My Simple Realization: Music Transcends Time and Distance

Plucking a zither for a crowd of strangers on a city sidewalk, Chelsea Lin feels tied to her roots nearly 8,000 miles away.

illustration of woman playing zither
Photo: Sanny van Loon/Shop Around

As a kid, I wasn't interested in sci-fi or supernatural powers. I was a fan of "The Monkey King" and "Cavalier with White Eyebrows," the ballads Waigong performed in his rattan chair. My waigong ("maternal grand- father" in Mandarin) was a musical storyteller who played the erhu and guzheng, Chinese instruments that supplemented his folktales about mischievous animals and noble heroes. As his assistant, I learned guzheng techniques and performed alongside him. However, when I was 12, Mama and I moved to New York City from Xiamen, China, and things changed. My interest in Chinese arts faded as my classes and extracurricular activities monopolized my time.

In 2020, Waigong passed away abruptly. I hadn't seen him in more than five years, and Mama and I couldn't even attend his funeral in China due to our immigration status at the time. The 7,900 miles between us numbed the realization that Waigong was gone forever, and I buried my grief under piles of homework.

When I found my guzheng gathering dust in the attic, guilt tapped me on the shoulder. Waigong loved traditional instruments and how each note communicated centuries of Chinese history. It was now up to me to continue his legacy, and so I do.

By the timeI set up the guzheng at a park in Queens, a crowd had gathered, intrigued by the elegance of the hanfu, the embroidered silk garment I wore for the performance. With an awkward grin behind my mask,I wrapped the bamboo plectra, the guzheng's picks, around my sweaty fingers. Instead of performing to the friendly faces of neighbors like Ihad as a child back in China, I was in front of a crowd of strangers, who might be hearing traditional Chinese music for the first time. I took a deep breath, letting my fingers run smoothly down the 21 strings. Waigong used to say music transcends time and distance. At that moment, I finally understood what he meant. With every note, I was transported to his backyard—it was as if Waigong were still sitting next to me, singing stories and occasionally giving me a smile and nod.

Applause for my performances cannot ease my regret about not spending more time with Waigong, but my audience's respect for Chinese culture gives me hope that misconceptions toward Asians can be overcome. In light of the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes during the pandemic, I hope my music provides some comfort to fellow Asian Americans, while creating a cozy corner for cultural appreciation on the streets and in the parks of New York City.

Though the pandemic took away my chance of seeing Waigong again, performing the guzheng lets me keep his stories alive. In a country unfamiliar with classic Chinese instruments, I own a momentous stage.

Chelsea Lin is a freshman at USC Marshall School of Business, a third-year mentee at Girls Write Now, and a lover of instant noodles.

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