As a child, my mother always dreamt of being a classical pianist. Her head was filled with the lush melodies of timeless Austrian composers such as Haydn, Mozart, Strauss. But these hopes (and others) were shattered when China’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution purged her country of all forms of “elitism” including art, culture, education and music. Over the course of a decade, teachers, professionals and intellectuals were brutally persecuted while books, instruments and paintings burned in effigy. In short — to play the piano was punishable by death.
During this time China’s urban youth, which included my mother and her three sisters, were sent to the countryside for “re-education” where my mother’s eager fingers never met a single piano key. Instead they played a harsh staccato over grain and rice crops scattered across the endless acres of her farming commune.
By the time she escaped the constraints of communist China, she was already well into her 30’s and had her fingers full with the needy demands of her two small children. She never did fulfill her dreams of playing classical piano (well, yet) but her surviving cross-continental hopes were eventually distilled through to my brother and I when she scraped together enough money to buy a third-hand upright Baldwin and secure a teacher who accepted the $12/hour fee she proposed.
And at first, for the excitable 4- and 6 year-olds that we were, the piano was an amazing and novel thing; we marveled at how it could express the cacophonous energy that was inside us. We bounced our spry fingers up and down, left and right, over and under the aged wooden teeth to fill the house with our music. Though we each played that aging piano for eight years until high school, for my brother and I who never had to long for artistic freedom, it was easy for us to take this luxury for granted. Looking back now, I now wish I had fostered the drive and discipline to bring my mother’s own musical dreams to life.
By contrast, Vienna represented everything China wasn’t during the backward era my mother grew up in. Known as the “City of Music” and the “City of Dreams”, Vienna is a world capital for music, culture, innovation. And during our three day stay in this cultural oasis, I heard those same melodies my mother dreamt of playing as a child and was reminded of how fortunate my brother and I were to have had the political luxuries we grew up with. At the age when my parents carried my infant brother to a completely foreign country to escape the brutal persecution, I was comfortably vacationing through Europe — just because I could.
To this day, I’ll never forget the way her eyes danced (and still do) regrettably across the opalescent black and white keys of our piano, playing out the lost chords of her ghost generation. How an instrument we took for granted represents the childhood my mother never had. The image will always be a reminder of how the piano is more than just a wooden instrument. Even though she never had a chance to play, the movement she created and allowed us to play out was the loudest and most triumphant of them all — one that gave us freedom and a better life.
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