Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Pop quiz

At the bus stop this morning, out of curiosity, I gave Aiden an impromptu quiz.

“Who is 세종대왕?" “He made 한글."

“Good! How about 이순신?" "He fought against the Japanese. He made 거북선."

“Yeah! How about Mao Tse-dong?” “He was China’s first.... uh.... I forgot the word.” He just read a story about Mao in school so I knew he was familiar with the name but hadn’t yet absorbed the vocab of his title.

“How about Confucius?” Blank look. “Maybe you know him as 孔子.” He shakes his head and says, ”不知道。“ Ah, maybe you know him as 공자님?" “Ah! Isn’t he a god?” “No, he was a philosopher. He’s the guy who said, ‘Respect your parents, love your children.’” “OH, I think I know. I thought he was a god.” (Has has achieved almost deity-like status...)

“OK, how about George Washington?” His face lights up. “He’s a famous basketball player!”

I guess we have some work to do.

It’s always interesting to think about what materials we use to learn language and culture. My own Chinese textbook includes a lot of old stories which teach both vocabulary but also a kind of cultural and philosophical point of view. We had an argument about this story (very roughly translated from memory):

A businessman, a banker, and a politician were lost, walking through a forest near a mountain. As it was getting dark they finally found a farm. They knocked on the door and asked the farmer if they could spend the night there. The farmer said, “Sure, but I only have room for two people. The third will have to stay in the barn, and the smell there is quite bad.” [臭气 was the vocab word for “bad smell,” but I found it only applies to rotten or sort of BO type smells, not, for instance, to drying paint, which is what I attempted to use it to describe.... anyway....] So the businessman volunteers to stay in the barn. They all go and lie down, but a short time later there’s a knock at the door. The businessman says, “The smell was unbearable!” The banker says he’ll go and sleep in the barn. Shortly he too knocks at the door, saying that the smell was overwhelming and he too could not handle it. The politician scoffs at them, saying something like, it’s just a smell, how is it that you can’t handle that in order to get some rest? A short time later there’s yet another knock at the door. The farmer, angry, opens it and draws back in surprise, for rather than the politician, he sees all the barn animals.

A funny story. Our interpretation was that the politician smelled so bad -- in other words, that he was so despicable -- that the animals couldn’t stand it. We took the story as a humorous criticism of politicians. The teacher’s interpretation was that politicians are such extraordinary people that they can handle anything. She said it was not a criticism of politicians.

I haven’t paid as much attention as I should to Aiden’s lessons (I’m trying to spend more time teaching and playing with Max when Aiden’s with the Chinese teacher), but the Mao story surprised me. I asked his teacher what Chinese people think of Mao. Do they still consider him a great leader? She said, rather carefully, that Mao “enabled them to stand,” (站起来), that he was great in the beginning, but he did some “bad things too.”

That’s a whole post in itself, but I started to think about public figures/symbols in cultural consciousness, and how much the longevity of a figure rests on the repetition of that person’s name and his/her stories. I’m sure Aiden has heard to George Washington before -- In fact, I’m fairly certain I explained to him that Washington, D.C. was named after him -- but the absence of George’s head and stories in his life made that information both irrelevant and quickly forgotten. King Sejong, however, is on Korean currency, there’s a museum (which Aiden’s been to, though he probably doesn’t remember) named after him, and stories about him abound. There’s a statue of Admiral Yi Sun-Shin in Kwanghwamun, there was a movie or drama made about him while we were living in Korea, we saw a model of the turtle boat at the Lotte World museum, not to mention that for little boys he’s a kick-ass dude. Now that we’re living in China (and thinking about taking a trip to Beijing) I’m sure Aiden’s little brain will be collecting impressions and images of Mao, Confucius, and other Chinese characters without even knowing about it. He’s not yet studying history (they take social studies, which very neutrally started with Ancient Egypt) so his historical knowledge is pretty spotty.

Anyway, I owe another language post, but I’m really behind in a bunch of areas and skipping class to catch up, so I’ll have to write it another day. But I wanted to record this before I forgot about it!