Saturday, 5 January 2013

American Beatles

I am collecting homework when I see them, a real blast from the past: the Famous Four. It's the well-known photo of them crossing a road, single-file, mostly long-haired and bearded, and there they are, on the back of Xu's mobile phone. How touching, that today's young people still revere the classics.

"Hey," I say, tapping the phone. "You've got the Beatles on your phone. Are you a fan?"

Xu smiles, caught out. "I don't know," he admits. "Just--famous picture."

"The Beatles," I say, instantly feeling a lot older. "This photo was on their Abbey Road album."

He nods. "Famous American singer."

This stops me in my tracks. "No, not American--British!"

"Really?" Xu asks, looking doubtful.  "I always think American."

"Believe me, you are wrong. They're British. Just ask Patrick."  Patrick is my co-teacher, British, and roughly my age. I smile just thinking about his reaction to Xu's statement.

Now the rest of the class is interested. Weilong, who sits across from Xu, agrees with me: the Beatles are British. Jenny, who sits next to him, however, has always believed they were American.

This is the hardest thing about being old: the things you don't know often render the things you do know null and void. Although my students trust and respect my knowledge of English, my general ignorance of anything to do with IT never fails to astonish them. After all, kids like Xu and Jenny have grown up knowing the difference between DVDs and CDs, that YouTube is not spelled U-tube, and that 'cn' in a URL tells you it's from China. The credibility of people who have demonstrated their ignorance of such fundamentally obvious things has to be suspect.

"The Beatles are British," I tell them. "End of story."

"But one man dead in America," Jenny informs me  pompously. "New York."

"Yes, I know," I say, a little dizzy when I consider that this happened at least ten years before she was born. "But he was still born in England. All of them were born in England."

"Mm," Jenny says, frowning.

Now I get it: they don't really care, one way or another, what nationality the Beatles were. They've got that look in their eye that says What difference does it make? A foreigner is still a foreigner. The look I've had myself when someone has pointed out that a CD is not the same as a DVD.

"Remember what we were talking about earlier?" I say.  "About how you feel when somebody thinks you're Japanese? Or that man you told me about who argued that Confucius was Korean, and how much that irritated Chinese people?"

Xu and Jenny both nod, their eyes open wide. Suddenly they get my point:  every country wants credit for its cultural icons. I will never forget my response to the Japanese student I once had who insisted that Simon and Garfunkel were British. Or for that matter, the spirited, spluttering reaction of a theretofore quiet Kazakh student when a Chinese classmate suggested that the first person in space was American. Xu and Jenny may not believe me, but when they leave, I have no doubt that they will be thinking about this.

And I am right. Three days later, Xu catches me after class. "Teacher, you are right," he says. "Beatles are British. I look in Wikipedia."