Saturday, February 23, 2008

miniT fever, catch it!

Kyoko on stageWhile I was teaching in Hamamatsu, I sometimes tutored individual students after school, typically in English conversation or composition in preparation for entrance exams. One day, I was approached by a homeroom teacher and asked to help one of her students. This girl also wanted English conversation lessons, but not for school. No, this girl needed to learn English because she was planning on moving to the US to become a rock star. I thought that was audaciously wrongheaded, and immediately told the teacher to have the girl meet me that day after class.

The girl that scuttled up to my desk that day was a second year named Kyoko that I had taught the year previously. Once I saw her I remembered her as the girl that did not speak or volunteer once in class the whole year only to suddenly deliver a flawless speech about her love of music for the final oral test.

We walk downstairs, find an empty classroom, and start talking. I am trying to be as delicate as I can, since she looks to be in danger of wilting under my gaze and going into a swoon at any moment. I ask her why she wants to practice English, and sure enough, she lets out that she's on her way to the States and, presumably, future rock godhead. She confesses to me that she already sings and plays lead guitar in a band called "miniT" with her two girlfriends. Tentatively - since I'm so excited at the idea of a student having a dream larger than working in a company that I'm hesistant to crush it, however incredibly absurd it may be - I ask her a series of questions: Does she realize she can't just go and stay in the US? How does she plan on getting a visa? Where will she live? Where in the US does she want to go? She is troubled. She doesn't seem to have thought very hard about any of these things. But, of course, she's just a 15 year old girl; she doesn't have to. I leave that for the next time, and instead we talk about music for an hour or so and call it a day.

We continue to meet at least twice a week after school each week. She becomes more comfortable talking to me - though never loses her nervousness completely, and, charmingly, always walks a step or so behind me while we walk downstairs to the classroom for each lesson, too self-conscious to walk together with me in front of other students. Gradually I convince her that the idea of just arriving in the US to instant stardom is a bit farfetched, but that if she's really serious about going, the easiest way is to go to college and then study abroad. That way, she'll be able to go on a student visa and see if she actually wants to live in the real country, not the US she holds in her mind pieced together from pop culture and popular prejudice. I point out that college is also a great place to meet other musically-inclined people, and if she wanted to form or join a band in the US that may be the easiest road. Finally, I make the obvious economic sale for college obliquely, asserting that realistically, only the most successful artists actually make enough money to survive on music alone, so she'll just have to do work of some kind. The difference is that as a college graduate she'll be able to do something easier and better-paid than waiting tables in between tours. I leaven these laudable yet leaden life lessons with lots of cds I burn for her from music on my computer. She proves receptive both to my advice and my musical taste.

A few months later is the school festival, and miniT is headlining the concert portion in the gym. Kyoko's band is playing 3 covers of American pop punk hits (some Avril Lavigne songs) along with one original composition, called "Let's Diet", that Kyoko wrote in English and asked me to correct for her, which I did to the best of my ability. Meaning I did so with the aim in mind of not making it into idiomatic English, since it would then lose the charm of phrases that no native speaker would think of. She also asked me for the specific pronunciations of different words in the songs, and then came to me constantly in the days leading up to the festival to double check her pronunciation and make sure she hadn't gotten it mixed up in the interim between meetings with me. There's actually a video on YouTube of her band performing this song in concert, along with subtitles:

miniT - "Let's Diet"

Needless to say, miniT was a big hit at the school festival. While I was pleasantly surprised by how capable and tight they performed their songs, I thought their problem was the material they were covering or being inspired by. Avril Lavigne and Hilary Duff aren't exactly fertile ground - in a musical sense, at least - and unlikely to inspire anything more than more cynical attempts to co-opt punk culture. What's strange or sad about Japan is that listening to Avril kind of would be punk there, since even American pop is quite hip compared to the insanely over-produced and under-performed sugar slurry of J-Pop. At least Avril songs have actual instruments in them.

For comparison's sake, here's a song by SMAP, the most popular pop group in Japan for like the last decade, none of whose members can actually sing alone, let alone together:

SMAP - "Sekai ni Hitsotsu dake no Hana" (The Only Flower in the World)

You'd think if you got 5 guys in a group together, you'd practice harmonizing, or at least, introduce the concept. But no.

There's also Ayumi Hamasaki, the "Empress of Pop," who has sold 50 million records and had a #1 single every year for 10 years, but does not look or sing like a human being. Or Def Tech, this unbelievably terrible rap group that had a hit with this one song for what seemed like the duration of my time in the JET Programme:

Def Tech - "My Way"

Shudder... I would often tell my students that if they didn't hate that song passionately they clearly needed to study more English to improve their listening comprehension.

Anyway, my point was that in comparison to this kind of "music," Avril is pretty fantastic. But like I told Kyoko, considering she's playing her own guitar, writing songs, and performing without intense vocal modulation, she's already cooler than Avril, so she should aim a little higher. I give her cds by bands that might be a little more suited for her goals - like Sleater-Kinney, an all-girl rock group - along with bios of each of the bands. Later, she tells me which songs she liked on each album and we talk about why, which leads to more recommendations. One day, she tells me she really liked the Pixies album Surfer Rosa, and it occurs to me that the song "Gigantic" is actually one of the few songs on the album sung by the female bassist. I do a quick search online, find the guitar and bass tabs, print them out, and pass them along to Kyoko.

Months later, after I've left the school and moved to Tokyo, I get a DVD in the mail with a note from Kyoko. She tells me the DVD is a recording of a recent concert in Hamamatsu, and I'm to specifically watch the part that starts about 9 minutes in.

And there I find miniT performing "Gigantic" by the Pixies:

In her note, she apologizes for the poor performance, saying it was their first try at playing it live. She also tells me that she's studying hard now so she can attend college next year and be able to study abroad in the US. I'm hoping the next time I see Kyoko will be playing a gig somewhere in LA or NYC, and though I'd love to see her play the Pixies live, I'm looking forward more to seeing what she's been inspired to write on her own.

Friday, February 15, 2008

"Hey, sloth! Get up! Today is Valentine's Day!"

Over the summer, a student of mine was in Santa Barbara for an exchange program for three weeks. I invited her and her friends down to my house for a weekend (actually, I invited her and she asked if she could bring a friend, a single friend that somehow became 2 friends, likely thanks to Japanese's lack of plural signifiers for nouns, which leads to students making a lot of mistakes when producing English sentences, though typically they do not lead to the production of additional human beings).

I thought since Valentine's Day has just passed us by, I'd post the picture book she gave me that her older sister wrote and illustrated. I laughed until I cried as I read it and was yet inconsolable for some time afterwards. Her family apparently has some sort of strange obsession with sloths. They think they are adorable, despite the fact that the sloth is really one of the most singularly unattractive of animals in that kingdom. Of course, their depictions of sloths - which extend beyond drawings to actual miniature sloth dolls and even, in December, a Santa Sloth wreath - bear very little resemblance to the actual animal, so their image of the sloth is quite cute. I've scanned in pictures of the book and transcribed the dialogue below:

Boy: "Hey, sloth! Get up! Today is Valentine's Day!"
Sloth: "Good morning... Why are you so..."
Boy: "Oh, hurry up! Let's make a chocolate cake."
A boy took sloth to kitchen.
Sloth: "Why do you want to make a cake?"
Boy: "Well... I want to give it to a woman who I love."
Sloth: "Wow! You are precocious."

Then, they began to cook.

Sloth: "I'll taste the cake to see if it is sweet enough."
Boy: ...Wow... Yummy!!"
Sloth: "Really? Now, I'll taste it, too. ...Oh, yummy!"

They kept eating the cake. they left little cake.

? (both Sloth and Boy, perhaps): "Oh no!!"
Mrs. Slow came there.
Mrs. Slow: "Hello. Are you making something sweet?"
"It smells good," she said.

The boy turn to red.
Boy: "Sorry... I want you to eat that... But..."
Sloth: "Mrs. Slow, would you like to eat this cake?"
Sloth invited her to eat the cake.
Mrs. Slow: "Oh, please. Thank you."
Sloth: "Boy and me made this cake.
Boy said, 'Today is Valentine's Day. I'll give it to a woman who I love.' However, we tasted it too much."
Sloth: "Wow! Sloth! You shouldn't have told her it!"

Mrs. Slow smiled.
And kissed the boy.

Mrs. Slow: "It's so sweet. Thank you."
Sloth felt, "Saint Valentine's Day is a very very sweet day."

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel (pt.2)

This was actually written a while back, but I finally finished the last part so I could post it already.

Previously I wrote about the Japanese national anthem "Kimi ga yo" and how its adoption as an anthem seems to stand at odds with the goal of a modern and democratic Japan.

I was thinking about the song myself after one of the many school assemblies at which one is required to sing the song - where I typically moan along to the melody more than mouth the lyrics of the song itself (actually this is what I do with the school song too, since I don't know the words except for the last line where you say the name of the school, so it's just like "aaahhhhhh owwwwwaaaa ohhhhhhh ohhhhhaaaaaa ahhhhhhh...Hamamatsu Minami Koukou~"). I had English club later that day, so I asked a couple kids what they think about when they sing the anthem.

Student A: "What do you mean?"
Me: "Well, considering what the song is about, how do you feel when you sing it?"
Student A: "What do you mean, 'what the song is about'?"
Me: "You know, since it's all about the Emperor."
(Turns to another student next to him)
Student A: "Wait, it's about the Emperor?!"
Student B: "Yeah...something like that."
Me: (Incredulously) "Are you seriously telling me you don't know what the song is about? You've been singing the song at every school event for the last 10 years!"
Student A: (Whining) "But I learned it when I was like in first grade, so I didn't know what it was about!"
Me: "Are you arguing you still have the mind of a first grader?"
Student A: "No, but..."
Me: " just have no concern for the words coming out of your mouth? Clearly."

After this conversation - and telling the kid to go home and read a damn book - I decided I had to create a lesson about this topic for the next club meeting. At first I was simply going to talk about problems with the Japanese anthem, but I realized that direct censure of another person's culture typically does nothing but solidify opposition, even from those who might otherwise agree. People become defensive at the very idea of an American giving them a lecture, the boundaries between us harden, and the possibility for change or reconciliation approaches zero. Japanese people don't want to hear a lecture from an American any more than I want to hear one from some German on a train.

So I thought of a more roundabout way of addressing the topic: I began club that day by playing "Kimi ga yo" on a stereo, then wrote up on the board and explained the definition of national anthem: "a patriotic song officially adopted by a country as an expression of national identity." Each student received a copy of both the Japanese lyrics for the Japanese anthem and their English translation. I adopted a Socratic method, asking students what the anthem was about, what sort of tone it has, what sort of feeling it invoked in them, and why this particular song might have been chosen as the national anthem to begin with. Then, I split students into pairs and distributed to each group two of the English translations of the lyrics of the national anthems of some 15 or so countries - Canada, China, England, France, Germany, India, Israel, Libya, Mexico, Norway, Palestine, The Philippines, South Africa, South Korea - without any country named affixed. I wrote the list of countries on the board and asked students to read the lyrics and try to guess which country their anthems came from.

This proved to be far, far more difficult for them to figure out than I would have ever imagined. Of course, I thought some countries may have proved difficult - Norway or Switzerland, for example - but though I had removed the names of the countries themselves from both the title and anywhere it might have appeared in the song itself, some lyrics contained hints so glaring I worried some students might find the thing easy to the point of boredom.

But my students really have a way of surprising you with their ignorance.

One girl calls me over and laments that no matter how many times she reads her set of lyrics, she just cannot figure out what country it is. I myself don't have all the songs and countries memorized, of course, but I take one look at the page and point out the second line: "Let our flesh and blood become our new Great Wall!" I point at it and give her a significant look. She frowns and looks down - in embarrassment, I think, which fills me with a blend of satisfaction and relief - but then turns her head back to me again and says, "e? wakaranai!" (Wha? I don't get it!) I take a pen out of my pocket and underline the words "Great Wall" and raise my eyebrows at her. She stares at me blankly. It takes a few minutes more - during which I am reduced to pantomiming arriving at and climbing a large wall - for her to figure it out.

Another student raises his hand and flags me down. He and his partner are completely baffled by one of their songs. I see which one it is and have to collect myself for a second because it is by far the easiest one. Here is the anthem that left these two kids stumped (where * is the name of the country appearing in the song):

"O! Dispenser of *****'s destiny, thou art the ruler of the minds of all people
Thy name rouses the hearts of Punjab, Sindh, Gujarat, the Maratha country,
in the Dravida country, Utkala and Bengal;
It echoes in the hills of the Vindhyas and Himalayas,
it mingles in the rhapsodies of the pure waters of Jamuna and the Ganges.
They chant only thy name.
They seek only thy auspicious blessings.
They sing only the glory of thy victory.
The salvation of all people waits in thy hands,
O! Dispenser of *****'s destiny, thou art the ruler of the minds of all people
Victory to thee, Victory to thee,
Victory, Victory, Victory, Victory to thee."

Can you guess the country? I've bolded the key words above, to help you out. If you were this particular boy, you would guess, "America?" And you would then be ruthlessly castigated by me regarding your disconcertingly imprecise knowledge of world geography ("The Himalayas are in America, huh? The Himalayas stretch across seven countries, but America is most certainly not one of them. Are you even familiar with the continents of the world?"). Incidentally, this is the same boy - Student A above - that didn't know the Japanese anthem was about the emperor. He's a straight-A student, as far as that goes.

In the end, however painful the process proved to be, all the students were able to guess the anthems (many were aided greatly through the process of elimination). I then asked them to read over their anthems again and, as they did initially with the Japanese anthem, consider the tone of the songs, how they felt reading each, and think a bit about why these might have been chosen as a national anthem, in light of what they might know about the country in question.

Each group then shared their opinions and thoughts about their assigned anthems. It became an interesting way to explore and fill gaps in their knowledge about the outside world (rather than simply ridicule or lament them, as I am wont to do). One group read the Palestinian anthem (an angry refusal to surrender a homeland) while another read the Israeli anthem (a paean of joy and relief at homecoming), which segued easily into a discussion of the seemingly intractable nature of the conflict. Several students remarked on the violence of some anthems, while others noticed the absence of such in others; typically this aligned quite well with the policy of the country in question. The last pair brought up the parts of the Filipino anthem - which took its current form after WWII - about resisting invaders, at which point I couldn't help but ask the students who that line might refer to. Many were shocked to consider that most Filipinos singing the anthem would be thinking about Japan when they come to that line.

This last bit lead nicely back to my final point. I directed their attention once more to the definition of anthem written on the board: "a patriotic song officially adopted by a country as an expression of national identity." As I explained, the lyrics of national anthems are often inspired by specific points in a country's history - take the US anthem, which Francis Scott Key wrote after watching the bombardment of Ft. Henry by the British during the War of 1812. Sometimes, like in the case of the Japanese anthem, they are adopted from poetry or existing folk-songs. In that sense, anthems arise somewhat spontaneously as expressions of national feeling. However, they do not become the official national anthem spontaneously; it is a deliberate decision by the country's government. As the definition says, they are adopted as an "expression of national identity," and so their adoption can be viewed as one way of establishing or even creating an identity.

That day I left the students with two questions: "Does "Kimi ga yo" express your national identity?" and " What does it mean that it was chosen to do so?"

(Later, many replied on the English club blog with their reactions to that day's lesson. Some can be seen here, here, and here.)