Playing Guitar in China

Painting by Seth Minkin.

When I was teaching English in China with the Peace Corps, another volunteer who was leaving passed on to me her cheap Chinese guitar and a book of chords.

This was a great gift. Our town was quiet, and our lives as volunteers were pretty isolated. If we weren’t going out with our students to sing karaoke, or grading homework, our evenings stretched out long and often lonely.

So I started learning to pick out some songs I missed from back home. Anything American took on an otherworldly beauty to us, because we couldn’t access it. This was 1998–not much Internet, no laptops or tablets, few cell phones. So being able to play “Me and Bobby McGee” or “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” was comforting.

Even better was when we’d meet up with other Peace Corps volunteers in another city. One of them had a mandolin, and he and I would play together and sing. I’m sure we sounded goofy, but it felt wonderful. Harmonizing must trigger dopamine release or something, because it’s one of the best feelings out there.

A year later, my term of service ended. On my last day teaching my favorite class, I played a Chinese pop song for them. It’s about saying goodbye to your friends, having a drink before parting ways.

My students were used to me playing simple folk songs for them in English–singing is popular in Chinese classrooms, even for college students, and we often used it as a teaching tool. But they’d never heard me sing in Chinese before.

Usually my students were vocal and enthusiastic. But I noticed as I played and sang that there was dead quiet in the classroom. When I finished and looked up, most of the students in the room were crying.

The lyrics go something like, “Friends, you’re leaving soon–let’s empty our glasses. The blue sky opens out above us. Our feet hit the path away from this room, where we’ve been so happy together. Drink up, friends.”

Having moved my students to tears was one of my proudest achievements of my two years in China. Don’t get me wrong–I don’t enjoy making people cry! But those tears were sweet, not bitter. By singing to them in my imperfect Chinese, I showed them that they mattered to me.

Chinese people have long memories. I hope some of them still remember that moment. I hope I always will too.

OK–this was supposed to be a post with some Important Guitar Updates from Boston, circa 2013. But I guess that’ll have to wait until next time…