Spotlight Iowa City: Piano-playing traveler fits right in


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Yifan Ivan Lai has been playing the piano since he was 3, when his parents plopped him down in front of the keys and told him to churn out something beautiful.

The toddler, not knowing what to do, begin banging on the keys, glancing up at his parents for approval.

They promptly scheduled lessons for him.

“I didn’t know what to do at first, but this was a sign that my parents loved me and wanted me to excel,” Lai said, sitting cross-legged on the sixth-floor Daum lounge floor, his Macbook Pro and marketing homework strewn about his feet.

It’s safe to say he would have rather been playing the 88 keys in Stanley or Currier.

The UI freshman came to the UI this past August, a foreign-exchange student from southeastern China. He splits time among studying (a lot), doing tae kwon do, watching “24,” and, of course, combining chords, sharps, and flats of classical and contemporary music for three to four hours a day.

He cites Chopin and Bach as his favorites to play, but he doesn’t stick strictly to the classics. He can play everything Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” to Céline Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” — tunes he dubs “painfully easy” compared with classical.

And they’re certainly not the tunes that gets him gigs in London (his favorite), Paris, Sydney, and Berlin. As a 14-year old, Lai won a national Chinese award naming him the best piano player in the entire country for his age group.

Lai said he can’t achieve his “destiny” without the help of his parents.

“Everything seems planned out from the moment I was a little child,” he said. “My mom has played such a big role in my piano playing, and I am honored to be a part of this blueprint, something greater than myself.”

That sense of the bigger picture and respect for his heritage, he says, has allowed him to visit so many places to play.

Lai said he’s used to spending up to three months away from home at a time traveling to perform, and he is “not too homesick.” His sixth-floor Daum peers have done their part to help him feel comfortable.

“Sometimes, my mom will bring him brownies,” said UI freshman Miranda Nielson. “She feels bad that his mom lives so far away.”

Lai said he “loves the dorm experience” and meeting so many new people.

“He is a really adaptive guy, and I haven’t had to do much to help him along,” said Justin Guan, Lai’s sixth-floor Daum resident assistant. Guan, a UI senior, is originally from China himself.

Lai’s transition has also been made easier by his bounty of natural talent. He taught himself English by watching American movies and TV shows, and he possesses an insatiable desire to read the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

“I have a natural sensitivity for picking up languages quickly,” he said. “I enjoy sitting for an entire day sometimes reading dictionaries.”

Sometimes, he isn’t so different from his American peers. He says he sometimes ignores his parents’ calls for two weeks, and he is forced to hear their complaints as a result.

And his mind is still focused on a 2013 graduation date, where the “honor awaits” him both behind the grand piano and at the head of a marketing firm.

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