The Oberlin Stories Project

On the Oberlin Orchestra China Tour

Nicolee Kuester ’10

“... in spite of the stress and discomfort, my memories of the tour are overwhelmingly dominated by those moments of recognition that we experience only when we travel, the overriding reminders of how-we-are-the-same-in-spite-of.”

An orchestra on stage under a banner with Chinese characters and '2006 New Year Concert'.

If you asked, I’d tell you that I’d do all of it again in a heartbeat. That being said, the Oberlin Orchestra’s 2005-2006 Winter Tour of China was about as glitch-free as the lemonade-maker I designed in middle school. Our five-city, twelve-day journey was plagued by surprise mishaps and misunderstandings: we found ourselves working around basses broken by incompetent airline officials, seven-hour plane delays, unheated concert halls (in December!), stolen horns, barely-usable pianos, bass drums swaddled in plastic wrap to keep them from falling apart, and spindly risers made of painted chicken crates. Sometimes the whole thing felt like an exercise in managing exhaustion and Chinese bureaucracy and being a little too cold pretty much all the time. But I insist that I’d do it all over again because in spite of the stress and discomfort, my memories of the tour are overwhelmingly dominated by those moments of recognition that we experience only when we travel, the overriding reminders of how-we-are-the-same-in-spite-of:

In several of the concert halls, our stagehands were just members of the Chinese army. They couldn’t have been too much older than I was. For some reason, most of them played the trumpet, and so they’d make fast friends with the brass section, asking us to autograph their programs and pose for snapshots. I remember during a concert glancing offstage and seeing them dancing in pairs as we played the Blue Danube.

At one hotel’s restaurant, our waiter was this fellow I can only describe as a dandy with a giant perm and a perpetual case of the giggles. He’d swoop down with three or four platters at a time and rapturously practice his English: “And here is some nice Chinese greens! And some Chinese beef! And some Chinese dumpling soup! And some Chinese rice!” He gave us directions to all of the worthwhile clubs in the area.

We taught a kid in front of a bank in Beijing how to hackysack.

I went into an internet cafe in Shanghai that smelled faintly of urine, and the whole place was packed to the gills with middle-aged businessmen intently playing World of Warcraft.

And perhaps the thing that stays clearest in my mind is the family that approached me after our first concert in Anshan. It’s a steel city of a few hundred thousand, dingier than slicked-up Shanghai or cosmopolitan Beijing, and ours would be the first orchestra of its kind to perform in its modest municipal auditorium. As I was packing up backstage, this family of four walked up, two parents with a son and a daughter. The daughter, who looked older, maybe thirteen or fourteen, said something in Chinese to her brother, who looked at me and said in English, “This is my sister. She also plays--” and, lost for the word, he pointed to my horn. “That’s great!” I said, and smiled at her. Her parents said something to her and prodded her forward. She shyly held out her program for me to sign. And although I took her program and found a pen to write my name with, I was thinking “And who am I to deserve this family’s attention? Just some freshman kid at a college in the middle of nowhere, sitting last chair in an orchestra doing a whirlwind tour of a country I might never see again.” But I understand now what it’s about. She was thirteen, fourteen maybe, and she played the French horn, how many Chinese girls play the horn? How many Chinese girls living in broken-down industrial cities play the horn? For her to see me performing on a stage in front of hundreds of people, a girl just a few years older than her--it was important. It was a small Girl-Power moment between two people who didn’t want to play flute or harp or violin. A new, if little, window into her world of possibilities. It was not a hugely remarkable moment by any means, but, three years down the road now, it is also not a moment that I would let myself forget.