Families often have symbols: a lake in the country, Grandpa’s medal, the Sabbath dinner. In our household, the violin had become a symbol.
For me, it symbolized excellence, refinement, and depth—the opposite of shopping malls, mega sized Cokes, teenage clothes, and crass consumerism. Unlike listening to an iPod, playing the violin is difficult and requires concentration, precision, and interpretation. Even physically, everything about the violin—the burnished wood, the carved scroll, the horsehair, the delicate bridge, the sounding point—is subtle, exquisite, and precarious.
To me, the violin symbolized respect for hierarchy, standards, and expertise. For those who know better and can teach. For those who play better and can inspire. And for parents.
It also symbolized history. The Chinese never achieved the heights of Western classical music—there is no Chinese equivalent of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony—but high traditional music is deeply entwined with Chinese civilization. The seven-stringed qin, often associated with Confucius, has been around for at least twenty-five hundred years. It was immortalized by the great Tang poets, revered as the instrument of the sages.
Most of all, the violin symbolized control. Over generational decline. Over birth order. Over one’s destiny. Over one’s children. Why should the grandchildren of immigrants only be able to play the guitar or drums? Why should second children so predictably be less rule-abiding, less successful at school, and “more social” than eldest siblings? In short, the violin symbolized the success of the Chinese parenting model.
For Lulu, it embodied oppression.
And as I walked slowly back across Red Square, I realized that the violin had begun to symbolize oppression for me too. Just picturing Lulu’s violin case sitting at home by the front door—at the last minute we’d decided to leave it behind, the first time ever—made me think of the hours and hours and years and years of labor, fighting, aggravation, and misery that we’d endured. For what? I also realized that I was dreading with all my heart what lay ahead.
It occurred to me that this must be how Western parents think and why they so often let their kids give up difficult musical instruments. Why torture yourself and your child? What’s the point? If your child doesn’t like something—hates it—what good is it forcing her to do it? I knew as a Chinese mother I could never give in to that way of thinking.
I rejoined my family at the GUM café. The waiters and other guests averted their eyes.
“Lulu,” I said. “You win. It’s over. We’re giving up the violin.”