A stranger in this country

Blog 6

I am a person who transplanted herself in the soil of America. I grew up in Japan. And my family was South Korean. 

I came to the US in the early ’90s when Reaganomics was still working it’s magic, good or bad. My parents’ precious savings lasted fairly long. My school tuition was amazingly affordable even for a foreign student like myself. 

Soon after I arrived in California, I began to experience a falling out with my aunt who initially agreed to host my stay. I couldn’t get along with her, so I moved out of her beautiful five-bedroom, three-car garage, mansion in the mountains to a duplex in a crummy neighborhood. 

I heard gunshots almost every night. My car broke down often. Much to my dismay, I discovered that without regular maintenance and oil changes, a car was nothing but a hunk of metal. I knew so little. My knowledge about American life had been gleaned from “The Cosby Show” and “The Hardy Boys.” But not the part about self-reliance and sobering reality. Still, I enjoyed privacy and autonomy for the first time in my life. 

I enjoyed my school. I started at a local community college. It was revelatory to find out that teachers actually demanded students challenge them in the form of questions. I really enjoyed studying. Not only music, my choice of a major, but every other subject. I made quite a few friends, most of them Asians. 

But when I went home, I was alone. Not only I was physically alone, but I was also spiritually alone. I felt that on this side of the world, I had no one who had any interest in knowing me. I was breathing quietly like a mouse at the margin of this small industrial city. Nobody noticed my breathing. In spite of my stubbornness, academic achievement and rationalization(“I CHOSE to come here after all”), I began to feel stabbing loneliness every night. 

To fast-forward through the subsequent years, I managed to cope with the sense of an inner void and become less lonely. One of the coping methods I discovered was writing songs. One song, “A Stranger In This Country” was born out of such desolate feelings of a newcomer to an unknown culture. Unknown, indeed. I knew the feeling of being alone very well. The first decade here in this country only reinforced my knowledge of how deep my loneliness was. 

I still get a pang of anxiety when I sing this song. Anxiety laced with shame. I felt ashamed of being lonely. 

But I decided not to leave. I needed to work on something. I could give up on America, Japan, or Korea for a number of reasons. But I couldn’t leave ME. So I declared myself, “Don’t you dare be a stranger. Stay even after the deep dawn sets. Be here. Right here. In the midst of loneliness.” 

And guess what? I have been feeling so much happier. 

A Stranger in This Country

© 2008 By Chie Treagus      

Have you ever been so lonely

That you felt pain?

Have you ever cried silently          

When you got off of a subway train?

I have, oh yes, I have 

I saw so many people come and go                            

But I felt I was all alone

I was a  stranger in this country 

I was a  stranger in this country 

I was a stranger to myself           

I was a stranger to you

Please don’t make that wild guess 

I smile when I’m hurt inside

Please don’t just pass me by unless

You make sure I’m not brushed aside  

I have tried, oh yes, I have

I saw so many people on the street                           

But I felt I had disappeared

I came to America hoping to be changed

I came to America not to get estranged

And for some dreams, some love but it turned out

I was a stranger to myself       

I was a stranger to you

Don’t think I’m just complainin’

Wishing that rain would clear

I looked deep in my soul and I found out 

Loneliness became more comfortable      

Than friends at the dinner table

Well, I just can’t rely on you America

I think that I must try with you America  

To be me      

To be happy

To be free

Have you ever been so lonely

That you felt pain?

Have you ever cried silently 

When you got off of a subway train?

If you  see me on the street            

Just say “hello, goodbye”                    

And I’ll say I’m okay even though

I am a  stranger in this country 

I am a  stranger in this country 

I am a stranger to myself           

I am a stranger to you

To hear me play this song with my band, TokiMono, visit SoundCloud. 

 

Finish the button.

“Let’s practice this piece for another week,” I said to her. 

She rolled her eyes looking exasperated. “Wasn’t I good enough?” 

I took that to mean: to her, working on the piece for a week was long enough. 

“There, there,” she pointed to the various areas of the score with her tiny fingers, the strings of notes. 

“See, the first measure, the fifth measure, and, oh, yes, the 7th measure. I nailed them all.”

Yes, the syncopation of the last eighth note of the 7th measure tied over to the first beat of the 8th measure was, indeed, tricky one, I admit. 

“Yes, you played the piece rather well,” I said. 

“You read every note correctly. But I want you to practice until your staccatos sound like gentle raindrops. I want you to learn how to lift your arms instead of your fingers. Find ways to create musical sentences so that all the notes and rests will sound as if they belong to one another. In short, you haven’t finished the top button.” 

She looked at me as if I was insane. A button? What is this person talking about? Weren’t we studying the piano? I didn’t sign up for sewing lessons!

I began to explain.

You see, a piano piece is like a doll’s clothes. First, you pick a pattern and fabric. You gather sewing tools. You cut the pattern into sections. For the jacket, for the skirt, and the hat. You make a pair of shoes out of soft felt for her delicate feet. You stitch the hem of the dress. You scallop the collar. Everything is coming along. It is almost done except…

You decide to call it finished before sewing the top button in front of her jacket. “It’s good enough,” you whisper to yourself. Because you are tired. You spent hours and hours on this project. Your fingers hurt. The doll is dressed up in a pretty red velvet dress and her feet look warm in the shoes. But the top of the jacket is not buttoned up. From the half-open jacket, her undershirt is showing. 

You leave the doll unfinished. The poor doll sits on the top of your wardrobe without the top button. Without the first button, she looks incomplete, forlorn. She even has an expression on her face which can be taken as a melancholy smile. One side of her jacket flaps awkwardly every time you open the top drawer of the wardrobe. 

You left the doll unfinished. It was..almost…done.

But “almost done” and “finished” are not the same thing. 

 

I look into her deep amber eyes. I tell her, 

“If you walk away from your piano piece now, it will be just like the doll who doesn’t get the top button.”

She stares at me for a moment. Then she says.

“I get it. You are asking me to be thorough, right?”

“Yes, my darling,” I said. 

“Finish the piece. And you know, it has nothing to do with perfection. It means taking care of the doll. Sew the top button. Because you know how beautiful the doll is. You know she deserves it.”

From that day on, “Finish the button” became our secret code. A secret code of honor between a piano teacher and a bright little student. 

Finish the top button. Show how much you love the doll. 

 

Blog 5

Funny excuses to cancel a music lesson

As I have been adding more years of teaching experience under my belt, I feel more and more weary that people make lame excuses to suddenly cancel on me. Yes, it’s not so rare that someone do that almost five minutes before the scheduled lesson. Or even after the lesson…They don’t even remember their own schedule. And I am not talking about any situation that has to do with medical emergencies or unusually heavy load of school assignments. 

So I want my students, my students’ parents/guardians, and potential future clients to know some facts about me. First, I am a very easy-going person. Every fiber of my body is made of out soft stuff. “Forgiveness” and “loving kindness” are oozing from every pore on my skin. But after the 10th time of forgiving someone for deciding to take their kids to Disneyland instead on a moment’s notice, I will turn into Snow White’s stepmother. 

Secondly, I am really smart. So don’t insult my intelligence by texting me polite, but insincere messages. It reads on my side of the smartphone screen “I don’t value your time or expertise as much as a movie night with my new date and a pepperoni and extra jalapeno six cheese pizza on sale, and 6-packs of my favorite beer. “ 

I can dig “Oops, I totally forgot that I had a lesson!” than ordinary, uncreative excuses. If you work a little bit harder, you can at least humor me and entertain me with your witty (even charming) uniqueness. Yes, I may even look forward to your next excuse to cancel your lesson, thinking, “Wow, I can’t wait to hear what Rowan can come up with this time!” See, what I am interested in is getting some compensation. So here are some examples of what you can say: 

– I found a stray guinea pig in the middle of my kiddy pool. I’ve got to find its owner.

– My grandfather is about to declare war against his neighbor for all the dog poop on his front yard. I’m driving 300 miles to his town to stop him. 

– My right middle finger has been twitching like crazy for the last five days. It’s a nightmare! It jumps up involuntarily. Until my doctor finds a cure, I don’t think I can practice that beautiful Debussy without turning it into a Stravinsky. What a circus!

– My iPhone died. I dropped my mac in the bathtub. My washing machine died. My car’s transmission died. Oh, by the way, my grandmother died apparently this afternoon.

– I just didn’t feel like coming to the lesson. (My personal favorite. Honesty, hooray!!)

– I have been meaning to tell you you SUCK as a teacher. But instead I have been rubbing a small amount of chili pepper on the envelope with my monthly tuition check inside. Yes I’m a coward. How are your fingers? Itchy? Turning red?

– I have a long bucket list of things to do before I die. Now that I’ve knocked off “learn how to play piano,” I must move on to “race with Egyptians on the back of a camel.” I’m moving to Cairo.

– I wanted to learn a Chopin to win the heart of a girl. I found out today she is deaf. I have to learn a Shakespeare Sonnet in sign language instead. 

– I had a lesson today? Oh man, I must have had sugar coma after my sixth Apple Cider doughnut. Blame Trader Joe’s…

– I told my dad to take a lesson on my behalf. …Dad, did you forget again? 

– I just realized that there is more to life than planting my ass on the stiff wooden bench and squinting at black and white tadpoles on the paper. (Another favorite excuse of mine. I sometimes feel that way too.)

Conclusion

Whatever it is, don’t lie. I am interested in becoming your true friend. And you know what, friends don’t lie. A good music teacher cares. And when you don’t care about her feelings, it hurts. If blatant honesty isn’t your thing, at least come up with creative excuses to console her. Trust me, I’ve heard most of your boring excuses. Don’t give me “My car broke down” bit again after five times. If you’re really telling the truth, maybe it’s time for you to get a new car. Or Uber app.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H-0uZ10e0MI

So you want to quit your piano lesson

So you want to quit your piano lesson

You are staring out at the window while you talk

Creasing the edge of a Bach Prelude with your fingers

 

You tell me life is getting in your way

How busy you get and how little time you have

You sound like a reed swaying in the wind

 

Maybe you wanted me to help change your mind

But I only said, “I will miss you.” 

Who was I to truly gauge the depth of your sadness?

 

Oh how I was thrilled listening to you

Your hands finding new contours, fresh hues in the piece

Birds, cars, foghorns from the sea all stopped making noise 

 

To you the keys weren’t black and white, but amber, jade and violet 

Each piece of music was a fresh canvas, an open playground

Your arms bounced like a dancer on a trapeze

 

I tried not to be a conformist

I thought I understood the swan in you

Under your haughty gaze, you were fragile

Underneath the still surface, you struggled

You refused to fly off on a moment’s notice

You knew you would fall down too soon

Your heart yearned for the sublime

But your wings were still tied to the ground

 

Maybe logic seemed stiff, cold and ugly to you

But try putting a feather inside a box

It won’t fly away from your hand

 

So you want to quit your piano lesson

Here is my last message to you

 

Love the piano the way you love someone deeply

Give it the freedom and shelter it deserves

 

Someday

You may visit me and tell me

That you really haven’t quit at all

Blog 4

Illustration copyright © 2019 Chie Kwon

 

Little songs are like marbles

Little songs are like marbles

They give me colors to play with

Topaz, azure, sparkling green

 

I pick them up and toss them

today, tomorrow, up, down

 

Marbles skitter over ivory keys

in crazy directions

Rolling off my palm through my fingers

 

I am listening in

I am listening out

These are two sides of the same thing

 

I chase them over the rainbow

I use my arms like wings

The clouds catch me 

 

The piano is flying  

 

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Illustration Copyright ©Chie Kwon

 

Staccato.

Staccato.

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“A note of shortened duration, separated from the note that may be followed by silence.”  — Wikipedia

What is a staccato?

A short note.

A note that’s detached.

A note that is played percussively.

It sure sounds more chipper than regular notes.

But it can be played gently too.

 

How fast must a staccato be?

A second? Half a second?

Can I play a short note a little longer?

Well it depends, my teacher says.

 

Can it sound dry

like a wood chip flying in the carpenter’s shop?

 

Can it be wet

like chewed gum stuck on the cork board before it falls off?

 

Can it sound round and mellow

Like the voice of a newborn chick?

 

Can it sound jagged and sad

like the midnight cry of a jackal pup?

 

A staccato.

I’m mystified.

A short note followed by silence.

Silence preceded by a short note?

Why does it have to be preceded?

Can I start a piece with silence, then a short note?

Will people notice the silence?

Of course not,

unless I say, “I start my piece with silence.”

But then, it doesn’t really begin with silence, does it?

 

What is silence?

What is a staccato?

 

What!

Is!

Staccato!!??

 

If you want to sing better…

If you want to sing better, take care of your breathing.

If you want to sing higher, take care of your breathing.

If you want to sing louder, take care of your breathing.

If you want to sing longer, take care of your breathing.

If you are sad in the middle of singing, inhale, let the breath warm your heart.

If you are too happy, exhale, let the breath cool your body, watch it float…

away…..

Like a dandelion seed in the breeze.

 

Breathing is a miracle.

Breathing is believing.

Breathing is trusting.

Breathing is the beginning

and

the ending.

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ジャスト・プレイ・フォー・ミー (祈っとくれよ)

祈っとくれよ,お嬢さん

祈っとくれよ,あたしの為に

あんたいい人みたいだからさ

あたしの話を聴いておくれよ

でもすぐに忘れてくれていいんだよ

そういって彼女は悲しい身の上話を始めた

 

長い道のりを歩いて来たんだよ

悔いばかりが残ってる

為にならない事ばかりしてきた

誰もいやしない

こんな惨めな人間なんか

ずっと監獄に入れられてるみたいなひどい気分なのさ

 

ある日やっぱり飲みたくなってバーに行った

でもいたたまれなくなったんだ

バーテンに声をかけたら 急に

その顔がイエス様に見えたんだ

ぎょっとして床に膝をついちまった

やっと外まで這っていったんだ

振り向いたとき思わず叫んだ

だってあの緋色の女がニタニタ笑って

ウィスキーの瓶を振りかざしてたんだ

そう、腐れ縁の古い知り合いさ

 

だから、祈っとくれよ,お嬢さん

祈っとくれよ、あたしのために

あてなんてないよ

今夜過ごす場所すらも

誰もいやしない

こんな淋しい人間なんか

祈っとくれよ、せめて

祈っとくれよ、あたしのために

夜も遅い十時頃、サンフランシスコは下町のラーキン通りを歩いていました。どの角にも、ホームレスがいて、近づいてくるのです。昨今の家不足と悪くなる一方の生活環境の中、地べたに寝るスペースを確保するだけでも、彼らにとっては大変な競争なのでしょう。 歩行者に一ドルでも多く出させる為には、ただ哀れっぽく乞うだけではなく、もっと面白いやり方をしないと駄目なようです。

一人の男はサミー・ヘイガーよろしく、頭のてっぺんから叫んでいました。本当に苦しんでいたのか、それとも余興なのか?もう一人は背の高い、筋肉隆々の男性。彼は通りを横切って私の方に来ました。親しげな笑顔で笑いかけると、彼はTシャツの袖をまくり上げて,逞しい腕を見せてくれました。喜んでボディーガードになるというのです。 一晩中ボディーガードを雇う程には財布の余裕がある由も無く、二ドルを渡すと、それでも彼は笑顔を絶やさず、去っていきました。

読者の中には、私と同じように、一体どんな辛い偶然が重なって,ホームレスの多くは、路上に寝起きするようになったのだろうと、想像を巡らせる方もいらっしゃると思います。彼らの多くは、普通の人達で、真面目に毎日働いていたのかもしれない。急に重い病気にかかったのかもしれない。働けないという事は、給料がストップするという事で、給料がもらえないという事は、家賃、家のローンが払えないということで、頼る近親者もなく、友人も無く、あれよあれよという間に、路上生活が始まったのかもしれない。こういったタイプのホームレスが現れ始めたのは比較的最近で、2008年の経済危機の後は、ひどくなる一方のようです。

他にも、荒んだ家庭に育った人々もいます。あまり賢いとは言えない大人達に生活を支配された幼少時代。身体的、精神的、社会的にも虐待された過去。飲酒、ドラッグ、売春などは、それらの過去に受けた傷が、ただ単に表に現れた結果なのかもしれません。

そんなことを考えてみると、ある境遇を生きた人にとって、生き方を変えるためには自己の強い意志以上のものが必要なのではないでしょうか。「私には、生きる価値がある」ということを強く,深く信じられる何かが必要なのではないのでしょうか。『祈っとくれよ』の主人公にはそうした希望がありません。それがただただ悲しい。

信仰をとっくに無くした彼女にとって、「神」は過去の悪い所行の報いを求めに訪れる恐ろしい存在でしかない。彼女の人生には何の意味も無い。そうおののきながらも、見知らぬ通行人に取りすがり、「そうではない」と言ってもらいたい。

ふと私は思いました。「慈悲心」というのは、「想像心」ということなのではないだろうかと。ある人の立場になろう,その人が経験した事をもっと肌で感じようと想像力を働かせば働かせる程、慈悲の心も増すのではないでしょうか。この曲を書いたのも、そうした想いを伝えたかったからかもしれません。

私はこの曲のモデルに会った事はありません。でも、ある意味ではもう、どこかで出会っているのかも知れませんね。この曲を聴いて、気に入っていただけたら、読者の方々も、ぜひ想像力を膨らませて下さい。そしてもし、この話の続きを作って下されば、うれしいな。そして、あなたのお話の中では、彼女がもう少し幸せになってくれることを願います。

Just Pray For Me

I was walking on Larkin Street in downtown San Francisco at ten in the evening. At almost every block, panhandlers approached me. With the housing crisis and the continued decline of living quality in a big city like SF, even securing a space on the sidewalk seems to meet tough competition. In order to entice pedestrians to chuck out a dollar or two for them, they got to do something interesting instead of just begging.

One guy was belting out from the top of his head like Sammy Hagar. Was it because he was in real pain, or for show? Another guy was a tall, muscular guy. He crossed the street to meet me. With a big friendly smile on his face, he rolled up his T-shirt to show me his well-sculpted arms. He told me he was happy to be my bodyguard. I didn’t have enough to hire him all night. I gave him only a couple of dollars. Without losing his smile, he quietly walked away.

I’m sure some of you readers must have wondered like me, what twisted combinations of ill circumstances brought them to live on the street night after night. Some of them have been working diligently. Then they got sick. Unable to go to work, the paycheck stopped. No pay, no money for the rent or mortgage. They had no relatives or friends to depend on, so they were out on the street. This is a relatively new type of homelessness.

Some of other homeless people might have grown up in broken homes. Incompetent adults, who themselves lacked wisdom, might have dominated their lives. Some of them might have been regularly neglected and abused physically, mentally and socially. Alcoholism, drug abuse, prostitution are just a few of the outcomes of causations deeply rooted in their past.

It seems to me, changing the way we are takes more than our will power. We need to feel that our lives matter in a deep, concrete sense. The character in this song, “Just Pray For Me,” saddens me because she lacks the sense. Here are the lyrics.

Just pray for me, lady
Just pray for me
You seem like a lady with a good heart
I’ll tell you my story
But I hope you soon forget
And that’s how she told me her saddest part
I been walkin’ down the road
With regrets in my heart
I done many bad things to myself
Nobody ought to be
As miserable as me
I felt wretched like a yard bird in his cell
One day I went to the bar for my usual fill
But somehow it was more than I could stand
When I called out to the barkeep
I saw the face of Jesus
I dropped my knees right on the ground
“Then I crawled outside
As fast as I could
Then I cried when I looked back again
This time I saw the scarlet woman grinnin’
Flashing at a whiskey bottle, my old friend
So pray for me, lady
Just pray for me
I don’t know where I’ll be
At the end of the day
Nobody ought to be
As lonesome as me
Just pray for me
Just pray for me
Copyright ©2015 by Chie Kwon-Treagus

 She had lost faith in a conventional concept of God long time ago. All she fears is retribution for her wrongdoing. She cannot believe that her life has a meaning. Yet she prays that someone tells her it does.

I thought one day, “Maybe compassion means imagination.” What I meant was, the more vivid imagination you exercise in order to be in the position of others, the more you succeed in being compassionate. This song was born out of my attempt to have empathic imagination on someone’s suffering.

I’ve never met this person. But in a way I have. When you listen to this song, I hope you use your imagination as well. Let me know if you were able to create a great sequel to this story. I hope in your version, she gets to live a happier life.