By: Zachary Sherin, 12th Grade
From my first trip there in 2005, I knew that China was different. Driving through the endless bright streets, bargaining with shopkeepers whose English proficiency peaked with the word “No,” I found a place to which I needed to return. Now, it might seem odd that a thirteen year old boy from Connecticut, a boy who had spent almost his entire life attending a small private school, would be interested in living in China. However, those traits of my childhood were exactly why I needed to go back. I needed to escape. Greens Farms Academy, my school since first grade, was a small, closed community. Rather than foster a need for that kind of familiarity and safety, however, GFA instilled in me a desire for a change, for a world that was so completely different from where I lived that it could only be denoted by italics and a thirteen-hour time difference. After seven years cooped up in those brick buildings, I went stir-crazy. That was, I later realized, the first year I truly desired to apply to SYA China.
When the time finally came to apply for a school year abroad, I knew I was ready. I had been preparing for this for several years, and so when I had my opportunity I threw myself into the application process. I had been studying Mandarin Chinese for three years, even making up half a year’s work over the summer when my first class went too slow to progress to a higher level. I refused to let any of my China aspirations slip away easily, even over my mother’s protests of losing her baby for a year. When the phone call finally came with an (I believed) underwhelming declaration of “may I be the first to congratulate you on your acceptance,” I was barely able to restrain myself from running victory laps around the house. I was accepted, and I knew I was ready. I thought back to that first trip, of all the incredible things I had done and seen, and dreamed about how I might be able to finally connect with the country, to be a part of it in ways that most people would never be able to achieve. I settled on music. A constant passion of mine, I knew that I could use my interests and abilities to integrate myself into the community. The first thing I prepared to bring was my guitar.
Seven months from when I first landed in China with fifty-six strangers/classmates, I found my way to connect. I stood, trembling, at the doorway to a musical instrument shop in Beijing. Four friends and I, for our final research project, were to study the beginnings, current status, and future prospects of the Beijing underground rock scene. My plan was simple: I would walk into the nearby instrument shops and ask if any of the proprietors knew bands who would like to be interviewed by five foreign students. I finally gathered my courage, and with one of my classmates in tow, I pushed through the doors of the largest shop on the street. I asked, in halting, terrified Mandarin, if the man working there possibly, maybe knew anyone who was in a band and would maybe be willing to let us talk to them? He looked at me, pointed to a poster on the wall, said that the guitarist, named Wu Peng, of a moderately famous metal band that I had seen live earlier that year, not only owned the shop, but would come by tomorrow and be happy to talk to us. He said all this in a tone that implied I was not impetuously asking to interview a moderately-famous musician, but instead was asking a friend’s mother if her son would hang out tomorrow. If there was an adjective that meant both “anticlimactic” and “incredibly relieving,” I believe it would be defined as that moment. I stuttered at least three French words in my nervous excitement, realized I was speaking the wrong language, thanked the man for his time and help, and translated this exchange to my friend at a speed usually reserved for gossiping teenage girls. We thanked the man once more, and fled the store triumphantly. Once more, as with SYA, I was in, and I wanted to celebrate. I wished there was an explosion in the background, so I could high-five my friend and pretend my accomplishment was as cool as a 90’s action movie ending. Sadly, with the special-effects not forthcoming, I rode home, my mind buzzing with the knowledge that I would soon get to prove myself to the Beijing underground music crowd.
When Wu Peng strode into his shop the next afternoon, five extremely excited foreigners wearing a Chinese school’s uniform confronted him. Despite his metal-rocker look, with long hair reaching to his waist, he was soft-spoken and assured. Compared to his scowling face on the poster, the man I interviewed seemed like a new man; calm, collected, and perfectly capable of answering all of my questions. And yet, I was still just as terrified as if he had announced his presence by smashing a guitar and screaming at us. I was afraid of embarrassing myself in front of someone who was, essentially, the culmination of everything I had wanted to find in China, and I nearly fled from the room. But I fought back against shredding self-confidence, instead holding onto my need to complete a goal, to finally connect with something so incredibly removed from my hometown that I could finally say I was part of something I loved. I knew that music, and the people in Beijing that I met, were that something. I knew it from the moment that Wu Peng told us how he and a few friends had worked their way from obscurity and not having enough money for even a bus ride, to becoming one of the largest metal acts in Beijing. I understood exactly what he meant when he said he, “played for the love of music, and not for money or fame.” I needed to let him know that I could join their ranks, that he and the people he knew were what I aspired to be; people with a passion for something. And so, when our interview ended with our entire group thanking him profusely and then snapping a photo of the six of us with the most brutal faces that we could muster, I knew I had found the reason that I came to China. It was Wu Peng, and the rest of Beijing’s underground rock scene.
Before we left, I shook hands with him, and he handed us a piece of paper with the number of his record label written on it. That handshake began my descent into the underground music scene of Beijing, my entrance to a world that I did not know existed before I arrived, and the final destination of my hopes in China. Just as I shook his hand, I would soon shake the hands of Pilot Records’ founder, the publicist-turned-French-diplomat of MaybeMars Records, a Vegan soft-rock guitarist whom I first met at his “Save the Tigers” benefit concert, and finally the three members of Birdstriking, one of the first bands in the Fifth Generation and generally cool college kids. Friends that I could only have made in China, who could only be found after I had searched for them in my quest for an experience like no other. I had traveled a distance of half the world’s surface to uncover something that truly resonated with my interests. A bit far just to make some friends, some might say. But if you thought that the people whose beliefs and interests resonated with yours like no other’s were out in the world somewhere, how far would you travel to be truly “in”? Though I never got my special-effect-driven, blockbuster-worthy high-five, I found a group of people with whom I could sit in an instrument shop and talk for hours. I have my answer; going to China was a short trip when compared with the reward. I found exactly what I needed to spark interest into my life again, and to drive myself to seek out the interesting people who might be near me as well. Now, after returning to the United States, I plan to finally start doing things, to discover things I might never have tried before due to apathy. I will never again complain of a lack of anything to do until I have exhausted all possibilities around me. Wu Peng and his contemporaries have allowed me to stop faking disinterest, to search out what I want to find, and to never, ever stop looking at those around me for someone who could spark my interest.