Literary Journalism

Jing's Journey From China to Chicago

Arindam Mukherjee

Jing Zhang sat on the couch on the third floor of Franklin Hall. She was very alert and kept looking for a hint of recognition among the people milling around her in the room. Dressed in a sky blue shirt and a long grey colored skirt, the 25-year-old Chinese girl appeared calm, but through her mind ran a mélange of thoughts simultaneously. She was here, finally, in the United States of America, in the state of Indiana, in Bloomington, to study western opera music in a renowned music school, a reality she had almost given up on several times in the past three years. And now, as she sat in the international students’ office in Indiana University, Jing waited for another long-cherished moment to unfold. She was going to meet Joanna “Jody” Knueppel, her friend whom she had never seen, but shared through emails some of her most exciting moments in her life. In the past two years, the two had developed a warm friendship across more than 16,000 miles. There were times when Jing would write to Jody in a state of utter dejection and disappointment - “Jing Zhang from Beijing, SOS!” read the title of one of the emails – and Jody would try her best to help her.

Jing didn’t have a clue what Jody looked like. From what she could gather from her emails, she pictured “a middle-aged woman, who was very good at her work.”

“Where’s Jing?.. Jiiiing” called out a dark-haired girl in a short jeans skirt and a tight black sweatshirt.

“Yes, I am here. Where’s Jody? I want to meet Jody,” asked Jing.

“Jing, is that you?” said the girl. It was then that it dawned on Jing that the girl standing in front of her was Jody herself. The American girl was nowhere near a bespectacled middle-aged lady she had imagined. Jody was in fact an attractive young brunette with steel grey eyes.

“Oh my God!” said Jing.

Tears welled up both in their eyes as they approached each other and embraced in a deep, warm hug, much to the amazement of the people around and Jody’s colleagues.

“Thank you very much for everything,” said Jing, and she wiped her tears.

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Jing Zhang was born in Qing Dao, a small town in Shandong province located in the north east of China. Her high school teachers at Qing Dao were amazed at the little girl's talent to sing. What a big voice she had, they said. They promptly chose Jing to go to the best music school in China – the China Conservatory of Music in Beijing. At that time, Jing didn't know an 'o' about western opera. Her father was a painter and mother a Chinese opera singer. Everyone in her small town including her parents encouraged her to pursue her talent in singing. But it was not until her junior year in college that larger things began to happen to Jing. She was to embark on an extraordinary experience, very alien to a traditional girl from a remote part of China. Her talents were to take her across the globe to America.

Jing was visiting Shanghai then to attend a Western opera music orientation course. At that same time, Joan Dornemann, an accomplished western opera artist and the assistant conductor of New York Metropolitan Opera, was visiting Shanghai with a group of sixteen teachers for the same program. The group had teachers from renowned opera music schools in America like Juilliard, Manhattan and Eastman. The classes they conducted were open to Shanghainese students only. Jing came from the music Conservatory in Beijing, so she was not allowed to enroll as a student in the classes. But she thought she was better off visiting any of the 15 classes. She could not sing, but at least, she could sit and see the students and the teachers perform.

"The first week, I did not practice at all," says Jing.

"After listening to other students, I thought I would lose my own voice. During lunch time, when no one was in the room, I would practice. Then when I wanted to practice loudly, I went to the ladies room. I would really warm up." With that Jing hit a random high-pitched beautiful solo, to show how loud she was.

One day, during one such creative rendition in the ladies room, a set of expert ears secretly registered Jing's loud discourse. Those set of ears was that of Joan Dornemann (later Jing would came to be known as the Bathroom Girl) Dornemann was taken aback by the sweetness of the voice, says Jing recounting what Dornemann told her.

Few minutes later Jing thought she had enough practice for the day and opened the rest room door to go back to the class. To her surprise, she found Dornemann standing there wearing a broad smile.

"Hi," said the accomplished opera conductor from New York.

Jing felt mightily embarrassed. Dornemann invited her to her class.

"What would you like to sing for me?" she asked Jing.

"I would like to sing Pace Pace."

"Could you sing something smaller, less grand?" said Dornemann, taken aback.

Jing had mentioned one of the most the difficult Italian aria, generally performed at concerts by seasoned voices of opera singers over forty five years old. But Dornemann wasn't aware that that was what Jing's Chinese teacher at the Conservatory taught her; famous arias and acts in western opera, irrespective of the level of difficulty. Jing, as an avid student, had eagerly picked up whatever she was taught.

"I only have this music prepared," said Jing.

"Ok, never mind, sing the aria if you like."

With that Jing closed her eyes and immediately cut into the famous Italian rendition. She thought that the experienced teacher would soon stop her exasperated by the young girl's inexperience. But, Dornemann didn't stop her at all. She let Jing go on till the end where the aria becomes extremely dramatic and the voice has to feather very high notes. Afterwards when Jing stopped finally, the whole classroom looked at her in awe and there was a deep silence.

Dornemann's voice eventually broke the lull.

“You know, I have never heard such a beautiful voice. It doesn't matter if you are not from Shanghai, you can join the program," she said.

Few days later Jing was part of the gala concert performed by the students, which she said was a tremendous success. After the concert, Dornemann walked into the make up room where Jing was unwinding.

"Jing, come to New York and I will help you. I hope you would come and sing in America," she said.

“Before that, I wanted to go Italy or Paris,” reminisces Jing today. “But from Joan and my brother, who came to America in 2000, I got to know that there were really good teachers in America, not in Europe, neither in Russia. That’s how I decided to come to America.”

With that, Jing flew to United States for the first time in 2001. She auditioned for four schools including Juilliard, Manhattan, Eastman and Indiana University. All the four promised scholarship to her. She felt on top of the world. Her aspirations, to become an opera singer since she was a six year old, were on a roll. After securing encouragement from the best schools in America, Jing went back to China to prepare for applying to these universities. One fine day, she received an admission letter from IU which also awarded her a scholarship of $5000. Virginia Zeani, an accomplished opera singer and a distinguished professor who taught at IU, had heard Jing’s audition and was extremely impressed with her. It was Zeani who influenced Jing to choose IU. But little did Jing know that tougher tests awaited her for the next two years in her quest to learn opera in America.

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By mid-2002, Jing was till stranded in Beijing. The American embassy there had rejected her visa. The reason, the visa officer did not much about western opera. Jing wrote a frantic email in her broken English to IU’s international office. It read:

Dear Sir/Madam:
I am sorry to tell you I was rejected by the US embassy in Beijing on 26th, July. ?
I told the Pakistani-American officer who interviewed me that IU's opera performance program was ranked the top1, but she did not like to hear it and understand opera. She said: This program is a very very very expensive, you have just got $5000 scholarship. Even I tried to show the support visa letter from Ms. Zeani and Joan Dorneman, but she did not care and just returned them to me without seeing. It is very very difficult to get the F-1 (student) visa in Beijing now. The problem is that the re-apply interview time is on 12th Sept. I do not know if you could issue a new I-20 or talk to the embassy. I need your help! Please tell me your advice...looking forward your reply...
God bless!
Yours, Jing Zhang

The email finally landed on the desk of Jody, who works at the international office. In her experience of two years, Jody had been witness to several distressed mails from prospective students abroad. But she was really touched by Jing’s email, says Jody. She exactly had the grasp of Jing’s trouble with the American consulate in Beijing. With that Jody promptly went about sending new documents and letters to the embassy. But despite her help and good word, Jing found herself tangled up in visa wrangles in Beijing. She was denied a visa for three more times and had nearly given up coming to IU. Now Jing was stuck in China for at least a year, before she could reapply. She even tried the US embassy in Shanghai, but to no avail. It seemed to Jing, that the whole world was colluding against her.

In the meantime, Jing continued to write to Jody, who tried to keep alight the Chinese girl’s dream to become a famous opera singer.
“Someone’s watching out for her,” says Jody. “Not just for her to become a star, but that’s her destiny. When she was facing difficulty to get a students’ visa in Beijing, Ms. Zeani emailed me and said, “Whatever happens, get Jing here.””

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In November 2002, when Jing was visiting Japan for a competition, she met Stephen Peck, who knew lawyers in Washington, D.C., who could help her. In March, Jing finally procured a student’s visa with the help of Peck.

She wrote immediately to Jody: “Jody..That’s great! I got the visa. Mr Peck and the lawyers helped me worked out.”

Jody laughs as she is elated and amused at the same time.

“I pictured Jing and Mr. Peck running together,” she chuckled.

And then, SARS hit China and US was denying entry to Chinese students. Jing flew to London and waited for the sanctions to loosen. That was another anxious phase in her quest to come to IU.

“I thought now I was really done for. But Stephen Peck gave me an idea. He said he had a very good friend in London. I applied for England and got British visa. Just after I left China.. it became very serious there and then I thought I was a very lucky. My mother told me that offices and government had closed offices just after I left,” says Jing.

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Jing craned her neck over the plane window to look at the city below - Chicago. Her ears hurt as the plane lost altitude and her heart pounded with its might on the walls of her chest. She felt heavy. She thought the earth would gobble up the aircraft as it approached the ground at O’ Hare airport. Tears constantly rolled down her face. She had cried most of the time on her flight from London to Chicago. Tears, she thought, how trivial they were. They came at such awkward moments and when they came they would not stop.

“Three years,” she thought - three tumultuous years of aspirations, now fulfilled in the flimsy blur of her own tears. She was finally here, in the United States, where she had dreamt to be; on her way to the best music schools in the world, to learn music, a kind of music alien to the people she grew up with in China.

She was scared, nevertheless. Never had she been this far away from her family and loved ones. And now, she was at the end of her journey she had embarked on across the world.

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The curtain came down accompanying the thunderous clap in the New York Metropolitan Opera theater in Lincoln Center. It was intermission and the audience slowly started to move out of the hall.

“That’s a marvelous opera house,” says Jing. “I listened to Diego Lawrence.. a popular young tenor.. he is a Spanish.. Barbara Celia … I watched seven different operas. Also, Joan Dornemann who is an assistant conductor there, in the little black box, near the front of the stage. So that she can conduct the musicians. In the intermission, Joan said, “Jing, come with me to the backstage.” She took me to the place she worked. I could only look at the stage, not above, or the audience behind me. I am at the orchestra level. Your back is to the audience.”

“She said, “look at the stage and look at all the audience. So when you see the audience it is the same thing when you get on the stage. It is the same view. How do you feel Jing? I said I want to stand on the stage, I want to sing, I am excited, I cannot wait.
“Well Jing, get started, one day you will get up there.”

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