaned forward and dragged on slowly, and it would be a long journey for him, wherever his destination lay. A few seconds later he was no more than a dot in my rear-view mirror.
I drove on in the silence that, after some time, was as hypnotic as the static signals from the frequencies other than the Christian station. I had not thought of bringing CDs with me for the CD player. I had only my own singing voice—not a great one—to break the monotony. But what could I sing? I had been living in America for ten years by then, and could only sing in English the nursery rhymes to which I was being exposed for the first time along with my children. What I had in my Chinese repertoire: the propaganda songs I grew up with in China, and the military songs from my year in the People’s Liberation Army.
Of course there were the pop songs from Hong Kong and Taiwan, which we used to listen to on a Sony Walkman in high school and, in the army camp, catch on a shortwave radio after lights-out. Though for some reason those songs, when I tried to sing them, about unrequited loves and wounded hearts and withering flowers and changing seasons, were as at and enervating as the static signals on the radio.
To stay alert, I needed something to keep my mind separate from my immediate surroundings, the rental car with its industrial sterility, the cloudless sky seemingly low, the ever-expanding landscape in the earth tones. What I did not know—I was then a young mother with an infant and a toddler—was that an unaltered landscape, like eventless days, could be a solace, too. My goal was to get from one place to another. I wanted to drive safely, staying in my lane, just under the speed limit; and yet, I was impatient.Can feelings, induced by mind-numbing and brainwashing propaganda, be called genuine?
For hours I sang to myself, from “Communism is Good” to “The Sky Over the Liberated District,” from “My Motherland” to “Warsaw Marching Song,” my stringent self-consciousness doing little to constrain myself. What I heard was an unfamiliar voice—I rarely sing, even in the shower, and I had never until then sung solo those songs from the past. In the army I used to only mouth the lyrics without making a sound, a futile gesture of incompliance meaningful only to me. My younger self would never have imagined that one day I would be in America, driving through a landscape known to me from cowboy movies, and singing the songs against which I once rebelled with a youthful purity.
Perhaps it is not farfetched to say that while I was singing in the car, the voice I heard was not quite mine, but the memory of a collective voice: the broadcast that had played throughout my childhood on the loudspeakers in our residential compound. Five hundred children singing together at our school assemblies, and the chorus of my fellow soldiers in the army.
I then encountered a problem that I first encountered when I was seventeen, after giving a patriotic speech at a school oratory contest, moving my audience and myself to tears and winning the contest that I had been forced to participate in. I only meant to keep myself occupied and awake while driving, but I was so touched by the propaganda songs that I was in tears. From nostalgia, no doubt; even so I felt a bit ashamed, just as I had felt when I won the oratory contest. Can feelings, induced by mind-numbing and brainwashing propaganda, be called genuine?
When my sister was thirteen, she and her friends taught themselves to sing the Chinese version of “Auld Lang Syne” from a newspaper. It was the golden age of newspaper days—I looked for serialized novels on the last page of every day’s paper. My sister had a notebook to collect songs, published in a column under the title “One Song A Week,” with their lyrics and music notes printed. They were newer than the propaganda songs from the 1950s and 1960s, which we could all sing in our dreams. Many of them were odes to our happy lives in our motherland, and to our bright futures in a new dawn, but once in a while there would be a song that stood out. I was nine, and did not need anyone to explain to me that they were the rare beauties in our lives. My sister and her teenage friends all recognized the fact, as with some of the songs, they would learn to sing and forget, but others would remain their treasured possession.
I like to imagine that the newspaper editor, harboring some subversive spirit, tallied the songs that fell into different categories: patriotic, positive in attitude, forward-looking, and historical. When the moment felt right, he or she would sneak a beloved song into print. I like to imagine that the editor knew that such an act would make a difference, to all those hungry minds out in the world, and to the months and years to come. “Auld Lang Syne” was one of those songs, appearing inexplicably in print, capturing many young hearts.
There was another incident once, similar to “Auld Lang Syne,” with a song entitled “Longing for My Old Home.” The lyrics were credited to an unnamed poet; the music, elegiac, was from the second movement of Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony Number Nine, “From the New World.” The most well-known theme in D-at major in that movement was unknown to anyone in our world, yet listening to my sister and her friends working out the tune, I instantly memorized it. Years later, when I listened to Dvořák’s New World Symphony for the first time—I was in my early twenties, and I was in Iowa City, not far from Spillville, Iowa, where Dvořák spent a summer composing in 1893—I recognized the theme from the song my sister and her friends used to sing. I, too shy to join the big girls then, had only sung it in my heart without making a sound.
The Chinese title of “Auld Lang Syne” is “May Friendship Be as Enduring as Earth and as Long Lasting as Heaven.” The lyrics were archaic and poetic, with references to memories that were beyond our experience as the children of the 1970s, growing up in cramped apartment complexes in Beijing: the blue mountains and green valleys where we once left our carefree footprints; the ocean that separated us; the long harsh years of wandering—rootless, roofless—and then, the reunion, where glasses of wine are raised to celebrate our everlasting friendship. Who were the we that the song referred to? We who sang the song had no idea. It was not us.
And yet they, having lived through joys and pains, must have articulated some mood, some sensitivity, and some yearning for that which we had no words or music for in our daily life. Why else would the girls sing the song again and again in the falling dusk, on their balconies, their voices transparent with a melancholy tenderness.
It was 1981, and our family was about to acquire our first television set. My sister and her friends—none of them had heard of the original song—did not know that the very first note of the music was misprinted in the paper, so they were perpetually starting “Auld Lang Syne” out of tune. This I learned a few years later, when a friend gave me sheet music for the song, arranged for an accordion. I learned to play it on my accordion, an instrument less plaintive than a violin or an oboe. Even so, I preferred “Auld Lang Syne” to the other pieces my teacher had me play on the accordion: Soviet wartime music, folk music from Eastern Europe, and, of course, the propaganda songs we’d grown up singing.
The summer I was thirteen, I played “Auld Lang Syne” over and over on my accordion, not knowing that the song is traditionally sung on New Year’s Eve, or that the mood of the song may be more festive or less melancholy than I imagined. I was at the age when my sister and her friends had first fallen in love with “Auld Lang Syne.” They were older girls now, seemingly ready for that awfully big adventure called life. Thirty-five years later, where are they, who once sang wistfully about a reunion when glasses would be raised for the everlasting friendship? Two of them died, both from cancer, both leaving young children and old parents to mourn. The other five are scattered, living on three continents now.
In September 2017 I was in London to attend William Trevor’s memorial service. I did a few other things, including going to Hull to see a Philip Larkin exhibition. I thought of going to the West End to see Les Misérables, but decided not to. I took a screenshot of the show’s information and sent it to Vincent, my older son, and said that we should plan a trip to London and see the show together some time soon.
Vincent was the one to bring the musical into our family life. When he was in fifth grade he discovered Les Misérables, and for the next few years, we watched the movie and then the stage production of the musical every weekend, sometimes as a mere background for what we were doing: parents reading, and the two boys playing on their computers. On holidays—driving in California, in Quebec, in Ireland, in Scotland—Vincent and his little brother would sing the musical from the beginning to the end. My favorite was the duel scene between Jean Valjean and Javert. “Confrontation!” Vincent would say, and that alone was enough to lead to the sung-out accompaniment and then to the duet.
I was twelve when I fell in love with Victor Hugo’s work. A friend loaned me Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, and for a summer I read them many times. There was always a sense of hunger when I think of my childhood. Food was never abundant, but beyond that, good books and beautiful music were not always available. (I had not been allowed into a library until middle school; books in the shops, even if we could afford them, were of unequal quality, many of them falling into the category of revolutionary literature.) One had to devour anything. There was no waiting for tomorrow, as tomorrow might never come.
I told Vincent that he should read Les Misérables—it would be different from just watching the musical, I said, though I did not tell him the circumstances of my reading Hugo. He fell in love with the book, and read it three times the summer before middle school. On a family trip to Paris, right after we checked in at the hotel, we went out to look for the old house of Victor Hugo. To this day, a copy of Les Misérables and a small bust of Hugo sit on Vincent’s shelf. For a few years the book and the musical were part of the fabric of his life, and of our family life, too.
But we never did go to West End for the musical. Four days after I returned from London, Vincent died. I have not listened to the entire musical since then, but sometimes, when I feel sturdy enough, I would listen to the few bars of an oboe solo, after the final battle and all the young people are killed at the barricade.
For a while, Vincent and I shared an ongoing joke. Once I had a conversation with an older writer at a luncheon. He asked if my children played any instrument. I told him my older son played the oboe. “Oboe, what a beautiful instrument,” he exclaimed, his wrinkled face turning expressive.
I agreed that an oboe was a beautiful instrument.
“My first girlfriend was an oboist, and that was—” the man’s face turned dreamy in his calculation. “—that was fifty-eight years ago.”
A similar conversation occurred, another time, with an older woman, who told me that she had once dated an oboist. “It’s a special instrument,” she told me. “Ah, how I love the sounds of an oboe.”
“An oboe is a beautiful instrument,” Vincent used to joke with me. “And an oboist is a perfect ex.”
An oboist in the past, who lives on in someone’s heart. Perhaps he would still make that joke today.
Years ago, a student of mine, an aspiring writer, gave me an album by her husband, who had taken a year off to write the lyrics, compose the music, and record the songs. The album never gained any notoriety, and he went back to his day job as a lawyer. My student, who had grown up working in her parents’ Chinese takeout in an inner-city neighborhood, behind metal bars and bullet-proof glass, spent two years working on her writing, and then admitted to me her frustration of not being able to write as well as she wished. Soon after, she returned to her day job as a real estate agent.
Once I told a friend about the couple—we were having a general conversation about people’s career choices. Horrified, my friend called the couple’s stories an American tragedy, an example of capitalism engulfing young, aspiring artists, leading them astray from their artistic dreams and into materialism. But is it such a bad thing to be pragmatic, I wondered; is it such a bad thing to have loved their art forms, tried, and acknowledged—wisely, it feels to me—that they can be limited in what they can achieve, despite the love for their arts?
I had listened to the husband’s album when I received it, and then placed it on a shelf. A few years later, when Vincent was in middle school, he discovered the album, and fell in love with the songs. He played the album often, and was disappointed to know that the singer/songwriter did not make a name for himself. There was only one clip of the singer playing the title song on YouTube, Vincent informed me, and even that was recorded from afar, with the man’s face vague in the semidarkness.
For some time I thought of introducing Vincent to the creator of his most favorite album. Would it make the man sad, or happy, that his album, though unknown to the larger world, had become a treasured possession for one boy? Would it be a solace to the artist that his songs had made a different in one person’s life? It was one of those plans that one has intended to carry out but never done.
And in the end, one supposes, that is where life takes a different stand from music. All those songs, musicals, albums, played or sung at the right time or the wrong time, for the right reason or the wrong reason, in the right mood or the wrong mood—what are they but placeholders of life? Memories of my childhood and youth were partially preserved in the communist propagandas. “Auld Lang Syne,” played in a sultry July, had more meaning to me than a chorus of “Auld Lang Syne” heralding a new year.
An album, forgettable to the world, was a daily presence in the life of a boy for as long as that boy was alive. Music, in its absolute right to exist, perhaps is not unlike mood, or landscape—external or internal. No mood can be the wrong mood, no landscape can be the wrong landscape, as no music can be the wrong music. Often, we have the context in our minds when we call something wrong: its timing, its consequence, its relationship with others.
The aspiring artists who are now a lawyer and a realtor—if there is some loss in their decisions, the loss should be put into a perspective. Arts are only placeholders for life. Some are masterful placeholders, some, less so; but all the same it is the life held by those holders that has to be lived through. One does not wrestle with life’s placeholders, but with life itself.
After the couple’s first child was born I visited them in their sunny house in Oakland, California. I remembered thinking, when I looked at the infant, that here’s a child who will grow up with plenty of books and music, and who will not be working behind metal bars and bullet-proof glass at seven. What more can parents do for their children, but keep their bodies and minds nourished? The lives they go on making are theirs, leaving, as always, some placeholder in their parents’ memory: a book, a musical, an album, a joke, and an oboe that has to go on living its own version of a life story.
Excerpted from This Woman’s Work. Used with the permission of the publisher, Hachette Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc. Copyright © 2022 Edited by Kim Gordon and Sinéad Gleeson.