Beethoven For Chinese New Year
Mā explained over the phone: a violist sprained his wrist, tumbling after a volleyball, and the octet needed to practice with a replacement before Chinese school celebrated chūnjié tomorrow. She had a habit of molding requests into commands after several hours, so I saved time by consenting. It did excuse me from the January 2003 SAT post-mortem in Panera with my friends. Grace, thoughts on the last analogy in the second reading section? Sorry, can’t answer, my mom’s here to pick me up, have a good Saturday.
The building wasn’t reserved—Chinese school was as Sunday as church and football—so mā drove me to someone’s house as I stared out the window for thirty minutes. Not to look at anything—staring to seem preoccupied and insulate myself from conversation. She wasn’t talking anyway. For the past week, my parents had exhausted all their words; bà flinging accusations and mā with her guarded style, arguing about why they had been arguing, because neither remembered that Jake blowing off his seventh grade history project had set off this latest fight. I stayed out. It wasn’t my job to play couples therapist, ask why they chose each other, and hear, “I made a mistake.” Maybe things changed when they immigrated; I was too young to recall Beijing as home, not as a vacation. My joke was their marriage lay in the difference between the Chinese-American and average U.S. divorce rates, and they waited for a special occasion to narrow the gap: when we were in college, or in med school, or trying to survive on-call. They might accelerate the process if it helped my college application essays.
Framed on the wall was my favorite photo of her: a black-and-white shot of a man in a tunic standing next to his bicycle, in which teenage mā wearing pigtails had wandered into the upper-right corner by accident.
Last week, my viola teacher had grasped my shoulder and asked, “How long will this slump last?” and I had promised to work harder for my next seating audition, skirting what he meant. This week, a gig for fun. The event became thrilling, redemptive even, when framed that way. It sounded like the fluff some seniors wrote to colleges, a salute to the Western canon like it was a compendium of Chinese-American national anthems.
I didn’t suspect our destination until we rounded the corner and the faded cyan paneling slid into view. In the breeze, the lawn’s one tree waved with familiarity. We hadn’t visited shūshu’s house in six years, and my parents hadn’t mentioned him since. My mind had left him behind with blacktop recess and chocolate milk cartons.
I didn’t understand.
“Grace, dào le,” mā said, without explanation. “I’m going to be shopping, so call bà to pick you up.” Meaning he didn’t object to us being here.
Mute, I grabbed my viola case from the trunk and dragged it along the twisting pathway sheathed in ice. Where other boots had cut across the lawn, grass limped out from beneath the snow. My fingerprint melting in the doorbell’s frost made me realize my gloves were in the car, but before I could go back to grab them, the door opened, mā drove off, and the draft nudged me into the warmth, my feet tiptoeing around the scatter of shoes and instrument cases.
His plaid dress shirt, his silver-stained smile, his leisurely posture. Only the wisps of gray in his hair proved shūshu hadn’t risen from my memory. Shūshu wasn’t actually my uncle; we just called him that, and I had never learned his name.
“Grace, nĭ zhǎng zhème dà le! What grade are you in now?” I mumbled I was a junior and stepped into his embrace. “It’s been that long since you switched from violin? How is viola going?” No trace of hesitance or estrangement inflected his voice.
“It’s okay. Doing New Jersey Youth Symphony right now, had All-State in the fall. I’m not first chair or anything like that,” I said, eyes lowered as I unfastened my case.
“Are you enjoying it? As a kid, you hated playing away from the melody.”
“Oh, I guess I grew out of that. I’m happy playing the viola.” I hurried into the living room where the rest of the musicians gathered, all of them Chinese: two adult violinists including shūshu, two teenage violinists I had met through All-State, one adult cellist, a teenage cellist, an adult violist, and me. Before the teenage violist’s injury, the group had been made of teachers and handpicked students, to mimic a passing down of legacies.
“This is Grace. She was one of my best and favorite violin students,” shūshu said. Not knowing whether to bow or wave, I did half of both, a habit picked up from mā. A round of introductions and gratitude, another bow-wave-smile, then gravity sank me into the spot where I once sat for lessons and the music resumed.
I didn’t expect classical music for a Chinese New Year performance crafted around the idea of inheritance, though not having to foray into a new genre helped. Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 4, Movement 1, doubling up on each of the parts. It wasn’t in my repertoire, but my sight reading impressed in auditions and the start of orchestra season, until others overtook me after enough practice. I delivered notes on cue, in rhythm, like a machine directed by the sheet music. Except sometimes I overpowered the first violins, shūshu in particular, or overcorrected into timidity. His and my sounds leapt into the air and crashed heads, screeching to the ground, or we’d both defer, stiffening the music. Solos were easy with no one else to worry about, and the momentum of an orchestra washed over individual stumbles, but a quartet or octet had to balance every person’s voice and present it as effortless to the audience.
After rehearsal, people complimented my technical proficiency despite the late notice. They were too polite to mention my lack of artistry or my uninspiring tone—a functional sound, as my viola teacher put it. The adults left while the teenagers waited for their parents and talked about school, our music instructors, how we celebrated Chinese New Year. The cellist had aunts, uncles, cousins, and even grandparents living in America, so every year they gathered in Houston, Texas; Irvine, California; or Edison, New Jersey, to see each other.
I had mā, bà, and Jake; no one else. Sometimes we passed the holiday by ourselves, and sometimes we attended a family friend’s party, but either way I read a book in the corner to wait it out. Red envelopes and karaoke, feasts and CCTV specials—it didn’t mean much, the people were the same as the other three hundred sixty-four days. The big family reunion Chinese New Year only happened in third grade, when we flew to Beijing. There was one hour, my favorite memory of mā, when she held my hand as we guided firecrackers out of her family’s apartment window and, with giggles and mischievous smiles, dropped them six stories into the car alarms caroling on the road. Framed on the wall was my favorite photo of her: a black-and-white shot of a man in a tunic standing next to his bicycle, in which teenage mā wearing pigtails had wandered into the upper-right corner by accident. I pointed it out. She smiled and pretended not to hear. I didn’t know that was the final picture of her brother, or what the Cultural Revolution was. She didn’t tell me; no one in our family would. Her English-speaking friend visiting from Michigan had to help me understand.
Gradually, shūshu’s living room emptied, and he emerged from the kitchen with a mug of tea, which I declined.
“Grace, I want to ask something,” he said. Me too. “Why did you quit the violin? Was I too strict?”
“No, nothing like that. Our lessons were fine, my interests just changed.” He held his palm above the vapor rising from his cup, withdrew it, and blew across the liquid jasmine surface. We sat on the couch where mā had been whenever she attended a lesson. Relics of those days decorated the room: a ragged and stiff teddy-bear, reams of sheet music, the four toy pendulums suspended in a row.
“How’s school?” he asked, after a while.
“Busy. You know, junior year, it was probably like that for David, too.” Shūshu’s son was old enough, in high school when it happened, so maybe he could help me understand what was going on. What I was doing here. “He’s in college, right? Is he coming home for Chinese New Year?”
Shūshu took a long sip of tea.
“He has a medical school interview in Michigan, so he’s spending it with his mom and stepdad in Ann Arbor.” I used to love David’s sketches and paintings, which still hung in the hallways.
I waited for the next question that never came. We weren’t going to talk about it; he probably didn’t suspect I remembered there was something to talk about.
* * *
Around fourth grade, the volume of my violin swelled to a deafening level. Shūshu diagnosed it as budding narcissism. After one lesson, he cooked me dinner because mā was working overtime that day, lectured about vanity, and warned me not to take music for granted. I nodded as if he was right, but the habit had grown from drowning out mā’s and bà’s arguments. They were worse in my childhood, and if I was gentle, their shouts invaded my practice.
Mā arrived mid-meal—hair tangled, face drained, and breath laced with her fifth cup of coffee—and asked if I wanted to keep eating. The two were gone when I finished. I waited with as much patience as a nine-year-old could muster before curiosity guided me toward the laughter bubbling from upstairs.
Mā was happy. She lay on the bed, her fingers draped around shūshu’s back. He was in his boxers; Mā was clothed. When she faced me, her smile became shock and his ease turned to alarm. “Grace,” they both said. “Grace.”
She hurried me out of the room and back downstairs. She went back up briefly and came back down. She held my hand walking to the car and helped me get in, retrieved my violin after she realized we had forgotten it, shoved it into the trunk, and drove off. I held onto the image of mā, radiant, as long as I could.
When it dimmed away, I asked, “Why was he in his boxers?”
“No, Grace, you saw wrong. He wasn’t in his boxers.” I believed her for months, maybe years.
The red glow of the stoplight bathed the car interior as mā turned to face me. I mistook the white in her skin as fury, and it was only years later that I understood it was terror. “Grace, what you said was very wrong. You shouldn’t say it again. Do you understand?”
“It’s okay, just don’t say he was in his boxers again. Don’t tell me, or bà, or anyone.” Scoldings had always made me cry, but for the first time, not one sob escaped into the silence. The red light receded into a distant green dot.
“Okay.” I kept my word.
I don’t remember the rest of the day. We continued with violin lessons until the end of elementary school, when I switched to the viola. There was no sight, no mention of shūshu after that, as if he had never existed.
* * *
Bà called me when he arrived. He didn’t come to the door and meet shūshu; he never left the car, whether he picked me up from a music lesson or a friend’s house. The neighbors’ trees masked the moon and the streetlamps, so there was nothing to illuminate the icy path as I slipped toward the car. I almost climbed into the backseat, before he asked what I was doing, and I pretended my intent had been to place my viola case there instead of the trunk.
Sometimes a car’s headlights pierced through the night and a familiar street name or shop flickered, a memory flashing by. My eyes used the light to search bà’s face. The weariness of a day playing tennis and the impatience of a long drive home; frustration with the truck in front and a forward stare hardened from days spent yelling. Nothing unusual. It had been easy to ignore with music to be played and Chinese New Year to complain about, but with my bow and viola locked up, I had only the windy breaths of cars passing by to distract me from wondering what bà knew, or if he knew. I waited for him to ask, mention, say anything about shūshu.
After ten minutes he asked, “Did it not go well?”
“Go well at the lesson? Rehearsal, I mean.” The heat from my face could have melted the snow stuck on the window.
“The SATs. You haven’t mentioned them.” His face was stoic, focused on the road. He lacked the tension or surliness I had expected to hear in his voice. “Mā said you didn’t talk about the SATs to her, either.”
“Oh, yeah.” It felt like days had passed since I had sat down for the test. “It was fine. Math went well, reading section was harder. Still good, I think.” I launched into a detailed explanation to alleviate his worry.
If bà had found out, it would’ve been around the switch to viola. There was arguing back then; there never wasn’t. It was a constant buzz in the background, like city bustle or fans on a summer day. I couldn’t pinpoint which of it happened when I was ten and which at thirteen; it blurred into a single period of time. The phrases I could recall—”There’s nothing to talk about!” he shouted—were my cues to hurry into my room, not stay for the rest.
For the rest of the year, Angela would go back to tap and jazz, the girl onstage would return to the piano, but at least they presented something Chinese for Chinese New Year. What was the octet passing down? Beethoven with mā’s ex-lover now and Beethoven in concerts later and Beethoven forever.
For dinner, the four of us folded bāozi together. The activity had lost its luster for me years ago, but Jake had continued to wrap them with sloppy enthusiasm, until now. He was the same age as I had been, and I saw his excitement waning. Twelve was a special age for the zodiac after all. At the table, our parents spoke frequently to us and rarely to each other, as was common when a fight had dragged on. They passed the eye contact test, though, which was my version of Groundhog Day: an early spring, or six more days of quarreling.
“You’re using too much water,” bà said. My dumpling unraveled on the yellow foam tray. My next one was too dry, and without a word, I surrendered my mess to mā. In one motion, she swooped the meat into a new wrap, brushed her finger against the water’s surface, swirled it around the wrap’s edge, and folded. She had breezed through the night with a serenity untouched by her usual caffeinated trembling. There were no questions about shūshu, not a single word or acknowledgment.
“Are your hands okay?” mā asked as she plucked another mangled dumpling from my palm. “They must be tired. Kǎoshì all morning, viola all afternoon.”
“I’m okay.” Almost a mention, but no one paused, and the conversation moved on, leaving me to fumble with another dumpling until it tore. Bà feigned interest in Jake rambling about the NFL, and mā continued acting like she was through a second glass of wine. “Sorry, can I go upstairs?” I asked. “Shūshu’s—the recital—it’s been half a day since knowing, about playing this piece. I need more time to practice. Can I go upstairs and eat later?”
“Okay,” mā said.
“Can I go, too?”
“Stay here, Jake.”
In my room, I steadied my hands through a section of the score while pacing through my observations of mā, bà, and shūshu that day: words, tones, gestures, facial expressions; mā’s weariness, bà’s brevity, shūshu persevering through his interrogations; anything that might hint what bà knew, what mā wanted, shūshu’s intentions, mā’s intentions, mā’s feelings, my role. If mā and shūshu had hid the truth from bà, or if the three believed they were keeping a secret from me; if tomorrow served as an excuse to reunite, or if I had been volunteered as a peace offering. All plausible, nothing convincing.
Jake’s fist bashed against my door three times, and without waiting, he creaked it open, as if he was going to leave after delivering his message, but over the course of his sentence, “Mā and bà want me to tell you that you’re playing too loudly,” he slid into my room and closed the door behind him. “Sorry,” I said.
“You never practice anymore.” He said it like an accusation. My bow jabbed toward the door, but he didn’t budge. “I heard shūshu’s playing too?”
Jake had been six when I quit violin, so he probably had a couple memories, shūshu driving him to a doctor’s appointment or bringing him candy, that he had forgotten until today. Curiosity, not concern. A week from now he’d forget again, unless I wanted to say guess what, mā cheated on bà when we were kids, and keep him remembering for the rest of his life. Secrecy ran in the family.
“I have to get this right by tomorrow,” I said. “Go work on your history project, you can’t take an incomplete forever.” He left, and I worked through the music until mā came in and placed a plate of fresh bāozi on my desk.
* * *
“We’ll be back around eight. Turn the TV off when you hear the garage open,” I told Jake before we left, guessing he would flip on the Super Bowl and ignore his schoolwork. My slot wasn’t until after intermission, so we sat in the audience for the show’s first half. Mā led our way into and through the room, walking past the surprised waves of several schoolmates who hadn’t seen me at Chinese school since sixth grade. I spotted shūshu stranded among a crowd of empty seats in the far back corner. We cut through one of the middle rows and stopped near the end, next to bà’s friend and her family, with shūshu’s presence lurking five rows back. “Chūnjié kuàilè,” all of us said. It wasn’t really for another week.
Bà swapped rumors about high school seniors and college applications, and it reminded me that next year, my name would join the gossip of dinner parties and Chinese hair salons among parents I never met, in towns I never visited. Mā usually participated, but she remained quiet. Not at peace, like yesterday. Her quiet had the quality of paralysis.
For the first act, costumed children shuffled around and recited three poems bà had me memorize too, as a kid. This was the first time I parsed their words and understood them; from my own mouth it had felt like a song I was too busy playing to hear myself. Dancers lined up second, crouching with their backs facing us, but as the music began and their red gowns spun, the face of my friend Angela beamed at the crowd. When I asked her about it later, it turned out she went every weekend, even after graduating Chinese school, to help instruct the younger dancing classes.
Mā left to find the bathroom. As she walked behind, I locked my head forward, terrified she and shūshu would catch me if I turned back, and counted the seconds until her return: ten, twenty, one hundred. I reached two hundred before giving up. She didn’t know where the bathroom was; it could take her twenty minutes. Bà snoozed in his chair, his head limping toward the right.
A girl strummed an instrument I had never seen outside China, with the sound of a harp and the shape of a keyboard-sized guitar neck. In my program, all the acts were written in unrecognizable Chinese except mine: Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 4, Movement 1, printed in English. A blurb underneath presumably mentioned the inheritance theme. People probably saw that and snickered; I would have, too. For the rest of the year, Angela would go back to tap and jazz, the girl onstage would return to the piano, but at least they presented something Chinese for Chinese New Year. What was the octet passing down? Beethoven with mā’s ex-lover now and Beethoven in concerts later and Beethoven forever.
Mā came back and whispered into my ears, “Shūshu wants you to go warm up with him and the others after this one. He says to meet by the back corner.”
I was the first one there. “Ready?” he asked as the lights dimmed and the girl bowed. “Let’s do a couple scales together, to help us play in tune.”
That was probably the moment, the two of us shielded by darkness and our voices cloaked by applause; the moment to dust off six years of silence; a moment flitting past Earth before it slung off into space—gone.
“Sorry, I don’t say much when nervous,” I said. We exchanged a few words during warmups to make adjustments, but for the most part he left me alone after that.
Onstage, my mind split off my viola. My thoughts drifted as my bow and fingers assembled the music on autopilot. How my seat was too up front and center, and people were watching my nose scrunch and my cheeks puff out, and some of them would take pictures or tease me at school. How the intensity of the light made me sweat, and a bead of sweat rolled down my neck into my dress, and this dress felt tight and scratchy today, and there was an itch on my side. How I wasn’t angled in a way I could sneak a glance at mā, to know which of us she looked at, or if bà monitored her for the same thing.
I didn’t hear the performance until the final note, when it rushed into my ear as a whole. Decent enough for the ordinary template of compliments. Not amazing, like I had hoped, or disastrous, like I had expected. Nothing worth remembering.
Our family lingered at the end for food and talk. My friends found me first, to congratulate each other, while shūshu spoke to a circle of parents and children too young to stray away. Mā stood on his left, and bà stood next to her. When our conversation turned toward the SATs, I tore myself from my friends and approached my parents’ backs.
“Before the schools closed,” shūshu said to one kid, “my goal was to enter college and study chemistry. Music wasn’t serious for me. But people heard Mozart coming from our basement and raided it and shredded the sheet music and took my violin away. Western music was counterrevolutionary, for capitalists.
“After we were sent to the countryside, I met Lí Rúhàn.” He spoke to the entire group now as he gestured at mā. She raised her right hand and wrapped her left around bà’s. I couldn’t see their faces from behind them. Either I hid in their shadows and listened unnoticed, or I could stand on the other side of the crowd and watch them as they watched me.
“She snuck her brother’s violin with her to the village, because he was the only one in her family who played; no one checked her stuff. And she brought books, too. Textbooks, even Western sheet music. She’s so smart, she knew the Cultural Revolution wouldn’t last, and she was determined to prepare. So nighttime we snuck to the river or muted a room by stuffing rags in the door gap, and we studied with moon or candlelight, and took breaks for music. Beethoven and Lí Rúhàn became my best friends. She gave me the violin when she went home.
“I studied and practiced in the morning, during meals, in my dreams. For ten years, until the gāokǎo came back. Chemistry didn’t interest me anymore; I had to become a musician. The Shanghai Conservatory admitted me, and several years later, so did Brooklyn.
“I’m not working in an orchestra, but there’s music every day of my life because of your support. Many of you chose me as your children’s violin instructor. Without you, the musicians of the past, and these young musicians of the future, I wouldn’t be here. Thank you.”
Mā’s right hand moved toward her head. I imagined it brushing tears from her eyes and concealing her smile. Bà’s impassive face was as stiff as their hands, gripped together in a lock.
Later that night, with my viola clamped between my chin and collarbone, I raised my bow toward the ceiling, pivoted toward my bedroom mirror, and forced my neck and shoulders to relax. “I live a good life,” I said, fingers shaking as my bow slid across the fourth string. My viola hummed the first note of Beethoven’s String Quartet. No. Four, but the E fell flat.