Saturday, May 18, 2013

Big In China

by Alan Paul
A music writer, Paul travels to Beijing with his wife and their three children when she is offered a job as the Wall Street Journal’s bureau chief there. He works hard at the language, gets a driver’s license, enjoys the food, writes columns, and becomes the stay-at-home parent in the foreigner’s compound, complete with servants. With a new perspective and perhaps more time on his hands, he takes up guitar again and hangs out in music clubs. After being called on stage and performing a few classic rock standards, Paul thinks he’s found a winning formula and soon puts together a band with another ex-pat and three Chinese musicians. After extensive practicing and touring, this band is named “Best New Band in Beijing” – a rather stunning feat in a usually fairly insular culture that gives no quarter to foreigners.

This is a fun, witty book about how one man’s enthusiastic embrace of the new led him to revitalize his passion for music, and to change the music scene of Beijing itself. I was bowled over by the enthusiasm and positivity in this book, something that is lacking in many Westerner-in-China memoirs. Where almost every other visitor and ex-pat dwells on the honking and crush of traffic, Paul sees it as an escapade. The exotic food, the language barrier, the culture clash – all is opportunity or adventure for Paul, not a challenge or hardship. Granted, his viewpoint could be called insular itself; as a member of a working ex-pat family and not a tourist, he probably didn’t deal with bureaucrats or xenophobes as much as some visitors. But regardless, his positivity and equitable understanding are refreshing and contagious traits. Whether it’s attending to his young children’s culture shock, his ailing father, his quiet and serious bandmate, or his tutor’s worried vacillating about the life path he is meant to take, Paul focuses on human connections, not differences. Musing on the changed landscape and displaced people in the constant reinvention he notices in Beijing, Paul notes only, and very wisely, “everyone’s view of ‘normal’ starts the moment they arrive” – he wasn’t about to fret about what Beijing was “becoming;” he was too busy being involved in what it was. This is an inspiring and very unusual tale.

four stars

No comments:

Post a Comment