My neighborhood has a distinct soundscape—made up of voices conversing (or often arguing) in Cantonese or Mandarin, drivers honking at double-parked cars, and the crunch of stepping on boba tea cups. So when I heard the sound of a trumpet coming from Chinatown Square, I had to investigate.

Whoever was playing had an obvious mastery over the instrument. The trumpet played the melody over an instrumental backing coming out of a loudspeaker. The musical genre surprised me. It wasn’t classical, jazz, mariachi, or anything else you’d expect from the instrument. It was communist music. Or rather, Chinese propaganda music, and it delivered the most sentimental of punches to my gut.

I was back in my childhood home an ocean away, as a second grader, standing out in the schoolyard. Lined up with the rest of my classmates, we waited as the school intercom finished playing that familiar tune. Then the usual slogan chanting began.

“中国共产党万岁!中华人民领袖们万岁!Long live the Chinese Communist Party! Long live our great leaders!”

Engrossed in memory and music, I approached the trumpet player, a man in his sixties. He introduced himself as Mr. Huang. “Do you recognise this song?” he asked me, grinning from ear to ear.

Mr. Huang was playing an old patriotic tune called 我的祖国, or in English, My Motherland. It was most notably played in a 1956 film about Chinese involvement in the Korean War, with soldiers singing as they longed for home. The lyrics paint a picture of China’s natural beauty, from wide flowing rivers to majestic mountains.

“These songs are nostalgic,” Mr. Huang said. “So many people tell me my music brings them way back. Even those who’ve been in the US for such a long time, they don’t forget these songs.”

And at sixty-eight years old, he associates these songs with growing up during the Cultural Revolution. Some of his favorites are 没有共产党就没有新中国 (Without the Communist Party, There Is No New China) and 我的中国心 (My Chinese Heart). Of course, in today’s climate, such political music is bound to raise eyebrows.

“Others tell me these songs are too anti-American,” Mr. Huang said while emptying his spit valve. “So I diversified! Now I play a lot of Chinese pop music. I even take requests!” 

In college, Mr. Huang immersed himself in the arts: acting, singing, emceeing—if it involved being on stage, he did it. He badly wanted to play an instrument and fell in love with the trumpet. Watching him play and listening to him talk, it feels like a perfect match. His voice carries an exuberant intensity, much like the shrill of vibrating brass. He enthusiastically points out each new song that plays from his speaker. “You should look this one up!” “Your parents would definitely know this one!” “This one was a total hit! Great love song!”

Mr. Huang came to the US a few years ago to help take care of his grandchildren. One COVID lockdown later, like many other Chinese living here, he found the process of going back a complicated one. So now his daily routine includes taking his grandchildren to school, cooking for them, and when he has time, playing the trumpet. 

I have been listening to his music for more than a year now. I don’t know the names of all the songs but recognize almost every melody. Like Mr. Huang, I am also itching to go back to China. My grandparents are aging, and each year that passes feels like a year lost. China seems impossibly far away. But the trumpet, however briefly, brings me just a bit closer.

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