THE BLOG
05/27/2016 12:33 pm ET Updated May 28, 2017

A Purple Rain Falls in Shanghai

As far as I know, none of the skyscrapers overlooking the Bund were bathed in purple the night of April 23. At least no more so than usual.

I awoke to news of Prince's death that Friday morning (still Thursday in the U.S.) in a hotel room about as far from Minneapolis as you can be. I reacted with a combination of sorrow and homesickness, tempered by words of mourning that I shared with friends, the tributes and essays that appeared in the press, and the trove of mesmerizing live performances that breached Prince's legal firewall. I half-expected my VPN to cancel my subscription for all the megabytes I was downloading.

One of the images that got to me most was that of a bepurpled City Hall in Los Angeles, my hometown. There was the world's most star-studded city paying tribute to arguably the world's greatest star.

As night fell in Shanghai, the digital billboards and architectural light shows went on as usual, a ironically psychedelic sight in a largely conservative country.

***

I would never claim to know China well. I can't imagine that a place of 1.3 billion can ever be known "well," even by its own natives. But, in advising Chinese students on U.S. college applications over the past few years, I've gotten an intimate look at a narrow, if fascinating, look into the Middle Kingdom.

The students with whom I tend to work have legitimate shots at many of those schools, surely not because of anything I do but because they are innately brilliant and diligent. Like other diligent, brilliant people, they thrive on collaboration, second opinions, and the occasional nudge. I have worked with students who have done original research in quantum physics, won math contests and debate tournaments (in English), and written essays that have left me breathless with their eloquence. They have excelled in some of the most rigorous high school curricula imaginable.

And yet, something is missing. Not from my students individually, but from their world.

Last November, I met with 15 prospective students in the course of two days. They all went to the same high school, mostly in the same grade. That meant 15 accounts of the same schedules. Fifteen accounts of the same extracurricular activities. Fifteen accounts of nearly identical likes (physical education) and dislikes (ancient Chinese). Fifteen students who were, as far as I could tell, from identical backgrounds: educational, ethnic, linguistic, national, familial (determined by the One-Child Policy), and religious (meaning none).

***

As everyone knows, Prince was deeply religious, following not just the tenets of the Jehovah's Witnesses but also a theology all his own. Touré masterfully describes Prince's spirituality as a connection between life, death, love, loss, carnality, morality, sex, and celibacy with an exuberance -- with a disregard for contradiction that only he could manage. The earthly endeavors at which Prince excelled, and redefined, include singing, fashion, showmanship, composing, and, of course, guitar-playing, among so many others.

Of course, Prince could be a bit much. I blush at the mention of used Trojans as much as I marvel at the description of sideways parking jobs. I'd hardly recommend all of his songs to high school kids. And yet, in his embrace of sexuality, celebration of his ethnicity, rejection of gender norms, and in all the talents that make him so beloved, Prince is the very embodiment of diversity.

America has always reveled in freedom of choice. Prince made our choices infinitely more vast: musically, stylistically, lyrically, sexually, racially, spiritually. And they are just that: choices, which we can accept or reject as we see fit. Humming "Starfish and Coffee" while I make breakfast doesn't require me to sing "Darling Nikki" in the shower.

Which brings me back to China.

***

I give my students a lot of advice. I recommend books. I help them investigate colleges. I give them writing exercises. Normal stuff. But I really wish they had something that I cannot give them: diversity.

Americans celebrate diversity so often, it sometimes feels like a cliché. We approach it inconsistently, embracing it one moment, fleeing from it the next, and never quite knowing how to make the most of it. But make no mistake: despite offensive stereotypes about "real Americans," we have diversity in abundance. Prince is just the most extreme example.

What does diversity mean when you grow up in its midst? It surely means that you may lack the sense of distinctiveness, unity, and history you'd get in, say, tribe or ethnic enclave. But diversity comes with so many benefits. It means getting used to people who look different from you. It means you're exposed to different perspectives based on different life experiences. It means that ideas get to clash, change, and mature. It means getting to appreciate different styles. It means learning without even knowing that you're learning. It means getting comfortable with the "other" rather than fearing it. It means you empathize. The unusual becomes normal. Life becomes richer.

(Granted, plenty of Americans think that diversity is a bad thing. They are wrong, of course. But they are entitled to their opinions.)

My students attend Chinese schools in Chinese cities with Chinese kids. They speak the Chinese language, learn the Chinese curriculum, are taught by Chinese teachers, and live under one-party rule. They grow up under a Chinese family structure: only children, no aunts, no uncles, no cousins. Those who apply to Chinese colleges do so by taking a single exam. They are not themselves diverse; moreover, they are not even exposed to diversity. All of this is in the wake of the Cultural Revolution, which took place but two generations ago and wiped out entire belief systems and collective identities.

***

When Chinese students apply to American colleges, many have a hard time distinguishing themselves. Few of them can refer to distinctive ethnic traditions, religious beliefs, challenging encounters with prejudice, or enlightening discoveries of difference. None of this is their fault. None of it constitutes a moral failing. And none of it has anything to do with their academic potential or work ethic. They simply have few of the chances to pick up new ideas, appreciate different styles, be challenged by different perspectives that their American counterparts take for granted.

I think of Prince because he represents a world that my students cannot readily experience. For them, single song -- a single sly smile, even -- can be an unburied treasure.

I'm not saying that anyone needs to learn about the world through pop music. Nor am I saying that Americans can't stand to learn more about the rest of the world -- or that we too can't learn from outsiders' perspectives. Fortunately, cultures reveal themselves in many ways.

The world has writers, artists, filmmakers, and scholars and, yes, musicians whose gifts extend as far as the Internet, and the firewalls, will allow. It has telephones and airplanes too. If I have one wish for my students, it's for them to discover difference, embrace provocation, and have chances to consider other ways of learning, feeling, and being than the ones that they encounter regularly.

For students who have been immersed in a single culture, these epiphanies can be more powerful than anything that the typical cosmopolitan American might ever experience. We've seen it all. As long as they are aware and open, my Chinese students get to discover the world afresh.

The night Prince died, I took a walk, admired the skyscrapers, and cued up some hits. They were affecting as ever, especially "Purple Rain," which I listened to for the millionth time under that Technicolor sky. I can only imagine how my students will react when they hear it for the first time.