"I told Guillermo I'd go to China."
I'm one of those people who has trouble getting out of her comfort zone. It must not appear that way though because I get called "brave" a lot. I'm not sure what people are perceiving when they say that. I always thought of myself as playing it safe. I had a regular job for quite a long time—although I came to New York City to do it—before going full time into music. My dad always said, "You have to have health insurance. You have to work for a company that gives you health insurance," even though he never did any such thing. He owned and operated movie theaters his whole life. But I tigress. (Yes, that was a typo, but I like it and I’m sticking with it.) So, when the UN singers, led by our choir director Guillermo Vaisman, were invited back to China, all expenses paid, I balked. I had a book coming out less than two months after the trip. Should I really leave town? I'd have to go to rehearsals, learn songs in all those languages—Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese, and more. It would be so much easier to stay home and watch TV. But after some thought, I told Guillermo I'd go to China. When I uttered those words to my husband, he laughed. The inherent humor had escaped me. For small-town, white Americans like myself, that's an exotic combination of sounds: I’d accepted the invitation of an Argentinian choir director to go to Asia with the United Nations Singers. And there I found myself, on Air China, flying over the upper expanses of North America. Window seat. Clouds below, sky above. Into the foreign.
What lay ahead of me was a multicolor adventure, not completely unlike anything I'd done before, but filled with unique experiences you can't imagine happening any other way, the particular people you meet, the lives you impact without knowing exactly how. We visited an incredible school, the Beijing Jingchang Experimental Primary School, where I sat with a 7-ish year old Chinese girl in her calligraphy class. She took my hand to show me how to draw a symbol that meant "down" or "under." "You are so beautiful," she said to me. She never lost physical contact with me. It was touching in every way. I didn't want to say goodbye.
I would see once-modern buildings now tarnished, their original aspirations still shining through. That was touching too, seeing how our older, collective dreams wave at us through aging architecture, wherever we live and whoever we are. I'd walk through Tiananmen Square and the park that surrounds the Forbidden City (we were too late and not permitted to enter, how perfect). The evening settled in, beautiful and strong. I fell in love with the night. I wrote a new song walking through the ancient terrain.
The word "unique" can be overused and, to quote a friend, often misused: something is either unique or not unique. It can't be very unique or more unique or somewhat unique. Unique is unique, it either is or isn't, and trips with the UN choir definitely qualify. We walk through people's countries and lives. We sample their cultures. And we do it while singing and wearing funny costumes. It's unique. We performed at the China International Advertising Association’s 25th annual awards ceremony—a televised event and quite a big deal apparently, seen by about half a million people. We visited an elderly home to sing for the residents, but were also treated to a concert by their choir and a fashion show choreographed by one of their younger members. They say children are the future, but aging is the future for everyone who gets to live. I looked out on the people in their wheelchairs and weakened states and learned once again to appreciate my current capacities. We did a full concert on a beautiful stage at Harbin Finance University. Students were invited on stage after the show to ask us questions, but what they wanted were selfies with the singers. I had solos, so I made a lot of new fans I'm told. What I liked most about the trip though was the experience of being part of a group, belonging to this crazy mass of personalities jamming and cramming together like a confused puzzle, our jagged edges figuring out how to smooth themselves down so we could all fit in, fit together.
So often I feel changed by trips I take, whether to exotic locales or someplace familiar but far off. And I never want that feeling to go away. I want to be forever changed. Why is that? What was changed that needs to stay changed? I think now that what I want is for the awareness and appreciation of this wacky world and my silly spot in it not to fade. I don't want to go back to same, to get caught up in the mundane and not experience what's unique—really, totally, way way unique. I want to be forever changed.
So I'm glad I went to China, very glad, whether forever changed or only temporarily. Change is, in and of itself, evidence of the temporary. So there! When you think you've been there, done that, maybe think again. The place may be the same, but the moment isn't.
And one more thing: If Guillermo ever invites you to China, just go.