Duanduan Hao, a first-year Masters pianist in Juilliard’s Music Division, brought a wealth of knowledge of his native Chinese and French culture to our conversation. In the course of our meeting, I noticed the French mannerisms and nuances so telling of his time spent in Paris. His code switching was between French and English, as with using the French word “Parisien” for the English “Parisian.” Duanduan’s unique cultural mix colors the questions below.
How did you come to play the piano?
In 1990s China it was a trend for children living in major cities to learn a special skill at school, so some learned an instrument of music like me, others sports, theatre, painting or sculpture. When I was two, I had a neighbor ten years older than me who was learning the piano. My parents found that I always got anxious when I heard the neighbor playing wrong notes! That’s the moment they discovered I was sensitive to piano, so they brought me one and I began to learn to play. That’s basically how my relationship with piano began.
Tell us about your native China.
I was born in the North and moved to Shanghai when I was eleven, so it’s a kind of second native city for me. Shanghai has lots of people, cars, skyscrapers, opportunities, and a very advanced education system. The most amazing feature of the city is that it has a great mixture of Eastern and Western cultures. Shanghai was occupied by Western countries like Germany, France, and England, that constructed parts of the city that still remain today. The architecture beside the river on the Western side is similar to London, while the Conservatory of Shanghai area was occupied by the French so we can see small houses in the French style, with lovely rooftops and colors. Even the trees were planted by French people. The local people in Shanghai are traditional in their way of living and even speaking because they kept their dialect and don’t really speak Mandarin between themselves. This shows the conservative way of the city, so it’s a great mixture of the open-minded and also the traditional.
You lived in Paris for ten years, starting at age fifteen. What brought you to Paris?
My parents had this plan already when I was little because they always wanted me to get to know different environments and new things – just to open my mind about the world. Also, because I was learning piano, which is really a Western instrument, it was logical for them to send me to the center of Western Europe, Paris. They sent me there to get directly in touch with the source of the culture.
You completed your undergraduate degree at the Sorbonne. Tell us about that.
My concentration was in art history and musicology. It was the most important period of my life; it changed a lot of my opinions of Occidental culture and had a great impact on my piano interpretation. The Sorbonne, founded in 1257, is one of the most ancient universities in the world. It is the second oldest university besides the one in Bologna. It carries a great heritage of the history of Western Europe. The Latin section in Paris is amazing for study and for culture. It is amazing to think that in the small cafes you pass by, there were once people like Hugo and Balzac drinking coffee and writing. You can also see the Notre Dame de Paris through the windows of the classrooms.
Now, the age-old question: New York or Paris?
For living, definitely Paris. For enriching experiences and developing a career, New York. It’s more adaptable. And I think New York is a place for young people to stay because it is so dynamic. Paris can sometimes get a little too quiet and a little too slow.
What do you think is the main challenge of being an international student?
The adaptation. We have to adjust ourselves as soon as possible to a new environment and have the courage to present ourselves to the new world, to meet new people, new friends. It seems simple, but it is not an easy thing to do when we first get to a new place and we don’t know anyone. This did not happen when I moved to the U.S. because I had many friends who were living, studying and working here. It happened when I was in France. I didn’t speak the language yet, was barely able to pronounce a few words, and didn’t have anyone I knew. It was really a difficult moment. I had to have an open mind to receive and absorb every moment in these new surroundings.
What aspect of U.S. culture most surprised you?
The open-minded spirit, especially of people that live in New York, to the outside world. I talked with a few newcomers, and we all find that we can easily become a New Yorker once we’ve settled in the city. This doesn’t happen in other cities and more closed societies. It was after five or six years in Paris that I could finally consider myself a “Parisien.” There, you have to just make an effort to go into that society, to make yourself a place. But here, you already have a place. They just receive you as who you are, as a member of the city.
What aspect of your home country do you miss the most?
The food! Also, we feel a security when we stay in our country, like a tree with deep roots. It’s really stable and feels comfortable. But here, we’re like newly planted trees so we have to develop our own roots by ourselves. This is the most exciting part about it – adventure. I’m enjoying this moment of developing a new relationship with the new world.
What do you think is the most common misconception of China?
The most frequently asked question when I was in France and Europe was, “Do you have lots of trouble getting approved to come to Europe to study music and art?” This proves that their knowledge of China still remains in the 70s. They don’t know that the society has evolved and become so different. It is not a sealed and closed society with no contact with the outside world anymore. I wish to encourage people to know the new China, and welcome them to visit themselves if they are interested in what is going on in my country.
How have you experienced culture shock outside of China?
I think in the opposite way of thinking. In China, we have this tradition to think our ancestors are always right, and did greater things than us. If we look at Meditation One of Descartes, the way of thinking is to delve into what is already there and prove whether it is correct or not instead of believing what the ancestors said. This is radically different from how we normally think in China. There’s also a difference of religion, in terms of notions about God. In China we don’t talk about this in most families, but here, sometimes, we have to get in touch with and discuss elements of the Bible. In China the Bible is most commonly perceived as a romance or a legendary story. I have friends from France who study the Bible the same way they study laws, so that’s completely different.
In reflecting on your experience in the U.S., what are the first three words that come to mind?
I loved it!
Correction: April 3, 2015
An earlier version of this post misstated the location of the oldest university in the world. It is in Bologna, not Polonia.