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Vivian Yang: Author, Journalist & Public Speaker

A published excerpt from my new novel narrated by a mixed-race Shanghai Girl

Some say that there exist two universal forms of non-verbal communication: music and sex. They may well be right, as the story I’m telling you about my mother illustrates. It happened at this juncture of my life, but I didn’t know it at the time. It went something like this:

 “Teacher Mo Na-di, the Conservatory leadership assigns you this important task of working with an American professor,” the middle-aged man in a faded blue Mao jacket told Mother.

“I’m honored, Comrade Party Branch Secretary. Please rest assured that I’ll try my best to fulfill this task -- beyond your expectation,” Mother replied, her large, bright eyes looking directly into his. The Secretary’s clear plastic glass frame was soiled yellow-black from sweat and dust. Substituting a missing nose pad was an adhesive tape rolled into a cushion, its color now charcoal gray. The lenses were so thick they looked like the bottoms of Tsingdao beer bottles.

“Very good.” Mother’s superior flashed a smile, which revealed his gold-capped front teeth. “Here, let me show you his profile.” After underlining the top of a form with his nicotine-stained index finger, he tapped these words emphatically: Name: Mick Popov. Name formerly used or Alias (if applicable): Михаил Попов (Mikhail Popov).

“Take note. The American wasn’t 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 I’ll report anything suspicious to the leadership,” volunteered Mother. She now fixated her eyes on the passport photo on the upper right hand corner of the form. Aquiline nose, bedroom eyes, pale face, thin lips, and shoulder-length mane. This was the young Russian-American soon to be her co-teacher in the violin honors class at the Conservatory’s Affiliated Middle School.

Needless to say, Mother was not shown the foreigner’s complete file. Mikhail Popov was born in 1952 in the Soviet republic of Ukraine. He had a golden childhood matched by the color of his hair. At age six, 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, dyed crimson with the blood of the revolutionary martyrs, he’d learned. Mikhail always knew that he was a chosen “little successor to the great Communist cause.”

For his class assignment “What I Want to be When I Grow Up,” young Mikhail drew astronaut Yuri Gagarin, doodling out the words “My hero” underneath. Nobody would dare to tell him about Rudolf Nureyev, the great ballet dancer who had defected to the West shortly after Major Gagarin’s Volstok 1 reached outer 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-furnished 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 their father. Comrade Professor Popov had been a university music historian in the Republic capital until a call of duty brought him to Moscow in the late 1950s. The siblings would forever remember their welcoming present: attending a concert by the celloist Mstislav Rostropovich, winner of the Stalin Prize. Greatly inspired, the children vowed to become “revolutionary music prodigies” and resumed their training with some 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 Embassy in Warsaw. It was there, in the more liberal Poland, that Mikhail was able to receive the jammed short wave 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 had heard The Rolling Stones for the first time, and something within him had begun to stir. Before long, Mikhail 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 static the name of a compatriot: Alexandr 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 words and phrases with the same enthusiasm he reserved for learning numerous etudes by heart.

On one gray Warsaw winter morning, Mick was sitting outside his father’s office when he overheard a conversation about a Volga’s being dispatched to the U.S. Embassy in 15 minutes. A surge of excitement ran through him as he experienced a moment of epiphany. The choice of his life was made on the spot: he would crawl into the trunk of that sedan and sneak into 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 trunk popping up. Realizing that “Meek” wanted to seek political asylum, the American whisked him into the building proper, where the Russian gesticulated that a violin was needed to present his case. A junior’s version of the apparatus borrowed from the daughter of the U.S. cultural attaché was brought in. The diplomat knew of his Soviet counterpart from cocktail functions but the two had never spoken during those days of the Cold War.

Mick Popov played Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in D Major from memory. The instrument’s 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 could not speak. He would not speak. With the bow sticking out in the middle of the air, he took the longest and 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 moment of eerie buzzing in the room and a few phone calls with only subdued “O.K.”, “Fine.” and “That’s it.” were pronounced, Mick Popov’s wish was granted. A short while later, as the daughter looked on, the U.S. cultural attaché presented Mick with that junior’s violin, complete with its black leather case. “How I wish you could stay in Warsaw and be my violin teacher,” the girl said, shaking his hand. “But I’m sure you’d rather go to America right away.”

“Yy-es! yy-es! I havv to go New York City,” said Mick.

“Study well there and make good use of the violin,” the career visa-stamping lady urged. Other embassy staff had their housemaids cum host country-trained petty spies raid their drawers for a change of clothes for the teenager. The day Mick boarded a plane for New York, he wore a pair of denim bell-bottom trousers, carrying nothing else but the violin.

Popov Sr. was soon recalled by Moscow and expelled from the Communist Party. The family of now three was sent packing back to Kiev. The prefixes of “Comrade” and “Professor” were removed from Popov Sr.; Olga was kicked out of the Communist Youth League and declared unfit for the cello. Although regarded as “an enemy of the people,” Popov Sr. 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 trapper’s hat inherited from a 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 gave him 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 found what he needed in becoming an educator. He got a job at the Special Music School of America across from The Lincoln Center. He was determined to impart his expertise onto the musically talented children of New York. This was the least he could do to repay the girl who’d given him her violin. Although she didn’t have her chance to study with him, she would be happy to know that he was helping 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’d asked Mick one day after a lesson.

“No. Was it any good?”

“It sure was. I’ll loan you the tape my parents recorded. My parents told me that Shanghai used to have lots of Russians like you.”

The Shanghai music scene portrayed in the film about Isaac Stern’s 1979 visit to China greatly impressed Mick. After From Mao To Mozart: Isaac Stern in China won the 1981 Academy Award for Best Documentary, Mick became more interested in the history of the White Russians’ contributions to the Conservatory in the 1920s and the 30s. He began sending out his CV for teaching opportunities in Shanghai. By August 1983, he was in the Affiliated Middle School on a 12-month work visa under the category of Foreign Expert.

As luck would have it, Mother was designated to be Mick’s co-teacher.

Mother had little idea what the 28-year-old “American expert” was like. Knowing neither English nor Russian, she couldn’t tell that he spoke the kind of English most Americans would associate with “an Eastern European professor.” Mick, in turn, was smitten by “the senior piano teacher” who looked not a day over 30. Wanting a common language should present no barrier, Expert Popov explained to Teacher Mo. We share the same universal language of music, he gesticulated this by mimicking the movements of a violinist and a pianist.

“Nadya!” Mother announced, her shapely index finger resting in between her cleavage, visible from her pink silk blouse. Just a few years ago, this part of her anatomy would have been concealed under an army green style tunic buttoned up at the throat.

“Nadya?” Mick repeated mechanically, his blonde eyebrows arching.

Her finger flew away from 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 aped, gaping at her lips. “Do you meant that our fathers are both Luosong? You mean … ah, do you mean Russian?!”

“Yes! Yes! I Papa Luosong. I Mama Shanghai. I haafu Luosong!

Mick would never have dreamed of meeting a half kin in China, but he did and in what flesh and blood! Soon, Teacher Mo was his “Nadya, my dear” who played Liszt’s Dream of Love No. 3 just for him. Her dexterous fingers were in heated competition with his. Her expert hands – sensual, skilled, and strong – matched the trained pair of the foreign expert’s own. Their fingers competed on piano keys and on violin strings. And off. They played the instruments, or simply with each other, unlocking and locking themselves tight, bringing their own music to crescendo after crescendo.

No other language was needed.

Mick knew this well. At the makeshift chamber music hall of the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw a decade ago, he succeeded by playing a solo violin concerto, with not a word spoken: not English; not Polish; not Russian. He just let his limbs and semi-closed eyes do the talking, his desire for freedom manifested through notes floating in the air.

Few could appreciate the practicality of the school’s multi-storied Piano Building as much as Mother and Mick could. A couple hundred piano-practicing rooms were situated row after row, and stacked up on each floor. Their size was no larger than a king-sized bed, the furniture inside nothing more than an upright piano, its seat, which doubled as storage for scores, and a stand for solfeggio. Tuck the seat under the piano and you would have enough floor space about the size of a twin bed. The carpeting first laid by the White Russians may not have been cleaned in decades, yet it provided a cushion for the sinking floor. Once the bilingual “Private Lesson in Progress. Do Not Disturb!” sign was up and the door locked from within, few tended to seek them out. Chances are, whatever music being made inside would be drowned out by reprimands and constantly interrupted etudes from adjoining rooms. 

Mick would always remember a least expected 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 hands free, pointed to the ears on the Beethoven bust sitting atop the piano and giggled like a bell. Another rush of excitement hit him and her brassier was again unbuckled.

“Yes,” he agreed. “Beethoven’s deaf.” He hugged her from the back, polar bear-style. Mother and Mick resumed their intercepted composition under the watchful eyes of the hearing- but not sight-impaired Maestro, entering into and exiting from largo, presto or allegro, until it reached its final movement. Now one sweaty, fair-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 had made up her mind to learn English in order to tell Mick her story. She began to learn the language for possible immigration to the U.S. Mother was certain that if she could establish the right amalgamation of verbal and nonverbal communication with Mick, the lad ten years her junior would make an honest woman of her.

In her broken English, Mother told 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 1966 in China -- Cultural Revolution. Moscow dream to Yin world. My hope, my music all die, die, die! Later, I not allow touch piano. Now, you come inside me, inside my dream grow. Oh, Mick, my dear, take me, go U.S. of A.!”

Caressing her head on his chest, he nodded and kissed her hair. Mick understood Nadya’s psychology. Shanghai to Nadya today was like Warsaw had been to him in his late teens. She wanted her way out; she longed to breathe the free air in the West.

“But there’re realistic issues, my dear. In the U.S., it’s hard enough for a musician to make a living for himself, let alone to support somebody else.”

 “I no want your support! I know support me all my life! All myself! I teach piano to Chinese childs. No want English in Flushing.”

Flushing in Queens?” he asked, surprised that she’d heard of the New York neighborhood.

“Yes, Flushing, like toilet. Many big moneys Taiwan peoples love to Flushing! I read Chinese article in school library.”

Mother had done her research and mapped out her future. A magazine article had stated that many affluent new immigrants from Taiwan had populated the place, set up oriental grocery stores and weekend Mandarin schools. The nouveau riche’s demand for quality Chinese-language instruction in ballet, piano, violin, or Western painting far exceeded the supply.

Flushing ‘like toilet’ – how funny. And seriously, I can’t be more impressed by your ingenuity and your spirit of independence.”  Mick stopped short of saying more. Mother did not press the subject further.

In the piano room a few weeks later, as a duet was coming to an end, Mother swung her legs away from the piano and beamed at her partner. Mick’s neck was turning scarlet. He rested his violin in its case and knelt down. “Will you marry me, Nadya Na-di Molotova?”

She pulled his head onto her thighs and ran her hands over his fair, flowing hair. She let him wait there, the way he told her he had waited in the Warsaw U.S. Embassy years earlier.

Tick tock. Tick tock. The metronome beat on.

Yes! and Da! she replied deliberately in English and Russian, sensing his sweat, and tears as well, dampening her gray, ankle-length polyester skirt.

Beethoven could not hear this, but his knotted brows and intense gazes were there to bear witness to a holy moment initiated by Mick yet elicited by Mother, calculated to match to the very last bar of a serenade.

    (end of excerpt)