Article by Serena Runyan
Ihave lived in Xi’an for one and a half years, and for one and a half years, I have wanted to find a way to play the piano here. I started playing the piano when I was five years old, and coming to China was the first time I stopped. My first year here, I made mild attempts at finding one, but I’m an excellent procrastinator, and a year flew by quickly. When I came back for a second year, it was still on my list..
True to fashion, finding a piano to use in Xi’an proved to be harder than expected, like the time I thought I could find a yoga studio (after finding two abandoned studios and a third that wanted a month of my salary, I went home and downloaded an app).
Unfortunately, you can’t play the piano on an app, so after moving “find piano” from to-do list to to-do list for months on end, I finally decided to use some of my copious free time to actually “find piano”.
My method involved soliciting my student QQ groups, searching “piano” in Chinese in Baidu maps, and wandering around to various music shops, who all in turn pointed me in different directions until I found a place with a practice room to rent for 10 RMB an hour. This sounded like a good thing, until I had the pleasure of playing what might be the worst piano in China.
Feeling slightly successful but mostly defeated, I froze outside for thirty minutes while I waited for my bus and, ultimately, never went back.
Two months of Spring Festival vacation passed by and I came back to Xi’an with a resolve to search once more.
I decided to try the Xi’an Music Conservatory, a place that, logically, must have a lot of pianos. When I got to the campus, I realized I had no idea where to go. However, it immediately felt familiar. Everywhere I went, there were the sounds of students practicing, and the sights of them toting instruments in black cases. There are many things that are different in China, but music is music, and being there reminded me of going to the music building in college, and of being late to orchestra in the morning in high school, and of being rejected from a cappella groups my freshman year.
I poked my head into a couple of buildings that had piano noises coming from the windows and, to the best of my understanding, was told that as a random, unaffiliated stranger I could not in fact use their pianos, so I went home.
My “classes” at the university started, and by classes, I mean what my school is now calling “workshops”, which means that I have small groups of students instead of big ones. I took this small-class opportunity to play a game called “salad bowl” and chat with my students. Eventually, one of them offered to take me back the music conservatory, and the next day, we were off.
He took me to the proper building, which was an exciting development. They told me that yes, indeed, I could buy a card to use their pianos, but as it was Tuesday, I could not buy it today. They only sell the cards from Wednesday to Friday. Obviously.
Regardless, this was groundbreaking information and I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. I was ready to go home but, of course, one does not simply run an errand with a student. We go to a wanghong coffee shop with a ball pit, and to a temple tucked inconspicuously into the city. In total, these are three things I would have never found on my own and I’m reminded that while I might be better at English, my students are better than me at literally everything else involving living in China.
Weeks go by and, eventually, I buy the card. Now, playing the piano is something I do a few times a week, and it’s become one of my favorite things about my daily life in Xi’an. In a place where I speak like a toddler and struggle with simple tasks, I can find refuge in a practice room, doing something that I am good at, something that is familiar. Though I might look out of place walking around the campus, I feel like I belong, running from class to piano to friends just as I did in America. Besides my relationships, finding a piano has given me the greatest sense of home here.
Of course, everything else about my routine is different, and this is what makes living abroad worthwhile. I can’t choose the practice room that I use, but instead get handed a key by a man who is sometimes in his office and sometimes not. When I come back to give him the key, I often wander around looking for him before he suddenly appears out of nowhere to take it. Instead of walking past the library and across the field to get to the music building, I scan a QR code and e-bike through the city; instead of dodging frisbees and ducks on campus I dodge pedestrians, trucks and angry cab drivers. And in lieu of the coffee and scone I might have gotten before, I now make my way to the street food vendors outside the north gate and beeline for the choudoufu cart. They are different routines, but routine is routine, and these outings are times I feel most like I belong here.