Saved by the Belly

Stuff I Learnt Through Song

By Candice Low

Growing up, it seems that half my childhood was spent in the car. Eating congee from a flask, finishing my math homework, changing out of my school uniform into my ballet leotard (tricky, especially since I was only allowed to change while the car was moving) were all part and parcel of my daily car routine. Time spent in the car was also time spent listening to the radio. My family is not one of those drive-in-silence types. If you’re a guest in our car, we’d rather you raise your voice than us lower the volume. My mom once turned up the volume because she liked the song, blissfully unaware of how my friend who was sitting in the back mid-sentence obediently took it as a cue to shush.

As a result of all that radio, I’ve accrued a library of lyrics in my head, a large chunk of them oldies because we listened to Gold 90.5FM, a station with cheery ads about retirement. Besides possessing the karaoke song choices of a fifty-six-year-old, I have also learnt a lot of language through song. For example, I learnt the word “vagabond” from Elton John’s “Can You Feel The Love Tonight,”  although it was a gradual process because only much later did I realize he was not saying “beggar-bond.” It made sense to me then, and still does now. He was juxtaposing kings with something, and what could have been more fitting than a beggar, aka beggar-bond?

Now that I live away from home and don’t drive except in dreams or video games, I don’t listen to the radio as much, but I have maintained my love for learning language through music. In fact, I now learn other languages through music.  Not that I claim to always learn useful things. Through constant repetition of my parents’ Cantonese pop music from the 80’s and 90’s and the study of the written lyrics in Mandarin, I managed to teach myself a decent amount. Unfortunately, Cantopop, especially from that era, is particularly emotive, and the stuff I can say ranges from “I only want to spend this life walking with you” to “stroking your face softly,” neither of which I’ve found to be useful at lunch in a dim sum restaurant.

Luckily, I’ve had more success with Spanish, thanks to lyrical luminaries such as Daddy Yankee and Residente from Calle 13, although my prior knowledge of Portuguese probably helped too. (Even with Portuguese, I only really mastered the pairing of future subjunctive with conditional tense after I heard it sung.) Many might dismiss Daddy Yankee and reggaeton as trashy, but without him I would have never been able to communicate with the Peruvian nurse who tended to my mom after she fell on a calle in Lima. Listening to Calle 13 got me through 4am problem sets during one rough semester, and while my memory of corporate finance and investments is now fuzzy, I can still rap the entire “No Hay Nadie Como Tu.”

Sometimes, though, I learn much deeper stuff than just vocabulary or grammar. As a child, I learnt to feel deep empathy when I heard Paul Young croon “Every time you go away/ You take a piece of meat (me) with you.” I felt his hunger pangs, seeing his lover leave with a package of meat from his fridge every time she upped and left. This probably had something to do with how carefully my mom selects meat at the supermarket, making the heartache of someone casually taking away the painstakingly chosen meat even more acute. Paul Young will never know, but he taught me to contemplate the transient nature of flesh, love and life, as I sat in the car eating my congee with ground pork.

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