It is an eclectic crowd: Chinese students, a gaggle of Italians, bunches of French, no discernable Americans (and among the 25 or so people I got acquainted with, none, and no one interested in studying in the U.S. either!). I talk with impressive Osakans who studied in Hong Kong, representative of a type – the Sinified Japanese which I appreciate greatly (though have only met a few with both Chinese and Japanese family ties in Dongbei). A very young French guy is married to a Chinese girl; three Chinese girls are going to Italy for 6 months for language and music education study; at some point I gag a little bit at an excess of smoke and see six French girls standing in the corner, “smoking voluptuously,” as Simone de Beauvoir said in a letter to Nelson Algren one day in 1949.
Then I saddle up to the bar, meet Jean-Baptiste, an impressively languid French chap from Bretangne who works for Airbus in Tianjin; they are on the brink of their first full assembly in Tianjin, but he deplores the nightlife there。 All the Francophones (which includes a few Belgians) in the city work for Airbus; the Germans who do automotive manufacturing in the city don’t socialize overly much with the French; thus the spirit of Strasbourg is not necessarily alive in Tianjin. After about 12 minutes of intense back and forth, I realize that my French conversational proficiency, when dealing with familiar topics, has now graduated somewhat, c’est-a-dire, the space of six months I have moved from non-existent to horrible. And horrible is better than non-existent, n’est oui? But of course Quebecois is another matter entirely – there I’m still a defenseless sans abri waiting to be struck with the harpoon of that wickedly Anglicized, arcane, and viscous-lovely dialect.
One of the more interesting conversations comes with a German architect from Cologne. He complains about Chinese women being only interest in what he represents – Europe, a large income, modern architecture – and not in him per se. But I found him to be interesting for those very reasons as well! Particularly when he griped about the dominance of the Swiss over the Germans in the market for architecture contracts, which is booming of course, in China. We talk about old East Germany and my research on socialist internationalism, and then we agree that more research is needed on the composition of this mass of spectators. Oh, he was also the first German I have met who was willing and able to play along by speaking French for a couple of minutes before we got to his true nationality (which I probably should have guessed from his heavy-rimmed and quite stylish eyeglasses). But I would have guessed he was from San Francisco anyway, maybe Austin, Texas. How many Americans are mistaken for Bavarians when they go to Berlin? I wonder; and I would like to be one of those people who can be absorbed.
(Along the same lines, few nights after Tiersen, I was enjoying some lamb kebobs [the ubiquitous Beijing 羊肉串儿]when a most gregarious fellow burst into my personal space, seeking information and English. After a few minutes of discourse where I was reluctant to lapse into Anglophonisms, he finally stated that I wanted to be ignored in China, I needed change my appearance so as to resemble a Chinese man. This was an intriguing thought indeed.)
Almost no punks or avant-garde looking types awaited Tiersen; this was a fairly ordinary-looking group. More than a share of black t-shirts, sure, a couple heads of dyed blonde hair, but nothing too edgy. The subversive quality of each, if it existed, was hidden! Cache-cache! Some noise continues on the stage, but it is nothing noble, no Thor hammers descend upon the ears; nothing approximates the power of a Tristan chord; no one grants the respect of even a simple secondary dominant. Instead three boys bounce around with Casio keyboards; this seems to amuse the college crowd, at least merely momentarily. Rhythmically, they have nothing innovative to bring, and their harmonies also betray a lack of training, or of any interest in, say, the phenomenon of modulation. And thus they continue, oblivious to the affectations created by the tonalities chosen or the permutations of their chords. But damn, they have spent time in front of the mirror! Because those hats and hair styles were well chosen. Fortunately, they were soon finished. When your country’s top pop star is Jay Chou, daily tragedies like this are bound to occur.
Yet, as their last song reached its simple-minded climax, I, standing on the dais above the floor and the main stage, looked around and was suddenly stupefied with an inexplicable joy. I thought of friends and laughed, thinking of Shakespeare’s sonnet (perhaps the 28th?) in which he decries the distance felt from his beloved, that he cannot himself become a state of energy to move to a distant shore; Shakespeare riffs on his dismay that instantaneousness thought could not be shared…Yet here, all around me, via tapping and updates, heads were bent, thumbs flew, and such thought was in fact being broadcast…but I preferred Shakespeare’s way. My phone was safely stowed in steerage, and I have never been one to fetishize a trend or believe in the death of Briefenwechsel. My thoughts would race, but I would not “become thought” just yet; there was no need to share the experience, only to hold the notion of thanks to the distant ones in one’s heart.
Movement on the dais! I swiveled around to see a line of large people in black “SECURITY” t-shirts working their way towards the front, bearing chests of ice, beer and water for the king. This was an arduous, nigh-medieval task, and I slipped into the middle of their line, wearing a serious expression. Solemnity was the order of the day. It was like my father’s wake; had only Scottish bagpipes been flaring on a grassy hill above the awaiting tomb…the notion of grandeur was reawakened. Some blessing, a noble force, was going to break over all of us soon, and I wished to be close to the stage. We trundled closer, the beer chests with their thickening ice, the crowd parting with deep respect…Just before the stairs ascended up onto the stage itself, I peeled off from the convoy, finding a free space next to the speakers stage left. A moment later, I turned to see the remains of the column, perhaps the stragglers or the bodybuilders. Instead I see Yann Tiersen, ducked down, working his way silently toward me.
There is a passage in the Analects ( 论语 ) where Confucius is described preparing himself for a meeting with the king. At the bottom of the immense steps leading up to the throne room, Confucius is himself: he is proud, magisterial, brimming with platitude, confident in his esprit and gestalt. Yet as he rises to greet the king and offer his mots, with each step the philosopher shrinks his qi (气) so as to appear almost imperceptible to the king, basking in the other’s mightiness. And this, too, Yann Tiersen did, moving through the crowd. His life force was bundled up somewhere deep within his crouched form. Donc, he did not wish to be greeted like some conqueror moving toward the stage, but I also like to think that by shrinking his qi, by seeking to move through unobtrusively yet recognized, in this moment he acknowledged the savage force and power of the crowd, soon to be his mob. Ours was the force he sought to tap, for he was confident, like Confucius, in his own ability to recoil and expand outward once given the proper stage.
He walked past me in a cocoon of silence.
[I have to go to the archives now. But I shall return, as promised, with Part III…]