Poem of the Week, by Stephanie Niu

My poems podcast, Words by Wintercan be found here.

My dad once told me that his school music teacher told him not to sing. Mouth the words, pretend to sing, but don’t. Every time I think about this, it hurts. Last February I was visiting my parents when they called my brother to sing him Happy Birthday. I secretly took a video of my big dad, phone clutched to his mostly-deaf ear, leaning forward in the lamplight and straining out the words.

How many songs are locked up inside each of us? When I read this beautiful poem below I wished I could go back in time and tell that little boy to sing as loud as he wanted.


A Lao Jia Song Is a Song of Home, by Stephanie Niu

There were two times I heard my father sing.
Once from behind the camera, panning to my brother’s
birthday cake, his happy birthday a key off,
so bad it is valiant, my brother blushing before the table.

The second was at a feast—a mountain village
south of Kunming where, my father pointed out,
people readied for winter like animals,
mixing butter into their tea.

There was something there, his eyes watching
the long-haired buffalo graze the cold hills
as our little bus wound up and up. His favorite American books
were the Little House series, with their descriptions

of simple tasks, how they churned butter from cream.
At the dinner, roast lamb, dark pickled flowers,
a strong tea, and before long his song:
the haunting rise of an attempt at melody,

his voice breaking before it can carry.
Somehow they recognize it, the mountain family,
and they lean over and whisper “This is a lao jia song,”
because we have never heard it

in all these years, we are sitting with strangers
trying to imagine what he is mourning.

This poem was first published in Southeast Review. For more information about Stephanie Niu, please check out her website.
Words by Winter: my new podcast


  1. yvonne Season · February 13, 2021

    My husband, too, was told to mouth the words in the elementary school choir. The cruelty of that takes my breath away, but I love the my grown children still cherish hearing him sing his bedtime song to them–Silent Night–in his off-key way.

    Liked by 1 person

    • alisonmcghee · February 18, 2021

      Oh Yvonne. I’m so sorry to hear this. And I love that he still sings, and that your children cherish that. XO

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Heidi Powell · February 16, 2021

    Thank you, Alison. I regularly read your posts and listen to your podcast. I don’t know why, but this particular poem and your story brought tears to my eyes. Maybe part of it is a role reversal: thinking of our parents as vulnerable children and wanting to protect them.

    Being the first child, my mom recorded everything I said and did. One entry in my mammoth scrapbook was a question that 4-year-old me asked my mom: When I get big will you get little and I take care of you?

    Heidi Powell | An Open Book Foundation Founding Director she | her | hers 5901 Utah Ave. NW | Washington, DC 20015 T: 202-686-7115 | C: 301-641-2766 hpowell@anopenbook.org http://www.anopenbookfound.org | Twitter | Facebook | Instagram

    Featured at the 2019/20 Catalogue for Philanthropy website. “One of the best small charities in the Greater Washington region.”


    Liked by 2 people

  3. alisonmcghee · February 16, 2021

    Heidi, this is so lovely. You and your mom, the question you asked her. This poem went straight to my heart, too. Thank you for writing – and thank you for all the good work that Open Book does. XO

    Liked by 1 person

  4. marcia DEEB · February 18, 2021

    This is soo sad. I never had this problem and I never even knew about this. I think this was Mrs. Platzer, the music teacher. aunt marshall

    Liked by 2 people

    • alisonmcghee · February 18, 2021

      It really is sad, isn’t it? I’m glad this didn’t happen to you. XO

      Liked by 1 person

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