From the Vaults: The Foreign (Musical) Experience

Fans of This American Life were treated to a bit of China this week, with an episode entitled “Americans in China.” With that in mind, I figured I’d drop a little piece of my own China experience; an article that the Globe and Mail published back in May of 2005. Literally every foreign musician playing in China will have similar stories.

This is one of those stories.

It’s Okay, I’m With The Band

Picture yourself in a shopping mall, in central Beijing. It looks a lot like the shopping malls you’re used to: piped-in Muzak through three levels of shops and department stores.

You’ve found your way to a hidden corner of the complex, up three flights of escalators, following what you swear is the sound of live music. And that’s exactly what you’ll find: A jazz quintet, playing on a stage that seems specifically designed to give the clerks at the Adidas shop a respite from the drudgery of not selling high-priced athletic gear to a customer base that knows of a market not a 10-minute walk away selling pirated and off-the-back-of-the-truck gear at cut-rate prices.

If you’re like the upward-of-a-dozen other curious passersby, many of them salespeople taking a break from their clothing and electronics stalls down the hall who’ve also followed their ears here, you’ll likely stand around for a few minutes, and take in a tune. It won’t take you long to spot the one-of-these-things-that’s-not-like-the-other. It’s a conga player, for one — not exactly a crucial jazz instrument — but it’s a conga player who’s the only non-Chinese person in the band.

I am not being modest: I am not the best conga player in Beijing. And “Autumn Leaves,” “The Girl from Ipanema,” “So What” and other tunes are hardly in need of percussive accompaniment. But there I was, for seven days. Why? Because an exasperated friend called me and said that he needed a foreigner for some gigs. He didn’t need a percussionist; he needed a foreigner, a Token White Guy. I’m not sure how that makes me feel.

I was never a part of a visible minority before China, and I’m trying to imagine a situation outside of China in which I’d heard the word “foreigner” used. But it has, for me — and everyone I know — become an adjective; as descriptive, useful, and as oft-invoked as any other: tall, short, fat — foreign.

In our multicultural homeland, how can you tell the “foreigners” from the locals? But here in Beijing, it’s relatively easy. The classification system in place here would shock the culturally sensitive: I am in the same phylum as the Europeans, Africans, South Americans, Non-Chinese Asians and (gasp!) Americans who currently call Beijing home. And, our phylum, “foreigners” – or, as we’re known locally by a term that is supposed to imply respect but is too often spat out in contexts precluding anything close to admiration, laowai (literally, “old outside”) – sell.

I have gotten calls from agents looking for “foreign bands” for gigs across the country. Overseas Chinese, however, need not apply. “Do you have anybody more, er, Western-looking?” was the response to our Australian-Chinese member. One agent asked for a “black-person band.” Hoping I hadn’t heard her right, I asked her to clarify what kind of music she was looking for: “Whatever kind of music it is that black people play,” she answered.

I had agreed to help my friend out, thinking little more of it than as a way to earn a bit of cash and play music. But by the time we went through our third round of “Masquerade” in as many days, I was starting to wonder what I was doing.

I remain disturbed and confused by mall management’s demands. They didn’t just ask for a jazz band. They asked for a jazz band with foreigners. Are there great Chinese jazz musicians? Yes. Am I a great jazz musician? No. But nor am I Chinese. And in China, this works to my advantage, despite China’s well-known deep-seated sense of cultural superiority: I am constantly told that I learned Mandarin language against all odds: it is too difficult for foreigners. There is also the persistent invocation of 5,000 years of history, culture, philosophy, and such that prefaces and underlies most conversations. It’s hard to say whether or not my predicament fits in with this sense of superiority: If the Chinese are superior, does it make them more superior to hire foreigners for display? Or would it show their superiority to not need foreigners, even to perform jazz, music that is undoubtedly foreign?

Face: Our man in Henan using his to slap out the classics in advance of my blues band’s set in Shangqiu, Henan.

The logic behind the demand for foreign performers is often put down to “face,” which would imply the former: That a business or performance venue looks more important if they can put foreigners on a stage. I don’t buy it but, then again, I’m more interested in the sound coming from the stage than with the view. My question remains: Why is it that a mediocre conga player is more important to a jazz group than a good, say, pianist?

The sad truth is that things aren’t going to change much, because the situation tends to work out in our favour. Getting gigs is a lot easier when I show my white face. And some of these gigs pay. If you’re me, and someone calls offering your “foreign band” an out-of-town gig for good money, what are you going to say?

One of those famed gigs for good money: Scania Trucks, Guangzhou, 2007