Thursday, November 04, 2004

Speechifying in the Land of the Rising Sun

I haven’t been attending Kendo practice for the past two weeks, which is a shame cuz I’d just started to develop a great Kendo blister on my right foot. I was told not to wear socks inside my house to toughen the soles of my feet for the kendo floor, cuz all the stomping and moving around in bare feet on the hard wood floors requires tough soles. And I’d just started getting a good callous going, when I had to stop practicing.

Instead I’m involved in the callous-free activity of English speech practice. 3 of my san-nen sei (9th grade) girls are practicing for an English recitation contest that takes place on Saturday, November 13th.
I’m also helping two other girls (one 8th grader and one 9th grader) prepare for a more demanding recitation contest that takes place on November 18th.

The three girls competing on the 13th are Wakiko, Nonoka and Saki. They each have to memorize a short piece in English (from 1 to 3 minutes in length) and then recite it in front on an audience and judges. They get to pick their selection out of a book with a number of choices. Wakiko picked a piece from the first “Harry Potter” book, when Harry and Ron discover the invisibility cloak. She’s doing well with her piece, but some of the words are really tough for her, like “fluid,” “silvery,” and “invisible.”

Nonoka picked a rather curious piece as it’s based on the understanding of English puns. It’s akin to the famous “Who’s on First?” routine by Abbot and Costello. But Nonoka’s piece involves Mr. Watt (“what”) and Mr. Will Knott (“not”). She’s doing well too, but the rhythm and timing needed to really sell the selection is slow coming.

Saki picked a piece that is also featured in the 9th grade English Textbook in longer form. It’s called “A Mother’s Lullaby.” Here is an excerpt:

“One day, a big bomb fell on the city of Hiroshima. Many people lost their lives, and many others were injured. They had burns all over their bodies. I was very sad when i saw those people.
On the night of that day, some people were already dead. I heard a lullaby. A young girl was singing to a little boy.
“Mommy! Mommy!” the boy cried.
“Don’t cry,” the girl said. “Mommy is here.” Then she began to sing again.

The story ends this way:
After a while the boy stopped crying and quietly died. But the little mother did not stop singing. It was a sad lullaby. The girl’s voice became weaker and weaker.
Morning came and the sun rose, but the girl never moved again.

And then Saki, who is a cute girl of 14 or 15, smiles real big and says “Thank you” and bows.

Now imagine that you’re an American and you’re asked on one of your first days in a Japanese classroom to read that story out loud from the text book, and then have the class repeat after you. It would be like asking a visiting Japanese teacher to read from a soldier’s diary who had survived the attack on Pearl Harbor. I don’t know, maybe I’m reading too much into it, and it’s not like the kids glared at me when I finished reading or anything, but it still made me uneasy somehow.

Asuka, one of the girls in the longer length piece competition, is reading an equally depressing selection about a young boy, named Ryuhei, who is a hemophiliac and gets AIDS from tainted blood that came from the U.S. Of course, with the proper dramatic emphasis, this story could be a real tear-jerker, but Asuka is simply struggling to pronounce all the English correctly and she says the entire 5 minute speech in the same monotone accent. And on the day of the competition I’m sure I’ll have to hear this piece at least 7 or 8 times, as each student picks their selection from the same book.

The last time I went to a speech contest this same thing happened. I had a male student, Hitoshi, in that competition who did really well, placing 4th out of about 35 students. Hitoshi had lived in the U.S. for 3 years when he was 6 to 9 years old, so I think they “handicapped” him a bit to make it fair for the other kids, cuz Hitoshi’s English is very good.
But I had a girl in that competition and her selection was called “Butterflies” and about 8 students, all girls, recited the same piece. No one else chose Hitoshi’s piece which was rather long and difficult. Most of the boys at that competition either picked a story about an ancient storyteller who has his ears cut off by a demon and is thereafter known as Naguchi the Earless, or a story about a little boy who draws pictures that come alive and one day he draws a tiger who devours all the monks in a temple. Nice stuff, huh? :)

Oh well, at least they’re speaking English and are motivated enough to memorize their pieces and come to practice everyday after school and even on the weekends.

And I’m learning way more than they are as I try to talk to them every day in Japanese and they help me with my Japanese grammar and pronunciation. I also ask them questions about their lives, so I’m gaining all sorts of interesting insights into the life of a Japanese teenager.

I’ll let you know how they all do in a couple of weeks, and then it’s back to Kendo practice for me and blisters on my feet.


1 comment:

Emily Watkins said...

The "Mother's Lullaby" story, I know exactly what you mean. I never had to read it aloud in class, thank goodness, but I first encountered it in its abridged form during a class activity, and later read the textbook version. Oh Lord, that's a sad story, and out of left field, what with all the "Mm, looks delicious!" and "How much is this sweater?" that frames it. And then being American kinda makes it a slap in the face, however unintentional that may be.