American William Boyd is steeped in China and surrounded by love in five generations of his Shanghainese family, including his wife and three children. He acts in local comedy-dramas and sings Huju Opera in a TV contest this Friday.
Chinese culture used to be a mystery for William Boyd when he was a little boy in Ohio in the United States. He was fascinated by his grandmother's ink-wash painting and the fables she told him that conveyed Oriental philosophy and wit.
China may not have been in his blood, but it was definitely in his heart.
Now Boyd, a 28-year-old PhD in musical arts, has become a China hand. The Irish-American has mastered Mandarin and several regional dialects, and he plays a few traditional Chinese instruments, such as erhu (two-stringed bowed musical instrument). He also has a lovely Shanghai wife, Victoria Yin, and three children, one girl and two boys.
"I feel more comfortable in Shanghai than I ever imagined I could be, while I was in the West," says Boyd, a musicologist. He says his affinity with China is something like destiny. He feels surrounded by love in a family of five generations in which the great grandmother graciously corrects his steadily improving Shanghainese and he works for his father-in-law's costume company.
Boyd won the third prize in last year's TV show "Laugh to Fame," which selects "Comedy Kings" from the public after testing their performing ability, ballad singing and ability to speak in dialects, such as Shanghainese, Suzhou dialect.
His later performance in popular local TV comedy-dramas "The Old Uncle" and "The Happy Apartment" was impressive. This year, however, Boyd aims for a tougher challenge. He entered for the TV opera contest, "The Grand Stage."
"Traditional Chinese opera features a harmonious fusion of singing, dancing, performing and musical dialogues," Boyd says. "I enjoy it immensely because it frees me to become a part of the music."
A student of Huju Opera master Chen Yu and his own mother-in-law -- a Huju Opera fan -- Boyd also receives instructions from farmers and housewives, all opera fans.
Huju Opera, or literally Shanghai opera, is around 200 years old; it is generally realistic, not symbolic, and portrays ordinary people.
"I don't know how many times a farmer or a housewife has come up to me and helped me understand some obscure point in the opera that I was singing," recalls Boyd. "Each time this happens, the audience member does it with such interest and friendliness that it genuinely moves me and helps me to improve."
Boyd's hard work paid off. After the two-month competition, Boyd has successfully entered the semifinal with his beautiful singing and compelling presence on stage. The semifinal will be aired on Dragon TV this Friday at 7:30 PM when Boyd will present a famous Huju excerpt from "Meeting in the Buddhist Convent."
However, Boyd is saddened that Chinese opera is not as popular with younger generation as it was with their parents and grandparents.
"I don't pretend that my involvement will preserve or diffuse it to the West, but I do believe that you can learn the ideas that make Chinese people distinctly Chinese in their philosophy and worldview by participating in the opera scene," he says. "There is no place where traditional culture and modes of thought have been preserved better."
Boyd's fascination with Chinese culture was fueled by his family.
His American grandmother collected Chinese art, ceramics, paintings and statues of the Buddha statues. Another aspect of his family's connection with China was the experience of his grandfather, who helped China in World War II and told Boyd many stories about the courage of the Chinese.
Boyd's great great-grandfather was a friend of Wu Tingfang, China's ambassador to the United States during the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). He opened the Chinese Embassy in Washington, DC.
The influence of my grandparents was so great that the first book that I read, cover to cover, was one about Chinese history," Boyd recalls.
Born in Ohio, Boyd earned a bachelor's and then a master's degrees in music education from South Indiana University, and a doctorate in music education from Louisiana University.
However, as an Irish-American, he had a hard time making friends on campus at first. "It seemed that the only people who took me under their wings were the Chinese and South Korean students around me," Boyd says. He eventually became part of the Asian community on campus. "This started me on my course to becoming deeply involved with Asian culture, and sympathetic to the historical and cultural background that made them think differently from Americans."
He became such a fixture in the campus' Asian community that his Chinese friends gave him a nickname, Jidan, or "egg," which meant that, like an egg, he was white on the outside and yellow on the inside, essentially Chinese or Asian.
"Although I fully embrace my own heritage and love the classical European tradition, I consider being called an 'egg' a great compliment," Boyd smiles.
For many foreign expatriates, studying Chinese is a headache. However, it took Boyd only five months to grasp the language. In addition to learning daily Chinese from his wife, he was also keen on chatting with migrant workers. They taught him authentic dialects from Jiangsu and Anhui provinces.
"'Being friends' is a knack for language," Boyd chuckles. "Don't be afraid of making mistakes." He is also deeply drawn by the charm of Chinese music and martial arts.
"Chinese music maintained its musical form to reflect its philosophy of perfection and balance," he explains. "Opera, therefore, is first and foremost a study in self-control. The fabulous Chinese martial arts are also about self-control and inherent balance rather than attacks."
Boyd's Shanghainese wife Yin is important in his close connection with China. "It was love at first sight," Boyd says.
It was when a South Korean friend invited him to a Korean student activity that he saw Yin for the first time. She introduced herself as Chinese "and I responded with a horribly mangled 'tai bang le!' ('Great!)."
Now they have three children, Eden, 3, Liam, 2, and Isaac, one month old. Boyd describes himself a dedicated family man who loves doing everything with his kids. "My greatest pleasure in life is watching my children grow up, and my greatest desire in life is to be an awesome dad."
Now helping his father-in-law's costume company, Boyd learns about Chinese culture in his leisure. He enjoys living in this close Shanghai family. "There are five generations of our family living under one roof -- my wife's great-grandmother is in her 90s," he says. "I feel like I have been embraced and respected as a full family member and as a person, and I think that the Shanghainese pattern of family life has much that it can teach to modern America. The family-centered lifestyle is a must for giving children a sense of security."
He loves getting up in the morning, eating dumplings with the grandparents, watching the kids play with elderly relatives, drinking tea with his father-in-law, singing Huju Opera with his mother-in-law, and practicing his Shanghainese on great-grandmother.
"All these things represent a kind of bliss for me," Boyd notes. "Of course, they laugh at my Shanghainese pronunciation and correct me a lot, but I am glad for their patience and kindness. I think the thing that touched my parents-in-law the most was my willingness to take their last name as my last name in China -- now they consider me even closer than a son-in-law, and call me nitzi (son) instead."
He shares his funniest joke with Shanghai Daily, cracked by his three-year-old daughter, Eden: "People on the streets had been calling her yang nunu (beautiful, foreign-looking child), and she came home to tell me about it. Abah, she said to me in Shanghai dialect, gnou zi yang nunu ... na nong zi yang baba va? (If I am a beautiful, foreign child, then are you a beautiful, foreign daddy?)"
Boyd has already had some wonderful opportunities to act as an ambassador for traditional Chinese art in America. In February he went back to the States to host a bilingual Chinese New Year celebration at California State University in Fresno. He was also honored to perform several Chinese ancient pieces that he had arranged and adapted for the keyboard and Western vocal style.
"The response was amazing," he says. "Dozens of American college students came up to me afterward and expressed an intense interest to learn about Chinese music and culture, and I encouraged all of them to come here and learn for themselves. It was an exciting time and I look forward to doing more along this line of work."
William Boyd's Huju Opera show
Date: April 13, 7:30 PM
Boyd's take on:
Chinese tend to stereotype Shanghainese a little too much. Of course, there are wimpy men and unreasonable women in every city worldwide, but people seem to look for proof of this fact in Shanghai in particular. I think Yao Ming is a great example of Shanghainese masculinity, not at all the madasoh (A term referring to the group of Shanghainese men who do all the housework) that you hear about. I see many graceful, modern, effective women all around me in Shanghai who don't fit the stereotype, either.
A lot of foreigners live in relative isolation in this city, and I think a lot can be done to encourage this community to embrace Shanghai as their second hometown and become more involved with the cultural and civic life.
The easiest thing is make other expat friends when you come to Shanghai, but the most rewarding path is to ditch the bar scene, get out on the street with a Chinese dictionary, and start making local friends. Shanghainese people are some of the most hospitable in the world, and you will find yourself quickly surrounded with a real community that you couldn't imagine back home.
(Shanghai Daily April 11, 2007)