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."


Kim Ayres said...

I must admit my cultural references after about 1995 are more than a bit shakey. I keep seeing all these lists of celebrities and I have no idea who any of them are

Ruth Kelly said...

Elvis was American but the Beatles were definitely British. If your youngsters heard them speak, they would know but the accent doesn't come out in music.

Charles Gramlich said...

I've never thought of the Beatles as even sounding remotely American. Intersting. Course, I know their history much better.

Mirka Breen said...

This post reminded me of my Brazilian friend who was incensed at being called “Portuguese.” Or my Iranian friend who was referred to as an Afghan (didn’t like that) or as an Arab. (Really didn’t like that.)
And oh, the Beatles were so English. Not just English, but Liverpudlian, or “Scouses.” Your poor students are into another surprise if they refer to Americans (general) once in-country… We too are many kinds.

Marcia said...

Well, wikipedia settles it, then. :)

I'm glad your student caught on when you reminded her how people from other parts of the world can mix up Japanese, Chinese, and Korean. That was probably the perfect example to give her.

Anonymous said...

I had that very album (now lost to the ravages of time/technological change/and a garage flood). More importantly, I have that very photo on a mug Younger Son purchased for me in ... (wait for it) ... Liverpool!

And tell Xu and Jenny it wasn't the Liverpool in Ohio!

A.T. Post said...

That ending line was just priceless.

Since when did you move to China?

Mary Witzl said...

Kim -- Me too as a general rule, but I've been catching up since around 2005. This is what our kids are for!

Ruth -- Most of my students can't tell American accents from British accents (they always assume I'm British, for instance). But you're right: music has a blurring effect on most accents.

Charles -- Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that anybody would have assumed that the Beatles were American, or that Simon and Garfunkel were British.

Mirka -- Yes. My students are quickly learning to make distinctions. They have found out that Canadians don't like to be mistaken for Americans, that Indians and Pakistanis hate being mixed up, and that Glaswegians bristle if anybody suggests they are from Edinburgh. I'm sure I'd go through similar learning experiences if I ever went to China.

Marcia -- Oh, Wikipedia is the source of all knowledge and the final authority! Never mind middle-aged teachers who have simple lived through the times. :)

Anne -- I had it too, and wore the wax off it, finally losing it to a flooded basement in San Francisco. Xu and Jenny are well aware now, after checking Wikipedia.

A.T. (You're in Korea now, right?) I would love to go to China, but until I can, China comes to Glasgow and I travel there to meet it. Hoping that soon we'll be back in Asia. :)

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Lisa Shafer said...

An excellent lesson!

And how did I miss that you were blogging again!!! I'm so glad!

Mary Witzl said...

Thank you, Lisa. I wish I could write more blog posts. And I'm always thrilled to get a comment from someone who isn't trying to sell me fake jewelery or pimp their own (sales) website.