PicMonkey is thrilled to announce our 2015 college scholarship winner: Brenda Wu! We asked high school seniors to tell us what inspires them to photograph and what those photos mean to them. The response was impressive, with over 375 entries. Do yourself a favor and read this beautiful essay on the power of music and photos to transcend all boundaries to create meaningful human connection.
“Ah-gong hao! (Hello grandfather)” I sing as I shut the trim door behind me.
“Hao (Hello)” Ah-gong answers warmly. My mom bustles to the kitchen, leaving Ah-gong and me in the living room.
I soon feel shame seep through me, reddening my cheeks. It’s the third time we’ve visited my grandfather’s this summer and I haven’t been able to bridge the language gap: Ah-gong speaks Taiwanese Hokkien, which doesn’t overlap with my English and Chinese. Past customary “how are you”s, neither of us really knows how to continue conversation: we are two people separated by language, two people from opposite sides of the globe, two people who might as well be strangers.
I awkwardly adjust myself on the couch, unsure of what to say or do next. Both of us stare in the direction of the kitchen, hoping for Mom to return and rescue our conversation, or rather, the lack thereof. And then, it hits me.
“Wo la xiaotiqin gei ni tin? (shall I play the violin for you?)” I motion towards my violin case to clarify. I’d happened to bring it along, and set it down in the corner of the room. Ah-gong nods encouragingly. Mom aptly returns and says, “Ah-gong loves listening to gudian yinyue (classical music) — that’s where you and I inherited our love for music, you know.”
I pick up my xiaotiqin, my violin, and caress its strings. Deciding on Mendelssohn’s Concerto in e minor, I play, fingers contorting into familiar patterns, bow gliding in smooth arcs, Mendelssohn’s hauntingly beautiful melodies rising and falling. As the last note fades away, I hear Ah-gong’s soft clapping. I squeeze my violin close, my baobei, my precious. Ah-gong wraps me along with the violin in a giant hug and wide smile.
He takes out several old photo albums, and the three of us sit on the couch, carefully flipping the yellowed pages. Between Mom’s translations and the faded photos, I listen to Ah-gong’s storytelling: stories of growing up as one of twelve children; of falling in love with my grandmother; of working rice fields under the burning hot sun; of raising my mom and her four siblings.
The rest of the afternoon flies by in a whirlwind of Ah-gong’s stories. We say our goodbyes, and Ah-gong hurriedly speaks. Mom translates: “Ah-gong would like you to bring the violin every time you visit.”
“Xiexie Ah-gong, (thank you)” I say. And with that, I tote my violin case back home, planning what song to play on our next visit to Ah-gong’s.
My grandfather and I, separated by a foot in height, by fifty-five years in age, by no common means of verbal communication, are still able to connect over notes that need no prior knowledge to understand. Music connected me with Ah-gong that day; it connects me day-to-day with conductors, musicians, and music-lovers. A photo that day, of Ah-gong’s smile as he stood there softly clapping for me, would’ve captured the essence of love, that which (like music) transcends all boundaries.
Brenda grew up in Maryland. She is fluent in English and Chinese, plays the violin and the piano, and is interested in studying biology and chemistry. She will attend the California Institute of Technology this fall.