Saturday, August 31, 2013

Two Minutes – Fifty Years Gone and Still Dreaming

I remember a session early on in my career at Keio University when the new campus was still being set up at Fujisawa, where I would spent the next eighteen years.  In my naivete, I was not ready for arguments in the language department to keep English from getting too big for its britches.  I understood that every English class offered was one fewer for the French, or German, or Chinese, or Korean, or Indonesian departments – they were working with a zero-sum model and there were only so many students to go around.  But I was not ready for political opposition to the use of English in Japan tout court.

“We need to divide the English department into two,” one member of the faculty insisted.  “One department could be taught by native speakers and could deal with the literature of the English-speaking people.  The other should be taught by non-native speakers who are not of the view that English should be the world’s only international language.”

I protested strongly.  “You don’t know my mind,” I said, clearly taking this all personally.  They were associating me with American imperialism, and no amount of protestation would convince them I was not their enemy.  That I was grounded in leftist politics, that my entire professional life I was engaged with non-native speakers of English, trying to give them a leg-up – with English as a second language as immigrants to the United States, or with English as a foreign language, as citizens of the world seeking one of the most important mechanisms to personal career advancement.

The view I was dealing with, I came to understand as the years went by, was a Japanese nationalist one in which languages and people are one and the same.  If you speak French, you are French.  And that means you are eat fois gras, you fancy yourself a superior lover, and you take a rational approach to life.  If you speak American English you like to invade third world countries, bewail the (so-called) Rape of Nanking while ignoring the genocide of the American Indian, and expect the world to be more or less your oyster.

It seemed overwhelming at times.  Teaching difficult students was a challenge I met every day.  Some days were better than others, but it came with the territory.  It was my job.  Convincing colleagues that there was nothing to fear from the use of English was another matter.  I would spend considerable time with people who needed persuading that English was a marvelous tool that could, in the right hands, work against the goals of the American military industrial complex they saw erroneously as part and parcel of the language.

Ironically, one of these people (there were not many, fortunately) got wind of the fact that I was using Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech in one of my classes.  “That is not your area of expertise,” he said to me, clearly confusing the color of my skin for my politics in his one-nation, one-language world view - in this case his assumption that I would have, of necessity, to be opposed to the goals of MLK.

Oh, but it is, I insisted.  I am an American.  And the English language filtered through the experience of the African-American churches is one of the richest pieces of my American language and cultural heritage.

I might have said the same for what the Irish, the Scots and the Welsh – and the Indians as well as the Americans - have made of English, given their history of struggle against an invading or colonial oppressor, an idea which came to mind once again this week with the death of Irish poet and Nobel Prize Winner Seamus Heaney.

But that idea really came home, just now, when I heard and felt the influence of Martin Luther King on a young man named Phillip Agnew.  He was supposed to speak at the Lincoln Memorial last Wednesday at the 50th Anniversary celebration of the March on Washington, but got cut.  He titled his speech Two Minutes.

I don’t know how long this link will work.  For now, the story is available on Chris Hayes' program, All In,  here

Or you can go directly to YouTube and get it here

See what you can do when you don't let a little thing like getting cut off stop you.  When you take advantage of the fact that this is 2013 and we are in the age of YouTube and the Internet (capital letter intentional).

Bill Moyers had John Lewis on his program recently, talking about how he had to cut out some of the “revolutionary” rhetoric to fit the occasion of the March.  Looking back, he still thinks it was the right choice.  

That view, that we have to move slowly, was put forward by the same Martin Luther King who insisted that justice delayed is justice denied.  I leave it to others to figure out how to balance the conflicting goals of justice now and not wanting to go off half-cocked.  And I take comfort in the fact that young people are still able to step up and keep the pressure on.

In any case, there is no denying that language can be mesmerizing, beautiful, and powerful all at the same time.   In the hands of some, it is an instrument of oppression.  But it works just as well as the language of dreams.

Friday, August 30, 2013

La mia povera madrelingua abusata

I came downstairs to get the mail this afternoon and I discovered a FedEx door tag taped to my front door telling me I wasn’t home when the delivery man came at 1:48.  I was home, in fact, but unless you push the doorbell just right it doesn’t ring.  And even when it rings, I often don’t hear it upstairs.  My bad.  On the list of things to fix some day soon.

No problem.  The door tag informs me:  Your package will be available for pickup after 6 p.m.  Go to to confirm availability.

So I go to as directed, only to be informed that I need to have an account.  Passwords, account numbers, the works.  When I get to the part about having to type in my credit card, including the three-number code on the back, and am told they have the right to put a hold on the card for nonspecified amounts, I decide I’m playing in the wrong sandbox, and I check the door tag again.  This time I note the 800 phone number.

A young lady answers.  I tell her I’m calling to verify that if I go to the FedEx office in Emeryville at 6 p.m. my package will indeed be there as promised.

“Yes, sir,” she says.  “You can have your package picked up at any local FedEx office near you.”

“Oh, I say, ignoring for the moment her curious choice of words, ‘have your package picked up.’  “Is there one closer to me?”

“Just a minute, sir.  I’ll check….”  She comes back a minute later with, “Yes, sir, there is a FedEx office at 3167 College Avenue.”

I’m so relieved.  That’s only a four-minute drive.  The one in Emeryville would take me all of eleven minutes.”  You never know when those seven minutes I save might come in handy.

“So you can have it at the College Avenue office ready for pick-up at 6:30?

“That’s right, sir.  It will be there and you can have it picked up at 6:30 tomorrow.”

“No, wait a minute.  I think you misunderstood me.  I don’t want to ‘have it picked up’; I want to pick it up myself.  And the door tag says it will be ready by 6 tonight.”

“If you want to have it picked up in Emeryville, it will be ready when the driver comes back at 6 o’clock tonight, that’s right, sir.

“That’s what I wanted in the first place.  That’s why I called.  To see if the package would be there at 6:00 like it says on the door tag.

“That’s right, sir.”

“And let me be clear.  I’m not delivering a package, I’m picking one up.  Myself.  Not having somebody else do it.  I’m picking it up myself.

“Well, what’s the problem, sir?”

“You confused me by repeating that I can have it picked up.”

“Well how am I supposed to say it?”

“You can pick it up at 6 o’clock.”

“That’s what I said.  You can have it picked up at 6:00.”

“Do you really not know the difference between picking something up and having something picked up?  And you work for FedEx?” I snark.

She hangs up on me.

One of those days when I feel irrelevant to the modern age.   Just color me dinosaur.  Child of the pedantic age, when the English language made distinctions not everybody is interested in making anymore.

The woman had no discernible accent.

If she had had one, I would have given her some space.  And asked her if she saw no difference between cleaning your house and having it cleaned.  A distinction I learned some time ago, which changed my disposition from wretched to fairly civilized.

Another day.  Another attack on the language of God, Shakespeare and the Bible.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

When you gotta go

Just had another runaround with the lack of public rest rooms in this city.  What is it about this need to live by fear of terrorists around every corner?  It’s so terribly stupid, this reasoning.  Where are the damn TOILETS?
With each passing day my bladder seems to shrink and the number of times I need to visit the loo seem to grow exponentially.  What can I say?   I’ve entered serious geezer territory.
It’s not just geezers.  I’m thinking pregnant women, here.  And little boys embarrassing their mothers by grabbing their crotches and wailing in a loud piercing voice, “Mommy, I’ve got to go wee wee.”
All those years I remember living in Germany back in the old days, when you'd inevitably find a grandma sitting at a little table with a plastic table cloth and a vase with a single yellow flower drooping in it and a couple of pfennigs in the saucer.  There was no fee.  It was voluntary and sometimes there were signs that said "For the cleaning lady."  All very sexist and old fashioned.  And easy on the bladder.
Japan was even more civilized.  Public restrooms are everywhere, and for the most part they’re well maintained.  It takes Western men a little time to get used to the sight of the nice little old lady in her tidy uniform and head scarf disinfecting the urinal next to the one they are using, going about her business keeping Japan’s public loos tidy too.   It’s one of the more conspicuous differences between Japan and the United States.   They stay practical and real.   And stress full employment.  We find ways to scare the bejeezus out of ourselves to foil all the terrorist plots. That's what we tell ourselves, at least.  What we're doing, of course, is simply demonstrating to the world how very easy it is to actually mess with America.   Every closed toilet is an Al Qaeda victory.
It’s this rule-by-fear thing that gets me.  Living with the inconvenience of having to walk miles out of the way to find a shopping center before getting on the train would be acceptable if they came up with a decent reason.  But not wanting to give terrorists a place to put their bombs?  Are you kidding me? The terrorists can't find their way to putting their bombs in the rest rooms in shopping centers, maybe?
The consequences are wretched.  Because there are no public rest rooms in BART and MUNI in downtown San Francisco, the homeless (and I suspect a few others as well) use the elevators.  Then the floors rot out and the stench travels for days and they have to close the elevators.  Or people go on the escalators and they close them down.  Or between cars on the BART trains – and I have no idea what they do about that.
And there's more going on there, actually.  What would it cost for us to put a bit more of our national wealth into creating public spaces for the entire population.  I know, I know.  Taxes.  Big government. Republican solutions mean the poor can jolly well do without their damn public toilets.   I know you can't really justify putting a guard at every bathroom door.  But in most cases you wouldn't have to if you had lots of traffic going in and out.  People are sensitive now to suspicious packages when they see them.   How does the rest of the world manage?  CCTV?
Conscientious people turn down a drink before they get in their cars.  And that makes good sense.  But I’m wondering if I’m soon going to have to apply the “don't drink and drive” rule before getting on public transportation, as well.  When I go out to dinner in the city, I know I’m going to be miserable getting home because I inevitably have wine and then I love a cup of coffee after dinner and the combination means it’s wee wee wee all the way home.
I should not be ranting about this, probably.  After all, the BART Station at Ashby, where I get off, does have rest rooms.  All you have to do is make like a bat out of hell when the train arrives and get the single room before anybody else does when the trains come in.  And I use the ladies’ room, of course, when the men’s room is occupied.  Since they are single locked rooms, I see no reason not to.
And what’s up with that?  Why the single rooms?  Why not a free open space with lots of urinals and one or two cubicles with potties, like they have at the airport.  Big gaping spaces so those living in terror can see through and spot the terrorists.
There.  I feel relieved now.
Got that out of my system.

photo credits (both photos):

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Green Hornet Microsystem

I can’t say how many times I’ve repeated that insight my friend Luis came up with in summarizing an essential feature of Japan.  It has the world’s best microsystems, he said, for dealing with some of the world’s worst macrosystems.

Yet another example showed up in a news item today about a green-uniformed superhero, slightly more Spiderman than Superman, who saw a need and has set about filling it.

West Central Tokyo’s Hōnanchō Station, the end of the line for one of the Marunouchi line’s branches, was built in 1962, before the country became rich and could afford to put elevators and escalators in every station.  Still today, it is one of many stations where there is no way around climbing up and down the stairs, schlepping with you suitcases, baby carriages, shopping bags, or a grandma whose legs don’t work like they once did.

Tadahiro Kanemasu to the rescue.  He has made himself available to carry those items, like baby carriages, that make getting to and from the platforms a nightmare.  Because he has a full-time job, he can only do it for a couple hours a day, and he is looking for other volunteers.

If he tried that here, I’m convinced somebody would throw him in jail – or at least call the cops to get him evicted.  There’s something suspicious, even creepy about a guy who hides his face in public.  As for putting on a green body suit, well that’s even more reason to steer clear.

But this is Japan, where giri is a living concept, the idea of obligation.  People are raised to believe it’s better to do favors than to receive them, better to have others obligated to you than be obligated to them.  One can make too much of this traditional value, and you hear all the time that these traditional ways are giving way and Japan is becoming more and more like other modern countries.  But there’s truth to the notion.  Just try giving somebody a gift or doing them a big favor and watch what happens.  You’re liable to get a gift right back.

Kanemasu works with this idea himself.  Putting on a mask, he says, makes it easier for people to accept a favor from him.  It’s a little less personal to let Superman pull you out of a jam than one
of your neighbors, who you see every day and will have to bow your head and remember the favor every day till the cows come home.

Elevators and escalators in public conveyances are no small thing.  Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, each time you enter BART you hear announcements like, “All elevators are in operation.”   The first time I heard that after coming back from a couple decades living in Japan I just laughed.  So American, I said.  When elevators break in Japan, they fix them immediately.  In America they post an “out of service” notice.

In time, I learned the reason was more complicated.  Because here we have so many homeless people and other people with drug-fried brains, we have closed the rest rooms.  Heaven forbid somebody should use one to shoot up.  The result is there are no public restrooms in any of the BART stations in downtown San Francisco.  If you’re well dressed, you learn where the hotels and other places are where you can sneak in and have a whiz.  If you look like you’ve been sleeping on the street that option is not open to you.  The result?  The elevators become like the back alleys, places to relieve yourself when no other options seem available.  When that happens, transportation officials have to close off the now offending elevator or escalator.  

I’m getting up there in years and I have an old man’s bladder.  I can’t tell you how often I’ve gone into the city and back in extreme discomfort because of the lack of rest rooms.  Add to that the broken escalators and elevators, and you can see some pretty good reasons why people refuse to get out of their cars.  

Japan’s public transportation is infinitely superior in that way.  Rest rooms everywhere.  And in most places elevators and escalators to get you up and down the stairs.  The country is now rich enough to provide such amenities.  For the most part.

And when it can’t, there’s always the Green Hornet.

I left Japan seven and a half years ago now.   I’m happy to be back on this side of the pond and don’t spend a lot of time missing Japan.

Today, though, was an exception.

Picture credits: the first photo is a Reuters screen shot from a article, the second from an International Business Times article.