Friday, December 25, 2009

J-pop, K-pop and Asia-pop

Most Japanese pop songs contain English phrases. Some even have English titles. This is quite interesting since, unlike Malaysians, Filipinos and Indians, Japanese rarely switch into English when speaking to each other. In the 1980s and 1990s, Nakamori Akina had a string of best-selling Japanese singles with titles such as Southern Wind and Everlasting Love. Mr Children’s albums include Everything and Kind of Love. SMAP’s singles include Can’t stop loving!, Triangle, Dear Woman and Mermaid.

In addition to English titles, Japanese pop has a tradition of including a few English phrases in their lyrics. Amuro Namie’s Can you celebrate begins

Can you celebrate?
Can you kiss me tonight?
We will love long long time [sic]
Eien te iu kotoba nannte shiranakatta yo ne
[You didn’t even know the word forever, right?]

Glay’s Happiness includes the lines

Don’t wanna hurt you any more
Tell me the meaning of your happiness
Anata ga ikite yuku koto no kotae ni nari wa shinai darou
[I can’t be the answer you’re looking for]

Hip hop has fostered new ways of bringing English into Japanes e songs. Dabo’s Lexus Gucci inserts repetitions of ‘Yes, y’all on and on and on and on’ and ‘Hey hey hey’ into rapid Japanese spoken with an Americanised accent. Rip Slyme (which in Japanese sounds just the same as ‘Lips Rhyme’, the title of their debut album), has a rap song called ‘Bring your style’ that includes

Yo bringin that, Yo bring that style
Jinrui saigo no freaky side
[Humanity’s final freaky side]

Is there anything more to this fondness for English apart from playing with words? SMAP member Katori Shingo is involved in a TV programme encouraging people to improve their English and his own limited ability in the language seems to work to his advantage with audiences. His book English Berabera (‘English fluently’) was one of the ten top bestsellers of 2003.

Alastair Pennycook of University of Technology in Sydney thinks bands like Rip Slyme are “native users of a new English, a blend of Japanese and English.” He uses rap in Japan and Southeaast Asia to support his view that traditional distinctions between languages are no longer valid.

But Andrew Moody of the University of Macau thinks it is more a question of Japanese singers paying tribute to American music by adopting English song titles and phrases, and in the case of performers like Nakata Keisuke, singing Japanese in an Americanised way. There is also a tradition of playing with words so that, when sung rapidly, they could be heard either as Japanese or English. For example, Mika Nakashima in Cry no more sings ‘I don’t wanna cry…ato dono kurai (how much more)’, the Japanese kurai being sung exactly the same as English ‘cry’. For many years, one very popular programme on Japanese television has included a section called Sora Mimi – lyrics in American and British songs that somehow sound like something strange and funny in Japanese.

A sign that J-pop may be becoming more international is the popularity of Utada Hikaru. Born in New York to Japanese parents, she has written several songs in English. Her third English single, Easy Breezy, includes the line ‘I am Japanesey’, suggesting that she is Japanese – but not typically so.

Pop music in other parts of Asia also shows a fondness for English. I need somebody by Thai singer Bie includes the refrain

Need someone to look into their eyes
And make my heart feel weak
Be thinking of me, be thinking of me.

South Korea's BoA, who is also very popular in Japan, has released albums of Korean songs entitled ID Peace B; Atlantis Princess, My Name and Girls on Top. Many of her songs, such as Don’t start now comes in Korean, Japanese and English versions. The lyrics of the Korean version of ID Peace B include ‘Peace B is Network ID’ and ‘Connecting is my Neverland.’

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Polite is right

While all societies value politeness, certain behavior that is tolerated in some places may be considered rude in others. Who speaks first in a conversation? When do we give a gift or open one that we receive? Where should we sit at a dinner party? How close should we stand to the person we are talking to? Such social rules can vary quite a lot. And it is probably true to say that most Asian cultures pay more attention to social and age differences than English-speaking societies.

The different ways in which Asian societies demonstrate politeness tend to influence the way they use English. Most Thais feel it is rude to speak loudly in public, for example, and so they speak quietly in English as well as Thai. Japanese say sumimasen a lot, even when they don't feel they have done anything wrong, so not surprisingly they also say sorry very often when speaking English. One information video at Narita airport even warned travellers not to say sorry if they had a car accident in the USA in case American lawyers exploited this as an admission of their guilt.

All languages have a wide range of ways to say the same things more politely or less politely, but in many Asian languages the choice can be complex. Korean and Japanese have different sets of verbs and even nouns to indicate the relationship among speakers. At my university, for example, professors were recently advised to use polite forms when writing material to be read by students, so I had to change all the verbs in a document I had written. In Malay, the choice of pronoun depends on the relative positions of speakers. When people are not sure, they often use English pronouns such as “I” and “you”. In Javanese, the different levels of politeness are so distinct they are really separate languages.

Even greetings can be complex. Before getting to the point of a conversation, Arabs often spend a long time expressing wishes and exchanging enquiries, and since it is not easy to find cultural equivalents for Guwwa (May God give you strength) or Eshloonik (What is your colour?), such phrases are often left in Arabic when people speak English. Many Pakistani friends greet me with As-Salamu alaikum (Peace be with you) and expect me to reply Wa-alaikum salam (And also on you), but I have some Indonesian friends who think it inappropriate for non-Muslims to use such phrases.

More casual greetings around Asia include 'Have you eaten?' (the polite answer is always Yes!) and 'Where are you going?' (you don't need to reply accurately). Most languages have a set phrase for when people start to eat or go on a journey. However, there are certain experiences that some cultures acknowledge and others ignore. Japanese has a phrase used after sharing a journey or tiring experience (otsukaresama) which really has no English equivalent. Indonesians wish you Selamat mandi(Have a good bath). On the other hand, few Asian cultures acknowledge a sneeze, so ‘Bless you!’ is not often heard among Asia’s English speakers.

In one of her novels, writer Amy Tan jokes that Chinese visitors to an American home could starve. When offered food, they refuse out of politeness, expecting the offer to be repeated until eventually they accept. But their American hosts may assume they are not hungry and never ask again.

Asian students are often taught that English is a straightforward language in which people say exactly what they think. So they may be surprised to learn that most Americans are actually very polite. It may be true that many English-speaking cultures are less formal than Asian ones, but it would be wrong to suggest that English speakers are always direct. In fact it seems to me that although most Asians tend to be rather formal with strangers, with their friends they are more direct than Americans or Britons.

Conversely, visitors to Asia who expect everyone to behave politely may be surprised to get blocked by Singaporeans pushing on to the train before they can get out; or to be asked how much money they earn by Koreans!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

What’s in a name?

Until fairly recently, most people around the world had only one name. Only the rich, with property to pass down, or those who travelled far from home, needed anything more than a personal name. Even today, many Indonesians go by a single name.

When Chinese started using family names these were often borrowed from their local lord. Thus whole communities in some parts of the country have the same name. For example, most people called Huang claim a connection to Huang Di, the Yellow Emperor.

While the English tended to form surnames either from their fathers’ personal name (Johnson, Richardson, Williams, Edwards) or from their profession (Carpenter, Mason, Smith), the Japanese turned to the natural environment, producing Fujibayashi (wisteria woods) Tanaka (in the middle of the field), and Yamashita (below the mountain).

It can be difficult to know which is a family name and which a personal one. Some Asian communities place personal names first, as in most European societies (Thaksin Shinawatra). Others begin with the family name (Lee Kwan Yew, Abe Shinzo). In many Muslim communities it is common to put your father’s personal name after your own personal name, but it is not the same as a family name because it changes with each generation. And so in Malaysia, Zubaidah Ibrahim is listed under Z, her personal name, and not I, the name of her father.

Even if we can distinguish personal and family names, we still need to know which one to use. Thais hardly ever use family names. They either use a personal name – Khun (Mr) Abhisit – or a nickname (Daeng = red; Yai = big; Lek = small). Sometimes I only learn the real names of Thai friends when we travel together and I see their passport.

In contrast, there are some Asian societies where personal names are rarely used. Goh Chenchuan may not mind being called Chenchuan – or even Charlie – while in America, but he may expect his colleagues to call him Mr Goh back home in Hong Kong.

Many Chinese around Southeast Asia have English personal names used alongside Chinese ones. A Singaporean child might be called Kelvin by his schoolfriends but Chun Pay by his grandmother. The practice is also spreading to Singapore’s Malays, such as actors Sharon Ismail and Aron Aziz. It is also happening in China, where many people make very imaginative choices. While there, you may meet a Jackal Chang, Apple Zhang, Weenie Wang or even Satan Han.

In many situations we have to address people whose name we don’t know. This can be difficult in English ('sir' and 'madam' may only be suitable for formal occasions), but most Asian languages have a wide range of titles, such as the Japanese terms untenshu-san (driver); sensei (teacher); onii-san (‘older brother’) or obaa-san (‘grandmother’) for people of appropriate professions or ages. These practices often get transferred when Asians speak English. For example, many Indians and Chinese call middle-aged ladies ‘aunty’ even if they have never met them before.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

English villages in the British Hills

Although native and highly proficient speakers of English can be found all over Asia, many Asians seek to learn the language by immersing themselves in a ‘native-speaking’ culture. Where better than Britain, the small island where a minor Germanic tongue was gradually transformed by absorbing huge amounts of French and Latin vocabulary and then spread around the globe by commercial and naval power? But Britain is too expensive and distant for most Asians. Never mind. For Anglophile Japanese, a three-hour journey into the mountains north of Tokyo brings them to British Hills.

This impressive collection of houses, built painstakingly in various historical styles with imported materials, boasts a medieval-style hall, bedrooms where modern royalty have slept and a pub where you might run into the British ambassador. Its Latin motto is Pax per Linguam (Peace through Language).

Built in the early 1990s by the Sano Foundation (which owns several educational institutes including Kanda Foreign Languages University), the venture underwent many years of financial difficulty. But its fortunes were turned around by an American tragedy: after the 9.11 attacks many Japanese got nervous about going overseas, and flocked to a “Britain that anyone can visit without a passport.”

Despite the unintended gift from the US, John Renaldy, who runs British Hills with a discipline acquired in the army, never employs Americans. Ideally, cultural instructors, receptionists, cooks and waiters come from the UK. If there is a shortage, Australians, New Zealanders and Canadians will do. But no Americans, with their “lazy English”.

The main weekday visitors are high school students taking English courses while studying British history and customs. Weekend activities there might include anything from seminars for businessmen to calligraphy classes for housewives. Or even weddings.

Over in Korea, another cultural transplant is facing its own decisions about how to make a profit. English Village is less than an hour north of Seoul, close to the DMZ. It too has gone for a British theme, with a model of Stonehenge outside its castle-like gates. But here you do need a ‘passport’. Built by Gyeongi province for local schoolchildren, but now looking to broaden its income base, English Village encourages visitors to use English by creating the illusion that they really are going abroad, with a ‘check-in counter’ at the entrance, coffee shops staffed by Romanians (well, they probably speak better English than most visitors) and even a branch of a Korean bank with English signs and English-speaking counter clerks. The typical visitors are high school students on ten-day courses taught by foreigners. There are also day-trippers seeking an educational theme park.

Just as the creators of English Village made countless trips to British Hills to get ideas (“They still come,” sighs John), educators from around Korea turn up in Gyeongi to see what they might learn. When he was president, Roh Moo-hyun announced plans for a huge English village on Jeju Island as a “substitute for overseas English study trips.” Internationally famous Koreans such as Manchester United’s Park Ji Sung were employed to publicise the project.

Behind these attempts to recreate ‘English culture’ is a genuine belief that Asians should not have to cross the globe, often at considerable financial hardship, to immerse themselves in English. But some believe they will never provide more than superficial cultural experiences, much like Thames Town, a pastiche of an English village being built near Shanghai for very rich Chinese wanting an ‘English lifestyle’ without any intention of speaking English. Meanwhile poor but studious Chinese continue to practise their English with each other at the ‘English corners’ which spring up in large parks everywhere at weekends.