A Conversation with Wyclef Jean A Conversation with Lang Lang
Claim to Fame: The most famous pianist in China, the 25-year-old is slated to play at the Beijing Olympics.
Author: Journey of a Thousand Miles: My Story, due out this month from Spiegal & Grau.
Big Break: At 17, with just 12 hours' notice, he stepped in for André Watts with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. (At 13, he played all 24 Chopin Etudes at the Beijing Concert Hall.)
Secret Pleasure: Hip-hop. "It's very natural and sincere. That's what classical music needs to learn."
Current Obsession: Connecting young people to classical music.
Next Trip: Cities across China, with the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra.
Most Exotic Trip: "Zanzibar. We were on a rooftop that was designed to look like a flying boat out of an Arabian tale. Some musicians started playing, and I could hear the chanting from the mosque below—ha-ba-la, ha-ba-la. Then the wind came up. Suddenly it felt like we were flying."
Favorite Trip: "I drove a jeep to the Yellow River, in Shaanxi Province, and slept in a cave. Everything was yellow—the earth, the water, everything."
Favorite Food in Beijing: "My mother's dumplings."
CNT: How has China changed since you left 11 years ago?
Lang Lang: My childhood came at a strange moment in history. Our parents weren't able to succeed because of the Cultural Revolution, so they put all the pressure on their children. Now it's competitive but in a more normal way. That's progress.
CNT: Why does China care so much about gold at the Olympics?
Lang Lang: China wants to reestablish its image from a long time ago, when it was a powerful country.
CNT: What do you think of protests against the Beijing Olympics following the crackdown in Tibet?
Lang Lang: I think the Olympics should be separate from politics.
CNT: Americans often focus on human rights issues in China. Do they misunderstand your country?
Lang Lang: Americans understand part of China. But every country has its own way of thinking, and Americans should learn more about Chinese traditions, such as Confucius and legendary stories—which are as important to knowing China as Shakespeare is to understanding the West. I'm not a politician, but I don't believe any country should interfere in another nation's affairs.
CNT: The Chinese, on the other hand, often think of America as a bully. Do they misunderstand this country?
Lang Lang: The Chinese think America is a great nation with its own problems. They think they should leave those to Americans to sort out. Some Chinese find Americans fake. I find Americans very sincere.
CNT: What should Americans do when they visit China to understand the country better?
Lang Lang: They should spend time, with a translator, talking to Chinese people who don't speak English and experiencing traditional life in the hutongs, or alleys. Ordinary Chinese are not globalized at all. Americans have to realize that, overall, China is changing fast, but it's still a very poor country.
CNT: When you first returned to China in 2001, you faced jealousy. Has that changed?
Lang Lang: Before, people admired what America did, but they didn't like the fact that America is such a powerful country. So if you were trained in the United States, it made them uncomfortable. Now I'm a national hero. China has become much more confident.
CNT: You have described nasty politics and corruption in China's music academies. Has the world of music changed too?
Lang Lang: Before, it was like a secret society, but the Internet has really opened things up. Now anyone can go on the Internet and criticize their teacher.
CNT: Is that democracy?
Lang Lang: Yes, I think it is. The government can't control the Internet. Now you see all kinds of free discussion.
CNT: Do you ever tire of travel?
Lang Lang: I need to travel. It's a musician's responsibility to share his music.
CNT: Has your work with UNICEF changed you?
Lang Lang: When I traveled to Tanzania to visit children with AIDS, one kid told me, "Sometimes my friends disappear." I realized that he meant they die. It was a great education for me. It made me think more about helping others.
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