29 December 2008

Reporting - Authenticity or Manipulation?

Some years ago a news team from German television visited the technical college I taught at back then. The background was that a law had been passed in Denmark which gave young people under 25 the ‘choice’ of either losing half their social welfare benefit or enrolling in a school or college, if they wanted to keep their full pay after 2 years of unemployment. It was definitely twisting the arms of these young people, and the strong opposition to being force fed with education, which some of these young people had, led to very bad results at some schools. At my college some of these students had had fine results. I think mostly because we did not simply enrol them in our usual classes but had created new projects especially for this group, of which many suffered from distinct school fatigue and had had a lot of previous failures in the school system, and we also took the time to ask them what they needed and what they wanted to learn.

I happened to be teaching one of the classes in question that day and had no problem being followed around by a news team making an item for the ‘Tagesthemen’ news programme in Germany that same evening. I knew they were considering passing a similar law in Germany, and although I did not know the exact agenda of this news item, I just assumed it was part of a pro and con discussion. They needed some footage in a classroom, in the workshop, and an interview with me and a couple of students. After a while it seemed as if even the students forgot about the crew being present in class. But that changed. The cameraman came over to me, “This doesn’t really look much like a classroom, does it?” I didn’t quite understand. I thought it did. And although I was not happy about rearranging the tables so it looked more like their idea of what a ‘typical classroom’ looked like, the students seemed eager to please the crew and had already started placing the desks in a different way (maybe the layout of a classroom from, say, at least 25 years ago). I was beginning to think the whole thing was a bad idea. But they were smart - they just asked for one thing at a time. And with one of my bosses hanging around nearby and encouraging me to do what they said, it was also a little hard to put down my foot and say "no way!" With hindsight it’s easy to see I should have stopped them. I don’t like being manipulated.

After they had filmed in the classroom it was time for the interview. Although the reporter did not give me the exact questions beforehand, he did let me know what kind of things they would like to know and what topics he would like to talk to me about. That was really good, because while they were setting up the equipment it gave me time to think a bit about it and be better prepared for what I was going to say. The reporter started his introduction and then asked me the first question, and I replied. Dead silence. “Hmmm, this won’t work” he said. I began trying to figure out what I had done wrong, and he said. “Your German is much too good! Couldn’t you speak with a heavy Danish accent or something?” In my most polite and patient voice I had to say I could not. The truth is that I would not, and I was starting to get extremely annoyed with their staging. Asking a language teacher to speak a language she knew quite well in an awkward and clumsy way was challenging my professionalism, and I was too proud to do it, really. The result was that he asked me to answer in Danish. “It’ll sound more authentic”, he said. They would later have it translated and partly voiced over, he said. It felt strange to answer in Danish and watch him nod as if to show he was listening, even though he didn’t understand a single word of what I said.

Afterwards he wanted to talk to some of the students. I thought it would be best if the rest of us waited in the canteen, so the students could say whatever they wanted without any pressure on them because their teacher, or anyone else, listened. We waited there for two entire lessons, because he ended up talking to every single student. I found out later he was trying very hard to find a student who was negative about having to attend school. But nobody wanted to say anything bad about it, which seemed to disappoint the reporter somewhat! In the clips they ended up using there were just young people who said they were happy getting a new chance in the educational system.

I doubt any of those students had ever watched the late night news ‘Tagesthemen’ on ARD, German national television channel 1, but I bet they all did that evening, and had their VCRs on. I wasn’t at home that evening but a student gave me a copy of it. ‘Zwangsarbeit’ (forced labour) the headline said and the news reader had a raised finger. The technical college I worked for then was within the field of transportation and logistics, so why there was bucket and mop on screen, I am not sure. And perhaps they had been slightly carried away with symbols: The bucket and rag were in the Danish national colours and apparently the Germans needed to see the Little Mermaid on screen, too, in order to know it was a story about Denmark! But the news item itself seemed fair enough to the views we had expressed. That two-minute clip on the news was the only thing that came out of that day at school. We hadn’t had much time for any of our regular classes.

A ‘typical’ classroom situation, according to the German news team. The crew had asked us to re-arrange the desks, so they were all lined up in rows. They could not get the whole classroom into the field of vision, so they removed some of the desks and pushed the teacher’s desk forward so you can see it. The curtains are drawn to avoid backlighting and the doors of the cupboard are carefully arranged so the situation will look ‘random’. They wanted me in the frame as well, so I am there in the background, more or less stuck between a desk and two of the students, and talking to one of them. In ‘real life’, I would never stand like that. I am very aware of body language and I would never ‘tower’ over a student, looking down at him. And, by the way, that was the only clip they used with me. They used some short clips from interviews with one of my colleagues and one of my bosses, instead.
What the two girls in the front row are looking at, or whom they are talking to, remains unknown to me, as there was nobody behind the teacher’s desk!

16 December 2008

An Earthshaking Experience

Tuesday morning I woke up as my bed was shaking. No, not just my bed: the whole building was moving and the window panes were making a strange, rattling sound. When I looked at my clock radio I noticed it was ‘dancing’ around on my bedside table. What the ….?! Then, it was quiet for a few seconds before the vibrations started again.

I figured lots of things were possible. Perhaps a gas explosion? Or maybe a truck ran into our building? No, that would have had to be eight or ten trucks to last that long, and there really aren’t that many of them around here, anyway. I ran through a few possibilities and discarded all of them, including the theory that it must be my upstairs neighbour who kept a medium size pet elephant which was in the process of learning how to dance flamenco. The following day I heard that the 5-year-old daughter of one of my friends thought it was Santa Claus flying by their house! The one thing that never crossed my mind was that it might have been an earthquake. Even the dancing elephant seemed more realistic than an earthquake in my part of the world. But it was, in fact, an earthquake.
I haven't seen any amateur film clips of the incident, which may not be all that surprising, considering the fact that it happened at 06:20 a.m., but here's a news clip from DR 1/Update mentioning the quake. The Swedish radio host in the clip exclaims in his live radio broadcast that it felt like an earthquake, but then adds with a laugh that it couldn't possible have been.

Watch the news clip at DR Update.

It’s not the first earthquake have experienced, but certainly the first one I experienced at home. The epicentre was near Ystad in Sweden, about 65 km from Copenhagen. The quake reached 4.7 on the Richter scale. For people who live in areas of the world in which they have serious earthquakes, 4.7 won’t really seem like anything at all. But for those of us who are used to the ground staying where it is, it was a lot! In comparison, the tremors caused by the collapsing twin towers in NYC were 2.1 on the Richter scale. We are surrounded by water and I have occasionally been on sailing boats which were tossed around at the mercy of mother nature. That’s what we can expect. But I would appreciate if the ground under me stays where it is, thanks.

They are inspecting the tunnel & bridge across the Sound between Denmark and Sweden for structural damages. I did not hear about any serious damages or injuries. Just minor cuts and bruises when falling pictures hit people in bed, etc. There was one casualty, though: a turtle called Mimi was killed by a falling cupboard. R.I.P.

Earth Times
Copenhagen Post

6 December 2008

This and That …. [Japan]

One of the main reasons why I like travelling so much is of course to experience something different. Sometimes these differences result in major culture clashes, something I have always learnt something from. However, at other times these differences are just small, everyday stuff that I stumble across. Apart from the incidents I have already written about, I’ll mention a few other things which caught my eye and made me start thinking ...

One of the things which really puzzled me was the way in which the seats in certain waiting rooms were arranged. I saw a few of these during my trip. The picture above is from the station at Kanazawa. Single seats with quite a distance between them, all facing the same way. They look as if they are meant for people suffering from social phobia. Maybe for the hikikomori* if they ever do venture out into the surrounding world! ;o) If someone out there can explain this phenomenon to me, I’d be grateful.
The next picture shows a bench by the river in Hiroshima. Now, I doubt the partitions are there to separate the people sitting on the bench. Instead, I imagine they are there to prevent people from lying down. No loitering or sleeping out.

Are these benches or tables? I think perhaps a little of each. These ‘tables’ were at the park surrounding the Kinkakuji at Kyoto.

I really enjoyed staying at the ryokans (traditional Japanese inns) where your bed was a futon rolled out on the floor, covered by tatami mats. At the ryokans I stayed at, my room always had a sliding door leading out into a small garden or green courtyard, even in the middle of a big city. The inns were rather small, and the hosts always gave me their undivided attention and very individual and personal service. The first picture above shows my modest room at a ryokan, an 8 tatami mat sized room (approx. 160 sq.ft.). During the day, the futon was rolled up and put away. The second picture is from a private house in which I stayed as a guest. ‘My’ bedroom doubled as a dining room during the day. My hosts got up earlier than me and have already put away their futons for the day in the room next to mine. I like the idea of flexible rooms. But I don’t think many modern Japanese live like this anymore. Perhaps they have one traditional Japanese room in their home, only.

I see heart starters more and more places, but not as many in Denmark as I spotted in Japan. I used to teach paramedics, so maybe I am more aware of such equipment and easily spot it when it’s there. I don’t know. At places frequented by many people, you usually found them in Japan, such as here, at a temple in Kyoto, when it’s right next to a Fuji film vending machine and a machine on which you can make a souvenir coin with your own name on it.

In my country, if someone picks up a magazine in a shop and starts to leaf through it, I guess nine out of ten times, the shop assistant will tell you in no uncertain terms to either buy the magazine or put it down! But in Japan I saw lots of people, mainly younger men, not only leafing through the cartoon magazines, but taking their time and reading it carefully. It seemed to be OK. In one shop, when I wanted to buy some detergent I addressed a young man, who was standing right next to me reading a magazine, as I needed a little help deciphering the writing on the product I was holding. As I had begun talking to him, I suddenly realized he was actually reading a strip cartoon with strong pornographic contents, and I was trying to pretend not to ‘notice’. But he made no attempt to close the magazine or do anything else to indicate that what he was doing wasn’t OK in public, so I assumed even that might be perfectly acceptable (?) And he actually did help me find the right kind of detergent. Incidentally, he is not the man in my picture. That photo was taken in another shop.

I don’t want to seem too soft. My golden rule when I meet other cultures, other traditions and other rules is not to be judgemental. But sometimes the left side of my brains is powered down and the right (more emotional) side takes over completely. So pet shops full of puppies kept in ‘cages’ that resembled fish-tanks really broke my heart. I considered a Turtle-Diary-or-Free-Willy attempt, but I managed to control myself. Two years ago, in Turkey, we were having lunch opposite a pet shop, where they had a number of puppies in a cage out in the baking sun, with no shade. I actually walked over to the shop keeper and asked why the dogs didn’t have any water, ‘Oh, yes, water!’ he said and gave them a bowl of water which they fought over and finished in no time, so he had to fill it again. I think my life would be much simpler (and my blood pressure lower) if I could manage to just mind my own business. But it’s difficult for me not to interfere.

Other things seemed more similar to home. I saw a notice about dogs while I walked along the Philosopher’s Walk in Kyoto, and although I don’t understand what it says, I assume it must be the same general idea as the signs we have in our parks (right picture).

Sometimes when friends from abroad are visiting me, they comment on alcohol being displayed freely on the shelves in the super market. That would be the standard, at least when it comes to beer and wine. I suppose most of the time liquor is kept behind a counter. But in my local shop in Fukuoka I noticed that even some strong spirits were on display in child height.

I saw bottles of water outside many homes, such as this one in the Nagamachi Buke Yashiki District in Kanazawa, and I finally asked someone what they were for. My first guess had been that it was in connection with some sort of ritual. Like when you put out a bowl of rice for your ancestors. But no, no, that was not the case. I was told it helped keep cats away. But how?

We have a lot of bikes in Denmark. Personally, I have two: a 3-speed bike for city use with a basket attached to the handlebars and a 24-speed mountain bike for .... Well, I don’t really go on all those rides through the forest that I had planned to! There is now an official policy in Copenhagen to make it the best European city for bikes within a time frame of about ten years. In Copenhagen, we have separate bike lanes between the sidewalks and the road. I am simply just not used to bikes coming towards me on the sidewalk, which is what they do in Japan, so I often saw them rather late and only managed to step aside in the last moment. A few near misses but no injuries, fortunately.

Of course I have seen intersections like the one in this photo (taken in front of the main station in Kyoto), where pedestrians can cross in all directions at the same time, but I have mostly seen those in the States, and now in Japan. As I stood there, waiting for the light to turn green, I could not figure out what the advantage was of three-stage traffic lights. First stage: green light for motorists in one direction, second stage: green light for the motorists crossing the first direction, third stage: red light for all the motorists while it is green for all the pedestrians. True enough, if you are a pedestrian, you can get to the corner diagonally from where you are in one go, but won’t it mean that all the vehicles will have to wait even longer? And even the pedestrians, if they arrive when the light has just turned red. Embarrassingly, I’ll have to admit I am too stupid to understand why this is supposed to create a better traffic flow like they claim. Someone, please enlighten me.

Generally, we like to think the Danes are very advanced when it comes to green energy and protecting the environment. Although this is true, especially concerning wind power, I saw lots of things in Japan that we don’t have (all that much of) at home. Including street lights powered by solar cells. The sun would provide the light regardless if it was day or night. Great!
Another thing which was ‘great’ was the bamboo, of course. The bamboo in my family’s garden was maybe 6-8 feet tall. The grove I am standing in here has a sort of bamboo which gets … somewhat taller! I really like all the ways in which the bamboo sticks are used in traditional construction, such as for the gutter and drain of this house at the Shugakuin Imperial Villa. I always admire good craftsmanship.
Now that we seem to be playing ‘Where’s Wally’, here’s a picture of me with a cherry tree in Shinjuku Gyoen. Someone told me Europeans look so pink. I tried to prove that by blending in with the pink cherry blossoms.

I wonder if school uniforms were ever used in my country. I don’t think so. Japanese secondary school children all wore sailor suit style uniforms. I don’t think primary school children had uniforms, but I am not sure. I liked all the coloured caps kindergarten children wore.
As for the traditional clothes, my thoughts on all the beautiful traditional kimonos I saw would fill too many pages to bring up here. I also thought the traditional wedding clothes were exceptionally elegant. This couple was at Miyajima. At all the hotels and ryokans I stayed at, there was a yukata (thin cotton kimono) to sleep in. At the ryokans these were often worn outside your room, as well. I already knew I was supposed to tie them with the left side on top (the right side on top is reserved for the dead!), so I felt slightly enlightened and sophisticated (wink wink) at my ryokan in Tokyo, where I noticed the way other tourists wore them was not always like this. I heard the tradition behind the left side being on top, is from when people wore swords and daggers. As most people are right handed, these would be worn on the left side of your body. If you had to pull it quickly, there would be a risk of your hand or weapon being caught up in the hem of your clothes if the right side was on top. Just watch Richard Chamberlain in ‘Shogun’, or any samurai movie! ;o) Men and women wear clothes the same way. Actually, last year a Japanese friend asked me why on earth our clothes, e.g. shirts and jeans, were closed differently for men and women. I did not have a clue about the tradition behind this, but a friend who’s an anthropologist and folklorist eventually gave me an explanation, which had some similarity to the explanation about the kimonos: when men had to pull their weapon it would be safer to close their hides (or whatever they wore back then) with the left side on top, in order to avoid their hand getting tangled up in their clothes. If they wanted to signal they were unarmed, they would place the other side on top. As women were generally unarmed, that would be their typical way of dressing. I have no idea whether or not this is the real explanation, but it does make sense, somehow. All I can say is that I have jeans that are men’s/unisex and jeans which are for women, exclusively. And it’s a lot more difficult to zip those women’s jeans if I try to use my right hand!!!

If it rained, I would wear my rain jacket. I prefer to have my hands free, so I don’t use an umbrella very often. I didn’t see many other people wearing rain clothes there, though. I wonder if it is considered uncommon or un-cool, somehow. Instead, there seemed to be umbrellas everywhere. Literally: everywhere! I ended up buying two during my stay and just passed them on to someone else when I didn’t need them anymore. They were inexpensive, and you could buy them at every other corner, it seemed. Typically, it seemed people got caught in the rain and just bought another one and brought it home. I took this picture in the hall of a private home. They (a family of three) had more than twenty of them in their hall.

Something else I didn’t know from home: all the cords suspended over the streets. A rocky underground would make it difficult to dig them into the ground, I’m sure. Also, with frequent earth quakes and possible damages to these cords, it also makes good sense to have them in the air, so they can easily be repaired. So a street scene like this is part of the Japanese couleur locale for me.

I enjoyed the ability to find beauty and value in something, which not everyone can. We had a big garden, where I grew up, and my father had come across a some rocks while digging in the garden, and unlike most of our neighbours, who arranged for the rocks they found to be taken away, he kept a few of them on ‘display’ as he thought they were interesting. I saw that many places in Japan – and I am not talking about the big, symbolic rock gardens but just a few square feet of garden in front of a private home. I found that interesting. I wonder what age a rock like the red one in my picture has. I wouldn’t be surprised if dinosaurs had stepped on it.

Finally, why change the course of a path through a park just because there is a tree right in the middle of it?