Through his Asian eyes
Author：Wu Xiujie Source： Update Time：2012-07-26
Mark H. Levine, a musician and teacher in China, is playing guitar and singing on a Chinese TV program. Photo: Yue Hua
“I’m sorry, my Chinese is poor.
Never mind. I just wanna make friends with you.”
Wearing a fine cowboy hat and full, untrimmed beard, Dr. Mark H. Levine, sitting in the audience, started to play guitar and sing a catchy song in Chinese I’m sorry, my Chinese is poor. Together with two other foreign singers, the American musician and university teacher took part in the opening show of a TV program Chinese bridge, a Chinese proficiency competition for foreign college students, on July 2, 2012 in Changsha, the capital of Hunan Province.
If you carefully look at the online video of his performance, the guitar Levine was using has his cowboy portrait imprinted on the soundboard. It was a gift specifically made for him by one of China’s oldest music instrument companies.
The Chinese embroidered floral pattern on the guitar strap as well as China’s national flag design on the guitar bag create a strong Chinese folk flavor and reveal the music genre of its master.
Dr. Levine came to China in 2005. “All the songs I have written have some references to China. More than 50 songs I have written record my stories in China,” Levine said, wearing his trademark cowboy hat as usual.
Holding a PhD in sociology, Levine writes what he sees in China in his songs, turning them into a kind of a record of the social history of China.
In the song Earthquake Earthquake he composed for China’s Wenchuan deadly earthquake in 2008, he writes, “the living cried for the dead who were beside them…10,000 students lost their breath in the classrooms, and there, they met their doom…”, which could easily bring the tragic memories of the disaster among most Chinese people and force people to take a step back from the hustle and bustle of modern life and, think.
“I wasn’t really intending to write that song; when I read some stuff about the earthquake, the song came to me.”
Levine loves Chinese folk songs and learning to sing them. He downloads the Chinese songs on his mp3 player and listens over and over. He then figures out how to play the songs on guitar. As for the lyrics, he writes them down in Pinyin on small paper cards. “I carry these cards around wherever I go, like sitting in the subway, studying…” he said.
There are quite a few group pictures of him with Chinese folk singers in his cell phone. “One Chinese singer I always want to meet is Dao Lang,” he said. Before he came to China, Levine only knew one Chinese musician - Song Zuying, a renowned soprano singer, from a DVD brought back to the US by a friend. “I had a wonderful opportunity to meet her last year in Inner Mongolia (Automomous Region), and I like her singing very much.”
Dr. Levine was taking a group picture with students 2010 Graduating Class of Minzu University of China. Photo: Courtesy of Fu Han
Teaching in China
“Teaching is my job. Nothing conflicts with that job. And if opportunities are available and I have the time, then I perform as much I can.”
Dr. Levine is now teaching in Minzu University of China, one of China’s key universities located in Beijing that enrolls mainly students from the country’s 56 ethnic groups.
Having taught in China for years, Dr. Levine talks about one educational problem he has observed. “Many Chinese students as well as teachers have an institutional inferiority complex,” Levine said.
“That happens if individuals have that. But lots of people have that on an institutional level.”
“They think that they are not as good as schools in the countries like the US or England. They should be better, like the other places…I don’t think that’s necessarily accurate,” Levine stressed. “I think it’s a problem in their thinking.”
“So part of what then happens is more students seek to go somewhere else. Often times I think it would be better if some of those students stay here to help improve to whatever extent the perceived problems within the education system in China rather than go somewhere else to personally get around it.”
One of the courses Levine teaches is called western culture. As he starts with ancient Greece and Rome and talks about complex topics in English, sometimes, he finds himself quite frustrated in terms of getting his point across. “I have to stop, saying to myself ‘Oh, my god. They are studying this in a language that is not their own!’” Levine said in a surprised tone.
“I don’t speak Chinese. You are speaking my language. You should be proud. That doesn’t mean your English is perfect. You can get better, but you should start with confidence looking at what you have accomplished.”
“I am sorry, my Chinese is poor”
Levine is not opposed to learning Chinese though it takes time and effort. “Frankly speaking”, Levine said, “I have an extraordinarily interesting and fascinating busy life.”
“Sometimes people say to me ‘Mark, if you learn Chinese you could do more things yourself.’ My answer is I’m not interested in doing things by myself.”
“I can do a little bargaining. People understand body language. People understand that if someone helps me and we go to somewhere and take four hours, they get four hours of private English instruction which they can’t get in a class. And it doesn’t cost them money. So they don’t have to go to some training center to get this extra exposure. And people always want to help me out.”
Dr. Levine has lists of things to do - a long list of songs that he has started but hasn’t finished, and a longer list of Chinese songs that he is trying to learn. He has a book he hasn’t finished writing and a list of other articles that he would like to write…
“The list is too long. I’m running out of time. So I have to work faster. I have to do more.”
“On the day we met,
You stole my heart.
I knew from you,
I could never part
My lovely Asian eyes.”
Fu Han contributed to this story.