For many years, my mother was choir director of our smalltown United Methodist Church. I, being her daughter, was one of her most faithful choir members. From childhood to adulthood, I joined the many voices under the direction of my mom. Rarely did I miss practice, and never did I question her expertise in guiding into unity our diverse vocal qualities. It was because of her that I gained the confidence to join college, community and religious singing groups wherever my journeys led me.
But in Mainland China, my confidence as a choir member balked. After teaching English as a foreign language for quite a few years in this Asian country, I never managed to gain enough courage to sing in a Chinese choir.
The language is too difficult.
The singing style is not the same.
The melodies are so alien!
These are the excuses I gave myself. But more than anything, I was concerned about fitting in. Our cultural backgrounds were so different. Could an American truly feel comfortable singing in a Chinese choir? I didn’t think so.
Yet last year, in Sichuan’s Yangtze rivertown Luzhou where I taught English for a number of years, I found myself for several Sundays in the Luzhou Protestant Church, not just as a congregation member but a bit more. I stood in my flowing white choir robe and satiny red stole, held high my pink music folder and belted out anthems just as joyfully as my fellow Chinese choir members.
It was actually a friend’s visit that led me to participate in the choir. I had been attending worship services for three years at the city’s Protestant church. I knew the pastor, the pianist, the choir members and even the director. All of them had encouraged me to sing as a choir member, but I had only smiled. When Brian arrived, however, he mentioned his one great wish in visiting China was to sing with a Chinese choir. As his hostess and a church attendee, I felt obligated to lead the way. Beth, my teaching colleague at our small Chinese college, decided to tag along as well.
I was a bit concerned about the reaction of the choir when three foreigners suddenly appeared at Friday night’s practice. Would they stare? Would they shy away? Would they be apprehensive?
I needn’t have worried. Our entrance into the small sanctuary brought on a round of applause and cries of delight. Director Li scurried to find us music. Members welcomed us with warm greetings, then tugged us into the appropriate choir sections: I with the sopranos, Beth with the altos, and Brian with the tenors and basses.
From the moment we began, I felt right at home. Young seminary student Jin led us in warm-up scales. Coughs, hacks and throat clearings ensued before our shaky notes finally materialized. We sounded deadly. To raise our spirits, Jin bounced here and there with enthusiastic energy. She gracefully waved her arms in circles above her head. I considered it her attempt to visually support our consistently flat notes. Director Li stood to the side, trying not to grimace.
Our first number was a familiar Western hymn tune, although listening to our pianist and the other choir members, I was hard-pressed to pinpoint it. A majority of the members couldn’t read music. I, on the other hand, could read music but not all the written Chinese characters. Soprano Yang, sitting next to me, quickly took me under her wing. We whispered through several verses. She carefully sounded out the Chinese characters I didn’t know and I wrote them down phonetically. I noticed Beth and Brian doing the same with the help of others from their sections. Director Li tolerantly ignored our mutterings, something I so often remember my mom doing with her more chatty singers.
Progressing onward, we came to Sunday’s anthem. That first run-through brought back such nostalgic memories: sopranos shrieking, altos searching, tenors hesitating, and basses bellowing. I was always quite adept at reading my mom during such horrific choir moments as this one. Director Li was no different. I detected a cringe, a wince, a strained smile and a hopeless slump. Our eclectic “Amen!” at the end so inspired the accompanist that she came crashing down on a creative chord.
Our choral leader searched for something to say, but a choir member beat him to it.
“Bu hao (bad),” one of the men offered.
“Hen bu hao (very bad),” another added.
The entire choir then erupted into a heated discussion of what was wrong, who was wrong, where it had gone wrong and why. Everyone, including myself, felt compelled to share.
We created such a din that Director Li had some difficulty pulling us back to order. We spent the rest of the evening repairing the anthem’s fixable parts. The rest we left to God.
I wish I could say that everyone sang well two days later at Sunday morning’s service. No one did. All the same, Director Li had kind words to say.
The members had done their best and that was what mattered.
Before leaving the church that Sunday, Beth, Brian and I were approached again and again by our fellow singers.
Are you coming to practice this Friday?
Can you teach us some English songs?
Will you sing with us for worship next week?
At that moment, I realized all my previous fears and anxieties about fitting in had been utterly ridiculous. How often cultural revelations come with new experiences, and although mine took three years, better late than never.
From Chengdu, as always, "Ping An!" (Peace)
REMINDER OF EARTHQUAKE RELIEF FUNDING STILL NEEDED
United Methodists: UMCOR Advance #982450, International Disaster Response, China Earthquake