Thursday, December 16, 2010

All I want for Christmas is better music

I really enjoy having my kids sing English songs. I think it’s a great learning opportunity and a lot more fun than a lot of other activities we do in class. Also, its living language, which means that it isn’t always 100% correct English, but it IS how people actually use the language. And that’s incredibly important for the students to experience.

So when Christmas time rolls around you’d think I would be excited. There are so many great Christmas songs! Unfortunately three songs here seem to have a monopoly on English class singing. One of them is "All I Want for Christmas is You" by Mariah Carey, and I don’t mind that one so much. It isn’t a bad song and has a cute message. It isn’t exactly what I would call a classic or traditional Christmas song, but it has a good beat and it’s fun to sing. The other two however I really don’t like. Let’s break them down and see why, shall we?

Happy Xmas (War is Over)
By John Lennon and Yoko Ono

I HATE this song. This is not a song I want to hear at Christmas time. I’m not going to go through every line, just the ones that really bother me and make me hate this song. Also, I refuse to type out Xmas like it says in the lyrics because that’s not how you say Christmas.

The song doesn’t waste any time in sinking into a melancholy.
And so this is Christmas
And what have you done?
Well… not much I guess. I mean my life is a rather small one and I haven’t really done anything to alter the face of the world this year. I’m sure I did a few things for people, but is that enough? Have a wasted this past year and am I doomed to waste the next one as well? Wow, I’m really feeling in the Christmas spirit now.

And so this is Christmas
I hope you had fun
No you don’t. Your tone suggests that you’re being incredibly sarcastic and implying that I better have had fun with my wasted life because it didn’t do any good. This is not a wish of goodwill, it’s a taunt.

And so this is Christmas
For weak and for strong
For the rich and the poor ones
The world is so wrong
Well that started out okay. I thought we were going for the message that this is Christmas for everyone and that it doesn’t matter if your strong or weak or rich or poor, it’s still Christmas. But then we throw out that next line, which seems to be implying that the world is wrong for having weak and strong ones and poor and rich ones. How does that work? Should we all be rich and strong? I mean, that’s a nice thought, but it can’t work that way. Should we all be of average strength and moderate income?

But next comes the biggest reason I hate singing this song here in Japan.
And so happy Christmas
For black and for white
For the yellow and red ones
Let’s stop all the fight
He did not just say that! Black and white are terms that we use to indentify ourselves by race, this is true, but yellow and red are RACIAL SLURS! When my teacher was going over the lyrics of this song with the kids I just had to stand there uncomfortably while he informed them that red people were Native Americans and yellow people were Asians. One of my students looked down at her skin and said rather distraughtly, “I’m not yellow.” Awk-ward!

And so this is Christmas
And what have you done?
I’ve written a self righteous Christmas song!

The final nail in the coffin for me is the background vocals toward the end.
War is over!
If you want it
War is over!
OH! That’s the problem! We just haven’t wanted it hard enough. Hear that all you people who have loved ones fighting for our country? You haven’t wanted the war to be over badly enough. You must not really want your loved ones to come home or you would want it enough that it would be over now. It’s not like there are any complicated political matters involved here, it’s just a matter of YOU wanting it enough and you have failed. This seriously reminds me of that speech from the Superman 4 movie where he says that he’s sure we’ll have peace once we want it badly enough. I get that this song was a protest to the Vietnam War, but saying war is over if we want it to be is incredibly shallow and shows a lack of understanding of the bigger picture.

Why do we still sing this song?!?! It’s not only that I hate the song’s message, I just don’t think it’s much of a song. There just isn’t a lot there. There isn’t anything wrong with being simple, but I don’t even like the beat all that much.

Last Christmas
By Wham!

I honestly didn’t dislike this song at first. It wasn’t until multiple listenings that I really started to notice some problems in the lyrics. The chorus sets the stage and on its own sends a pretty good message.
Last Christmas I gave you my heart
But the very next day you gave it away
This year to save me from tears
I’ll give it to someone special
Sounds pretty good right? He’s moved on from his broken heart and gives a pretty subtle burn to his old love by saying that this time he’ll give his heart to someone special which SHE is not. Ouch. It also fits the Christmas theme of gift giving in a cute way with the giving of your heart. If the rest of this song supported the chorus I don’t think I’d have any problem with it. A song about heartbreak isn’t ideal for a Christmas song, but if it’s hopeful and about finding love this year I can give it a pass.

The song moves into the first verse and we get to a party where he sees the girl again and can’t help but be drawn to her. I can give him a pass for this, she was clearly attractive to him the first time, so there is bound to be a little lingering emotion there. But then the song starts to get confused.
Now I know what a fool I’ve been
But if you kissed me now I know you’d fool me again
Wait, what? That first part suggests that he got over her, that he moved on. Or at least realized that giving her his heart in the first place was doomed to fail because she sucks. But the next line turns it around and makes me think that he’s still in love with her. After a year of sulking over her betrayal of his affections he’s still willing to be fooled by a simple kiss? What is wrong with this guy? Surely no one is that good of a kisser. I mean, I understand having lingering feelings after being rejected, but that doesn’t mean you forget all the pain someone caused you with a single kiss.

The next verse doesn’t really add much, just goes on about how badly she broke his heart while he avoids her at the party.
I’m hiding from you
And your soul of ice
Okay, we seem to be back on track here. He's realized again that this girl is a cold hearted person who couldn’t really love him and is avoiding her. This puts us back in the right direction.

A face of a lover with a fire in his heart
A man undercover but you tore me apart
Uh, what? This part just confuses me.  A man undercover as what? Were you undercover as someone who loved her? But if you were undercover then that would mean you didn’t really love her in the first place but were just pretending. Or are you saying that you seem like a total wuss, but underneath all that you’re really a tough man who then got torn apart by this girl? That doesn’t really work either...

Now I’ve found a real love
You’ll never fool me again
You know what this song has been missing? References to this new love he has. The chorus doesn’t even spell out that he has a new love; just that he’s going to find someone special to give his heart to. This is the first mention we’ve had of this girl existing. I’ve got an idea, instead of focusing on how miserable the old girl makes you, why not look at how happy this new girl has apparently made you? Why hasn’t she come up before in this whole song? Why aren’t you at the party with her? And wait, last verse you said you could be fooled again if the old flame kissed you. Now you’re all assertive that she’s never going to fool you again? All right, that was fast but okay.

Then the kicker in the last few lines.
Maybe next year I’ll give it to someone
I’ll give it to someone special
WHAT?! Now I’m really confused. Not a moment ago he was talking about his “real love.” Did he break up with her during the last chorus? Is he getting together with the old girl again for no reason stated? Is he just so overwhelmed by the memories of the past that he isn’t going to give anyone his heart this year or is he explicitly going to give it to someone who he doesn’t feel is special? He sounded so confident a moment ago, what happened?

This song is kind of a mess. It flip flops back and forth without seeming to really understand where it’s going. The chorus suggests movement and growth but the verses just keep pulling it down and contradicting it. The only real message I can pull out of this song is that the singer is a mess. If the song was supposed to make me confused I guess it succeeded.

That isn’t to say that I hate everything about this song. The melody is catchy and fun (who doesn’t love whispering the echo of “special”?) and the music has enough variation to keep me interested. As long as I don’t think about it very hard I can enjoy this song a bit, but once you think about the lyrics it’s not as much fun to sing.

I probably wouldn’t hate these songs if we sang other songs besides these on a regular basis. But after three years of these songs being just about the only ones my JTEs want to sing in class (and I’ve worked with four different teachers in this time), and the fact that they are played in all the stores and commercials during this time, they have just worn me down. If I had it all to do over again I would really have invested in some good classic Christmas carols and suggested them early and often. But as things stand I’ll probably never be able to hear these two songs again without grinding my teeth a little in frustration.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Even Ninjas must eat

When I go to Kumamoto City I spend most of my time on the shopping arcade. Since we don’t usually take a car to the city it’s nice to have a large variety of things all along a pedestrian street and within walking distance of each other. During my first year here I was once again in the city wandering down the street in the early evening. Suddenly, I stopped because there in front of me was a ninja. He was bowing politely to people and bidding them to come through a small door that I somehow had never noticed before. Above the door was a sign proclaiming that the name of the establishment was “Ninja” (seriously, how did I miss that?). All I could see was a small staircase leading downward. But I was incredibly intrigued. Since it was closed the next morning when I passed by I assumed that it was a restaurant but was worried that because of its apparent awesomeness that it would be very expensive.

Next to McDonald's of all places

Upon further inquiry to my more knowledgeable friends I found out that it was indeed a restaurant, a rather upscale izukaya, which is a type of restaurant that caters to groups who will all be sharing the various foods ordered. It took a while but I eventually got to visit this wonderful restaurant.

When you go to Ninja the first thing they do is ask if it is your first time. If anyone in the group has never been there before, they get to proceed first down the staircase and try to decipher the secret of how to open the door into the restaurant. Once that task is completed, you are shown to your table by a ninja. Each table is located in its own little alcove walled on three sides for privacy. Before sitting, you remove your shoes and leave them just outside the alcove. As with many restaurants of this type, there is a button that you press when you want service. But being Ninja, the button is hidden under the table, and different tables have the button hidden by different seats. Once the waiter ninja has made sure that you know where the button is, they lower a screen to mostly close off the area. And for added awesome they say “Do Don!” while doing so, which is the sound effect for a screen being lowered. This makes me laugh every time.
The normal menu for the restaurant is a paper scroll, written in beautiful, but complicated kanji. However, since this restaurant’s awesomeness is evident, it’s very popular with foreigners and they have an amazingly helpful menu in English with pictures of their various dishes. This is of course the main event for the restaurant and the atmosphere and awesomeness continues to the food. Apologies for the pictures not being so great, but the restaurant is rather dark and my camera was not pleased.

First of all, prepared and waiting for you on your table are small shiriken shaped rolls. You can order more of these if you desire, and it’s always tempting, but you probably won’t have room with all of the other delights on the menu. They have fried cheese, which we always order two plates of at a time since the whole table immediately devours them. They also have fried garlic and fried money brains.

If you’re feeling adventurous you might want to try the Takoyaki bomb. This is a set of six takoyaki, which is octopus in a fried dough ball, with a twist. It’s Russian roulette; five of the takoyaki are tasty treats, but one is filled with spicy mustard that will make you cry. The only way to determine which one it is is by eating them.

One highlight for tastiness and fun is the magical fire sword shish kabob. As it sounds, this is meat and veggies served skewered on a small sword, which they bring to your table and SET ON FIRE.

They also have a “mystery box” and the picture on the menu is just of this very ornamental box. My friends have ordered it and said that, when opened, dry ice like smoke comes out of the box. But they weren’t impressed with the actual food that came in the box, and so we haven’t ordered it yet. We may have to at some point, just for the experience.

One of the most fantastic things about this place is the drink menu. And since we usually stay the night in the city, we are able to indulge in some unique alcoholic drinks. Several milk based drinks are served in baby bottles. There is a “love potion” that comes giving off mystical (dry ice) smoke. There is a drink that comes with a set of liquid filled capsules, one red and one blue matrix style. But my favorite is what we have come to call the mad scientist drink.

This wonderful little contraption comes as a set of test tubes, each with different colored alcohol in them, a small beaker of orange juice, and a pipette for mixing. Not only is it visually appealing, but its tons of fun. You can simply mix the orange juice into each different test tube, or you can experiment using your empty test tube. With this, you can be a fantastic mad scientist, even if you know nothing about science!

On some nights there is a ninja who will, for a small fee, perform magic tricks to show off his ninja skills. All in all, it adds up to an incredibly entertaining and memorable experience. If anyone comes to visit me, we WILL go to Ninja if at all possible. I don’t think I will ever get tired of this place.

Monday, December 13, 2010

I forgot to mention…

I’ve been horrible about updating for the past two months, and I apologize. Things have been a little crazy. So now I will attempt to give a quick update on some things that I have neglected to mention.

Eric already did a post about it, but we won first place in a costume contest at an ALT Halloween Party. Our friend Emily suggested we do a group costume and came up with the brilliant idea of being Tetris pieces. The costumes were a pain to make, but in the end totally worth it. They looked amazing (and totally all linked together)! We got pretty good at putting them together too. After the first long day of work we had them all mostly assembled, another day and then some was required for paint, and a final day for the outline tape and cutting our face holes. We were quite proud of them. Then we went to load them into the car, which was an ordeal in itself (see the linked blogs for highly amusing pictures). I’m proud of the work we did and really enjoyed our costumes. When we walked into the party everyone started taking our pictures. It was like being a celebrity for a brief moment.  I encourage everyone to take a look at Emily's livejournal as she has a fantastic making of entry with tons of great pictures!

We literally had just walked in

Next in November I presented at our Mid Year Seminar. All of the ALTs in Kumamoto and many of the JTEs gather together to talk about teaching English, living in Japan, and other related things. It’s a time to share ideas and help us all to be reenergized in the classroom. My presentation was on Japanese Pop Culture and it was EPIC! But you don’t have to take my word for it! It’s available online here. I had a ton of fun working on the project and it’s something I’m passionate about. Our goals were to make the attendees of our workshop familiar with many pop culture icons that their students are likely obsessed with (so that they have a good conversation starter to talk with the students) and to give some examples of ways to integrate pop culture knowledge into English lessons. I also hoped to help people find something that they could really enjoy while in Japan, some band or TV show that they could really look forward to. I was really worried about having enough time since we had a massive 54 slides to get through and just over an hour to do it. But we got through everything with time for questions and I think most everyone enjoyed the workshop.

My mouth is open entirely too wide in this picture...
 For my birthday we went to a restaurant with a group of friends. The restaurant is called Ninja, and it is amazing (so amazing in fact that I have written a whole entry about it that you can look forward to seeing tomorrow). I got some celebratory ice cream with a sparkler in it and a bunch of ninjas sang happy birthday to me. How many people can say that?

There are actually 8 ninjas in this photo.  Can you find them?  Of course not.  They're ninjas.
 Other than those major events things have been carrying on more or less as normal. I attended my school’s culture festivals but that probably deserves its own post so I won’t dwell on it here. The weather is getting rather cold and miserable at the moment, but I know it will get worse before it gets better. I’m a bit bummed that we won’t be returning to the states for Christmas (although at least I get to avoid crazy airport security) but we’re going to Tokyo for the holidays and that should be a lot of fun.

I’ll do my best to update a bit more regularly. I’ve still got a ton of posts written up on my computer that just need to be put up on the blog. It’s not like I have a shortage of things to talk about! I get more excited about posting when people leave comments, so keep that in mind (you don't have to be a member to comment). Also, don’t forget to check out Eric’s blog as well (there is now a handy link in the sidebar so you can always find it). We are in the same basic area, but we talk about very different things.

That about wraps it up for this overdue update. I hope everyone is doing well and enjoys the holiday season. Also, if you send me a Christmas card I will love you forever.