An excerpt from my new novel narrated by a mixed-race Shanghai Girl
Some say that two forms of non-verbal communication are universal: music and sex. They may very well be right. My mothers newfound love in early 1980's Shanghai is a case in point.
"Teacher Mo Na-di, our Conservatory leadership has decided to give you this very important task of working with an American professor," the middle-aged man in a faded navy blue Mao tunic tells Mother.
"I'm honored, Comrade Party Branch Secretary. Please rest assured that I'll try my best to fulfill this assignment -- beyond your expectations," replies Mother, her eyes looking directly into his despite an urge to move away from them. The Secretarys originally clear plastic glass frame is soiled yellow-black from sweat and dust. One pad on the nose bridge is missing, substituted with an adhesive tape rolled into a cushion, its color now charcoal gray. The lenses are so thick they look like the bottoms of Tsingdao beer bottles.
"Very good," Mothers superior says with a smile which reveals his gold-capped front teeth. "Here, let me show you his profile." His yellow, nicotine-stained index finger underlines the top of a form. He then taps these words emphatically: Name: Mick Popov. Name formerly used or Alias, if applicable: Mikhail Popov. "Take note. The American wasnt born in the U.S. but the Soviet Union. Although he comes to us as a violin specialist, he has a background as both a U.S. imperialist and a Soviet revisionist. In your role as his piano accompanist, Comrade Mo, you have to be extra vigilant in your daily observation of his behavior. This, in addition to learning from his professional musical skills to benefit our revolutionary art-loving people, of course."
"Yes, I understand. And Ill report anything suspicious to the leadership," volunteers Mother. Her eyes, however, are fixated on the passport photo on the upper right hand corner of the sheet. Shoulder-length mane, aquiline nose, pale, ultra-thin lips and bedroom eyes. This is the young Russian-American soon to be her co-teacher in the violin honors class at the Conservatorys Affiliated Middle School. What a true artist who looks the part, Mother thinks.
Needless to say, Mother is not shown the foreigners complete file. Mikhail Popov was born in 1952 in Kiev, the capital of the Soviet republic of Ukraine. He had a golden childhood matched by the color of his hair. At age 6, he was one of the first in his school to wear a red scarf around the collar of his white shirt. This scarf symbolized a corner of the Hammer & Sickle flag, died crimson with the blood of the revolutionary martyrs, hed learned. Mikhail knew he was a chosen little successor to the great Communist cause.
For his class assignment "What I Want to be When I Grow Up," he drew astronaut Yuri Gagarin, doodling out the words "My hero" underneath. Nobody would be allowed to tell him about Rudolf Nureyev, the great ballet dancer who had defected to the West shortly after Major Gagarins Volstok 1 landed in space. Later in life, Mick would reflect on the irony of his childhood hero worship and his own decision to go to the U.S.
Brought up in Kiev in a well-equipped apartment by Stalin-era standards, Mikhail and his sister Olga spent summers out in the country, practicing the violin and cello respectively in a dacha allocated to the Popovs through their fathers job. The father, Comrade Professor Popov, had been a university music historian until a call of duty to Moscow came up in the late 1950s. Determined to become revolutionary music prodigies, the children continued their training there with the best tutors the USSR could offer.
The Popovs fate changed for the better yet again in 1969. Comrade Professor Popov was appointed cultural attaché in the Soviet Unions embassy in Warsaw. It was there, in the more liberal Poland, that Mikhail was able to receive the jammed shortwave broadcast of the U.S. Armed Forces Radio relayed from a military base in West Germany. As he would later tell his Chinese colleague Na-di Mo, he heard The Rolling Stones for the first time and something in him stirred. Before long, the Russian lad was calling himself Mick, after Jagger.
His transistor usually sounded like somebody pointing a hair dyer into a microphone while talking. However, Mick was a captivated listener and his antenna-ed device became as endearing to him as his violin. One day, in 1970, his heart jumped like a bow hitting all four strings when he made out from the heavy static the name of a compatriot: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The Swedish Academy had awarded a Nobel Prize to the dissident author.
As inexplicable as it appeared even to himself, Mick secured an English phrase book as an immediate reaction to hearing the news. He hid it inside his violin case in the middle of the music scorebooks and began to memorize the words and phrases with the same enthusiasm he reserved for learning numerous etudes by heart.
On one gray Warsaw winter morning, Mick was in the Soviet Embassy when he overheard that a Volga would be dispatched to the U.S. Embassy in 15 minutes. A charge of excitement ran through him. He made the choice of his life on the spot: he would crawl into the trunk of that car and sneak into that plot of the U.S. territory in Warsaw. There was no time to fetch his violin, no time even to say Dasvedania! to his father.
Not having any I.D. on him, Mick breathed out My name eeze Meek Popov. to the American who saw the truck automatically popping up. Realizing that Meek wanted to seek political asylum, the person whisked him into the building proper, where he gesticulated that a violin was needed to present his case. A juniors version of the apparatus borrowed from the daughter of the U.S. cultural attaché was brought in. The diplomat knew of his Russian counterpart Popov Sr. from cocktail functions but the two had never spoken during those Cold War days.
Mick Popov spent part of the afternoon playing Prokofievs Violin Concerto No. 1 in D Major from memory, without any accompaniment. The instruments limitations notwithstanding, his performance all but put the Embassy staff into a trance. One blurted out: "This kid could one day make it to Carnegie Hall!"
As the Americans applauded and cheered, Mick felt tears rolling down his cheeks. He would not speak. He could not speak. With the bow sticking out in the middle of the air, he took the longest and the deepest bow of his life, holding back emotions, insisting, persuading, pleading, and waiting for the sentence of his life to be pronounced. Minutes ticked by as he bowed in earnest, in silence ...
After a spell of eerie buzzing in the room and a few phone calls with only subdued "O.K.", "Fine." and "That's it." were pronounced, Mick Popovs wish was granted. A short while later, as the daughter looked on, the U.S. cultural attaché presented Mick with that juniors violin, complete with its black leather case. "I wish you could stay and become my violin teacher," the girl said, shaking his hand. "But I'm sure you'd rather go to America. Good luck!"
"I havv to go to New York," Mick said.
"Study well there and make good use of the instrument," the career visa-stamping lady urged. Other embassy staff had their housemaids cum host country-trained petty spies raid their drawers to come up with a change of clothes for the teenager. The day Mick boarded a plane for New York he was wearing a pair of denim bell-bottom trousers, carrying nothing else but the violin.
Popov Sr. was soon recalled in disgrace. In Moscow, the Popovs were sent packing back to Kiev, where Olga was declared unfit for cello and Popov Sr. expelled from the Communist Party. Promptly removed from him also were the prefixes of Comrade and Professor. Despite being regarded now as an enemy of the people, Popov Sr. still considered himself lucky that Comrade Brezhnev had spared him the fate of being shipped on a cattle wagon to a Siberian labor camp, Andrei Sakharov-style, wearing a soiled, sable trappers hat previously owned by a now deceased prisoner.
In time, Mick Popov graduated from The Julliard School on a full scholarship, although he did not quite make it to Carnegie Hall. It was the music of the Stones that put him into perspective:
And you can't always get what you want,
Honey, you can't always get what you want
You can't always get what you want
But if you try sometime, yeah,
You just might find you get what you need!
Mick realized that what he needed was to become an educator. He got a job at the Special Music School of America right across from The Lincoln Center. His passion now was to impart his knowledge and techniques onto the musically talented children of New York through his music. This was the least he could do to repay the girl who gave him his first violin in the U.S. Although she didnt have her chance to study with him, she would be happy to know that hed now be benefiting other young Americans like her, he reckoned.
One such young talent was an immigrant from Shanghai. "Did you happen to catch From Mao to Mozart on the PBS the other night?" she asked Mick one day after a lesson.
"No. I missed that one. Was it on WNYC-TV?"
"It sure was. Ill loan you the tape my parents recorded. I bet youll like it if you watch it. My parents told me that Shanghai used to have lots of Russians like you."
She was right. Mick was impressed by the Shanghai music scene portrayed in the film, which documented Isaac Sterns month-long visit to China in 1979. He also became interested in the history of the Conservatory and marveled at the White Russians contributions to this cultural institution during the 1920s, 30s, and beyond in the city once known as the Paris of the East.
From Mao To Mozart: Isaac Stern in China was to win the 1981 Academy Award for Best Documentary. But Mick Popov did not wait for that. Within a week of watching the documentary, Mick sent his CV to the Affiliated Middle School. By August 1980, he was in Shanghai on a 12-month work visa. The category he belonged to? -- Foreign Expert.
As luck has it, Mother becomes Micks co-teacher.
Mother has no idea that the professor from America is only twenty-eight, as his passport snapshot shed seen made him appear more mature. Knowing neither English nor Russian, Mother cant tell that Expert Popov speaks the kind of English most Americans would associate with an Eastern European professor. Somehow, shed never thought of him as not understanding a word of Chinese. Mick, in turn, is smitten by the senior piano teacher, who turns out to be a comely 38-year-old single mother. Wanting a common language presents no problem at all, as Professor Popov tells his teaching colleague not to worry about the obvious barrier. We share the same universal language of music!
"Nadya!" Mother declares, her shapely index finger resting in between the opening part of her cleavage visible from the open collar of her pink silk blouse. A mere couple of years ago, this part of her anatomy would have been concealed under an army green Mao-style tunic buttoned down from the neck.
"Nadya?" Mick repeats mechanically, his blonde eyebrows arching.
Her finger leaves her bosom to dance in front of his straight nose, fleetingly touching it like a dragonfly skimming through the surface of a pond. "You, Mea-ker, I, Nadya. You Papa Luosong! I Papa Luosong!"
"Luosong?" he says, taking her hand in his. "You said our fathers are both Luosong? You mean ... ah, do you mean Russian?!"
"Yes! Yes! I Papa Luosong. I Mama Shanghai people. I haafu Luosong!"
Mick would never have dreamed of meeting a half kin in China, but he has. To him, Teacher Mo is now Nadya, my dear. Before long, Nadya plays Liszts Dream of Love No. 3 just for Mick. His extremely dexterous fingers are in heated competition with hers. The trained hands of the foreign expert match those of her own expert ones sensual, skilled, and strong. Their fingers compete on piano keys and on violin strings. And off. They play the instruments, or simply with each other, unlocking and locking themselves tight, bringing their own music to crescendo after crescendo.
No other language is needed.
Mick knows this well. When he was playing his solo violin concerto in the makeshift chamber music hall of the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw ten years ago, not one word was spoken. Not English. Not Russian. Not Polish. He just let his limbs and those semi-closed eyes do the talking, his desire for freedom manifested through notes floating in the air.
Few can appreciate the practicality of the schools multi-storied Piano Building as much as Mother and Mick can. Several hundred piano-practicing rooms are situated one after another, row after row, and stacked up on each floor. Their size is no larger than a king-sized bed, the furniture inside nothing more than an upright piano, its seat which doubles as a storage box for scores, and a stand for solfeggio. Tuck the seat under the piano and you will have enough room on the floor about the size of a twin bed. The carpeting put in by the White Russians may not have been cleaned in decades, yet it can still provide a good cushion for the hard but potholed floor. Once the bilingual Private Lesson in Progress. Do Not Disturb! sign is up and the door is locked from within, few tend to seek them out. Chances are, whatever music is made inside is going to be drowned out by reprimands and constantly interrupted etudes from adjoining rooms.
Mick will always remember a least expected and thus most enchanting instance during which Nadya revealed her charm. At the end of one particularly passionate session, his still trembling hands helped her fasten her bra hooks from behind. Nadya, both of her hands free, pointed to the ears on the Beethoven bust sitting atop the piano and giggled like a bell. He experienced another rush of excitement and unbuckled her brassier again.
"Yes," he agreed. "Beethoven's deaf." He hugged her from the back, polar bear-style. So they went on with their temporarily intercepted musical composition under the watchful eyes of the hearing-impaired but not blind Maestro, entering into and exiting from largo, presto or allegro, in and out, on and on, until it reached its final movement. Now one sweaty, white-skinned egg roll limp against a wall, they were oblivious that the metronome Nadya had set in the beginning was still ticking.
The tempo must go on.
This session of music-making was to Mother what catching the name Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn from a jammed broadcast had been to Mick. She makes up her mind to learn English in order to tell Mick her story. She begins to study the language in preparation for possible immigration to the U.S. The professional lecturer is certain that if she achieves the right amalgamation of her verbal and nonverbal communication efforts, Mick will pop the question and make an honest woman of her.
In her broken English, Mother tells Mick: "Your idol Yehudi Menuhin. My idol Van Cliburn. I dream America since 1958. That year Van Cliburn 23 year old. U.S. piano man win top prize in Moscow. Tchaikovsky Competition. That year I 16. Competition four year one time. I give myself eight year to 1966, then I become 24. Closest in age to Van Cliburn then. I want go Moscow, make Mo Na-di name alongside American Van Cliburn.
"But you know what happen in China 1966. Cultural Revolution. Moscow dream to Yin world. My hope, my music all die, die, die! Later, I not allow touch piano. Now, suddenly, you come inside me. You come in my dream again. Oh, darling Mick, take me, go U.S.A., please, please!"
Caressing her head on his chest, he nods and kisses her hair. Mick understands Nadyas psychology so. Shanghai to Nadya today is like Kiev or Moscow or Warsaw was to him in his teens. She wants her way out. She wants to live in the West and breathe that free air.
"But there are realistic survival issues, Nadya, my dear. In the U.S., its hard enough for a musician to make a living for himself, let alone to support a family."
"I no want your support! I know support me all my years! All myself! I teach pianos to Chinese childs. No want English in Flushing."
"Flushing in Queens?" he asks, surprised that she knows the New York neighborhood.
"Yes, Flushing, like toilet, you know. Many big money Taiwan peoples love to Flushing! I read from Chinese article in library."
Mother has done her research and mapped out her future. A magazine article has stated that many affluent new immigrants from Taiwan have populated the place, bought real estate, set up oriental grocery stores, Buddhist temples, and weekend Mandarin schools. They are the nouveau riche of the Asian community. As a result, the demand for quality Chinese-language instruction in piano, violin, Western painting or ballet far exceeds the supply.
"I'm truly impressed," Mick confesses. "In fact, I'm in awe of your ingenuity and your spirit of independence."
In the piano room a few days later, as a duet comes to an end, Mother swings her legs away from the piano and beams at her partner. Micks neck turns scarlet. He puts down his violin and its bow, dropping one leg to the floor. "Will you marry me, Nadya Na-di Molotova?"
She pulls his head onto her thighs and runs her hands over his fair, flowing hair. She lets him wait there, the way he told her he had in the Warsaw U.S. Embassy years earlier.
Tick tock. Tick tock. The metronome beats on.
Yes! and Da! she replies deliberately in English and Russian, sensing his sweat, or perhaps his tears as well, dampening her gray, ankle-length polyester skirt.
Beethoven cannot hear this, but his knotted brows and intense gazes are is there to bear witness to a holy moment initiated by Mick yet elicited by Mother, calculated to match to the very bar of a serenade. (end of excerpt)