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The sign was tacked to a bulletin board in a dank & narrow path leading to the university cafeteria. "Study Chinese in China!"
Fast forward four months, midsummer, and I'm sweating profusely on a July day in Shanghai waiting for the monsoon to make puddles into lakes. My nose is filled with coal-drenched snot and I'm watching hordes of Chinese on bicycles navigate suffocating populations. I couldn't speak Chinese and I was traveling in a group of "wide-eyed, big-nosed foreigners." My interaction with the Chinese people could be broken into two categories: 1) they aggressively try to sell me stuff 2) they practice their English on me. Let's just say I didn't like either of these options. I hated the way China made me feel unwanted, like a resource for exploitation.
Back in my suburban Minnesota home, my disenchantment with a nation of 1.3 billion people became increasingly unattractive. Like a virus I couldn't shake, Gandhi's words burned thru me, "Be the change you want to see in the world." I knew that what I did NOT want the world to be like was that of a consumer-riddled American requiring all intake to be tailored to particular needs for pleasure and assurance. Six months later I'm back in China, the air burning my lungs. I pick up a smoking habit out of loneliness. Standing out front of the foreign student dorm, I see an old lady with cataracts running after a tow-headed little kid. I watch and smile and she invites me to dinner.
Old Lady Wang fed me dumplings and read me poetry. One late afternoon in her cold socialist block retirement apartment she read of plum blossoms and talked of how the scent reminds her of the earliest spring day when she learned her son died in a Cultural Revolution work camp, and I cried. I gained 30 pounds from her old school Shanghai cooking. I learned enough Chinese for light talk, then more profound interactions.
When I first started playing the banjo and miraculously fell into a record deal in Nashville, TN, there was a period when I didn't go to China. It hurt. Like a pain in my gut... that pain you feel when you know it's time to connect with your parents or your God or your child or your past or your future... and you don't do it.
The first song I ever wrote was in English "Rockabye Dixie", the second was in Chinese "Song of the Traveling Daughter (younuyin)". Now it's eight years and thousands of performances in the US and China later. I reside in a new colony for the Chinese-singing banjo player, with a population of one. At least I have something I have to do with my life.
In December 2011, Abigail Washburn returned from leading the Silk Road Tour, a state-commissioned bluegrass tour through China. This year, she will speak at the TED conferences in Long Beach, Calif. as a fellow.
LISTEN to Washburn's first original song, "Rockabye Dixie":
WATCH Washburn play the second song she ever wrote, the Chinese-language "Song Of The Traveling Daughter (younuyin)":