21 May 2007

They Have Dreams

This week in class we’ve been talking about Americanization. It will also be the topic of next week’s debate. First, I introduce some relevant vocabulary, like: adopt, imitate, influence, and aspect. We also discuss the difference between adding to one’s culture, and replacing it. In groups, the students brainstorm lists of American products, companies, traditions, and languages that exist in Ukraine. They come up with the big ones: Coca Cola, McDonald’s, Nike & Adidas (the way the pronounce “Nike” it rhymes with bike, and they put the accent on the last syllable of Adidas), Avon, Levi’s, etc. They identify fast food as coming from the U.S., things like hamburgers and hot dogs and pizza (didn’t that come from Italy?). As for traditions, they name Halloween and Valentine’s Days which certainly didn’t originate in the U.S., but the customs they are imitating are definitely what they see in U.S. movies and television programs. They have also taken on some wedding traditions similar to ours, such as white dresses and tuxedos (they used to wear their national embroidered outfits) and bachelor/ette parties. On that same high moral plain are television programs like MTV’s “Room Raiders,” Beverly Hills 90210, and the newly popular “The Swan.” Just last week I had a colleague telling me how much she liked that show, and how wonderful it was for ugly women to have an opportunity to feel better about themselves through plastic surgery. I tried to express my disgust with such shows, but she wasn’t listening. Mind you, I was talking to a woman of about 50 who is on a different diet every week (the latest one involves eating only fruit 4 days per week), who constantly complains of headaches (hunger?), and who told me that her doctor says flat shoes are very bad for your health.

In class I try to instigate a discussion about whether or not this American influence has a positive or a negative influence on Ukrainian culture. One or two students have voiced an opinion for the negative side, arguing that Ukrainians shouldn’t use words like “sorry” or “okay” when they have their own Ukrainian words that mean the same thing. A few people think it’s cool, and makes the language richer. But mostly, they have no opinion. It’s something they’ve never thought about, and even when I assign them the task of listing positive and negative aspects of Americanization, they have a difficult time. At first I wondered why this was so difficult, but slowly this week I have come to the realization that this task would require a skill that few of my students possess: critical thinking.

Their educational system prepares them to be very good echoes. Many teachers praise plagiarism, because then there are fewer grammatical mistakes, and make it obvious that they are not at all interested in what the students actually think. Their entire college education has rarely forced them to analyze. Don’t misunderstand this as laziness; my students work very hard. Unfortunately, most of their effort would fall into what we call “busy work,” and involves memorized information that they promptly forget after the exam.

Last week when we were studying Diversity in the U.S. we listened to Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech. We discussed the history of segregation in the U.S., the Civil Rights Movement, and the situation of race relations. We summarized what MLK, Jr’s dream was for the U.S., and I asked them to tell me what their dreams are for Ukraine. Most of them told me that they had never thought about it before, and it took them a while to get their thoughts rolling on this question. I told them it could be their personal dream or a larger-scale dream for their entire country. Eventually, they came up with dreams for more honest politicians, better paying jobs, and an opportunity to travel to other countries. They spoke of a more just education system and fair teachers. They dreamt of health for Ukrainians and a better health care system. In their dreams, Ukraine is well-known in other countries for reasons other than its football team and political revolutions. It is a Ukraine that is proud of its history and one in which people speak Ukrainian (not Russian).

I asked them if they thought these dreams could come true. They hesitated. A few students said yes, but for the most part they agreed that these are only dreams, and that they will not come true in their lifetime.

09 May 2007

not me, yet funny

Prosecutors want bank robber to get second chance
Oakland County officials will ask public to help man find a job

Prosecutors on Tuesday will ask an Oakland County judge to sentence a convicted bank robber to time served and then will ask for the public's help in finding the man a job.

Larry Lawson, who has been convicted of robbing a LaSalle Bank branch in Troy in July 2006, fainted as he exited the bank. An out-of-work automotive design engineer, Lawson told investigators he wanted to be arrested so he could get food and shelter in jail. Lawson was allowed to plead guilty to one count of bank robbery, which would make him eligible for parole. He's been in jail for the past nine months, unable to post bond.

“Mr. Lawson is an atypical defendant in that he did not rob the bank to feed a drug habit, nor is he a dangerous or habitual felon,” said Oakland County Prosecutor David Gorcyca in a statement. “The criminal justice system is not a place for Mr. Lawson; he merely was caught up in Michigan's devastating economic climate. I would like to turn a negative situation into a success story.”

Prosecutors and Lawson's attorney Todd Kaluzny will hold a press conference Tuesday morning to discuss the rationale for the plea deal. They'll also ask for the public's help in finding Lawson a job.

02 May 2007

On Sex in Ukraine

By that, I mean male/female.

At a Ukrainian friend's the other day. My wife and I were having a typical five-hour lunch with two 60 year old women. Between the first course of dill-heavy, noodle soup and the second of mlintsi, a crepe filled with ground beef or innards (depending on your host), one of the women asked me how we prepare turkey in

I explained the process, but got stuck on the word "to bake" in Ukrainian. I couldn't think of the past tense form of the verb that I needed to use. I circumlocuted and, at the end of my story, asked how I would say the word, pekty, in past tense.

Pekty, one of the women said.

No, I said. That's the infinitive.

Oh, the other woman said. Pekla.

No, I said again. That's the past tense for women. What about for a man?

Both women looked to each other, their eyes wide open in real surprise, and laughed hysterically. Neither one of them actually knew the past tense form of pekty that denoted a man doing the action.

Language builds a context of the reality we live in. In their reality, they've used that form of pekty so little, maybe not at all, that they've forgotten how to say it.