Music as Matchmaker

People often ask me how it is I could have fallen in love with someone when we didn’t speak the same language.

At first I would explain that through my remedial Chinese and his odd English words, we managed to struggle slowly with conversations while limping on my little red pocket-sized Chinese-English dictionary.

Then it occurred to me that we actually did have a common language.

The first time I hung out with Guo Jian just one-on-one, he invited me to his apartment for tea. He played me songs on the guzheng (Chinese zither) and showed me how to play it (I was all thumbs) and then introduced me to several kinds of strong Chinese tea that kept us awake until dawn. We “talked” all night—that is, with him on bass and me on guitar and we only took breaks to refresh the teapot.

Oh, and eat.

(Stomach growling is another very important universal language!)

My next interaction with Guo Jian was spent sitting on the living room couch in the shared apartment in which I was renting a room. I played tracks for him from my hard drive while creating a playlist that he liked. He had brought with him a binder of CDs filled with his favourite mixes and together we swapped tracks like we were kids trading baseball cards. One song from me would inspire him to eject a disc and put in another with squeals of delight. We were like a two-person DJ tag team.

We did this several times together, spending hours listening intently to the other’s offerings, gesticulating wildly at good parts, sometimes struggling with my dictionary to explain the lyrical meaning, but mostly just giving each other space to present music to the other. Relying on facial expressions, twinkling eyes, tapping toes.

Then, Guo Jian saw my recording equipment and asked me if he could record a song of his. I agreed to help him. We spent four days working long stretches in my rented room. He, switching between instruments and me, twiddling knobs and clicking the mouse. We did a lot of laughing.

This was all before we had even kissed. We were like two kids playing together. Our toys were music and songs. Our games were non-verbal.

After the song was recorded, I spent an extra day on my own deciphering the lyrics so that I could surprise him with an English version. Halfway through my laborious translation, I realized, shyly, that the song was about me. Guo Jian told me he had written it the day after the first time we had hung out together after I had emerged from my dark breakdown over those endless cups of tea. A month had passed since then.

The lyrics went like this:

“I’m trying to use your attitude towards love to write you this song.
You look so fine and relaxed, but you’re hiding. Something is wrong.
I said you and I, we kind of have a look-alike childlike face.
But, I think it can be said you’re not that simple in the first place.
There’ll always be a day we’ll say goodbye
There’ll always be a day we’ll meet again
Didn’t you say we’re heading for the same destination?
There’ll always be a day we’ll say goodbye
There’ll always be a day we’ll meet again
I hope the path you choose will always be shared with good friends.
Let me wrap you up, I’m giving you a hug now, like a hug from an old friend.”

We were friends first. This is the evidence.

Then he kissed me. Suddenly the language we were exploring became even more non-verbal. I discovered the other, more-talked-about universal language…

Ho hum. Yes, love. That’s the one.

When it came out (no pun intended) that Guo Jian was also a musician—a bass player at that—people back home raised their eyebrows in sarcastic surprise. “Aren’t they all bass players?” I responded, playfully, trying to make light of the coincidence. But the next assumption people made was that, like my ex-partner and I, we would perform together, make music together, create as a team.

Not so.

Some past patterns are in the past for a reason.

What makes GJ and I good together as a couple is likely due, in part, to the fact that we don’t work together. Separate musical careers and projects. We support each other off stage. What’s more, Guo Jian and I quickly learned that we are both bandleaders. Let’s just put it this way: two alphas don’t a good band make.

We still jam occasionally, and sometimes even come up with some great bits, but now we can use Chinese to verbally discuss which of our two bands gets to use those musical gems if we really get attached to them. I guess you could say that we now occasionally moonlight as a two-person songwriting tag team.

These days, people regularly ask me if I’m fluent in Chinese. I hesitate to claim fluency. It’s such a difficult language with many layers of learning ranging from simple conversation skills all the way up to academic literacy. I call myself “functionally fluent” with a humble caveat that I have a long way to go before I can claim academic fluency.

But I’m so grateful that, in the beginning, it was our mutual musical fluency that linked us. Those conversations flowed beautifully. The rose and fell in intensity and emotion. They spoke without needing to. They reached through. It was like our spirits became linked through melody and rhythm, meter and groove.

Music as matchmaker.

Love needs no dictionary.

Jealous Storms
Power Tools

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