Thursday, November 20, 2008

Fables (not necessarily of Faubus)

Besides my Nursing English classes, I conduct a 1-hour conversation class known as English Corner. It takes three to make a corner, and I usually get at least that. Those students willing to squeeze extra time to practice spoken English into their busy schedules are a brave lot, as speaking aloud, in front of their peers, in a foreign language does require a kind of courage.

It started with talking about seasons, the physical reality of seasons, my asking the students about their favorite season and then asking why. Why can be precarious. It can lead to many similar answers. It can lead to my handing them a Chinese-English dictionary, because they can say it in Chinese but not in English. Ah, generating new vocabulary. Um, not a lot write new words down. Conversation seems to be more about entertainment than retention. I eventually have the students rehash what we've talked about in the form of a 'conversation,' two at a time, in front of the class. It's a prompted performance, but it sure looks like a conversation. (The next goal is to shorten dead air time and have them face away from the blackboard where all the generated words and phrases have been recorded.)

I freaked them out talking about breakfast. American breakfast. All that meat. All those ways to cook an egg. All those starches and sugars. The mashed, fried, baked and hashed of it all. I tell them this is why Americans are so fat. They cringe and are relieved to have their rice porridge, steamed bun, and tea egg.

Two weeks ago, I hit upon gold. The telling of a fable in English. I took some text of the Meanings and Metaphor book which I had used for Speaking and Listening class and had the English Corner students read each, and then tell the fable again in their own English words. The great thing about fables is that there is that moral, and the Chinese definitely respond to lessons of morality. The fables always use animals as characters, which is shorthand in the global storytelling universe. Snakes seem always to be wicked. Foxes are clever. Dogs are dense. Rabbits impatient and cowardly. Turtles wise. Lions and Tigers ferocious and arrogant.

There were 4 fables to choose from:  2 from good ole Aesop, 1 from India, 1 from Turkey.

The quickie: A bird sings in a cage at night. A bat notices and asks, "Why do you only sing at night?" The bird answers, "When I sang in the daytime, I was heard and caught and put into this cage. So now I sing only at night." The bat flaps, "It's no good being careful now. You should have been more careful before you were caught."

The other Aesop, and least popular to rendit:  Once, the hares had a huge meeting and complained about how insecure and frightening their lives were. They were hunted by men and dogs and eagles, all sorts of animals. They decided it was better to die at that moment than live their lives feeling frightened. They ran together to a pond and jumped in to drown themselves.

A bunch of frogs happened to be sitting pondside and the moment they heard the hare's running feet, they too quickly jumped into the pond with fright. When one of the calmer, more intelligent hares saw this he yelled "Stop! All of you. Don't do anything stupid. You can see now that there are creatures even more frightened than we are."

The favorite from India: A very wicked snake lived next to a road and would bite anyone passing by. One day, a holy man walked by, and as the snake rushed to bite him, he stopped, looked at the snake, and said "You want to bite me?  Go ahead." The snake was surprised and overwhelmed by the holy man's gentleness. The holy man said "Listen, my friend (was it McCain?). How about promising me you won't bite anyone from now on (it wasn't.) The snake bowed and agreed. The holy man went on his way and the snake started his new life of non-violence.

Soon all the village people (in full regalia) noticed that the snake would no longer bite, and so they started to tease it badly, throwing stones at it, dragging it by its tail. The snake, transcending its usual fable stereotype, kept its promise to the holy man and, despite all of the violence directed toward it, did not bite anyone.

One day, the holy man returned to see visit the snake and was upset to see that the snake was beaten and bruised. "What's happened?" asked the holy man. "O holy man, you said I should not bite anyone but humans, they are so cruel." The holy man answered, "I told you not to bite, but I didn't tell you not to hiss."

And the most popular one from India: A lion called all the animals that he ruled over to his den. He asked them: "How does my den smell?" The dog stepped forward, eager, honest, but not too wise and said, "Your Majesty, your den smells rather unpleasant. In all honesty, it stinks." The lion became furious and tore the dog to bits. (bite/bit/bits lesson). The lion asked again, and this time the monkey stepped forward. "Your Majesty, your den smells like the beautiful roses of the palace garden." The lion was doubly furious. "For lying and flattery, you deserve the same as the dog," and the lion ripped the monkey to bits as well. Then the lion asked the fox the same question, to which the fox said "Your Majesty, for some time now, I've had a bad cold, and I really can't smell a thing..."

The students did great, renditting the fables. The next week, I asked them to translate Chinese fables into English.

A kind man walked through the snow in a forest. He saw a snake laying there, frozen and half- dead. He decided to take the snake to where it was warm. He placed the snake in his bag and went home. After a while, when the snake thawed he crawled out of the bag and bit the man. Be careful who you help.

A fox went up to a tiger one day, and says, I am the king of the land. The tiger says, how is that possible, I am the kind of the land. The fox grins: I can show you how I am kind of the land. How, asks the tiger. Follow me, says the fox. And so the tiger followed the fox all around the land. As soon as they came upon any creature, the creature would see the tiger approaching and become frightened and scram. Each time the fox, followed by the tiger, would approach, all creatures would run and hide. The tiger saw this and said, wherever we go, the creatures all run. It must be true, fox. You must be the king of the land.

There used to be English Corner Monday through Thursday; due to lack of attendance, there's only the Tuesday session now. Today, after my final Nursing English class, one of Thursday's students walked with me and asked what we were doing in English Corner today; I told her it was only Tuesdays from now on. Please come Tuesday. I can't, I'm busy...and I prepared a Chinese fable for today. Tell me as we walk.

Once there was a poor old man who was so hungry, he went up to a restaurant, and sniffed the fragrant aroma of the food. The owner charged him money. But I am only taking a sniff. The owner insisted. I have no money. And so the restaurant owner took the poor old man to court. Unfortunately for the old man, the judge was a friend of the owner, and sentenced him to a fine. The old man, light-headed from hunger, was completely helpless. A clever young man saw the helpless old man, tied to a post in front of the restaurant. The old man told him of his situation and the young man promised to set him free. The young man went to the restaurant owner and said, I will pay the fine if you free the poor old man. The restaurant owner agreed. Upon releasing the poor old man, the clever young man took his bag of coins and jingled them next to the restaurant owner's ear. What's this? this restaurant owner asked. I pay you the money, like the old man ate your food.

Faubus himself was enfabled by Charles Mingus on Ah Um, a classic jazz piece with a jaunty circus feel that stood against desegregation. It was based on Orvel Faubus, an Arkansas governor in the 50's that caused the Little Rock crisis of 1957, disallowing 9 black students from attending Little Rock Central High School. In 1986, Faubus was defeated in the Arkansas gubernatorial race by Bill Clinton.

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