"Someday, I want to take my mom with me and travel. I want her to see the world too. That is my dream." Xi'an, China
It was a long flight from Phoenix to Xi'an. It didn't help matters that I had to be at the airport at 4 am and fly to San Francisco, Beijing, then on to the Xi'an international airport. A 25 hour travel day. Yay. I arrived at midnight and found a hotel at the airport to get some much needed sleep. The next morning included a 45 minute Taxi ride to the hotel I was to stay in for the duration of my trip in central Xi'an. It was near the Conservatory and would be the hotel for most of the traveling musicians, professors, and composers coming to Xi'an for the festival. This shouldn't be difficult, right? I arrived and did my best to communicate that I should have a reservation arranged by the University, but that I would be paying for the room on my own. I'm not sure if I mentioned this, but my Chinese is...well, nonexistent. Despite everyone's best efforts and intentions, I just ended up in a room, gave them a credit card, and figured I'd find a way to sort it out in 3 days when the others arrived. I knew a couple of those arriving soon spoke English and could translate to help me sort this out. I had 3 days for street photography, tourist stuff to check off the list, and some exploring to do before everyone arrived.
Enter Ms. Rubing Feng.
"Hi Mr. Bain, I'm Feng and I understand there is a problem with your room?". (I learned that Feng is pronounced "f uh ng", not "f ei ng". Chinese lesson number 1 for me). She was so polite and professional. Her English was great and nearly conversational. Which, when traveling in a place so foreign to me as China, was a welcome relief. We handled the hotel situation and she told me she's a student at the Conservatory and that she's available to help me while I'm in Xi'an. She was simultaneously translating for the other American's who had just arrived. I thought she must be an english student or something. Regardless, she's sweet, helpful, and speaks pretty darn good English! I thanked her and headed back to my room. After dinner, I returned to the room and found a hand written letter delivered to my room by the hotel staff. The letter was from Feng and included a nice welcome note and a phone number in case I needed anything. Many of the professors, my American friend, and several other of the festivals keynote speakers and Masters had arrived, so there were many people to help translate. However, it was nice to know I had a new friend that could help me sort out this intense city and language if found myself stuck. I met so many people in the first day, any attempt to remember all their names was overwhelming. I remember thinking, "I'll have to rely on Feng a bit until I get my sea legs here".
The next day, I was walking around the conservatory getting the lay of the land for the next 5 days of shooting photos and interviewing people. It was a beautiful campus. One of the girls arriving to the festival was originally from China and currently pursuing a Masters Degree in the US. Her English was great, so I took the opportunity to ask why everyone calls me "Mr. Bain" rather than "Scott". She told me it's a sign of respect and that in China, people use the last name first when addressing one another unless they know each other well. So, Feng was my new friends last name! I had to fix that. Well, not fix her last name, rather let her know she can call me by my first name instead of the formality of using last names. I walked up to Feng and mentioned to her, "you can call me Scott. If that's ok with you. We're new friends and that's how we do it in the US." She smiled and said, "well, then you can call me Rubing, that's my name and I would be happy for you to call me by my first name."
I found this all very interesting. It was charming and quite frankly, refreshing that there was so much consideration and respect for one another here.
Rubing was always right where everyone needed her to be. Of all the people buzzing around, helping, fixing, rescuing, saving, performing, and contributing to the event, she was a star, albeit a quiet and humble one. She was an integral part of every component of the festival. I learned she was studying under Keju, the director of the Viola department and one of the principal founders of this amazing event. As the days went on, I had many opportunities to speak with her and learn more. There were lunches and dinners, as well as the events, performances, and walks from one of said events to another. It was about halfway through the 2nd full day of the festival when I knew I'd met a very special girl.
I asked Rubing where she learned English. Her response truly surprised me. She learned most of her English from books, American movies and shows, and classroom studies. I asked her how often she spoke with English speaking people to practice. I wasn't prepared for the answer. "I've never talked with anyone that speaks English. You're the first." I think my jaw was on the ground at that point. Can you imagine, being 19 years old, studying another language as foreign as English is to a Chinese speaking person, and still have the capacity to communicate conversationally? I really had a hard time wrapping my mind around that one.
Our conversations wandered through many topics over the subsequent days. Rubing is from another city in China and came to Xi'an to study. She was raised by her mother and has close ties to her uncle and a few others in her family. I could tell she was close with her mother when she began explaining her mom works as a teacher and does odd jobs to make extra money to insure Rubing can get the best education and never suffer. She was raised by her mom as her parents had been divorced since she was quite young. There was profound love, admiration, and appreciation in her voice when she spoke of her mother and the sacrifices she made to make sure her daughter had what she needed. I was humbled when I heard the story. In China, students in primary school (similar to high school) study from morning to lunch, after lunch to dinner, and after dinner time to prepare for a exam that is the principal contributing factor in determining what university each student can attend. The competition is incredible. The sheer numbers of students taking the test relative to upper echelon schools is staggering. After her mom fell ill, Rubing wanted to help and be with her mother as well as get into a good school. It was as very difficult time for her and she expressed that she was sad many of her classmates from primary school were ahead of her. I couldn't believe the pressure these young people were really under. I had no idea how hard they worked and studied, just to have a chance. Her first hope to attend a "key university" was shattered. Although her test scores were near the top, the combination of other factors including a less than helpful primary school teacher, kept her from getting the top spot she sought. Rubing found her way to the Xi'an Conservatory of Music, and is in her first year there. She's such a talented girl.
I asked her what her dream was. "I want to work hard and study so I can be a great viola player. I want to travel and play the viola. I want to play...maybe in a symphony. Maybe, someday I can teach too. But, I want to be good enough to travel so I can take my mom with me and travel all over. I want her to see the world too. That is my dream."
As the week progressed, her English did too. It was incredible. Her capacity to learn was awesome. I'm not sure I've ever witnessed anything like it, in all honesty. Throughout the week, she told me about Xi'an, the history of the city, introduced me to traditions, food, and culture. She had so much information to share in that brain of hers. In addition to helping with the festival and translating for the couple of us that only spoke English, Rubing was performing and studying with some of the Masters that were in Xi'an for the event. Somehow, she joined us for meals, translated, made sure everyone was where they were supposed to be, and managed to practice and prepare for the complicated viola pieces she would be performing. Part way through the week, I remember thinking "if I could take her and a few others I've met this week, back to the US, we could start a company. Solely based on their work ethic, personalities, incredible commitment and intelligence, it would work. It wouldn't even matter what the company or industry was. They'd figure it out".
As the end of the week approached, I realized I had mistakenly booked my flight back to the US the day before the festival was over and was frantically trying to change it. I was able to do so, with a ton of help from back home. Although that's a story for another day, the end result was being in Xi'an for the final performance of the festival and having the wonderful experience of spending a day in Xi'an with this shining star of a person. Rubing offered to show me around some parts of the city.
As we walked and saw the sites of the city, I had a few burning questions I'd wanted to ask her and hadn't. There was still a lot I didn't understand about the culture and how things worked there. It was all pretty overwhelming.
I asked her about boys and school. We talked about dreams and life. She showed me the first Buddhist Temple in Xi'an and explained the rituals and stories. We walked for miles, saw the "Square" and it's famous Pagoda Tower, listened to some street music, tried new food, and saw the streets of Xi'an for a day. That evening we parted ways. As I was reflecting on the day and the experiences of the past 10 days in China, I couldn't help but think how difference my life is in the US than it would be in Xi'an. Rubing is such a talented, smart, and driven young woman. Thanks to her, I saw a side of China I'm not sure I ever would have experienced.
Thank you for showing me Xi'an and sharing your story with me my new, dear friend. I'm not sure you'll ever read this. But, from my heart, I'm quite sure you'll be a great viola player soon. Someday you and your mom will travel the world. If that's what you dream of, you'll get there. I have no doubt.