Monday, August 31, 2009

teaching language isn't teaching what to say or think

The other day I went to observe a language school. I was sitting in a one-on-one ESL session, and the tutor was discussing different ethnic foods with a Japanese student.

"How about Middle Eastern food?" the tutor said. "What do you think can be included in Middle Eastern food?"
"Hmm," the student thought about it for a few second. "I don't go to Middle Eastern restaurant often. What country is Middle Eastern?"
"Well, I think Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia..."
"Oh, that's dangerous!"
"You think it's a dangerous area?"
"Yeah. Terrorist country!"

The tutor looked at me and we just had to laugh. The naivety in her words made it easier to do so, but I was feeling embarrassed as another Japanese person and conflicted as a teacher-to-be.

When I was tutoring, too, sometimes my students said things that made me feel this way. A few times I tried "poking" them a little ("If we allow gay marriage, they spread AIDS." "Really? How do they do that? Can you explain?"), but when their only response was a blank or completely puzzled stare, I sort of gave up and let it go. My excuse was that our focus was the language; we shouldn't be carried away with discussing the content, for it might make them forget about language accuracy. But letting go always involved a feeling of guilt, as if I weren't doing my job properly. Maybe I wasn't. I don't know. When what you teach is language, a tool to communicate, to express ideas, do you have any say about what the students choose to do with the tool?

Some of the things that have been said, though, are wrong. Not just inappropriate, but wrong. Wrong in that they label and define others in a negative way; wrong in that the utterer, with such innocence, isn't questioning what they are saying at all. It's just a fact for them; just as "Summer is hot," "Middle eastern countries are terrorist countries."

I wonder if it would be right to leave the student saying what I feel is wrong. Would it be neglecting the student in some way? But then, when a student says something like that in perfect English, as a language teacher, what would I do? All I would do, probably, is just say, with as much doubt as possible, "Really?", swallowing the hint of guilt I'd be feeling.

a change. maybe.

Japan Election Results: Opposition Democrats Win Huge Victory

Posted using ShareThis

It in fact may not make such a big difference whichever party wins, but at least it's a visible change and it was brought by the people. Finally. It's not bad.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

a crazy dream

I had the strangest dream this morning.

One of my closest friends is dead. I'm walking in my small hometown, passing by the meat store, whose owner once broke his knee hitting a truck when I was little (I remember because my mom described it as him "breaking the plate," and I didn't understand at first). An older lady is trying to buy a piece of meat that's hidden under piled white plastic boxes. I'm thinking about my friend, how I'm going to never see her again, how we should've done more we wanted to do together. Then suddenly my friend is standing on the street in front of me, and I wonder if I'm dreaming. She looks very happy, smiling, and she says, "Can't you see? I'm all around." And I get it, that she's all around.

The scene changes and I'm talking to her sisters (though I don't think she has two sisters in real life). The younger sister, with her hair so short it almost makes her look like a boy, mentions my friend's name. "I met her the other day," she says, and pain crosses her face because she knows she couldn't really "meet" her again, but somehow we all understand that she did and don't ask where or how. "She was smiling, and I was crying. She said to me, Don't cry because you can see small rainbows in the trees, right?" Her voice shakes and we all break into tears, seeing a number of small rainbows in the trees.

Then it's my room, it seems. The walls are blue, and I'm sitting at my desk, above which I put all the postcards and greeting cards from my friend. I'm looking at them, and my friend comes into the room. She laughs when she sees the wall and says, "Wow, it's all about me!"

I know she's dead the whole time, but somehow it's not as tragic as I feel it should be. There's a sharp sense of understanding that I will never see or touch her again, which makes me sad, but there's also such a strong sense of connection that I feel it's, somehow, okay.

Now I'm back at the street with the meat place, with my father. I'm telling him about how I feel about death, and he is very calm and understanding. He says it's sad that we try to cling to the dead. We go home. It's my parents' old apartment where I lived before I moved to the United States. It's a little dim.

I find my mother in her room, eating sweets that she's been hiding from my dad. She offers me some, but I say no and tell her to stop eating them. "You'll be sick," I'm getting annoyed, "Stop it." But she won't listen. She looks guilty because she knows she's doing something she's not supposed to; yet she keeps eating until she finishes the whole bag. She then gets sick and I try to take her to the kitchen sink so she can throw up. My mother clings to my neck so tightly it almost suffocates me.

On the way to the kitchen, the phone rings. I put it on speaker and stare down at it with my mom. A woman's deep voice repeats from the speaker, "No worries, Love. No worries, Love."

"I'm going to work," my father calls out from the hallway. I hear his footsteps going away.

At the sink, my mother starts throwing up, still holding onto my neck. The vomit spreads and splashes onto my face. I try to turn away but eventually accept it with sort of resignation. I'm remembering the voice we heard on the phone.

Yup. Crazy, but too vivid not to write down. I'm not really sure how to interpret it.

Friday, August 21, 2009

blah blah: on connection

When I'm secluding myself and starting to feel I might as well live in solitude like a monk, phone calls and e-mails come in offering me chances for reconnection. And I realize we are never alone; we could never be, because we could never survive without being connected to someone else.

The umbilical cord is cut off when we're born to the world, and maybe that's why we cry, for it's our first experience of separation. We keep creating cords as we live on, though, connecting with more people, and if some of them are fragile and disappear after a certain period of time, others remain, never breaking, even when we wish them to. I guess that's what's incredible and crucifying at the same time about life.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

on language

Kaho Nashiki, in her essay collection "Gururi no koto," wrote this about language:

I believe the purest skimming of communication is conveying the air around what we want to say. Language is very important to me, but sometimes I wonder if humans began to roll faster down toward destruction when they discovered language. There's no way we could abandon it now, though, so we just have to say about this, too, "Oh well." When we are filled with this sort of compassion and acceptance, we might understand each other without needing any words.
It's true language is troublesome; it's hard to deal with. But I believe my job is to weave a piece of cloth called a story, with fabrics called words, that offers different colors and patterns from different angles or with different lighting. I want to be an artisan who simply keeps producing work, and to be that I just can't lose faith in this helplessly unreliable thing; language.

That's exactly how I feel about language. I keep wondering if it's a blessing or a curse that we humans have language. If the most important thing in communication is to "convey the air around what we want to say," and it seems so to me, all we need would be just a smile, a hug, a gentle pat on the shoulder, things like that. Too often we use language instead of those and make things get worse. When we get into this bad spiral, it's not easy to stop; the more words we use, the further apart we drift away.

But, like Nashiki, I still want to believe in language, what great things it can do.

I just got an e-mail from a friend who left here. It's been almost two months since I last heard from her, and I was surprised how happy it made me. Her words were kind, just as they always had been. It made me smile. That's something only language can do. Without language, there would be no way I could feel her presence the way I did through her words when we are 60000 miles apart.

But the words themselves maybe don't matter. It's hearing her voice, imagining her smile behind them that gave me the warm feeling in the heart. That's more than what the words conveyed literally; that's "the air" part that wouldn't need words to be understood. And yet this time, because of our distance, it would've been impossible if it hadn't been language.

It's times like this that I feel maybe language is, after all, a blessing. For all the bad it might do, we need it sometimes to reach to each other. We still can't forget language is a "helplessly unreliable thing," though, because if we start relying on words too much, we stop seeing what's most important, which is the person's gaze, touch, voice, laughter, things that are behind and beyond the words. And when we write, we see how we are always trying to get where language may never take us. That's why we want to doubt it, while never losing faith in it.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

tina's waltz

This song was written and sung by Nanami, the second daughter of Hiroshi Katsuno and Kathy Nakajima, two Japanese celebrities, before she died of cancer at twenty-nine. Simple as it is, I can't help but go back to the video once in a while and listen to it.

Here's English translation of the lyrics:

Tina's Waltz

Over time, I've been walking
Through many hard times.
I could
Because I have a place that heals
My sorrow, my anger.

This journey will go on and on
Never ending
And I can keep going
Never giving up
Because you are there.

We may be far apart
But our hearts are together.

I close my eyes and in my heart
I feel your love so strong.
It will never change.
I am so happy to be here.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

ponyo; kids in miyazaki films

So yesterday I posted the entry on Ponyo, got up and went to see it. I was a little worried about how I would feel about the characters speaking English, but it hardly bothered me, to my surprise. It might be because the film doesn't rely much on words, or perhaps English has become less of a strange language to me. I remember how estranged I felt when I saw Spirited Away in English about six years ago; and I had seen the film twice in Japanese already. It was sort of exhausting because I had to be constantly paying attention to catch what was being said. Now I could sit back and enjoy Ponyo, understanding, if not every word, the meaning of almost every sentence. It made me happy how comfortable I've grown with the language.

But it's not about English and me. It's about Ponyo!

I don't think I'd be a good critic because I'm pretty much programmed to like Miyazaki movies, if not love. The moment the ocean blue spread before my eyes in the opening with all the colorful sea creatures, I was already happily smiling.

One thing I really like about his movies is how he has faith in children. Always, in his movies, children are the ones who have the greatest power with their innocence and big hearts. They know how to forgive, and they know how to love. Like Sosuke and Ponyo, their love is very simple and unshakable; they never even need to ask their love, "Do you love me, too?" And there are always adults who care about and watch out for them, while trusting them enough to let them do what they need to do. Idealistic? Maybe. But let us dream, that's what fiction can do.

Another Japanese person who also seems to share similar views on children is Kenjiro Haitani. Having been a teacher for a long time, he never lost faith in kids. He knew how fragile and strong they are, and in his stories there are always adults who never cease to trust kids. Maybe we can see them as adults who "successfully" became adults without losing what they had as kids.

Now it's possibly quite a Japanese way of seeing kids. I feel I could sound like a good anthropology major if I could take an author/filmmaker or two from America and compare and contrast our views on children, but I don't think I've done enough observation on the American perspective to do that. The boy in the story is immensely pure and yet powerful.

But if you'd like to take a peek into the Japanese view, or the one of Haitani, try reading his "A Rabbit's Eyes." I liked it when I read it as a nine-year-old, and I still liked it when I read it as an adult.

where the wild things are

I can't wait to see this, too.

Friday, August 14, 2009


You've got to see it!

In Japan being an "otaku" (nerd) is not very cool. If you are into anime or manga, you usually hide it and only enjoy it with other otaku friends. But somehow being an otaku for Ghibli movies is acceptable; or it seems so at least for people in my generation. If you are wondering what Ghibli is, it's the name of the studio Hayao Miyazaki owns which created Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away and all the other beautiful animation films. We grew up watching their movies, dreaming of riding the Cat Bus someday, of flying on a broom, of finding a castle in the sky.

Ponyo also lets you dream and makes you smile. It's a very cute movie that doesn't end with just being cute.

By the way, somehow I like the Japanese trailer better, maybe because they play the theme song.

neapolitan; spaghetti, not ice cream

Today's dinner!

This is spaghetti fried with vegetables and bacon (or sausage) in ketchup. We call it "Spaghetti Neapolitan" in Japan, and yes I believed it came from Naples, Italy, for a long time.

I can say nothing about American people who think California rolls are really Japanese, can I?

Then I think California rolls are one of the best American inventions, and hope Italians enjoy our Spaghetti Neapolitan as much as I enjoy California rolls.

Here's a video on how to make Spaghetti Neapolitan. It makes you hungry.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

i heart viento y agua

Mexican moka is one of my greatest discoveries in America, and so far Viento y Agua makes it the best.

I can spend hours just sitting at this cafe, and at the end somehow still feel I've had a productive day.

a bird on the trash

We see cats and crows on the trash in Japan. That's why at the apartment our family used to live in, every resident took turns getting up early and standing by the trash bags so no birds could vandalize them and scatter garbage around. We aren't supposed to take out the trash at night, either, because cats might dig in during the night.

But I've never seen a seagull on a garbage can in Japan.

I guess it's not so much about living in America as living by the ocean.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

the getty villa

Last weekend, we went to the Getty Villa in Malibu. It was my third time to get the tickets--they are free, but you have to reserve room for you. The first time I planned to go there, we ended up arriving in Malibu terribly late; the second time, my friend was sick and we canceled it. So it was "sando me no syoujiki" (third time luck) for me, and after hearing a lot about its beauty, I was expecting a lot.

Which maybe I shouldn't have.

It was a very pretty place. Great architecture. Beautiful flowers. I guess my problem was that I expected the Getty Center, that wide-open view. The Villa felt a little too small, and a little too crowded. Everything looked gorgeous, but it was just too much cramped in such small space, with too many people. Maybe it's Malibu; the place has that feeling of cramped-ness despite its beauty and luxury.

Perhaps, I would've enjoyed it in a different way if I was more interested in art. I like to look at paintings, but not so much at pots and vases. The only things I enjoyed at the Villa were the big chimaera statue and the tongue-sticking creature.

I wish I had better eyes for art.

True I wasn't as impressed as I thought I'd be, but it was still an experience. And I enjoyed watching people if not the art or the scenery. They were all over! (Well, we were...).

And I got another pig to add to my collection. If you're wondering, it's a rattle that babies used in ancient Greece.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

on being a stuff person

When I helped my friend move out, I was amazed at how much she'd accumulated in her room in four years. She had all her necessities in that small space--and unnecessities. It was space full of stuff. Stuff like a plastic SpongeBob keychain that must've come with a fast food meal, half-used notebooks with the blank pages to write in, class handouts and paper menus from restaurants. Stuff that makes you constantly ask, if you're just helping out, "Can I throw this away or not?"

Well, maybe not if you're a non-stuff person. Those things are on the borderline only when you're a stuff person who collects and keeps, like a hamster getting ready for winter. If you're a stuff person, you can call nothing trash. Everything has its own memory. Nothing is completely worthless. Who knows, I might use this tomorrow, next week, or--years later.

But the truth is, you won't. You will never use it or even really pull it out of the drawer that's always full until your next move when you spend a few minutes wondering if it should go to the trash bag. It should, usually, and if you can't make up your mind, a non-stuff person around you will with a head shake and a desperate sigh.

I know this very well, because I'm a stuff person, too, even though I tried to pretend I wasn't at my friend's apartment. I shook my head and threw things away like I was used to doing that, but there was always a moment of hesitation when I picked up something and looked at it. Looking, I guess, is bad already. Non-stuff people don't look. They just pick and throw. That's what our other friend did (or could), and without her, we might still be cleaning the room.

I came home that day, and was shocked my room looked just like my friend's, only without the typical mess before a move. It was full of stuff. It scared me to think about the day I needed to move out of this room. It kept bothering me for a few days, so I finally decided to clean my room. Or more like throw things away. I went through piles of paper I had in the corner of my room, books, letters. The trash was filled immediately, and there seems to be a bit more space in this small room; and yet I know there are drawers that haven't been checked, boxes not yet opened. They probably contain more unnecessary stuff--but then, who knows it's unnecessary? After all, we humans have thrown away too much; that's why we're recycling now, isn't it?