At 7am, I said goodbye to parents, friend, and boyfriend and headed to LAX. There are few things I hate more than LA traffic. Thankfully, CBU sent a driver so Mike and I could enjoy our drive, stress-free.
The flight was uneventful, mainly because I did not take advantage of the onboard wifi. Instead, I tried to sleep, unsuccessfully.
When we landed in Shanghai, it was march of the penguins to the customs line. I tripped over something and looked down to see a small, green, plush turtle. I stopped in my tracks and stared at it. A small Asian person rear ended me but I was unmoved. And, yes, I have always been built like a brick wall, even before I reached my current height of 5’10”. I reached down and picked up the turtle and headed along with the crowd, looking for its young owner. Nearing the customs line, I see a mother, child in arms, scanning the floor. I wave the turtle in the air and I see her face light up. We spoke two different languages but nodded a “thank you” and “you’re welcome.” It wasn’t too long before we were on the other side of customs.
Mike and I saw our names on a piece of paper held by a member of what would become our China team. She took us to a fast food strip near the airport hotel and I was shocked to see it full of healthy options! Thankfully, our team member’s first language is Mandarin so she was able to order combos for Mike and I. Rice, veggies, and meat, nothing fried or processed. Soooo tasty.
Thanks to sleeping pills, I slept until almost 9am, China time. Mike had already been out for an adventure and back before I was conscious of the world. Once I was awake and ready for my own adventure, Mike agreed to go out once more and we met Duo and her husband Joey in downtown Shanghai. To get there, we took a bullet train known as the Maglev. My first thought looking out the window was, “Well, this is faster than I’ve ever driven.” Sure enough, we were definitely going faster than the governor on my car would ever allow.
We spent the afternoon being tourists, at the iconic Oriental Pearl, checking out the world’s second-tallest building from it’s windows. It was a hazy day but I still got a great view… straight down. There is a level in the Pearl building that has a glass floor. Even though my mind knew it wouldn’t break or crack with me standing on it, I still moved very slowly and gingerly, jealous of the fearless children jumping up and down and rolling around on the glass floor.
We headed back to the hotel in the afternoon to pack up and meet the folks from Nantong University where Mike and I would be performing the next evening. They rode over two hours in a nice bus/van to come pick us up and take us to Nantong. When we got to our hotel, our hosts treated us to a wonderful banquet dinner with the best chicken soup I have ever tasted. Throughout the trip, I became convinced that the Chinese culture has the best soups of any culture. Throughout our culinary experience in China, we never had the same dish twice.
The hotel was unexpectedly plush, with a huge bed, couch, kitchenette area, possibly the best shower of the tour, and a washing machine. If only we’d had a hotel with a washing machine further into the trip!
We had our first concert of the tour and it went so well!
But first, food. Ohhhh, so much food. They had more fish, seafood, duck, and all other kinds of meat that you can imagine! And it all fit on one very large lazy susan. Throughout the meal, our hosts would come around and toast all the members of our team. After I stumbled through my first toast, Dr. Linamen informed me of the details of their custom – yes, it matters where you clink the glass AND how you hold the glass – and I quickly adapted.
The meal was a production that ended about 2… with another banquet scheduled a mere 3.5 hours later. When we got to the campus and recital hall, I stopped in my track. Being TOLD your likeness has been laser painted onto the back of a stage and SEEING your likeness laser painted onto the back of a stage are two different things. One of the university art professors had taken a week to prep this stage with my portrait. It was so beautifully done!
After our sound check, we ventured across campus to see an art installation by students and professors that was absolutely gorgeous. A a gift, the head art professor gave all the members of our team two books full of art produced by himself and the students. I’m pretty sure the mass of those books put my luggage over the limit for the plane ride home but it was worth it.
Then came our next meal which included local fish and vegetables, only grown in the Nantong area. As much as I wanted to gorge myself, I don’t like to sing on a full stomach, so I lived vicariously through my friend Mike and his goal of trying at least one of everything presented on the table.
For this first show, I was so nervous that I was nauseated and there sits Mike, cool as a cucumber. What a pair we make. I was feeling the pressure not only of the performance but of the international connections being made here and with more schools to come. And then there’s Mike. *sigh* He brought me back to the moment.
The cozy hall could naturally seat about 300, if China had fire code regulations. There were many many more than 300 who packed themselves into the hall that night. Once we got rolling, Mike and I quickly found our rhythm. The concert went really well with only one coughing fit on my part, late in the concert. Oh, did I mention I was suffering from bronchitis? When I coughed and Mike vamped, the audience heartily applauded in support. When all was said and done, it was a wonderful first concert.
At the end of the concert, which was filmed by two news crews, we finished with The Girl in 14G and did a Q&A with the students. Some of those students expressed quite an interest in coming to CBU to study. One of the questions during the Q&A was if I would take a picture with a guy. Instead of just a picture, I invited him to come sing with me. One of the songs I did was a Chinese song that absolutely everyone in China knows called “Jasmine Flower,” or “mo li hua.” We sang a verse together to a great deal of applause. He had a very good voice, especially after he pushed his nerves aside. His picture was in the news with me the next day.
Speaking of pictures, pictures are apparently a really big thing in their culture. When it was announced that Mike and I would be staying onstage for pictures, the crowd gasped right before we were bum rushed. We smiled until our faces cramped and loved meeting everyone that came up, my with my nonexistent Mandarin and them with their limited English.
We slid out of there completely exhausted, slightly slap happy, but musically fulfilled. It was such an honor to sing there, to experience their incredible hospitality, and to be honored by our hosts in a multitude of ways, a group of people I had never met.
After the high of the concert, sleep didn’t really come fully. Therefore, this day was a challenge to get through but it was still full of plenty of laughs and great experiences. Unfortunately, my bronchitis majorly flared up, before and during the concert. After sound check, Mike and I revised the program to make it easier on my afflicted lungs and we got through it. It was frustrating but no one ever said an international tour would be a cakewalk.
But I got to experience pigeon for lunch. That was unexpectedly tasty.
There were good happenings, despite the sickness! Mike was ecstatic that he got to play on a Bösendorfer piano. It was definitely the best piano of the tour. It was a lighthearted audience, so Mike decided to take a selfie with the crowd. That was a first!
Now, before the concert, we had QUITE the dining experience. I experienced hot pot dining for the first time. It wasn’t really explained to me so, fir about a minute, I thought they were bringing in personal, boiling soups. Floating in this soup was murky water, a date, and some sort of seaweed. And then I saw the raw food on our table was more than just sushi and understood what it was.
I had cooked a few pieces of meat already when the crab came out. The lazy susan parked the crabs in front of me and we were having a stare down. It took until I saw water bubbling out of its nostrils to realize these crabs were alive. Mike and Duo immediately decided that crab sounded tasty and reached for the creatures. Once chopsticks made contact, they started flailing their legs all over the place. Mike quickly dunked his crab in its boiling jacuzzi, scooting the little legs in and pushing them back in until the limbs went limp. I’m not sure what my face was doing at this point but Dr. Linamen asked if I was okay. Okay? Yes. Culture shock, very much yes. I’m not opposed to eating creatures that were once living. I just haven’t had to be the one to kill what I ate. It was just odd to see the whole process from living creature to food plate in under 10 minutes. It was a very lighthearted process because we couldn’t stop laughing at the awkward process as Mike slowly figured out how to cook and eat the crab. Eating the crab was a whole different adventure that I’ll leave to your imagination.
Halfway through the tour!
Soon after I woke up, I got a knock at the door. Mike! With a green and white box, covered in Chinese, with one English word: Azithromycin. Praises! Antibiotics! The wife of one of our Chinese doctors is a doctor. My team got ahold of her and picked up the prescription for me. I felt so taken care of! Thanks to sleep, hydration, loads of prayers from loved ones, and possibly those antibiotics, I had a cough-free concert that evening. Praise the Lord! The most strenuous thing we had during the day before the concert was transportation and food. Such a relaxing day, compared to the challenges of getting through the previous day.
Mike and I finally found our groove with the song selection and the concert was received well. Again, I had a huge likeness of my face on the stage, this time on a digital screen that took up the entire back of the stage. As soon as the audience heard the intro to Let It Go from Frozen, they gasped. They were so psyched for the song, they even applauded during a musical interlude. Even though we did a slower version of the Chinese song Jasmine Flower, the audience clapped along. I got vocal breaks during the concert because students from the school performed numbers in between short sets of mine. The traditional Chinese singing style is so different but beautiful.
We had two concerts and two universities in two different cities. We started at Nanjing Xiaozhuang University which has 25,000 students. CBU doesn’t even have half that and yet we’re forging a relationship with this large university. Mike and I got to be apart of the MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) signing which outlines an agreement to explore exchanges of both students and faculty between CBU and NXU. They had a conference room beautifully prepared with a line of USA and China flags, paper name placards for everyone sitting at the table, and a cup of loose leafed tea. After the signing, Dr. Linamen presented the university with a gift of a beautiful blanket embroidered with all things CBU. In return, their administration gave everyone on our team beautiful rocks that can only be found in this area, mounted in glass. Each rock has a different color and pattern. I was very happy that I got a pink one. ^_^
Mike got to sight read for CBU student auditions… in front of an entire auditorium of people because it was RIGHT before the concert. When I auditioned for CBU, it was in front of two people and one of them was a pianist. Brave students!
After that morning concert, we got on a bullet train headed to Wuxi going 401 km/h. Definitely the fastest I’ve ever traveled by ground. It took about an hour to go 100 miles, with multiple stops. I wish there was a bullet train between Redlands and Vegas.
We ended up at a beautiful, 5 star, lakefront hotel and was shortly whisked off to Taihu University of Wuxi (pronounced woo-shee) where Mike and I listened to 9 auditions (again, in front of an auditorium of people, immediately before the concert) and started our concert within minutes.
Let me tell you a little bit about the venue. The school had a nice concert hall that seats about 500. This is where we were supposed to be. Demand for this concert was so high that they had to change the venue to cone that had around 1,000 seats and ended up holding more because there is no fire code regulation and people were crowding down all four aisles. The preparation this school did was phenomenal! They built a stage for us, rigged lights and sound and a giant poster that I can’t even begin to guess the dimensions of. They must have worked through the night.
This concert was billed not only as a joint concert but as a New Year’s celebration! It ended up being well over 2 hours long, no intermission, and I could have gone longer. There was SUCH an amazing variety of music, many songs played on instruments I have never seen or heard or know the names of. I was so impressed with the level of talent at this school and the variety of music, instruments, and styles they shared. This city, this concert, these people were definitely a trip highlight.
I have never posed for so many selfies in my entire life! If I thought my face was cramped from smiling after the first concert, I then experienced a concert with 1000+ people who all wanted pictures. Uniformed people from the school came and whisked me away to the bus as I posed for walking-selfies on the way. Such a fun night!
We came back to the hotel to a very late dinner and the best orange juice I have ever had in my life. Dinner and 5 glasses of orange juice later, I hit the pillow hard. Loved this day on tour.
This morning, we had a concert at a high school. This high school was also a boarding school. What a shock for all those single children – suddenly sharing a room with multiple room mates that they are not related to. The audience was much more receptive than, say, USA high schoolers. Very appreciate of a concert in a language not all of them understood.
Many students asked for autographs from both me and Mike. Mike was literally cornered by high schoolers begging for photos and autographs. Haha! My poor introvert.
Mike and I got to rest most of the day after the concert, praise the Lord.
It’s amazing to me that this “small city” had over 6.4 million people in it and I had never heard of it before this trip. There is so much of the world that I haven’t seen or even know exists. I hope there’s a lot more traveling in my future!
I got to ride my third bullet train! This time, we traveled from Wuxi to Ningbo. When we got off the train, we were met by the closest thing to paparazzi I have every experienced, along with the President of the college we were about to have a concert at. These schools in China that we were visiting are very large schools, the equivalent of USA state schools, and the PRESIDENT came and greeted us at the train station. If a soloist or music group from China came to visit CBU, I don’t think I could see President Ellis meeting them at the train station. I could be wrong but it’s hard to picture. The camera crew followed us all the way to the bus, all the way to the school, filmed us during our meal. EVERYTHING we did was on film.
Once again, we lodged in a 5 star hotel. The room in this one was even more glamorous than the last! Huge, soft bed, huge bathroom with a glass wall next to the tub so you could look through your room and enjoy the light and the view from the outside window.
We had lunch in a private room in the hotel, paparazzi present. I’m pretty sure I was a hot mess because Mike wiped a smudge off my face which, of course, was preserved for posterity by the cameras. *sigh*
Actually, I know I was a hot mess because it took me 20 minutes to make the perfect bun before heading to the venue. Haha! What usually takes me 5 minutes seemed to take forever. Our last concert. I didn’t want it all to be over.
After I finished hair and makeup, we headed to the university who had, quite literally, rolled out the red carpet for us. The stairs to the performance venue were covered in red carpet and a large banner over the door bore my name.
I am so amazed how much work our Chinese hosts put into these concerts. We arrived at our spacious green room to prep for the performance and we each received a lovely gift of a bamboo scroll with beautiful calligraphy on it.
When we walked into the 1,000-seat hall, there was the second largest LED screen I had ever seen in my life. The biggest one I’ve seen was on the stage of a Celine Dion concert at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. On tour, I had grown accustomed to seeing my face on posters and other media, many times larger than it’s normal size but it gave me pause to see my face 30+ times its normal size!
Our Chinese MC had a beautiful British accent to his English from his studies in Great Britain and it was refreshing to review the program with someone who spoke English so well! It blows my mind that most educated people in China study English. I didn’t study another language in college! Not that I had time with my full music schedule, being a sorority officer, working an internship, and taking a bi-weekly self defense class. But I digress.
Mike and I had some time to kill before the start of the concert, so we explored the balcony. When we were in the stage, I noticed the front section of the audience was provided with foam glow sticks. When we reached the balcony, I looked over the edge and saw that all of the other seats were provided with clappers. Yes, clappers. I knew it would be a fun audience just from the way the administration had set everything up.
After another lavish meal from our gracious hosts, we made it back just in time for our concert. I have never had to ask the camera crew to vacate a room so I could change into my gown. I looked over the program and noted how many songs were in each set before I would walk offstage and a group from the school would perform, took a deep breath, a walked onto the massive stage with 35’ screen bearing my face.
The concert hall was cold but the lights gave off a warm glow. The audience was so responsive – both with glow sticks and with clappers – and the set flew by. Once the set was finished, a student came out and handed me a teddy bear bouquet. I maaaay have lost my composure for a moment. A teddy bear bouquet!!! Flowers and 7 little teddy bears. As I walked off, totally absorbed in my teddy bears, I took one out and waved at the audience with it as I walked offstage, followed by the laughter of a full auditorium.
In a later set, the audience gasped when they heard Mike begin the open piano line of Let It Go. The stage was set up with stairs into the house on either side of the stage. During a musical interlude, I decided to take advantage of said stairs… and to wake up the guys running the two spotlights. During a musical interlude, I ran down the stage right stairs and into the audience, singing and walking in front of the first row of seats – cameras rolling, people smiling and screaming, reaching out to touch my hand as I went by. As a whole, the concert was incredible but that was the moment that will live in my memory for as long as I have memories.
It was the perfect end to a wonderful tour.
If you want to read the eloquent tales of the tour from the perspective of my friend and pianist, Mike Kestler, you can find his account of the tour at MikeKestler.com