June 30, 1999
There are two things that bring memories back instantly - the smells of a place and time, and the sounds and music of that place.
One of the things that began to seep into my consciousness pretty soon after I arrived in Jinzhou four months ago has been the Chinese music that is heard everywhere. It begins every morning at 6am when the school's radio begins playing a gentle musical wake up call, and continues throughout the day from the various radios and loudspeakers and tape players that can be heard pretty much anywhere in town.
Very melodic, sung by beautifully smooth voices, it didn't take me all that long to realize that most Chinese popular songs seem to be about love and romance. And although I couldn't (and still can't) really understand the words, I certainly found myself humming certain popular songs. The music here is definitely my kind of music!
I also didn't have to be able to read much Chinese to realize that Karaoke is an incredibly popular form of entertainment here, with karaoke bars scattered fairly densely all over town. And pretty soon after I arrived, students began asking me to sing solo songs for them at their gatherings. (unfortunately, my memory's so bad that about the only song I can remember the words to is 'You are my Sunshine'.)
On May 1st, a friend sang a song for Lara and me at an outside karaoke spot at the riverside, a song called 'Pengyou' (Friend), and I immediately knew that this must be the first song for me to learn. It has a beautiful melody, but is fairly simple and better yet, doesn't have too many words.
So, I set about trying to learn Pengyou. As you might imagine, it's not all that easy to learn to sing a Chinese song when you don't know Chinese. But I was able to buy a Karaoke Video CD of the song, and convince Denis, the Canadian teacher here, to transcribe the Chinese characters displayed at the bottom of the music video into pinyin for me. Then, I set about trying to memorize the song phonetically, singing the words over and over along with the VCD.
It took me about a month, but finally, I got the song memorized. With far less effort, Lara also learned the song, just from listening to me sing it over and over again. I tried to keep my new song under wraps until its debut, but it's very hard to keep any sort of secret around here, and by the time I was ready to sing it for the students in my first of three Oral English classes, the students were practically squirming in their chairs in anticipation.
I let the anticipation build, and sang my song at the very end of the penultimate class of the semester. Before that, I taught them an American song, 'This Land is My Land' and we sang it together a couple of times. Then, I sang my Chinese solo, first alone, and then joined by many of the students in my class. It was truly a moving occasion for me, because I considered these wonderful kids to also be my good friends, so the song had real meaning for me as well as for them. When I finished the song, the entire class erupted into cheers, both for the song, and for the hours we'd spent together this spring.
I repeated my performance for each of my other two English classes, and it has since become my signature song. Today, I got another chance to sing it, because I spent the afternoon with Denis and his friends at a real live karaoke bar, munching on sunflower seeds and enjoying the music. I'm working on learning two more songs, both very popular here in Jinzhou, but I'm a pretty slow study, so it'll probably take me a couple more months to get them memorized. But it's worth the effort to me, and I know that for the rest of my life, whenever I think of the songs I'm hearing and learning to sing here in Jinzhou, it'll bring me back to these wonderful days here in China.
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