Andrew Singer of Yarmouth has just released his compelling new memoir “China Sings to Me: A Journey into the Middle Kingdom and Myself” (Station Square Media, 2018).
Singer, 52, who practices law in Dennis, spent the 1986-1987 college year in China. In 1986 both China and Singer were very different, and one of the great pleasures of this well-written coming-of-age story lies in observing how Singer changes and matures during the year he spent in what was, 32 years ago, a relatively backward country.
It is trite to note that college students today, unlike older generations, never lived in a world without cellphones, the internet and ATMs. But think further on this — what if, at the age of 20, you flew halfway around the world to China, from your home on Cape Cod, and then waited five days before calling your parents from the Beida Foreign Telephone and Telegraph Office to tell them you survived the trip?
Singer did just that.
“I was truly on my own,” Singer said in a telephone interview last week. “I was significantly immature.” His trip to China was “a big eye-opener for me.”
Singer was raised by parents whose backgrounds were Eastern European. Although he was raised Jewish, he was always “fixated with China and all things Chinese.” After graduating from Dennis-Yarmouth Regional High School in 1984, he went on to Vassar College and then on his junior year abroad. “I was a nervous nerd, self-conscious and easily excitable,” he writes. As well as his family, he left behind his girlfriend Jill, with whom he had become inseparable during his sophomore year.
Now, it is almost inescapable that someone who had loved China from afar as Singer had would be disillusioned.
It is 90 degrees and humid when Singer arrives in his dorm room in Beijing University, 7,000 miles from Yarmouth. The room is filthy, crawling with cockroaches probably lured there by the pots and pans of his Japanese roommate.
In 1986 Beijing was not, at least, known for its polluted air. Yet “there was a very unique taste or smell to all the coal being burned when you’d walk outside,” Singer recalls. But “it was not like the smog complex now.” Some undeveloped places were still “nice and clean.”
Still, Singer soon had to deal with everything from getting stuck on a flooded street in an “auto rickshaw” to his first shot of “Chinese white lightning” to riding on a claustrophobically crowded “hot, smoky, and noisy” train. He deals with local doctors for medical problems ranging from a sprain to dengue fever. And he continues fighting the cockroaches in his room.
Running through the book is Singer’s romance with Beth, a Chinese-American woman he meets at the university. “Beth is the jade I discovered in China. More precious than gold,” he writes. “China captures my heart, and Beth is my China.”
As the weather turns cold, in November the two go away for a weekend in Chengde. They dine on Mongolian hotpot — exotic food has a big place in this memoir. They ride bicycles around the semi-rural area followed by a tractor pulling a trailer of squealing pigs, and “it is hard to imagine being farther from Cape Cod than I do at this moment.”
Yet home always tugs at Singer. He rants about a package sent by his mother. When he is in a funk, Beth brings him a meal of egg salad on white bread, potato chips and orange soda—comfort food fit for a Cape Codder.
If living in a foreign land cut off from home for months on end isn’t enough, suddenly the couple has to deal with a very adult issue — Beth suspects she’s pregnant. She announces she plans to have the baby. “I am not emotionally stable enough, or intellectually strong enough, to attempt a comeback to this statement, and it hangs out there,” he writes. The two then go off for class. Eventually they learn this is a false alarm.
Toward the end of the year, Singer’s parents visit. By now he is an old hand. “I base myself at the sweet Shangri-La Hotel as my home-away-from-campus. My parents’ room is clean, plush, and oh-so comfortable,” he writes. “The tour members treat me like a resident-expert. My conversations with the Chinese guides are substantive. At times, I almost feel like I am thinking in Chinese. Could it be possible?”
Still, by the time he leaves China, he is disillusioned “with China but not Chinese culture,” Singer says. “The passion is still in me.”
Something of that year in China has remained with Singer. He and his late wife Fanny, a Chinese-Indonesian-American woman, raised their two sons, now both in college, with a “significant Asian influence in their lives.”
In 2009 when Singer returned to China, finally, after 22 years, he found the country had “drastically changed.”
Singer will sign copies of “China Sings to Me” on Tuesday, Aug. 28 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Yellow Umbrella Books. For more information call 508-945-0144.