Guitarist Yang Han
Photo by Kelley Brower Photography

(The story of guitarist Yang Han originally appeared in Common Ground Magazine.)

In our busy culture and high-energy jobs, we sometimes serve too long beside and around people before we allow them to expand our worlds just a little bit.

From late August 2016 to early May 2017, I exchanged one-sentence conversations with a young Chinese man who worked in the Susquenita Middle School cafeteria, cleaning tables and washing dishes.

I was drawn to him immediately because he had a permanent smile. Nearly every day, after covering fifth-grade lunch duty, Han, as he told me to call him, would say, “You go home now. You work hard enough.” Since I was old enough to dream of retirement, I wanted to take his advice, but teachers don’t get off that easily, so I’d laugh and walk away.

One day in January, I gave him permission to go home early. He said, “It’s about time.”

In May, with the school year nearly gone, I mentioned my interest in becoming a writer. Han said he wanted to be a musician. Don’t we all want to be writers, musicians, artists, or professional athletes? I thought. But I’d never met a musician from China before.

Over the next weeks, I asked Han questions and found he came from a world so distant from my little corner in central Pennsylvania that I might have missed seeing it altogether if it weren’t for those small conversations.

Growing Up in China

Future guitarist Yang Han was born and raised in the port city of Nanjing on China’s east coast. Han’s parents grew up during the Cultural Revolution when Mao Ze Dong repressed artists, writers, and musicians, and academic success was considered bourgeois and snobbish. The government promoted “revolutionary music” based on political and patriotic themes. Freedom of expression was not permitted.

When I asked about growing up during the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s and 1970s, Han said his father’s generation did not respect teachers and would not listen to them. Most learning came from political propaganda or practical knowledge from parents and neighbors.

The revolution fostered distrust for anyone who might disagree with current political values and created a depreciation of learning. The Chinese government gave farmers and workers the highest places of honor and military leadership positions.

Today, Chinese educational systems often exclude the arts in deference to academic skills. Han fears many Chinese students are growing up with no opportunity to develop creativity.

Han was more fortunate. His father paid 15% of his monthly income to provide music lessons for his son. When he was six years old, Han began studying classical guitar.

He learned to read music using the Western conservatory notation system familiar to our culture rather than China’s ancient gongche musical notation, which uses characters placed in up and down columns and read from right to left. Gongche notation does not define the length of notes played. Many Chinese musicians today learn the Jianpu system, which uses numbers to signify tones and dashes and dots to express tempo.

Students who do well in Chinese elementary, middle, and high schools can attend college. Han attended Nanjing University of the Arts, studying and playing electric guitar. China has many kinds of music today, including J-pop (Japanese popular music), C-pop (Mandopop and Cantopop), and K-pop (a European and Korean mix). Still, Han fell in love with American-born jazz, rock ’n’ roll, and blues.

After college, Han worked at a studio in China, writing music for cartoon shows, doing voice-overs, and creating sound effects. Animation production in China is a $15 billion industry.

But Han was unsatisfied with his work in the “horribly bad” studios, making what he called “cultural garbage.” While China has more than 4500 animation studios, many sacrifice quality and serve as venues for the government to boost GDPs (gross domestic product) to rival Japan and the U.S.A.

From China to Central Pennsylvania

So, how did this Chinese musician come to work in a rural Central Pennsylvania middle school cafeteria? Han said he was fortunate. Unlike many Chinese young people, he was able to marry someone he loved rather than someone chosen for him.

Han’s wife, Katie, was once a grinning little blond student in my seventh-grade math classes. Last year, she spent time in our district assisting English Language Learners and frequently visited my sixth-grade classroom to hang out and help out. Katie’s mother was a Susquenita Elementary School librarian, and her father taught an unforgettable eighth-grade science class at Susquenita for many years.

Katie went to Nanjing in August 2010 on a Chinese government scholarship through the State University of New York (SUNY). She studied Mandarin at Nanjing University, one of China’s oldest and most influential schools. Katie continued at NJU for a second year, even when her scholarship ended, and then got a job working as a “foreign” teacher at a Giraffe American English school.

Han and Katie met through a mutual friend and were married in Nanjing on October 9, 2011. There was no ceremony, only a signing of papers. Weddings in China, often like weddings in our country, are costly.

The newlyweds planned to stay in China, but after visiting Pennsylvania in the summer of 2013, they decided to apply for permission to move back to Katie’s homeland.

Katie worked in various teaching positions for the next year and a half, including two weeks teaching English at Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Han spent much of that time as lead guitarist with a Brit Pop band, V-Day, touring China and waiting for his American green card.

From the school cafeteria to the spotlight

After arriving in Pennsylvania, Han didn’t get a job in the music industry right away because he didn’t have a driver’s license or speak English adequately.

Working in a middle school allowed him to learn from co-workers, staff, and students. Han played electric guitar for a local church worship team. My sixth graders said he is one of the best musicians ever.

In recent years, guitarist Yang Han has performed for three seasons in “The Christmas Show” at the Lancaster, PA, American Music Theatre and for the Fulton Theatre. His musical career includes acting in a Sheetz commercial, performing for weddings, restaurants, and local celebrations, and giving guitar lessons. Han, Katie, and their little girl Juni live in Harrisburg.

As the last days of that school year came and went, I worked to learn all I could without keeping Han from his tasks. In the years that followed, I had to work all day because no one else would permit me to go home after lunch duty. I should keep looking, though. Maybe I’ll find another talented artist behind the lunch counter.

Photo by Kelley Brower Photography

For more stories of amazing people, read House on the Highway and Looking for Raggedy Ann

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