Xu Shuyan, 56, likes to sing. Before she moved to Beijing in 2008, Xu worked in a kindergarten in Tieling, Liaoning Province. "I never learned music before. It is a natural affinity. I like to listen to tapes or the radio … I learn the rhythm and lyrics by listening. I couldn't read the music scores, so the only way for me to learn new songs is by listening," Xu says.
Although she has never received professional training, her voice is high and clear, like a highly trained professional. Xu excels at singing Chinese folk songs and operas; she appears to have a natural understanding of the rhythm, and she enjoys singing folk songs and performing traditional theatrical pieces.
Xu, who is a hospitable, outgoing person, is popular on campus. "Many students know me, but I can't remember all of their names. I wish I could know them all. They are so adorable, like my own children," Xu says.
Xu and her 54-year-old husband, Luo Zhenlin, manage a stand, where they sell roasted sweet potatoes, at Beijing Normal University (BNU)'s No. 5 cafeteria. They work long hours every day, from 5 am to 11 pm. Their delicious roasted sweet potatoes are quite popular on campus. There is almost always a long lunchtime queue of students waiting to buy their sweet potatoes.
Xu and Luo have strict standards when choosing the sweet potatoes. Luo goes to Xinfadi, a wholesale market, every other day to purchase the sweet potatoes. "The sweet potatoes we buy are a bit more expensive than the average price. The ones that are red inside are sweet," Luo says.
Adds Xu: "When I see the students queuing for more than 100 meters, I hope I will work faster so they don't have to wait so long."
Xu occasionally breaks into song when she is roasting or selling sweet potatoes. That prompted students to wr ite about her in the campus newspaper. After she read about Xu, Yang Ya'nan, a BNU student and a CCTV intern, asked Xu if she would be interested in participating in Dream Chorus. She filmed — in the school's canteen — an audition video of Xu singing.
"I thought she was joking," Xu says. "But, to my surprise, CCTV called me and invited me to appear on the show." Xu was initially hesitant; she said she couldn't abandon her sweet potato stand to appear on the show. "I couldn't leave my husband all alone at work," she said. "The workload would be too much for him."
Several students would have nothing of it; some students offered to work at the stand so Xu could appear on the show. "Their generosity touched me so deeply," Xu says. "But I refused. I told them that their hands were for writing, not for washing sweet potatoes."
The students were undeterred. They had long been the beneficiaries of Xu's kindness, and they wanted to pay her back. "Sometimes, when we are sick or forget our money, Xu gives us her potatoes for free," says Lou Junchao, a sophomore and one of the first students to offer to help. "She's really come to feel like family to us."
Lou Ju nchao post ed a ca l l for volunteers on BNU website's forum. "Even then, Xu's family refused to let us help them," Lou Junchao says. "Though they appreciated our effor ts, they ultimately decided to hire an assistant for Xu's husband so Xu could appear on the TV show."
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