A Canadian In Beijing: Turn Up The Volume

Ember Swift is the newest member of Gadling. Over the next three months, this Canadian woman will be living in and exploring China. During her time there, she’ll be posting regularly about her adventures. Check in every Wednesday and Sunday to see what China is like from a Western perspective…

Beijing is less than one week away and my musician self can barely keep the volume down. My excitement is cranking and I haven’t even started packing yet. That’s tomorrow’s task and it brings me that much closer to eventually hearing the lilt of Mandarin spoken nearly everywhere I go for a solid three months.

I am a full-time musician who has logged a lot of travel miles. I’m onto my fifth touring van since 1997, for instance, and only two died of unnatural causes (one fire, one theft) while all the others were just driven to their graves after years of loyal service. But, to give you more résumé-like context, throughout the past eleven years there have been ten different independent releases (nine albums and one DVD), thousands of performances averaging approximately one hundred and fifty per year, eight tours to Australia (our most frequent overseas destination) and lots of changes to my band line-up which I must confess includes six different drummers – yikes! All in all, it makes my résumé sound heavily steeped in experience but lacking in flavour. Of course, résumé bullet points don’t include the stories. These stories weave in and out of the awards and accolades, times of struggle and periods of prosperity, debt and recovery. They are told in songs or between songs; they’re stage material that keeps this crazy journey full of life.

At the University of Toronto, I completed a degree in East Asian Studies and have four years of university Mandarin training lodged in loyal cavities in my brain. In between university and this nearly-in-China moment, I have pursued my music career full blast (as described above). What has been missing is the subtle connection between my education and my career. Now, nine years since graduation, it’s time to bring it all together.

My life seems to be playing out like a long-laboured-over song arrangement; this is the moment when all of the players are gathered in the same space and it’s time to hear if their parts fit together. There’s excitement and tension simultaneously, but all of the amplifiers are humming and ready.

China has always been my dream destination. . . . “when the music thing was over,” as if it really would be “over” one day. It only recently occurred to me that I am the agent in making any and all dreams come true, and that I didn’t have to wait for one part of my life to die in order to birth another. Besides, who says they aren’t related? It also occurred to me that going to Beijing for three months is very much a career decision. And, it will be. Now – well, now that I’ve listened to those occurrences — the potential seems obvious. It’s spinning before me.

Not only will three months in Beijing be a luxurious block of time and space to write more songs away from the rigorous tour schedule and constant business and band dynamics, but being surrounded by the tonal beauty of the Mandarin language will push my ear into new musical territories. For me, speaking or hearing Mandarin spoken is like singing or being sung to. Top that off with the opportunity to explore what is happening in the music scene of Beijing and we alight on the research portion of my trip: I can finally dust off some undergraduate research work that was an investigation of women and music in China and the growing audibility of women’s voices in the outpouring of Chinese music. My undergrad research was limited by my geography and I always envisioned the research continuing there.

Here is the door. This is me walking through it.

I’ll be starting off my trip as a tourist. Just a couple of days in a downtown hotel before moving to the University district and setting myself up in a dorm room. I’ve already scoped some sightseeing tours that will take me to some official tourist destinations and then spit me out into the registration line at the Beijing Language and Culture University. There, I’ll be refreshing my rusty Mandarin in a part-time morning course at twenty hours a week. The rest of my time will be spent opening many live music venue doors to listen, jam, meet people and cultivate the hope that I’ll eventually bring my band to China. We are an internationally touring act, but not yet in Asia, and I do believe that this journey will yield that opportunity.

Isn’t that all potential is? Finding the open doors? Being open to opening them?

Three months in one place is a radical choice for a gypsy. Keep in mind, however, that this is a city of fourteen million people to keep me occupied! I am looking forward to undressing the underbelly of the arts scene — particularly the music world — and I am sure that three months of networking, connecting, befriending and exploring will yield colorful stories.

So, I start as a tourist, morph into a student and then morph nightly into the artist that I am. Already I’m realizing that I’m really all these things all at once; this cacophony, or symphony, is me.

How will it sound?

I don’t know for sure, but I’m turning up the volume knob anyway.

Call it trust.