Monday, August 30, 2010

Goodbye English, Hello Mandarin

My daydreams aren't limited to pulling up my gold laced driveway in the Ghostbusters mobile. I think about the future; where the world may be headed, and who will end up on top. Even as a high school student, I knew America's success would bubble suffocating our nationalism while shutting out former allies. I was certain China would emerge as the next global super power. My peers and family paid no attention laughing their way through Seinfeld reruns. I thought this change of power would happen when my glasses were thicker than a milkshake and while I was on social security. It's happening now. I feel like the scientist turned hero in those "natural disaster" movies. I know I'm not alone, but someone must spread the word.

You may be asking what proof I have? Not much. I failed to consult a recognized economist, I don't have any secret military blueprints, and I even put aside my addiction to wikipedia. Instead, I'm listening to the people. Specifically, over two hundred of the brightest teenagers in 青森市, (Aomori) a small city in Japan's northern 田舎 (countryside).

As the resident English speaking 外国人 (foreigner) at Aomori High School, it's my job to grade 3rd year students' (seniors) essay exams. Today's prompt read: "Do you agree or disagree with Japan adopting English as its second official language?" Now, I've seen this before. Two years ago, I recall perusing scores of adolescent thoughts on the highly debated topic. I was shocked though to notice how two thirds of students agreed. Even those opposed were able to devote some of their 100 words to include positive aspects to learning 英語 (English). I was partial to them accepting my native tongue, especially when their taxes were paying my salary. But more importantly, I was proud of them for escaping their pride and focusing on their future.

But that focus has changed. Today I estimate less than a third of students agreed. The majority was loud and clear: "We don't need to learn English." Why the sudden change of heart? One word, or country rather: China. The emerging Asian powerhouse peeked its head into more than half of the essays. "America is declining, and China is growing. We should be learning Chinese."

Though not all of the essays were pro-Chinese, the "let's move away from English" sentiment was clear. While quite a few students argued for the benefits of learning English, they merely claimed it was good for international business and for personal travel. It's painful to think that someone feels they need to learn a new language to travel. I've been fortunate enough to visit several non-English speaking nations, without ever adopting a new language. Of course, I speak English, and was accomodated with signage, guides, and brochures. It's just a discomforting thought that one language is thought to be the answer. They all should be.

These students get it, they understand, and they have a plan. The gist of the essays conveyed the feeling that Japanese people are becoming too westernized; losing touch with their own culture. The students are calling for a return to focusing on 日本語 (Japanese) as the one true language. Though, they also wish to study a second language, but one of their choice. The right to choose echoes freedom, and this generation is ready.

There's already rumors jumping around like vending machine bouncy balls about Japan shutting down the JET Program (my employer). While this may just be a way to cut costs during the recession, there's no denying the maturing concensus that English is not the answer. More so, people are waking up to the notion that there are other beautiful yet economically convenient languages to study.

China's emergence is a reminder that English doesn't have to be the cure. While many feel studying Mandarin is in their best interest, many are simply opening their eyes to other cultures and languages. This isn't a farewell to English, but it certainly is a hello to Mandarin and to the rest of the world.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

How Not to Sing: The Unspoken Rules of Karaoke

Unlike baseball, カラオケ (karaoke) in America and Japan are two different ballgames. Take away the strangers. Condense the open air of a sweaty watering hole into a posh living room. Exchange the dodgy old man with his dusty equipment for a high definition wireless entertainment center. And the best part...dump the over-priced suds and drown in an all-you-can-drink ocean. Welcome to karaoke in Japan. It's all about fun!

Well...that's what I thought. Truthfully, karaoke in America can be defined as fun, also known as drunken humiliation. In Japan, it's all about singing; respectfully. Extroverted Americans may privately display their lack of vocals in the shower, but the shy Japanese publicly display their 'talants' in the company of friends, co-workers, and red-faced strangers. Just like the water dripping silently, we as 'honored guests' need to quietly admire the next Japanese Idol. Sound fun? Well it can be... if you politely break the rules.

If you've ever considered becoming addicted to nicotine, you may want a second opinion. Whom would you rather consult, a veteran puffer or a non-smoker? The expert of course! There's no better way of learning than by doing. Hypocrites make the best teachers. And from someone who was decreed by his 校長先生(principal) to "never sing karaoke again," I should be granted tenure. That being said, I'm happy to guide you on what 'not' to do in the karaoke booth while still dishing out laughs and lollipops.

I can't sing, and I don't like to sing. I don't like singing in a boat, I don't like singing with a goat. Also, hearing others sing within the same area code makes me want to karate chop my eardrums. Singing should be left to the professionals. If I didn't pay 50 bucks to hear your voice, shutup. But... since we're all friends here, or drunk enough to pretend we are, why not have a good laugh at the expense of a radio friendly tune? Japan needs to ink that statement onto their foreheads. Even more importantly,  外国人 (foreigners) should follow suit. Now, ex-pats are supposed to be assimilating to Japanese culture, which I agree with, but why bother in the comfort of a private booth? I say this as someone who was also black listed from his own kind! Can you believe that? I couldn't, but thankfully I'm the awesome, and was eventually invited back. Though this time I made sure to follow the proper karaoke etiquette.

Know Your Surroundings: Is this a tiny booth, or one with room to move? Are these all English speaking friends, or is it a mixture of nationalities? Just like a writer has to know their audience, potential singers need to be conscious of the crowd. Even though your principal may order you to sing, you better select a song familar to everyone, and more importantly sing it with class. Burning out your vocal chords while dry humping the floor to 'Born in the USA' will not make a good impression. However, if it's a room full of tourists, make Bruce proud! Just to let you know, strangely enough, the Japanese adore the Carpenters. If that's not your style, just choose something with a simple polite message.

Volume Control: Most of these booths are small enough to make microphones obselete. They're merely a prop to help you pretend you're on stage. With usually two mics per room, roaring the lyrics to Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time" induces more pain than laughter. During any song, respect the singer enough to not let your chatter compete with their singing. No one minds if you join in on the fun, but make sure your voice stays in the background. The Japanese may be a group oriented people, but they take selfish ownership of their selections.

Cursing: Remember, you're in a country famous for giving and receiving bombs. Why not toss in a F-Bomb or two. Don't just limit yourself to copying Old School's 'Total Eclipse of the Heart'. I've learned that even the Japanese giggle themselves silly to an old-fashioned improvised "f***." Though try to avoid the other four-letter curses, especially sexually explicit words. You'd be surprised how sensitive a girl gets after gulping down three hours worth of 梅酒 (plum wine).

Pulling the Chord (purposeful spelling mistake): I get bored easily, so while I'm waiting for our drink delivery, I get mischievious. I flick the light switches, alter the volumes, and even turn off the TV. Once again, know your audience. If appropriately placed, some of these tricks may award you bonus points; especially when you know the crowd has turned on the singer who entered Mariah Carey's 'Fantasy' for the fifth time that night. Whatever you do though, don't cancel their song! With two wireless song-selecting machines in the room, anyone can take full control. One night I decided to be sad for a few minutes and tried my best at another Springsteen tune, this time 'Streets of Philadelphia.' But someone had a problem with my sudden seriousness and gave it the axe. By the end of the night, I was able to elicit sympathy from the others by branding this impatient bastard and friend a jerkface. As someone who was previously ousted, it felt good to return the favor. In general, leave cancelling up to democracy. If a nomination is heard within the delegation and the majority agrees: euthanize it.

Pace Yourself: It took over an hour of convincing to finally force my father into singing a tune. We had no idea Mr. Cravak said goodbye, for Mr. Hyde was now in the room. We had created a monster! He couldn't stop wailing away at rebellious rock tunes, and single-handily sang six straight songs. He was so consumed with the sensation that he forgot there were other wannabe Jim Morrisons, not including the aspiring Lady Gagas in the room. Never hog the machine! The trick is to avoid selecting more than one song in a row. As each song is selected, its title will briefly appear on the screen letting the others know what has been added to the queu. Following each song, a list of the upcoming selections will also be displayed. If you're itching to sing, keep an eye on the queu, and choose one song every five selections, or less depending on the size of the group. In addition, try to blend in with the flow. If the last song had Marilyn Manson inviting everyone to the 'Dope Show,' the audience may not be ready to smile their way through Leslie Gore's 'Sunshine, Lollipops, and Rainbows.' Remember, this all takes place in Japan, so probably only 30% of your choices will be in the system. Fortunately, if you speak the language, selecting a Japanese song can earn you respect.

Being Naughty: There are some innovative ways to remix the decorum. Feel free to experiment with your own ideas. One night I brought in hand-made signs. Each rectangular piece of cardboard had a numeral from 1 to 10. Everyone in the room understood what holding up an 8 meant after a song. I was careful enough not to avoid giving out 1s, unless the singer owed me money. In addition, most karaoke parlors have an eclectic wardrobe ready to be worn. Some may charge, but most will freely allow you to dress up as a monkey, school girl, or a North Korean soldier (maybe). As a teacher in America, I expressed myself by wearing eccentric threads and by rocking a mohawk. While this sort of behavior wouldn't survive the suffocating professionalism of Japan, I exploited its love for 'dress-up'. During the school festival I was well received in my french maid outfit, and even had my photo published in the PTA newsletter. So while at karaoke, take advantage and pull up that skirt!

General Tips: When in doubt, count your facebook friends. If you have over one hundred, you can trust your own judgement. If not, ask the others how to proceed. Overall, try to avoid being rude or selfish. Obnoxious behavior is fine, as long as it doesn't take away from the performance. Grabbing the mic to say, "Will the owner of a Ford Focus with licence plate number...." may be funny, it should be done during your own song. Feel free to adlib, change the lyrics, and alter the pitch in your voice; permitting of course this is your selection and no one in the room has branded it as one of their 'all time favorites.' And if you're under the impression you came only to listen, you're wrong. Everyone sings...eventually. So hop on the peer pressure express and enjoy.

If you get the chance, take advantage of karaoke in Japan. You can avoid emptying your wallet and sing for cheap in the daytime. Though I recommend you shell out 2000 to 4000 yen ($23-$47) and enjoy anywhere from a 2 hour to an unlimited open bar. Just keep in mind, that with karaoke, it's the crowd that provides the entertainment. Choose your crowd wisely, treat them with respect, and you'll be allowed to play the fool.