While walking down a desolate dirt road from our hotel to Old Town Shaxi, we were asking ourselves if we had made the best decision to stay three nights in this rural community on our trip through China’s Yunnan province. After passing through bright fields of wheat and yellow canola for at least 45 minutes, we finally reached the famous Old Town. It looked even more foreign to us since there was almost no signage in English.
Then, out of the blue on a little side street, we heard the sound of a piano from inside of what appeared to be either a hotel or a restaurant. We weren’t sure which since the name on front was written only in Chinese characters.
Never afraid of a new adventure, we entered and saw a young Chinese man playing an electric piano.
Not even knowing if he spoke any English, we introduced ourselves. He responded in English that his name was Tony and that he was the manager of the hotel. It was a two-story boutique hotel with a large beautiful inner courtyard immediately behind the lobby where he was seated at the piano.
With the help of a Chinese guidebook, Tony was just beginning to teach himself how to play the piano. He invited me to try it out and I played a few songs including “Do Re Mi” from “The Sound of Music.”
I chose that song since I knew it was from one of the only Western movies that the Chinese censors allowed during the 1960s. I had learned this fact at our previous stop in the town of Dali where I also had the opportunity to play a piano.
Our new friend invited us to sit down with him for tea in the adjacent restaurant and told us that he had been living in Shaxi for about a year. He was managing the hotel because he claimed that the ethnic Bai people who represent the majority of the local population didn’t know how to deal with the visiting Chinese tourists, let alone foreign tourists.
Tony told us that he had made a considerable fortune in a business in his home city, Hangzhou, in the eastern part of the country. For five years, he spent his time traveling all over the world visiting over 60 countries including Iran, Syria and Israel.
He is 33 years old and speaks English quite well. He has been to the United States several times but only to the West Coast. He hopes to come back to the United States to pursue a Master’s Degree in business. He is interested in opening a business exporting baijiu, a Chinese whiskey, which we had never heard about, but he explained it to us in detail.
He moved to Shaxi in the western part of the country because the Chinese government is trying to develop this area as an authentic town with clean air. After traveling so much, he was looking forward to having a chance to rest and possibly write his memoirs.
Tony offered us a ride back to our hotel which was greatly appreciated. We had been dreading having to walk back to our hotel along the dirt road beside the river as it was getting dark. We also accepted his invitation to spend the next day with him and he promised to show us his favorite spots in the city and to meet some of his friends. As we walked outside, I realized that the electric car that he had mentioned was really an electric cart (which was essentially a modified motorcycle). It belonged to the hotel and is used to carry customers’ luggage from the parking area. Previously, I had imagined that he had a Prius or some other type of electric or hybrid vehicle.
He helped us into the back of the cart and transported Meryl and me back to the Old Theatre Inn which was about 15 minutes away. You should have seen us riding through the city! Several residents seeing Westerners bouncing in the back of the cart laughed and yelled out “Hello!” in their finest English.
The lesson we learned from this experience was that the love of piano can be shared by people from all over the world. Music in general and especially playing the piano forms an immediate connection. It also showed us that if you are willing to suspend your fears and pre-conceived notions about people, you can enjoy the opportunity to make friends almost anywhere you go.