Beijing revisited

[Note: This is one of those “personal” diary-like posts. Please do not read it.]

48 hours. No, not the movie. That’s how long I’ve got before I arrive in Beijing after leaving more than half a year ago.

I described in my most heartfelt post ever how it was at a concert in the Forbidden City Concert Hall that my experience in China reached an emotional level that nearly pushed me to the breaking point.

And I am returning to China because the chorus in which I sang that night is singing again, at the same concert hall, to sing Handel’s Messiah. And once again, I will be going with my friend Ben, the kindest and gentlest creature in the universe. Once again, just like 6 months ago, my former employer and her husband will be there. But this time, instead of hiding Ben from them, I am going to walk over and introduce him.

I’m nervous about this trip. It was a sudden decision to go, as soon as I heard about the concert I felt I had no choice. I left in April in such a state of anguish, not because Beijing made me miserable but because SARS was then at its very peak, and I had to deal with the city’s insanity and leaving my job and handling my relationships and moving and with feelings that were so conflicting I could scarcely make any sense of them.

Singing in that chorus in April may have been was the most emotional experience of my very emotional life. I told my boss that if the concert had been months earlier, if I’d had the opportunity to start practicing with the choir in January instead of April, I would almost certainly have stayed in Beijing. I would be living there right now.

For a long time I had so little sense of purpose in Beijing. I felt unsuited to my job, and I had few if any friends until Ben. I had this blog. If you look at it pre-Beijing, you will see how it evolved, almost overnight, from a passing hobby into the very focal point of my existence.

All of a sudden, in January, I had a sudden sense of inspiration and wrote a post that was totally out of keeping with what I’d written before. It got picked up by a super-blogger and that redefined the course of my stay in China. I would exist to tell the story of the amazing things I experienced there. And that’s what happened.

I had my blog. I had the friendship of the selfless Ben. And then I had the concert, the tape of which is playing this instant in my living room. The very next night, my friend of more than a decade was to fly over from America. And I was to leave, leave my adored friend, my beautiful city of Beijing, which I loved and hated, the city which for all its challenges managed to drive me to levels of inspiration I never before knew at any other time or in any other city.

I’ll never forget that night, walking onto the stage with the other singers, and feeling that some greater power had touched me, a sense of destiny, of a great inflection point, and of danger. The most haunting and mystical of the pieces we sang was The Cantique of Jean Racine by Gabriel Faure.

Just now, as if by magic, as I typed those words, the Cantique began to play on my little stereo, and as always I just fight back the tears as best I can, but it never works; the music always wins. This music is so sublime, so gently stirring that I always have to succumb.

It is a prayer, and it is infused with a religious longing, a gentle but fervent song to God. It begins with one of the simplest yet exquisite melodies ever conceived, sung only by the basses. I stood next to this wonderful young lady, an alto, and during our rehearsal she told me how thrilling it was to stand there and hear me sing the bass line because I was so in touch with the music. But on this night, the night of the concert, it was all too much. I couldn’t deal with it, and the aching beauty of the music caused me to choke; instead of singing, I just started to weep, and I had to fight back the tears, and instead of hearing the beautiful bass line she heard me choking, and afterward she asked me if I was alright. Yes, I’m alright, I told her, I am just going through such an emotional time, and the music brought it all to a head, all I could do was cry.

Beijing. It wasn’t what I thought it was going to be. I had a few shocks and several frustrations, even a few moments when I wondered if I would emerge alive. But I wouldn’t give it up for anything, and nearly every day I feel an acute regret that I left. There, I’ve said it: I wish I had never left Beijing, and if I could go back to that night at the concert hall and change my destiny, I would do it. I would be there today. And now it’s too late.

No one knows what I went through. It was not a matter of culture shock or adapting or spicy food or language barriers. I can’t go into it here; all I can say is that it was as if my heart, my soul, was put into an electric blender.

I need to go to sleep. If you can, get yourself a copy of Faure’s Cantique de Jean Racine and listen to the opening notes, the lush string section and harp, and the entrance as if by magic of the bass voices, so gentle yet so passionate, so full of faith and love, and maybe you will know why even now, six months later, I still cry when I hear it, and why I feel that I left part of me in Beijing. Listen to it, and tell me if you do not, as if by magic, know what God and man is.

The Discussion: 8 Comments

excellent juxtaposition of the western music and your western anticipation, or anxiety, about returning to Beijing.

I may be headed there, too, for six weeks.

It will be a new sight and life for me. I hardly know what to expect.

December 2, 2003 @ 12:16 am | Comment

gorgeous post. life is worth living because of these extreme musical moments.

btw wish i knew some straight men capable of expressing these sentiments.

December 2, 2003 @ 8:49 am | Comment

d fresh, bring a heavy coat and lots of moisturizer.

csi, thanks for the kind words. Everything is music. I’m sure there are some expressive straight guys out there, but most are embarrassed to show it and leave themselves, at least in their own eyes, vulnerable.

December 2, 2003 @ 9:55 am | Comment

But it’s so much more than the music – it’s singing the music in THAT city, isn’t it? Haven’t read your blog much but came across it today — so I don’t know how much time you spent in Beijing, why you were there, etc. I first went in 1985 and lived very much back and forth between Beijing and the U.S. until 1997, when I came back more or less for good. Now I just go back to Beijing once a year for a visit. Though the place has changed so much over the years, it still enchants me and fills me with some kind of wierd nostalgia every time…those moments when the plane is coming down over the city are always very intense. And though I haven’t lived there for 5 years, I still find myself missing it, wondering if I’ll ever live there again. I wonder about this. Is it nostalgia for that younger time of life? For what it meant to live, as a foreigner, in China in the 80s and 90s? For the disappearing hutongs, bicycle riders, and horse carts? Or for all that AND for something else that lives in the city and people and most of all, their language and gestures? Ziboy had a wonderful photo last year of two teenagers in blue tracksuits, middle of winter, smoking cigarettes at a bus stop….it’s that kind of scene that I miss and that makes me smile.


December 3, 2003 @ 8:26 am | Comment

As an alumnus of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles, I’d be remiss if I failed to mention that the Chorus’ CD entitled “Songs of Love” has a gorgeous rendition of the Cantique… one of my personal favorites too.

December 4, 2003 @ 10:15 pm | Comment

Lyn, you’ve got it exactly right. It was the music and Beijing. It was especially Beijing at that time, when my own situation and the situation of SARS-battered Beijing were so intense, and I knew I was about to leave…. Being back in Beijing at this instant, I find myself more conflicted than ever before about the place.

December 5, 2003 @ 3:06 pm | Comment

woops, the album is actually called “With a Mighty Voice.” And yes, it is available on Amazon! I’m listening to it on my iPod even as I type, and feeling very, very sad that I’m not singing anymore.

December 5, 2003 @ 8:32 pm | Comment

Vaara, I’m thrilled that you know what an eperience it is to sing the Cantique. I think Faure is perhaps the world’s most underrated composer.

December 8, 2003 @ 1:32 pm | Comment

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