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The International Writers Magazine: Travel Story (Long Read)

A search for a Piano in Beijing
•Adam DiFrisco
It was my last night in Beijing after being in the city for a month...

piano keys

Part One: The Piano

I was taking classes at a major university downtown, and tomorrow was my final exam, and after the early morning exam, back to the States. So why was I outside sitting on the art department stoop looking down at my phone pretending I had signal? Well, reader, this is where my story begins. Ever since I arrived in Beijing I had been searching endlessly for a piano. It’s one of those things like how exercise buffs need to get into the gym or they get all edgy, well let’s just say my fingers were becoming a tangled mess. To my endless dismay, my search had been in vain. The students I had asked had no reply, or told me yes, but you need to be an art student (which I was not). Finally, in the most romantic place possible, a smelly American-themed sports bar, I met the one girl in Beijing who seemed to be able to lead me to a piano.

Flashback One: Lakers Bar and Grill

The workload was heavy in Beijing, especially on the count of me having to prepare for graduate studies in a few months, and the fact that the only free time we had was in the evenings after class (weekends were mainly booked on field trips). It was a Friday night (the week before sitting on the art department stoop) and I had been in a calm little modern café, working on graduate schoolwork. The whole time I was in Beijing I never grew tired of the vastly different reactions to the sight of an American (mainly by restaurant and bar workers). Many looked happy and surprised, and tried to practice English, some looked un-amused and immediately grabbed a menu (or illiteracy card in the case of McDonalds) for you to point at what meal you wanted (I find this one particularly demeaning), and the last and most pleasant type, was the one I had experienced at this café, namely the reaction of that of any other custom [What would you like to drink], plain and simple yes? As I said it was late, and the only other people there were a mid-age couple dressed up, sharing a beer and talking in low voices, and a chatty elderly couple whose faces were lighted up by the flame under their clear teapot keeping their tea from growing cold over their seemingly endless conversation.

I was on my second beer, and was growing tired after staring at papers for a couple hours, so I packed up and left. Two doors down (this is off campus might I add), was the favorite spot of every student (foreign students especially) at the university; Lakers Bar and Grill, and I’ll admit, despite the tacky American theme, and the lack of genuine Beijingers, this place was cool. The bartenders had grown to liking our group from America, and served us beer in giant tubes that cost less than 10 U.S. Dollars (if you were sober enough to do that math). Anyway, I knew my classmates were there, and figured I would stop by as promised, so I headed over. Friday night at Lakers was always packed, and immediately I saw my classmates scattered inside and outside at various tables laughing, playing cards, and covered in clouds of smoke. One group outside called me loudly and told me to come to them, so I squeezed through the crowd and went to their table. Close to the table, I had nudged my way past a girl, and before I had the chance to apologize, my very good buddy on the trip was introducing me to her. Without an explanation from my friend I saw the situation clearly, he had met this girl, and clearly liked her, therefore, [its nice to meet you], and carried on with my night in order to not interfere with my friends progress. As the night progressed, however, throughout the endless table-hopping, we (her and I) had several chance meetings, and the more the night carried on, the more we spoke, the more we laughed, the more interesting our conversations got. (Pronounced kailang) in Chinese can mean many things, such as carefree, cheerful, open-minded, open and sunny in disposition (my textbook’s definition) etc. This girl was the epitome of kailang, and I don’t think I’ll forget how kind and interesting she was that night. But to cut the whole cheesy love at first sight meeting story as short as possible, I’ll quickly say, she knew where I could find a piano! And furthermore, agreed to escort me so I didn’t have to talk to the security guard who had a 90% chance of having a brutally non-understandable Beijing accent. We exchanged usernames on WeChat (Chinese Twitter/messenger), and a week later when I had asked if I wanted to bring anybody else along, she replied, “Just us please.” I was very happy.

Part Two: The Three Things In Beijing That Mattered

All of flashback one ran through my head as I sat on the stoop as it got later, mainly because I thought I had been stood up. It was twenty minutes past our meeting time, it was getting quite late, and I had no wifi to message her, I was not very happy. Watching person after person file out of the building, and bike after bike vacate the front of the building, I sat with my head bowed. But all of a sudden I saw a bike racing in from a bit away. It was dark, but I immediately knew it was her. Her hair was blowing around, and as she got closer I noticed the infectious smile that I had been thinking of for a week. “I’m so sorry!” I heard her yelling from half the campus away. She flew up, almost taking my foot off as seems to be the custom with almost all Chinese people on bicycles (or in cars for that matter). After endlessly apologizing, she said “It’s late, we don’t have too much time”, grabbed my hand, and together we rushed up the steps into the building, past the security guard, and to the fourth floor. Once we had arrived she began peering into windows looking for an empty room with a piano. Culture point one; The Chinese aren’t very good at the whole privacy thing. For example, when she was going door to door like a salesman, she would poke her head in (no matter if it was a study group or a couple having a heart to heart) and go through a game of twenty questions, “Are you studying? Are you playing piano? What are you studying for? How long will you be here? Can you leave sooner? Why? Why? WHY?” This was all in Chinese of course but I didn’t understand half of what she said because she was reeling these questions so incredibly fast it reminded me of a ping pong match. In fact, now that I think of it, every conversation in Chinese seemed to be like a Ping-Pong match…I lost a lot. Anyway, after going through these questions, there was one poor girl in the middle of studying who agreed to leave. To me, however, nothing mattered now, because in a classroom, on the campus of a major University in Beijing, China, It was she, a large black piano, and I.

Flashback 2: Art And The Chinese

Art holds a special place in the realm of Chinese culture, and luckily, I got to try my hand at many forms of it (paper cutting, calligraphy, painting, even knot-tying) in the classroom, as well as see the professionals at art galleries and centers across Beijing. After seeing, and trying all of this, one thing became very, very clear, that the Chinese have an amazing connection with art in all of its forms, and it is not something they take lightly. Going into my first calligraphy class, I remember thinking, “hey, I have decent Chinese character writing, this should be a breeze”, it wasn't. The first step in seeing clearly the China-Art connection for me was noticing that any art form was much harder than it looked, and takes years and years to perfect (yes, even paper cutting and knot-tying). The second step for me was the deep, deep significance that is put into each simple piece. I remember sitting in calligraphy class, and the teacher was explaining the emotion you can put into your characters by the way you draw them. I had never thought of this, given my native language doesn’t consist of characters. He started with the character, [person; pronounced ren] simple enough right? Then he said 'run' and with a couple more strokes, elongated and curved on the right side, he had made a different looking ren character, a “running” one. “You see,” he explained in Chinese, “it’s not just a character, it’s a story.” In art class, I remember the teacher explaining that the blank areas are more significant than the full ones (this is a major difference between Chinese and Western art forms). In Music class, the teacher explained the instrument she was playing (the guqin, kind of like a zither) was not meant to be heard by many people, and the silence in between notes was very important, so listen carefully and quietly. My point? Art in China is brimming with deep significance, deep dedication, and philosophical thought that many (of course not all) forms of western art lack.

Part 3: Can I?

So there I was, standing in front of a piano and a girl who had been brought up in the cloud of artistic perfection that surrounds Beijing. However, the many lessons from many teachers had taught me to play for one person only, myself, so I took a deep breathe, and asked “Can I?” She said yes, and with a small tremble in my hands, starting playing. It sounded weak at first, I was playing soft to get a feel for the piano, and it was almost as if the tremble in my hands were coming out through the chords, but as I played more and more, everything disappeared, and I was playing as best as I ever had. I played fast, and powerful, paying extra attention to “the spaces between the notes”, and before you knew it, I had played my favorite song, “I Giorni", by Ludovicio Einaudi (if you are the curious type). I lowered my hands, and looked at her face, which was smiling from ear to ear, “Oh my god” she said and covered her mouth, starting to laugh, I laughed in turn. After we stopped giggling, I looked at her closely, realizing how lucky I was to be with this person in this room, at this time, thinking of all the events in our lives that had brought us to this city, this school, and this room together. I pulled up another chair, and waved her over. “Your turn.” I said, and assuming the air of a classical savant, announced in a loud, booming voice that there was to be a special duet to be played tonight. She laughed, and we sat ourselves at the piano, she had never played. I taught her a chord or two, and after…after we played, for a very long time, focusing, and then laughing again, and I remember finding out how amazing a brush of a shoulder from somebody incredible can mean. At the end of our impromptu concerto we both laughed, our eyes locked, she smiled, and placed her hand on mine, still sitting on the keys. At that moment, a security guard barged into the room with a large pole used to shut tall windows. He spoke loudly and with a strong accent, not making eye contact with either of us, and walked straight to the back windows to begin shutting them. 20 questions started again, but to no avail, it was 11 o’clock and the art building was closing, and we were forced out if that tiny, unforgettable room. Walking out, my heart pounded with the fear of saying goodbye, I left for the States the next day, and as we walked down the steps, there was a worm gnawing at my heart to say something, anything to her. As we reached her bicycle, after a few seconds of silence, she looked at her stomach, and with a frown said, “I forgot to eat dinner.” I smiled, and without a second thought, offered to escort her to dinner, to which she happily agreed, and looking me straight in the eye, patted her bicycle seat. “Can I?” I asked.

Flashback 3: Cars, Bikes, & Utter Fear in the Heart of Beijing

My very first cultural experience in Beijing also happened to be one of the most terrifying of my life, Beijing traffic. In many a market I went to throughout the trip I ran across endless car tassels and little figurines meaning safety in traffic, and for good reason! Remember I mentioned earlier the Chinese bicycling custom of getting uncomfortably close to making any unwary passerby a peg leg? Well yes, same with cars. I remember mashing my face up against the glass of the bus window going from the airport to the university watching as the bus driver whizzed insanely close to other cars (and bicycles might I add), drive at ungodly speeds off exit ramps, and drive in-between two lanes for a solid three minutes before finally making his mind up on a lane. Conclusion; there are no rules on the roads of Beijing. This pattern carried on to campus, where every day I felt like two bare ankles in a sea of spinning, swirling metal. And its not just that there were millions of them and that they seemed to have no inclination of fear or death that was reflected in my eyes every day, they even laughed at it! The found it funny when Americans jumped in surprise when a bicycle handle got so close it ripped a loose thread off your jeans, that is, if (and that’s a very large if) they even noticed they had gotten close to you at all, because half the time they weren’t even paying attention! No joke, I saw a young student in a sundress riding her bicycle with a sunbrella (maybe I’ll touch on the ever popular sunbrella later) in one hand, her other hand with her phone in it up to her ear, and steering (when she needed to steer) with her elbow. I watched this catastrophe wobble down the campus, and worst part was that nobody even batted an eye! It's chaos out there.

Part 4: Beijing by Bike

[Have you ever rode?] Was her first question. I replied not for a year or two, and never with a person on the back. Those of you unfamiliar with Chinese bicycle etiquette ought to know that when a guy and a girl ride a bicycle together, the guy drives, and the girl sits with both legs on the same side (side-saddle style) on the back seat of the bicycle with her arms around the riders waist (or arms nowhere near the rider because of a gripping text message apparently). See, in America, when I was five, we used to double up on bicycles too, but back in the good ol’ days we had pegs on which the passenger stood, holding on to the riders shoulders so that if the rider decided to crash, the passenger was just to do a little hop off the pegs, unharmed and ready to get back on… Not in China. If the rider crashed with a passenger in this style, the passenger was utterly defenseless, and would without a doubt be thrust face-first (or back-of-the-head first) into the pavement. No pressure though. She urged me to ride, and that the place she wanted to take me to eat to was pretty far away. At first I politely refused again, until she grabbed my hand, and said [I’m about to die of hunger!]. FINE! I poised myself on the seat, and looked at my laughing escort, who asked if I was ready, and with my approval hopped on the back of the bicycle seat. It started…not good. Remember the wobbly girl driving with her elbow? It was like that only I was completely attentive with both hands on this bicycle. Good thing she was laughing and couldn’t see my face, because my eyes must have been the size of soccer balls and my face blanch white. Like a baby deer, after my first bit of wobbling, I had finally settled into my own, and I felt a rush of happiness as the breeze ran past us on the bike, and I felt her arms around my waist. But my happiness was short-lived, for after a few [Right! Left! Right!], this plucky little girl had led me onto the main street on campus, swarming with the entire student body swarming like a pissed-off hornets nest. “Oh good god…” I said, the girl laughed. “Laugh now,” I said, “because were going to be dead in a second.” She laughed again, I think she was starting to get the hint though that her life really was seriously, seriously being threatened. I had entered the thunder dome of students on the street, and as quick as that I had my baby-deer-legs back under me. Wobble, wobble, wobble! [Sorry!] I heard her yell back (still laughing) to the many students I almost ran over (I apologize now for the foot or two sacrificed). Just as I thought this little slice of hell was over, I stopped the bike dead in its tracks, and stared at the massive gate separating me and the land where traffic terror had no bounds…Off Campus, Beijing. I’ll put my readers nerves at ease as soon as possible, we got off the bike, and carefully walked the across the deathly road like two frogs from frogger to the most local place I went to my whole time in Beijing. 

Flashback Four

The food on campus (and particularly immediately off campus) was truly out of this world. I had never had more eating options, and more eating experiences than I did my month in China. Americans have this view of Chinese food as a very small category of rice, noodles, and chicken in severely generic sauces. This view could not be more wrong. I could spend a very long time listing the food that I had in Beijing, but it’s around lunch time and if I do that I’m going to miss Beijing and start crying over my crappy ramen noodles again, so I wont. But as this flashback is about food, I suppose I must mention some. Well then let us start with the top, the king, the biggest, baddest, most delicious food to ever be cooked-er-steamed on this earth, the (Baozi), pronounced like “bow (like you bow your head)-za”. It just occurred to me to try and count the number of baozi I consumed in a month…standby…upwards of fifty. That’s not a joke. I had a double order on two occasions in non-baozi themed restaurants, PLATES AND PLATES in specifically baozi-themed restaurants, 5 at a time from small little stands, etc. etc. I’ll explain what this magical little ball actually is. Before you get your hopes up of a cute pintrest photo of this amazing little delicacy let me shatter those dreams. The Baozi is a sweaty, meaty little stuffed bun that most of the time comes in a wet little plastic bag that is coated in baozi juice. Quite literally, it is small doughy bun (as opposed to a dumpling [jiaozi]), stuffed with any number of things (most popular being beef and pork, but also veggies, mushrooms, and all sorts of things).  Besides the daily baozi, the other food worth mentioning is Peking roast duck, a staple of Beijing cuisine. What makes the roast duck so popular is the fact that it’s not just a dish; it’s a meal and a show. At the restaurant I went to, each table ordered two ducks all to be eaten in different ways, but first, the duck had to be carved…in front of the table. Now, for an ex-vegetarian like me, “oh good god no…” is my immediate reaction when I see the full duck lying dead under the blade of the chef, therefore, I turned, and have no recollection of the carving of the duck, and therefore have nothing to write, the reader will accept my apologies. After getting the disturbing sight out of your mind, however, a feast awaits! The skin goes onto a plate that’s to be dipped in sugar and eaten; the meat is to be wrapped up in a thin tortilla like thing along with a bunch of various strips of veggies and swatches of sauces, and the bones go into a soup that is insanely good-tasting. Overall, best full meal I had in Beijing. This flashback, however, is going to end with a fun little event that actually happened twice. In two separate restaurants (both of which I can spend pages describing but won't because you get the point) the chefs, or assistant chefs of something (mainly cute girls) came out after our meal with a roller jukebox (I’m not kidding) and performed a dance that they had apparently made up after-hours in the kitchen. The first one actually implemented moves the chefs use while they make noodles into the dance, it was phenomenal, and something I had never seen in America.

Part 5: NOT a dancing restaurant

I now wish to explain another group of chefs who simply don’t dance; the ones at the restaurant my gracious host decided to take me to across campus. I had passed this outdoor market-style restaurant a couple times on a walk back to campus from the subway, but never dared to go near it, why? Because one, everything was served on a stick, and looked like it would tear my insides up (which is not ideal for the ever popular Chinese public restroom squatty-potty), and two, there was not one foreigner sitting at any of the of the tables. But first let me set the scene. First imagine a sidewalk. Now, beside the sidewalk were twenty makeshift, un-matching sets of outdoor plastic chairs and tables all covered by a shabby, discolored umbrellas. Behind all of these tables was a row of vendors each selling different things ending in the character [chuan, thing strung together, normally on a stick], which is funny because if you look closely at the character that’s exactly what everything coming out of these stands looked like, only a lot more red and menacing.  It was going on 11:30, and this place was jammed with Chinese men (most shirtless, toothless, and constantly red from laughing and drinking) and women who sat behind dozens of trays littered with sticks (remnants of their meal) and tens, TENS, of empty beer bottles. My escort and I waited for a table to open up, and as soon as one did she grabbed me and flung me into the chair. Now what happened next I am still very unsure of. Remember when I said all Chinese conversation is like an Olympic Ping-Pong match? Well the conversation between my lovely host and the sweaty waitress with her arms full of menus was the gold medal match. Anyway, before I knew it, there were three beer bottles (a little bigger than normal American beer bottles) on our table, and two tiny plastic cups. In the time I was racking my brain trying to figure out what language these two were speaking, my tablemate had managed to order a few things-on-sticks in addition to the beers, and quickly turned her attention back to me. I don’t know what it was that made us so comfortable at the same table together, but we talked as if we had been friends for years, yet knew nothing of each other.

We asked about each others hometowns, families, friends, and went from laughing to serious life moments, and back to laughing at the locals reactions to hearing me speak Chinese (our dialogue was a mix in and out of Chinese and English, although her English is MUCH better than my Chinese). And before I noticed we were there to eat again, after downing two bottles of the beer together, the trays of food were placed in front of us. “Now I know you’re going to be on a plane tomorrow” she said as if she was briefing me on a upcoming battle, “so take it easy.” And one by one she began handing me sticks of food, and putting things up to my mouth for me to taste. Some were deathly spicy, some were gooey and slimy, and some were just plain delicious, but the common theme was (and much to the pleasure of this girl) I had no idea what I was eating.[what kind of vegetable is this?[Cockroach] she replied rolling in laughter. It turned out to be eggplant, but I hope the very fact that I couldn’t see the difference between eggplant and cockroach sheds some light on how these sticks are prepared. Another time, she held another stick up to my face that was skewering little square pieces of what looked like tofu, except for with little tiny tentacles or fringes coming from it’s ends. (We call these ‘see you tomorrow’s’]. It took me a few awkward seconds to pick that one up, and might I say THANK GOD she told me that, or else the next morning I would have thought there was something severely wrong with my intestines. During the meal was more conversation, I told her about my interest in Chinese poetry and music, and she told me about her interest in literature, we gave each other lists of movies to watch, books to read, so on and so forth. After a long taste-testing session, a lot of laughs and drinks, our table resembled the others, a graveyard of an authentic Chinese meal that once was. This is when I first realized a cruel reality; that tomorrow morning I had to say goodbye to this girl smiling across from me, this girl that I had felt closer to after one night than anybody else in Beijing.

It was very late now, and due to the bottles of beer, we came to the rational consensus that maybe me riding the bike back wasn’t such a good idea. So we walked side-by-side, me walking the bike and her grabbing onto my arm, in silence for the first time since we left the piano. We got back onto campus, and were walking under a row of giant willows when she suddenly stopped, reached up, and grabbed a long willow branch, broke it off, and handed it to me. In ancient China, she explained, willow leaves were used to say goodbye. And with this she put her head on my shoulder, and it was like this we walked back to her apartment. Once we were there, I locked her bike up, grabbed her hand, and made her promise to see me tomorrow morning before I left, to which she gladly agreed, and like that, after watching her disappear into the building, and taking the short, lonely walk back to my apartment, my final night in Beijing had ended.

Part 6: [goodbye Beijing]

It’s extremely difficult to write about the last few hours in Beijing, not emotionally, but because it happened in what seemed to be in instant, and yet there was such a great amount of significance in that instant, that explaining it becomes very challenging. Since the whole floor was already friends with my companion from last night (from Laker’s bar and grille remember), our goodbye was for the most part in a group setting. A large group of us were sitting in one apartment room laughing and watching TV, and I’ll point out here that nobody knew about our previous night. Every now and then we’d steal glances at one another, and then back to talking to the other classmates about various things. But then something unbelievably chance happened, a commercial came on TV, it’s theme song, “I Giorni”, by Ludovicio Einaudi. We stopped stone cold, stared at each other, and began laughing much to the confusion of my classmates. An hour or so went by, and it became time to leave. Mixed in the rustle of the departing crew, I had forgotten something in my apartment and ran to get it while everybody else was heading down the elevator. I came out of my room, looked up and saw her, standing by my bags with a solemn expression. She held up a present wrapped and tied with a string. “For you.” She said quietly. I held up a bag (which I had forgotten in the room), “For you.” I replied. Before I could stop her, she smiled, and began reaching into the bag. It was a small, glass music box in the shape of a piano. She put it back in the bag, hugged me for what felt like a very long time. And with this I’d like to leave my reader with one final word; it’s not the landmarks that make a place a place, But the people.
© Adam DiFrisco February 2015
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