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Saturday, Feb. 16, 2002

JAPAN LITE

'Couch rice' unwrap grains of wisdom


In the U.S., we have "couch potatoes." Japan has "couch rice." These sleepy little "onigiri" spend most of their time curled in the fetal position in front of the TV. Many of them are in my English Speech class at the university. Now that it's final exam time, the couch rice must break out of their safe triangle worlds wrapped in seaweed blankets and adopt a vertical position long enough to give a speech.

Most students start their speeches like oscillating fans, standing erect and scanning the audience from side to side while trilling out their introduction, the only part of the speech they memorized. Next is the predictable stop in midoscillation and fixing their eyes on the floor, where they use extraordinary powers to extract English sentences from cracks between the tiles. At first I thought there must be bugs down there holding up cue cards, but no, just cracks with dirt and stray hairs lodged between them. When a student can't recall her speech, she stares at the crack and narrows her eyes. This seems to be enough of a threat to the crack for it to ooze out English words, albeit at an excruciatingly slow rate. If the crack absolutely refuses to ooze, she looks up, cocks her head and listens to the gods. On occasion, this actually works.

Midway through the body of the speech, most students are nearing desperation. They have exhausted the cracks for the basic stuff, so the next strategy is to teeter. These girls, obviously not afraid of heights, get inspiration by leaning back on their spiked heels the way you used to lean back on two legs of the chair at the dinner table when you were a kid. The problem is, as the teacher, I can no longer pay attention to the speech, as I am constantly assessing the angle of the girl's body to her heels, and the likelihood she'll fall off her spikes, requiring me to call the school's twisted ankle squad. Even the ones who aren't in heels tend to list to one side, far enough to make me gasp and imagine tragic newspaper headlines such as, "Girl lists into coma giving English speech."

Meanwhile, I'm trying to actually listen to the content of the speeches. I've tried to teach my students voice projection, but how do you teach a mosquito to project her voice? These voices are so high that they occasionally go off the falsetto charts. Furthermore, these girls find it difficult to pronounce "r" and "l." So do mosquitoes, which is why they stick with vowels. Imagine a mosquito reciting "I have a dweam," and you have an idea of what these speeches sound like. Some students choose to work around the problem by choosing different words, like, "I have an image."

Sometimes you just get a student with bad reception. During her speech she'll fade in and out, and there'll be so much static that her words are barely decipherable. Sometimes there'll be some interference, usually in the form of mumblings in languages such as Chinese, Korean and rap, as foreign exchange students try to help their fellow nationals get through their speech.

I always tell my students that they must end their speeches with a message -- they must give the audience something profound to take away. My students never fail in this aspect. One student ended her speech with this advice: "It's good to experience pain. If you don't have holes in your ears, you should get them." Another student said, referring to one of her favorite rock stars, who overdosed on drugs, "It is difficult for me to continue loving a dead person."

With these profound thoughts still in their heads, the students leave class, go back to their rooms and return to their triangular onigiri worlds wrapped in blankets of seaweed.

Contact Amy at amychavez2000@yahoo.com or visit the "Japan Lite" home page at www.amychavez.com


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