I have always been very near-sighted, so when I was younger, school was difficult because I could never see the board, and somehow, my parents never realized I needed glasses (maybe I didn’t mention it to them? who knows – as a kid, I was too hyperactive and imaginative to let something as trivial as legal blindness bother me). This went on until high school, when I finally got contacts so I wouldn’t have to feel along the hallways to find my locker.
Meanwhile, at around 12 years of age, I started taking piano lessons (because every proper Asian kid has to have either piano or violin skills under his/her belt). I dreaded class with Mrs. Quyen Diao (pronounced “gwin yow”) every week, not because she was a terrible teacher or anything, but because I struggled with the lessons due to my inability to see a single note on the music book just a foot from my face. (It should be noted here that my nearsightedness required that I hold any given book literally an inch or so from my face in order to read the characters. Which means, I would have had to hold it close enough to almost cross my eyes, and then only see a few words at a time. I know, how sexy is that?)
So Mrs. Quyen Diao would tap her pencil (at least my ears thought it was a pencil) as a metronome, as I leaned forward and squinted with all my savvy might to play notes I couldn’t see… I must have been the most untalented student she had ever had. But I solved the problem within the first few lessons.
I started (painstakingly) learning the assignment in advance, memorizing where each note should be and every place in the song that required a page turn, so when the following week’s lesson rolled around, I was ready. Mrs. Quyen Diao must have thought I was the quickest learner. I saved my family’s honor, AND I developed a good memory and a very good ear for music.
As a preteen to teenager, I would write down the sounds of the sung words from Chinese (which is not my native language) songs, with my own system of markings, so that I could sing the songs later for myself (I just liked Chinese music and I liked to sing, so I made it happen). It wasn’t until college that I learned that I was transcribing phonetically (this realization was why I went into linguistics for my MA).
One could argue that because my native language, Vietnamese, was already a tonal language, I could better hear and thus imitate Chinese, another tonal language. Perhaps to a degree, but the tones are different (even if we look alike–in good fun, I jest–you may find distinctions in the musicality of our spoken languages to be quite different). Even within the same language, the dialectal differences are markedly distinguishing and not necessarily easy to mimic among fellow patriots. I will have to credit my very poor vision for my very rich hearing abilities.
But it was not only my poor vision that catalyzed a good ear. Quite frankly, it was my resolve to make something happen using what I did have. It was the opportunity of conflict, in which its overcoming tapped into and developed greater skills and assets. I can look back now and see a stream of opportunities, some incredibly challenging and creating demon-facing beyond a necessary lifetime’s worth, but my being here today, speaking to you about adversity as opportunity, should tell you how those turned out. 🙂
By the way, piano lessons ended after about a year, when my fidgety, unstructured nature wanted to get off the bench and start doing martial arts instead. As a fighter, being unable to see sharpened my ninja-spidey senses in interesting ways. That’s a whole other story. 😉