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The summer after my freshman year in college, I performed the Beatles’ “Penny Lane,” solo and without accompaniment, in a banquet hall someplace in central China.

I was there learning Mandarin. I really don’t know why. It was exceptionally difficult. I had no plans for how I might apply it to any other course of study or to a future career.   My first-year schedule had been punishing, with classes and required language labs every weekday at both 7:45 am and 4:45 pm.  The second-year was offered as a summer intensive immersion in Beijing.  I think that’s why I chose it.  Eyeing all of my college’s study-abroad opportunities, China was as far away as I could possibly get.

It wasn’t until the middle of my hot, humid, sooty Beijing August that I realized that any number of other cities would have been far enough.  There were programs in Valencia and Lyon and Siena, in Sao Paulo and Rabat, in Cape Town and Mexico City. And I’m pretty sure I would have enjoyed those places more.  And with all the time and energy I’d dedicated to Chinese, had that been given to a Romance language instead, I bet it would have produced much greater fluency than the toddler’s Mandarin with which I was struggling.

It was an experience.  I don’t regret it, even though, given a do-over, I know I’d make different decisions.  I had wanted to get away, and I sure did accomplish that.  It was utterly foreign. I was completely foreign in it.  I was so homesick.  I guess I managed alright with my lessons — one instructor told me that if I kept up this rigorous pace of study for six or eight years, I might be able to read a newspaper one day.  As it was, at my level, I was almost skilled enough to navigate public transportation and order a cup of tea on my own.

Anyway.  My classmates and I from Beijing Normal University were on a trip together.  From the capital to I don’t remember where.  We’d gotten there by train.  We might have been at another school, or some official government place.  We were treated like diplomats.  There was a formal, multi-course meal in our honor.   It was fancy.  I drank too much.  

After dinner, our hosts turned to us expectantly.  We said, “Xie xie!” (Thank you!).  They waited patiently.  We thanked them again, not getting why they were gesturing towards the empty stage.  Finally, someone helped us to understand that it would be customary, now, for us to show appreciation to our hosts by providing the after-dinner entertainment.

Nobody had warned us of this.  For heaven’s sake, we’d’ve prepared something if we’d had the slightest inkling that we’d be expected to recite, sing, juggle, or dance.  “It doesn’t matter what you do,” we were told, “It’s simply a demonstration of respect.”  Good grief.  I don’t know if it was because I was the boldest or because I was the most inebriated of my group, maybe both, but somehow I was led to the platform.  Still not sure what I was going to do, I opened my mouth, and “Penny Lane” came out.  

I mangled the lyrics.  I remember hoping that my classmates would join in, at least on the chorus, but they did not.  I started in what turned out to be a bad key for me, and ended up squealing through the high notes.  “Serves them right; they asked for it,” I thought.  

When it was over, I was met with polite applause.  Only one or two others took the stage, if I recall.  We had to entertain, because it was polite.  And they had had to insist, because it was polite.  But I imagine that they didn’t really want to hear us any more than we wanted to perform.  My classmates shared poems or something.  I wished I’d known a poem to recite.  Nobody else sang.

The Beatles have been part of my consciousness since I was born. 

My older siblings were teenagers when I came along in 1969.  They’d been really into the Fab Four, my sister especially.  I remember the records and the old Tiger Beat magazines she left behind when she went away to college.  I kissed the album covers and pretended that Paul McCartney was my best friend.

The Beatles already seemed pretty retro by the mid-seventies, but I loved them anyway.  By the time I was a senior, the 20th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper prompted a re-release, and a boost of renewed popularity.  I listened to the White Album over and over, trying to discern hidden messages in some of the psychedelic tracks.  My friends and I performed a skit, dramatically reenacting the tragedy of Rocky Raccoon for our English class; we were Beatles weirdos.  

I guess it makes some sense that “Penny Lane” was my go-to in that moment of panic on the stage after the Chinese banquet.

This Sunday will be our twelfth annual Beatles singalong service.  We’ve been doing them since before Bosque CSL was even a twinkle in our eyes.

Whether or not you’re a Beatles fan, these tunes are really fun to sing.  And singing together is always good for us.

I hope you’ll join Susan Clark, Patty Stephens, and me this Sunday, at 10:00am, at Maple Street Dance Space.  Bring your friends.  XO, Drew

©2024 Drew Groves

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