Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Miseducation of Ratna, Ken and Kumi: A Textbook Investigation

In each installment of this segment, I will analyze a specific chapter/activity/page from my school’s English textbook series. Before we get on with the very academic close-reading, let’s have some context. The series is called “New Crown” and it consists of 3 levels (books); one for each Junior High School grade. The textbooks of each level -1,2,3 - apply the same basic structure.
1)   Thematic Chapters.
There are approximately 8 Chapters per textbook and the chapters are usually ten pages long. Each chapter examines a specific topic. These topics are supposed to distract Japanese students from the English grammar being forced into their ear/eye-holes. To give you an idea of what I mean by “topic,” sample Chapter Titles include: “Life in Australia,” “At a Nature Park,” and “Human Rights for All.” You know, the type of shit your average 13 yr old kid is dying to learn about1.
The anatomy of a chapter is pretty consistent. All chapters contain some combination of:
-Graphics: maps, AP photos, pie-charts, hand-drawn illustrations, etc.
-Narrative Passages: uninterrupted expository passages on a given topic. These paragraphs are written by an unidentified narrator with some nasty habits. Nasty habits include: heavy use of rhetorical questions, interjecting interjections all over the place, speaking in fragmented sentences, and being a condescending douche-bag. 
-Dialogue: a written conversation (relevant to that chapter’s theme) between two of the main, recurring characters. More on them later.
-New Words: 15-20 new vocabulary words. All germane to the chapter's topic and culled directly from the narrative passages and dialogue.
-Miscellaneous Activities: these are basically lodestars for teachers who hate their jobs and need to waste entire classes without doing any actual teaching. In response, students-faces say:  "I hate English and I will never leave Japan, ever,"  "I'm going to sleep now and you can't stop me," and "What would happen if I shoved these two mechanical pencils really far up my own nostrils?”

2)   Songs
Each textbook contains the lyrics of at least four English-language songs. Songs include: I Just Called to Say I Love You, Stand by Me, Yesterday Once More (I had to Youtube this one. Never heard of it. It’s by The Carpenters and it’s really slow and bad. But it features the lyrics “All my best memories come back clearly to me, Some can even make me cry, Just like before, It’s yesterday once more.” So, you know, that’s fun.), White Christmas, Take Me Home Country Roads, and Yesterday. I would make fun of these song-selections, but when last year’s graduating class called me into their classroom and sang a heartfelt rendition of Take Me Home Country Roads, dedicated to me, I may have almost cried. Or actually cried. Either way, fuck off. Music is magic.

3)   Stories
There’s one about a cat that pushes a bird-that-that-can’t-fly off a skyscraper. There’s one that encourages readers to deceive their elders. There’s one about Alice in Wonderland attempting to brainwash Humpty-Dumpty into committing suicide. I’ll save these for another day.

4)   The Main Characters
There are maybe six recurring, animated characters that act as the protagonists of the entire New Crown series. They are studying English at an international school for ambiguously-aged kids, or something. They all already speak English and the school’s location is never disclosed. None of them ever mention their families or prior lifestyles. All six of them make me seriously uncomfortable. Let’s do some quick biographies!

Ratna: Indian (dots, not feathers) and therefore prone to fevers and other physical illnesses. She’s obtuse and constantly needing people (Ken) to explicate how really basic shit (zoos, string instruments) work. None of the boys like her2.
Kumi: Japanese girl. Understands global warming and the internet. Boys adore her. Wears plaid skirts. Total coquette/cock-tease3.
Paul: American. Keeps a football in his backpack. Rocks some heavy-duty hair-gel. Sexual predator. Bitches and whines when he can’t do something well. Doubts basic science4.   
Wang Ming: Boy. Chinese, obviously5.
Emma: Worldly, intelligent and assiduous. Wears headbands. Plays netball and says “G’day mate.” Australian and, therefore, informative and enlightening. I mean, who knows anything about Australia? Before Emma, I sure didn't6.
Ken – No idea where he’s from, but he might be the unidentified narrator of the entire New Crown series. Gets very cold when windows are left open. Wears a Carolina-Blue track-suit. Materializes every now and then to explain things (Sumatran Tigers, the concept of volunteering,) to other students. Like he’s some moralizing, omni-lingual, environmentalist, or something7.  

And with that intro out of the way, let's do our first close-reading!  

Pt. 1: Bombs Really Do Hurt.
Chapter Title: "Landmines and Children"
From: New Crown Series, Volume 2. Chapter 8, page 72.
Chapter's Theme: Cambodian landmines and why they are bad
Graphics: map of Cambodia, photo of some happy kids linking arms and grinning, photo of a skull-&-crossbones warning sign, photo of various explosives, photo of a man deactivating a bomb, photo of a maimed/legless boy limping down a dirt path with a dog that can’t even look at him, because it’s too depressing. 

"Where the hell is Phirun? Why can't he ever take me on walks?"
Content and Analysis:

Sentence: “What are these?”
Analysis: And we’re off to a strong start. Rhetorical question? Check. Condescending douch-baggery? Check. Since there’s no way I can answer your question, Ken, why don’t you just go right ahead. Go ahead and tell me. You know you want to. Tell me what these are. You’re such an asshole, Ken.
Sentence: “They are danger signs.”
Analysis: What? Where?? Jesus Christ, Ken. You see a danger sign before I do, and your first move is to ask a rhetorical question? How about a simple “Don’t move!” or “Get down!” or “Cover your face!” or “We’re doomed!”  I mean, what if by the time you’d finished patronizing me, I was already limbless and frothing at the mouth? Would you even care? Or would you still be wearing a cardigan and posing rhetorical questions? I seriously hate you.
Sentence: “These signs are seen in the forests and fields of Cambodia.”
Analysis: Good to know. Looks like I’m never going there. I wonder what the Cambodian Chamber of Commerce thinks of all this publicity. But I’ll never know. Because I’m never going to Cambodia.
Sentence: “What is the danger?”
Analysis: Another rhetorical question. Of course. This is life and death shit we’re talking about, Ken. This isn’t about you.
Sentence: “Landmines.”
Analysis: I’m going to ignore the fact that this is a one-word sentence. I’ll also ignore the blatant conceit of you discussing landmines via a call-and-response dialogue with yourself. Instead I’ll just focus on the content: landmines. I thought we were trying to learn English here. Since when is “landmine” essential vocabulary, in any language? I mean maybe if you’re studying whatever they speak in Cambodia. But this is English. Important vocabulary includes: foods, action verbs and racial slurs. If you absolutely must talk about suffering and death, let’s start with “slavery,” “colonize,” “shock-and-awe” and “predator drone.” I mean, these kids can’t even form a single complete English sentence. But they can say “landmine.” Good work, Ken.
Sentence: “Cambodian children like to play in forests and fields, just like you and me.”
Analysis: Really? They do? Why? We like to play in our forests and fields because our forests and fields don’t have landmines in them. Are these kids stupid or something? Why would they like that? Where are their parents? And who the hell are you, Ken, to tell me what I like, anyway?
Sentence: “But some of them are killed and others are injured.”
Analysis: I guess I saw that one coming, but still, total buzz-kill. And here I was, trying to learn English.
Sentence: “Landmines do this.”
Analysis: Again, sorry Cambodia, I will not visit you. Okay, you have landmines. I can accept your faults. But at least teach your children not to like playing in landmine fields and forests. Then maybe we can talk.

Conclusion: So Cambodia has landmines and these landmines deprive Cambodian children of their legs. That’s horrible. But my 13yr old Japanese students don’t understand where these landmines come from. Are they an organic element of the Cambodian landscape? Maybe. Are they sowed by native English-speakers? Very possible. Middle school Japanese kids don’t know. They don’t even understand historical cause-and-effect type relationships in their own language. This is what really happened: during the Vietnam War U.S troops planted landmines in Cambodia. So did the Vietnamese. And after the war Pol Pot planted a bunch so Cambodians wouldn’t decamp. The internet says 1 in every 236 Cambodian people has stepped on a landmine. Holy hell that’s a lot. The major players here are: democracy, socialism, capitalism, communism, war, imperialism, Maoism, and the innate malice of humanity. But “New Crown” can’t be bothered with any of that stuff. And they shouldn’t. The English language is difficult enough. What isn’t that difficult is demoralizing and indoctrinating Japanese kids so they become even more insular than they already are. Which brings us back to our preliminary thesis: Ken is a bad person.

See you  next time on The Miseducation of Ratna, Ken and Kumi: A Textbook Investigation. 

1. Especially in a foreign language. 
2. See: Token Third-World, Brown-Skinned character.
3. I wonder who wrote these textbooks. Could it be English-Language teachers of Japanese origin? Naw.
4. Did I mention, America!
5. Aforementioned English-speaking Japanese textbook authors exact revenge on the big bad bully next door! “You crash your boats into our boats in international waters? Oh yeah? Well, here you go: Wang. Teehee. In your face. WANG!”
6.  I was okay with that.
7. Fuck you, Ken.

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