Coming Home

The most authentic discovery brought back from China.

Illustration by David Curtis.
Illustration by David Curtis.

“This band is soooo good, I can’t believe they aren’t famous yet,” my co-worker whispered.

We were sitting in a restaurant and bar, our wide table festooned with tacky gold-plated inlays. Beneath our feet, faux marble floors, and above our heads, gaudy, oversized chandeliers, the fake glitter and glitzy decor so common in many Chinese venues. The only things authentic were the cuisine and the talent on the small stage – Xiao Juan and the Residents from the Valley.

This was Beijing in 2006, a city of ancient traditions on the cutting edge as China reinvented itself – albeit sometimes awkwardly – in the runup to the ’08 Olympics. The sprawling capital was fueled by a fast-paced economy and optimistic people, while new experiences awaited foreigners around every corner. As the world’s entry point to an emerging nation, Beijing was filled with historic temples and gleaming new shopping districts. Dusty old opera houses overflowed with colorful performances and boisterous, sunflower-seed chomping patrons.

The band – a folk trio, two guys and a woman – stood out as something special in my whirlwind of experiences. Li Qiang played a dazzling guitar. Yu Zhou supported him on percussions, his precise rhythms creating a tight, straightforward sound. But Xiao Juan was the showstopper. With her straight black hair flowing down the length of her back, she sat perched on a stool, her voice warm and textured, captivating.

I went to see them most Friday nights, and after about the third time, the band members began stopping by my table between sets. Not every foreigner can say they’ve discovered a local treasure. Romping along the Great Wall with everyone else was fine, but this was mine. I soon became the band’s only groupie.

Sitting around between sets, drinking Tsingtao beer or green tea, we traded information about our families and music. Considering the language barrier, our exchanges would not be mistaken for smooth conversations. Instead, we cobbled together stray vocabulary words and punctuated everything with emphatic hand gestures and expressions. As our camaraderie grew, our choppy sentences began to feel normal, at least to us.

Like many drummers, Yu Zhou was the most animated. Unreserved with foreigners, he brought his full personality forward, communicating with his eyes and flowing gestures. His personality was intense but approachable, and when he spoke, you felt like the only person in the room.

But Yu Zhou had a back story unknown to most, including me. He quietly practiced an outlawed religion called Falun Gong. Although it is a peaceful religion based on equality and harmony, for years, the Chinese government had been waging war against Falun Gong. The Communist Party is suspicious of any organization that inspires people and brings them together. And Falun Gong had their full attention.

During a routine traffic stop, police found Falun Gong books and pamphlets in Yu Zhou’s car and immediately took him into custody. Ten days later, they called his sister and said he was gravely ill. By the time family members reached the police station, Yu Zhou was dead.

The shocking news spread through Chinese social media. It reached me in a small cafe on a glum, rainy afternoon. I pounded down my fist, and kicked a chair across the room.

The death of a Falun Gong member while in custody is rarely happenstance. Human rights groups like Amnesty International report that thousands have died in prison, and the testimony of former detainees attest to torture sessions and cruel treatment. The official story was that Yu Zhou died of complications from diabetes while on a hunger strike. But he wasn’t diabetic, and that’s certainly just a story. He died at the hands of his government.

Losing my friend to government repression forever changed China for me. Until then, I rejoiced whenever the government announced economic reforms or new personal freedoms. Changes like the freedom to travel or decide where to send your kids to school seemed part of a trend toward more liberal democratic philosophies. I rationalized government brutality in context with other shortcomings, and what government doesn’t have plenty of those? Yes, I thought, the government is authoritarian, but look how things are moving.

But with Yu Zhou’s death, the idea that the government could ever truly reform its human rights agenda for its own people seemed as false as the cheap décor in that restaurant/bar. I realized that I had to travel halfway around the world to truly appreciate how much trust Americans place in democracy and in the right to free elections.

I also realized that it didn’t matter how many friends or special discoveries I made in China; one day, I would eventually pack up and come home. Although I will always carry a love in my heart for the Chinese people, I couldn’t throw in long-term with the Party leaders who run the country.

I’ve been back in the U.S. for two years now, and I still enjoy listening to the music of Xiao Juan and the Residents from the Valley. But I enjoy being home even more. And I look forward more than ever to our 2016 presidential election.

‘Coming Home’ appears in the September 2015 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Be the first to get every new issue. Subscribe.