Richard Bernstein

Richard Bernstein

A weeklong electronic journal.
March 30 2001 8:30 PM

Richard Bernstein

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I stayed home almost all day yesterday, as I will today. It's one of the advantages of being a book critic. I only have to go to the office once a week or so, to pick up my mail, look through review copies and publisher's catalogues, and kibitz with colleagues.

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My wife was gone all day, on her first ever experience of jury duty. I worried that she would have some sort of difficulty. Having grown up in China, Zhongmei has some language gaps, especially in the higher-flown technical districts of the English language, and I imagined her stumbling on legalese (phrases like "beyond a reasonable doubt," "stipulate," "objection sustained," etc.). But this was ridiculous. Half the people who show up for jury duty in New York these days are foreign-born, and many of the natives don't speak English as well as they do. In any case, Zhongmei always figures out a way to manage. She manages me pretty well.

We're going together for some of my book tour, which begins next week, since it seems like a nice chance to go to San Francisco together and, anyway, Zhongmei is performing in Seattle shortly after the tour, so she will stay there for a few days longer than me. She is a dancer, the most celebrated classical dancer of her generation in China and now the founding director of her own small company in New York. I talk a good deal about her in Ultimate Journey, because she was important to the success of the China part of the trip, and also because her life is what we call a great story in the journalism game. She is like a Chinese version of Billy Elliot, only better, and not fictional.

Anyway, like I say, I stay home to read my books and write my reviews. She goes out, to dance classes, rehearsals, auditions, meetings. We are in complete non-competition with each other. I can't do what she does, and vice-versa. We each have our own little offices at home. Mine is a small bedroom converted into a study, lined with IKEA bookcases and littered with boxes of books on the floor, since I ran out of bookshelf space a long time ago. Zhongmei has colonized the guest room, where she has her own fax, phone, computer, Web site—www.zhongmei.org—everything you need to be the artistic director of your own company. (I have my Web site too, though it's part of my publisher's larger website—www.aaknopf.com.)

She was born in Heilongjiang Province in the far North of China, just across from the Russian border, where she lived with her parents and her four brothers and sisters until she was chosen to attend the Beijing Dance Academy. She was 11, and she's basically never lived at home since then. I also, as it happens, grew up on a farm, a Jewish chicken farm in Connecticut, until I was 13. It gives us common ground.

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When she went off to jury duty and I worried about her handling it, I thought about the story she told me about how she first went to Beijing. One day, Zhongmei's older sister, Zhongqin, saw a tiny ad in the People's Daily that the Academy would hold open auditions for 11-year-olds in several places around China, Beijing being the closest. For Zhongmei to go was deemed a nonsensical idea in the Li household, whose monthly income barely covered the cost of one train ticket to a place that far away. But Zhongmei pleaded, and her parents relented, borrowing money from a consortium of neighbors to cover her expenses.

When Zhongmei, who had never been on a train before, got to Beijing, she went through several days of auditions, during which the Dance Academy judges mostly measured the limbs of the candidates, eliminating thousands, but still leaving thousands in contention for the three slots available in the Beijing competition. Next each girl had to perform a small dance number. Zhongmei was ready, but she had never danced with a piano accompanist before (she had never actually seen a piano before), and she got thrown off when, instead of plunging straight into her music, he played a few warm-up bars. Zhongmei stopped, puzzled, and the judges decided she was through.

"There are 6,000 girls behind you," she was told. "Move along."

"Those 6,000 girls didn't come as far as I did," Zhongmei said. "I want to do my dance again." What she was thinking about was the people who had loaned her family the money for her expenses, and how much face would be lost if she returned a failure.

So there she was, a little farm girl in China's great capital, facing a panel of judges, with 6,000 people behind her, and she wouldn't move until she got her second chance, which she did. And I was worried that this girl wouldn't be able to handle jury duty in Manhattan!