Alison Friedman '02, founder of Ping Pong Productions spoke with Chang Lu A.M. '12 about how her experience at Brown allowed her to combine her interest in Chinese language and performance. An excerpt of their conversation is below.
Chang Lu: In the beginning, was it difficult or easy for you to learn Chinese language?
Alison Friedman: Really hard! It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Oh my god it was miserable. I remember sophomore year being so depressed because I spent more time on my Chinese language homework than I did on any of my other four classes combined, or three classes I guess. And I remember thinking of my god this is so hard and what’s the point? I don’t even know what I’m going to do with this language. And I’d done it in high school. I actually took Chinese at Sidwell, and so by the time I got to Brown I thought, I’ve been taking Chinese for six years, I’m not making any progress, this is just so hard and so boring, I want to die. And so I decided I need to go to China and do study abroad for the summer because then I would know. It would either get me through the bottleneck or I would finally be immersed in the country and that’s the best way to learn a language. So I thought, if I go to China, then I will either get through this pain and love it again, or I’ll know it’s impossible. I’ll know that I tried my hardest and that no matter what, even though I went to China I couldn’t do it. So that was the make or break year for me, the summer of 2000, because I was going to do Princeton in Beijing, it was a two month summer program and that’s all, I would come back to Brown... Two weeks in Beijing, I was in love, I just thought, this city is crazy! It’s so chaotic, there’s so much going on, so much to learn. It was the hardest thing I’d ever done, because with Princeton in Beijing you do a whole academic year of Chinese in two months. So you learn one chapter a day and each chapter is like 90 characters. So it was intense I mean that part was awful but amazing and it got me over the hump of the language, through the bottleneck. Suddenly I improved, my language improved more in those two months than it had in six years studying in the U.S. Two weeks in Beijing I decided that I wanted to spend a semester there and thought the summer was too short. So... I called Brown, I called my parents and I said I want to stay!... I had only packed clothes for two months in the summer in Beijing, which was really really hot. Well, Harbin is really really cold! So I had to go to the xiushui jie 秀水街 and all those night markets and buy all those winter clothes for Harbin. I did six months in China, not two, and my language improved, I was totally in love with being there. I still didn’t know what I wanted to do yet, because I still had that experience the following summer, but I knew that I wasn’t going to drop the language, that I wasn’t going to give up and would keep going.
Lu: Did you dance when you were in Brown?
Friedman: I did, I danced I did theatre. I didn’t continue music but I worked with Michelle Bach-Coulibaly and Julie Strandberg at Ashamu Dance Studio. I also did theatre I was also in both student and faculty plays. I was one of the dancers in the New Works World Traditions West African Dance Company and I also with the student tap dance company, I choreographed a lot of tap pieces. I was very busy with extra curriculars in dance and theatre. While I was also studying Chinese and Chinese literature. It was funny because I remember spending most of my four years at Brown very confused about how I would combine the love of performing arts with my interest in China and all of the hours and hours and hours I spent learning Chinese. Fortunately the Fulbright allowed me to do that. I’m ever thankful that that fellowship allowed me to combine what I thought were two schizophrenic halves of my life. I didn’t know at that time it was still early enough that Chinese studies was very popular was not as common as it is now. Now kindergartens in America teach Chinese whereas in those days it was still pretty new. Most of my classmates at Brown in my Chinese language classes were business and econ masters. They envisioned themselves on the Hong Kong stock exchange or they wanted to go into politics. And I thought I like dance what am I doing learning Chinese? What am I ever going to do with this? And so it was really in 2001 I did an internship at CNN Beijing Bureau. So I thought maybe I would go the journalism route because that would combine my interest in international relations, it would allow me to use the language and my China expertise and its kind of like performing and so I got an internship at CNN in Beijing in 2001 and while I was there I also met a number of performing arts groups including this group called the living dance studio. Which is one of the earliest dance and artist collectives in China. It was formed in 1994 by Wen Hui, who was a choreographer with the Dong Fang Ge Wu Tuan (Oriental Song and Dance Ensemble), the oriental song and dance troupe and her life partner Wen Guang who is one of the early pioneers of documentary film in China. So in 1994 the two of them started living dance studio with a group of other installation artists, visual artists, sound artists, dancers, choreographers. And in 2001 while I was interning at CNN I met them and I ended up performing with them that summer. And that was really a watershed moment when I realized I could combine the two halves of my life because I found, even though it sounds like a cliché, I found we truly had a shared culture of modern dance. Because even though I used to joke that when we were on break and rehearsing it always felt a little distant. They were very formal very polite, they treated me like a foreign guest. But soon as we were rehearsing all the walls came down and we were a family. It was amazing. It truly viscerally felt like we had a shared a common culture of modern dance. So to me that was in the inspiration to go apply for the Fulbright Scholarship because I wanted to go back to China and put that company in a context and see if they are typical of modern performing arts in China, are they totally random. Where do they come from? What is the scene like? How does it relate to education systems? The environment, the economics. Is there money to go buy performance tickets? Who funds independent groups like that? What are the cultural policies? So that was the inspiration for the Fulbright, but it was also an inspiration for what has become my longer term goals which is the idea of cultural diplomacy and how the arts can bring people together across cultures and across countries. It all kind of started with that summer between my junior and senior year at Brown.