Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

English and Music

on December 12, 2013

Papa was our English teacher. Just like all our other teachers, he was quite imaginative and creative when it came to make facts stick in our heads. He would tell us, “The word for sun in English is “sun”. Now, every morning, when you look to the east, what is the sun doing? It rises …  (rise is Shen in Chinese). The sun “shen” in the morning.” (With a southern accent, you would pronounce “shen” as “sen”.)


I believe that there and then, Papa indirectly taught us to make up our own mnemonics. Later, in Paris, a classmate would ask me to teach her how to be smart like me. I couldn’t think of anything except to teach her mnemonics. French Revolution? The end of the royal dynasties, so the last three numbers 7, 8, 9: 1789.

Papa had yet even better tricks. “In English,” he told us, “this is how you conjugate in the simple present tense.” And he would recite in a sing-song and rhythmic manner,  “I tiao (jump, in Chinese), you tiao, he tiao – si. I shuo (speak, in Chinese), you shuo, he shuo – si. I chi (eat, in Chinese), you chi, he chi – si!”  and he would laugh and guffaw so hard he would bend over and hold on to the wall for support. You see, “shi” in Chinese means shit, and if you pronounce it with a southern accent, it sounds like “si”. So, he was actually saying, I jump, you jump, he jumps shit, I speak, you speak, he speaks shit, I eat, you eat, he eats shit. Good thing this was not a public school in the US, so he never got sued. And we learned to conjugate in the English simple present tense.


Mama taught us music. This meant really singing Chinese songs. I loved it. We learned mostly folk songs, such as “Nong Jia Hao” —  Good Farmstead, and  “Ah-Li Shan” — Mount Ali. Which struck me, and made me wonder why a mountain in Taiwan would bear an Arabic name. Mama would select the songs from a thick paperback song book she had and would spend time rehearsing them at home before teaching them. So I would pick up the book when she wasn’t reading it, and looked for more songs.

This was my first introduction to Chinese style music notation. I am not really sure where it comes from nor who invented it. According to my uncle, it was invented by a Japanese. It is a simplified way of writing music. You simply write 1 for a do, 2 for a re, 3 for a mi, and so on, regardless of the key it is in. As for the timing, you write a little horizontal line under the numbers for each beat. It is very easy to figure out by yourself. So song books would be mainly the lyrics, with over them, the simplified notation.

numerical music notation

I spent many hours looking through this book, zooming in on songs with beautiful or enigmatic titles, or with interesting lyrics. I especially liked folk songs from QingHai (Western China) and taught myself to sing them. One of my favorites was “In that Faraway Place”. The lyrics go something like this: “In that faraway place, there is a good girl. People who pass by her tent, all turn their heads back and gaze at it regretfully. Her pink little face, is like the red sun. Her something else, forgot what, maybe the brow, is like the bright moon at night. I wish I were a little lamb, following by her side. I wish she would use her whip to softly beat my body.”

faraway place

Well, no comments here on the silly love-struck guy who wrote this. The Chinese are very romantic, something that is obvious in their poetry and their songs. In that sense, they are very close to the French. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, there was a very popular song entitled “If You Go Away” in English. Well, in its original French version, by Jacques Brel, it was called “Ne Me Quitte Pas” , meaning Don’t Leave Me!!! Much more drastically desperate a cry! The English lyrics are softly romantic, a lover’s laid back monologue about what would happen if she or he (the loved one) were to leave. “Then you might as well, take the sun away, all the birds that flew, in the summer sky, when our love was new, and our hopes were high…” But the French, oh, the French.

ne me quitte pas

“Me, I shall offer you, pearls of rain, coming from countries, where it never rains… I will dig the earth, until after my death, to cover your body, with gold and light…”
I assume that the singer and would-be lover will do his digging in the form of a Jiang Shi (Chinese zombie) then.

“… I will relate to you, the story of this king, dead of not having been able to meet you… And when evening comes, for the sky to go up in flames, the red and the black, do they not marry each other…”

And, to top all this insane talk, the best for last: “Don’t leave me… I am not going to cry any more, I am not going to speak any more (then don’t), I shall hide myself there, watching you, dance and smile (you peeping Tom), and listening to you, sing and then laugh, do let me become, the shadow of your shadow, the shadow of your hand, the shadow of your dog…”

Well, I guess, the French shadow of a dog can join the Chinese lamb and go lament their unrequited love together.





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