In Shenzhen, China, the night before my first performance on tour with the Joyous String Ensemble, one of the youngest string ensembles in the world, I dreamt of a plum. Up close, it was a combination of pink, red, and orange. In front of me, two paths intersected, forming a shape like a cross, with an aqua pond in the middle and a spectacular fountain hovering in midair that had flowing, agile water, spouting melted diamonds and crystals. I looked down and was surprised to see that I was floating above the glass path, which encased running water with huge koi and calypso fish. They swam smoothly and gracefully, whipping their tails in an airy, wavelike way. There were a bunch of trees surrounding me. I could smell fruity scents and the cherry blossoms; the aroma was pure and sweet, not at all strong and overwhelming like most garden scents. I tried propelling myself by swinging my arms like helicopter blades. I went up . . . up . . . and up . . . as if I might touch the clouds.
The next night, I felt a bright white light on me. Then green. Then blue. Then purple, which made the violin look orange and made my Pirastro Evah Pirazzi Gold’s bottom glow in the dark. The light testing was over. I smiled at the audience and waved, following the others, and tried my best to look straight ahead, not at anyone in particular. There was just this blurry wavering sea of heads stretched in every direction. I raised my violin to my chin, and we began our set.
Accompanying us on the piano was Mr. Julian Yu, the director of the Joyous String Ensemble and an accomplished composer, conductor, and performing pianist. He has been an inspirational mentor, teaching us how to genuinely enjoy the wonders of music. He said that music is not just a sound but also an emotion, like happiness, sadness, regret, or love. He’s encouraged us to use the power of music to spread love and kindness. He believes that music can help save lives and change the world. I doubted this at first, but now, I believe that all of these ideas are within reach.
As I played that night, I was brimming with nervousness, but I focused on how happy everyone had looked on the car ride to the theater. My happiest memories of being in this ensemble have taken place right before each performance—everyone excited and ready to communicate with the audience through music. Our first piece was “Summer” by Vivaldi, which slowly morphed into “Smooth Criminal” by Michael Jackson. Adrenaline flooded my body; the energy around the stage was magnetic, and I felt my bow moving with forces that seemed inside and outside of me at the same time. I smiled in my heart and wondered if my friends felt the same. The first set flew by, and then the second, and before I knew it the performance was over! So quickly, it was hard to track individual moments, but by the end, standing up before an audience cheering and hooting—my crazy dad especially, who kept yelling through his cupped hands—suggested it had been a success. I just kept thinking to myself, keep smiling . . .
After the performance, we rode back to our hotel, where we were staying high up on the 24th floor. I gazed out the window to the streets busy with people scrambling about, advertising salesmen shoving papers into people’s hands, bicycles zigzagging in every direction. My parents called to me, reminding me to get my rest, since the next day we’d be leaving early for Beijing. I flopped into bed, cactus-style, and couldn’t help smiling again, replaying parts of the performance before I fell asleep.
I had yellow watermelon for breakfast the next morning. It was soft, not as crisp as the red kind I was used to, but sweeter. It took me a while to wrap my brain around yellow juice and black seeds meshed together. Yet another reminder that I was in a new place, far from home, where I couldn’t expect to follow the same routine, or to experience the same tastes, smells, or sounds. Same as the music of chopsticks clinking together like a drum beat, the sound of knobs turning to send hotpots clicking, the flicker of flames erupting under dishes. Around the corner from our hotel, there was a small alleyway with a bunch of restaurants and a bakery. The next morning, when we left to catch our ride, the whole street was alive with spices filling my nose, sweetly offset by freshly baked bread and sugar.
Our second performance was even more nerve-wracking because we would be performing with Master Lu Si Qing, the best violinist in China and one of my idols. The fact that I was going to accompany him seemed impossible. When we first met him backstage, I marveled over his shiny blue jacket and perfectly creased pants. On stage, he stood before us, chasing the melody of every piece. I felt his raw energy as he rocked and swayed, almost like the violin was an extension of his body, the music living inside him all along. Almost every face in the audience hid behind a videotaping phone, which I imagined made us look like little halos of light around our master. We accompanied him for Vivaldi’s Double Concerto, another dizzying blur. I remember this intense feeling of fatigue and excitement afterward, as the audience roared in a standing ovation. Each young player received a rose, and I was thrilled to get the reddish purple one I’d been hoping for, one that reminded me of the plum in my dream. We all exited the stage, and I was surprised when we were served glasses of water on a black tray. I slowly sipped the water, relishing its smooth, sweet taste.
That night, my memory traveled back to my family’s earlier visit to Shenzhen. We had visited an antique store, where there were glass displays with little sky-blue vases with clover- like plants that only had one leaf: two thin stalks in each vase. In the corner, there was a long table from ancient times with a large wooden turtle sitting on it. My parents used to tell me these animals are symbols of wisdom, and I think that’s true because they live for a long time and move so slowly, like they’ve seen it all and don’t understand any hurry. I walked over to the table with my father, who told me how to check if it was authentically as old as it appeared. You look for stripped logs placed horizontally on top, with wooden planks below for support. After we examined it, we could tell it was truly an ancient table. In the U.S., we seem to value the physical appearance of things over their history or the traditions and stories implied by them. I started to think every object was part of a story or larger dream that can come alive through travel and music.
At the Shanghai concert, we were surrounded by people everywhere. We were on an enormous platform, and there was the audience—behind us, next to us, in front of us, and above us. Not only was this the biggest show yet, but this time we were raising money through ticket sales and autograph signings for a 14-year-old boy’s mother who needed a lifesaving surgery. The boy was a talented singer, but since China doesn’t have many performance events for his age group, he lacked the opportunity to raise the money for his mother alone. The leader of our group is Justin Yu, the 11-year-old son of our director, who is already a world-famous cellist. The boy came out to sing with him for one of the numbers. It was a very emotional moment, feeling the boy’s spirit there on the stage, and afterward, I watched some people in the audience wipe their eyes through a thunder of applause. It was the first time that I had ever performed with a higher purpose in mind, beyond wanting to share my love of music with the world, for a family in need. The tour ended, and we received a letter from the boy’s father with news that the surgery had worked. While Mr. Yu had told us that music could help to save lives, I hadn’t quite believed him until I read that letter. We all felt so moved and honored to be part of that success.
Later that night, I had another dream. Time was frozen, and there were a bunch of string instruments floating around, moving one millimeter per second. I plucked the A-string of a violin in midair, which created a big wave of echoes that blasted my eardrums. The strange thing was, I could see the sound waves. The A-string made a strawberry-colored wave, D made a yellow wave, while G was sienna, and E was green. Each instrument produced different colored waves, as if they were part of a realm behind the music. Sometimes I wonder if my dreams are synesthesiac, with sounds forming colors through my memory. All the music swirled around my brain at night and pranced around like horses. I wondered if this was all part of living the music, not just practicing and playing it, but feeling its forces upon me, like a liquid that had begun to pump through my heart and lungs, sustaining me through these weeks. Somehow, I played three more concerts with the same energy as the first, and time only seemed to speed up with each—this continual flow of motion that I became more accustomed to, making it harder to separate out individual memories afterward.
I have visited China many times before. Ever since I was three, I’ve been traveling with my parents to Shenyang to visit my extended family. Usually, we stay at my aunt’s house, where they have a fish tank and a little bonsai tree I like to watch my aunt trim. I also like the feel of the tiny leaves, sharp like needles. They always make me think of a miniature world that exists beyond my imagination. Invisible birds and rivers making inaudible sounds. Some mornings, if we wake early enough, we walk to the morning market, where we shop for everything from fried pure milk to jewelry and barbecued squid. Nearby, there is also a sushi restaurant with fresh octopus and salmon rolls. We always eat in the room where the floor makes noises like tapping ice. Above, there is a chandelier: like glass stars suspended in the air, dangling from a thin hook, encrusted in a zodiac of birthstones. The breeze from the AC causes them to swing from side to side as if they were flowers swaying to a forgotten melody.
These memories transport me back to the moment I am living now, in the wake of last summer’s China tour. Sometimes I feel music is a special language of memory between times and places. Music reminds me of an open door to a clear sky. Sometimes, I feel what you want to say can be conveyed better in music than in words. Music carries my feelings, the same way memories do, one thing leading to the next and the next, all through shared emotions between people, placing those people within reach of one another. Sometimes I think memory and music work together like a dream: I start remembering one place and all of its images seep out in a colorful spiral of smells and tastes and sounds, all capturing the soul of a place, a period of time. And then I wake up from that dream and wonder how I got from there to here and back again, as if my memory is one continuous map, this circle of song printed inside me.