June 4 - 5, 2008, Chengdu, Sichuan, China
First, I must say, the beautiful spirit of the Sichuan people was so moving, even in the wake - indeed the midst - of their terrible disaster. I have never had the privilege to meet a more compassionate, warm and caring people. Also, without the sincere help and guidance of Wu Zhuo Ling (Julie), my interpreter here, most or all of my good intentions would likely have been fruitless. She dedicated herself completely to seeing that I was able to touch the lives of as many as I did. It started with a desire - as people all over the world have felt, and acted upon - to make some small difference in even a few lives here. Of course, in a way, the primary and overwhelming need is for food, clean water, secure shelter and a real reason to hope - to believe - that life will again be normal. But in another way, I learned - or rather had my conviction affirmed - that an equally vital human need is to know that others care.
Upon hearing of the devastating "Wenchuan" Earthquake, I began to think if there was anything I could do, personally, for those living through the disaster. My work with the Philadelphia Orchestra would bring me near to the "area" 3 - 4 weeks after the first awesome shock. I say first because there continued to be several significant aftershocks which also had shattering effects, both physically and psychologically. We (the Orchestra) would be arriving in China on June 1st with concerts in Beijing on the 2nd & 3rd; the 4th was a day off (and most of the 5th) so I knew my window for a visit, if there was to be one. If there was to be one...
I have brought my violin to play for children in many schools around the world during my 27 years of touring with the Philadelphia Orchestra, but of what possible use could a violin player be to children suffering from the end of their world? To seek to impose myself on these vulnerable people who were struggling in ways I could not begin to comprehend - what a selfish and egotistical thought! Our first tour concert was in Japan on May 23rd, just 11 days after the quake, and I began to solicit opinions from people in the tour group: Was this a stupid, naive idea? Was it dangerous, crazy or worst of all, callously self-centered? I began to realize a sound decision really couldn't be made until we actually arrived in China - conditions in the quake areas were changing daily and the last thing I wanted was to be a nuisance or inconvenience to those with so many real troubles or the legions of people bringing legitimate help.
When we arrived in Beijing on June 1st I started making inquiries. (I had already checked into flights while back in the U.S.) A reporter who had heard of my prospective plans sought me out. Jennifer Lin, of the Philadelphia Inquirer, had just returned from the quake region. She thought the time could be ripe for a good will type visit (especially with music): The major aftershocks had probably passed, the Chinese government had acted quickly to get temporary housing and support systems in place and people (many, at least) were starting to settle into a routine, basic as it was. This was all the encouragement I needed. I was introduced to a thoughtful and gentle young man, Ted, originally from Ohio, but now living in Beijing. He was hired to be interpreter for the Orchestra during our visit. Ted's best friend - it just so happened! - lived in Chengdu (where my flight would arrive) and he was sure, if available, she would be pleased to serve as interpreter for me. (It turned out she was far more than that, facilitating practically every detail of my time in Sichuan.) Soon thereafter, I was introduced (by Steve Millen, Orchestra V.P. & Manager of Operations, who also coordinated the Philadelphia Orchestra's own Earthquake Relief initiative - resulting in substantial corporate contributions for the building of earthquake-proof schools) to Ning Shao and Jim Curtis. Both are associated with Pennsylvania's cooperative effort with China for exchange of commerce and now, especially, building safe schools in China - a project for which Orchestra musicians themselves contributed $5000.
(Not so incidentally, Pennsylvania government officials were a huge help in facilitating the donation of gifts and medicines in conjunction with a 1999 Orchestra musicians' visit to an orphanage and school in Viet Nam! - but that's another story....)
I learned from these gentlemen that their organization had, just days earlier, built a temporary school in Mianzhu, a badly damaged area, and they could arrange a visit there if I liked! Contact was made with a volunteer, Li Li, at the school and it was set. When I arrived at the airport in Chengdu, I would need a car and driver as the village school was about 2 hours drive north of the city. I spoke with Julie who would set it up. However, the day before I was to leave, Julie phoned to say that a friend of hers had been several times to this area and wanted to return to help the relief effort so hiring a car (and driver of unknown credentials) would not be necessary. (This turned out to be a fortuitous development.) The day before the trip, Ted arranged for purchase and delivery of my airline tickets (to Chengdu and then, next day, to Guangzhou, the city of the Orchestra's June 6th concert). Then we set out shopping to get gifts (colored pencils, crayons, modeling clay and assorted sweets) for up to 200 children.
That night, at our final Beijing concert, Lang Lang, illustrious Philadelphia-trained, Chinese soloist for our China concerts - who each night had offered a painfully beautiful encore "dedicated to the victims of the Earthquake" - signed a photo for the children of this "Project Hope" school and also wrote a personal message for them.
Upon arrival at Chengdu airport (a 2 1/2 hour flight from Beijing) just before noon, I am met by Julie and her friend, Mi. They seem genuinely to be looking forward to setting off, although with a certain sense of sober responsibility, which I feel as well. They think nothing of the 2-hour journey. Mi drives a substantial Jeep and her driving skills (I will learn) range between seriously competent and virtuosic. It was a brilliant stroke of luck she was willing and available, first, because any normal car would have been crippled by the terrain we would encounter and second, any mercenary driver would surely have balked at even attempting to put his vehicle through the tortuous "roads" which, unbeknownst to me, lay ahead. Also very fortunate - Mi had already made several relief trips on her own to this area and so had a government issued placard which allowed the vehicle on the roads we would need to travel.
At a certain point it seemed obvious we would be perhaps a half hour late. (The school visit was planned for 3 - 5 p.m.) Julie phoned Li Li. He said, even though we had been instructed to stop first at the City Hall, now doubling as Earthquake Relief Administration Office, we should come directly to the school. Mi therefore took a "short cut" which at the time seemed (to me) to be a big error in judgment: The "road" went for miles of hard-packed, hilly dirt, rocks and, worryingly, even a small, muddy river to traverse - more like an ATV course than a road. When we finally arrived at the school, we found what an important and good decision this detour had been: Just a few hours earlier, the city government had decided to prohibit entry to all foreigners to the Mianzhu area! (It seems that foreign reporters had become increasingly intrusive into the lives of victims and the stress was becoming too much on these villagers.) At first Li Li was reluctant to let me meet the children, but our sincere concern and patience helped him see our intentions to be rooted in friendship. Surprisingly, in anticipation of my arrival, the headmaster (principal) of the school had dismissed all the students early! He had said it was too hot (and it was!) for them to be inside... Maybe this was his way of honoring the new directive...
Anyway, Li Li got word out to the people in the village and we set out for a pastoral spot amid bamboo stands and rice paddies. I don't know how Mi managed to keep the massive Jeep from dipping off the narrow strip between the rice fields - I was holding my breath. We left the car in a shaded area and walked the final 500 meters or so to where the children were gathering. There were about 20 by a small oblong, terraced, stone swimming pool. Some were splashing and playing - as children should. Others were expectantly waiting for the music. We all found a cool(-ish) place among the bamboo stalks. Julie introduced me and the children seemed very proud - as if they must be quite important to get a visit from a musician from a big American orchestra that had just performed in Beijing the night before! Now the concert could begin.
The music consisted of short pieces which my father had taught me when I was about their age (6 - 12 years old): Bach, Weber, Beethoven, Gossec, Wieniawski, Kreisler and one of my dad's own compositions titled, "The Bird". (It fit very nicely in this open air "program".) More important than the music though, yet inextricably linked to it, was the human contact - the connection I could make with these beautiful, young people who were undoubtedly struggling to come to grips with what their lives had become - what there lives might not become.
After a warm reception for the musical fun, the children followed us back to the Jeep where they sweetly lined up and each graciously and delightedly received candies, cakes and books (which Julie & Mi brought). To Li Li I gave the before-mentioned school supplies and Lang Lang's photo and message. I also presented him with a set of Orchestra CDs and our acclaimed DVD, "Music From The Inside Out" for their future school's library. We were then led on a "tour" of some of the destruction. Not gaping cracks or monstrous upheavals of earth as I had imagined (and dreaded) seeing, but soberingly terrible visions nonetheless. We have all seen the horrible images in newspapers, on TVs and computer screens - there is no need for me to try to describe here with my inadequate words. ... a collapsed school, of course, garden walls, remnants of houses... but the one sight especially memorable because of the personal connection I now have made - a house which a man had only finished building a month earlier: rubble. His wife was asleep upstairs when the quake hit; somehow she managed to get clear before she would have been crushed. All in her immediate family survived. Of the 2900 people living in their village on May 11th, 1000 are no more.
On the way back to the car, we were shown where this family was living now - nine of them, including grandmother and cousins, in a makeshift shelter (so many of which clutter the rural landscape): a good tarpaulin covering, some quasi-protection from wind and rain on the sides, some flimsy bedding materials and not much else. There were smiles though: The family members clearly were concerned they would still be in this fragile "home" come winter, but just as clearly grateful they were all together, alive. We chose the paved route back to Chengdu.
After about ten minutes' driving away from the village on dirt roads, we would have a less battering ride to the city. It was now past 6:00, but Mi and Julie knew I would still like to play in one more place today, if possible. Right by the Relief Office (which we had bypassed on the way) was a "tent city" the likes of which I couldn't have envisioned. Its orderly set-up reminded me of a military barracks, but it definitely was not at all like that socially. There was a very friendly, community feel - and, it was much larger. I don't know how many large tents - a thousand, two thousand - most with less than a meter of space between them. There were also "specialty" tents set up for cooking, distribution of water (by pail), toilet facilities and even a tent for hair-cutting. There were many children playing together, spiritedly in the dirt - only the old people seemed like lost souls, out of a twilight zone, wandering as if they imagined this is how life, for them, would end.
Julie and Mi scouted around and found a tent set up to be a schoolhouse. They got permission for me to play and a teacher put word out that a musician - an American - had come to visit them. It was dinnertime and only a couple dozen were there when I began, but the "odd" sounds coaxed curious passersby. This impromptu stop turned into another exceedingly meaningful visit and when the music was over, the children clamored for autographs and photos. Julie and Mi lingered to talk with the teacher about ways they could help when they returned in the near future.
Now 8:00 and dark out, the day felt long enough. (For me, travel had begun in Beijing at 7 a.m. - I wouldn't be to my Chengdu hotel until 11 p.m.) I had told Julie of a hospital in the city I wanted to visit on the next day - she would arrange it - tomorrow would be here soon.
Actually, she hadn't arranged a visit - Julie just "knew" that it would be OK! At a little past noon, we arrived at the Hua Xi Hospital and went right to a pediatric floor. (Children on this floor were all here with quake-related injuries - and again, I prefer not to describe.... some of these children were from the village I'd visited the day before.) Julie walked into one room and asked parents if they'd like some violin music. The response was puzzled, but enthusiastic. -
And so it went... for the next 2 hours we went from room to room, about 10 minutes in each. Wards had from 4 to 8 children. And the most wonderful thing - although something I've confidently come to expect - regardless of her physical or emotional condition (and some were glum or rightfully angry at the state of their lives) - each child had a smile on her face before I left the room. Especially moving for me, perhaps in a way only a parent can appreciate, were the tears in some mothers' and fathers' eyes as they glimpsed a now rare lightheartedness and glee in their children's faces. Any doubt I may have had as to the value of my making this trip evaporated at such moments.
For decades, the Philadelphia Orchestra has been known as an international ambassador - in fact helping to open up relations between China and the West with its historic 1973 visit here. And my father had always told me that, professionally, membership in this fabulous organization would open doors all over the world - I just never imagined that would mean such personally satisfying possibilities. When I was in Mianzhu, the father whose "home" I visited asked, "In Beijing, do they think about us or only about the Olympics?"... I didn't know how to respond - only to say that I knew when Lang Lang played that encore, everyone in the entire concert hall was thinking of him and his family - and nothing else. When I left Mianzhu, I was presented with a gift. It will always be one of my most treasured possessions, but only as a symbol of the love I felt that day and the small good I know I accomplished. It is a bright green t-shirt which, in Chinese, says simply, "We are together - Wenchuan Earthquake - Volunteer".