Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Chants: Politics, Education, and Bears

[Note: This post contains quotes and pictures from the government textbooks, along with my observations. These observations are not intended as criticisms of the government curricula, but are rather intended to convey the reactions I have as an American teaching in a Nepali context. If anyone feels that it is inappropriate for me to post this, please contact me]

As I have posted before, the government textbooks contain many chants and short poems to aid in learning the rhythm of the English language. Here is one from Grade 5:

I want to fly high,
And reach the sky.
I want to go far,
And shine like a star.
I want to be in Nepal,
To die,
When the time is nigh.

First of all, I would like to point out that this song appears to be sung by a giant beat-boxing bear, which is awesome. In fact, if we look on the cover of the textbook...

Holy Cow! That bear has to be like 30 feet tall! Those are full-grown adults down by his left foot!

Secondly, the message here seems obvious: you can and should leave Nepal for study or for work, but you must come back. In a country with a large remittance economy this is a serious issue, and it surprised me to see something so political in a book for 5th graders (of course, this is coming from a resident of Texas, where textbook content is not exactly free from political contention).

In any case, politics-wise these chants are certainly less loaded than the old textbooks, which praised the King and the Queen and taught children to think of the Royal Family as their parents. And this must certainly be better than the Maoist "Revolutionary Education" which taught their children "A is for Attack, B is for Bullet, ..."* Yep, at least there's generally nothing violent and disturbing about these chants. On the other hand...

On Sunday I had a dream.
On Monday I went to a stream.
On Tuesday there was a great flood.
On Wednesday I saw a pond of blood.
On Thursday I cleaned all of them.
On Friday home I came.
On Saturday I woke up and had a big scream.

Whoa. This seems a bit, um, dark for a 5th grade textbook. And it is in the middle of a lesson on the days of the week. Why the violent imagery? Why is there a kid mopping up a puddle of blood in a lesson about the days of the week? Also, the rhyme scheme kind of breaks down toward the end there, but perhaps this symbolizes a descent into madness.

These are the sorts of cultural discontinuities that can make teaching uncomfortable. I have talked to Nepali teachers about this passage and and I have been unable to convey exactly why this poem seems inappropriate to me. One person told me that there have been efforts to move toward "nonviolent education" in Nepal, which was described as avoiding violent images in teaching, e.g. "If Shyam has four goats and then sacrifices two of them, how many are still alive?" But it is not the violence that bothers me at all. This poem is tamer than Lord of the Flies, which is often taught in American middle schools. It just surprises me that a horror story is used to teach fifth graders the days of the week.

Okay, one more:

I like the mountains,
'Cos there are lots of fountains.
I like the birds,
'Cos they steady my nerves.
I like the plains.
'Cos there are a lot of dames.

I like the plains too, but I can think of at least one reason why I would be reluctant to teach this chant to fifth graders.

*I'm pretty sure I have heard this English version somewhere, but I cannot substantiate it. The Nepali language version is well-known to the point of political parody: "A is for Andolan ('Revolution'), B is for Banda ('Strike'), C is for Chakka Jam ('Roadblock')..."


  1. OK, so as your mother, I need to comment on this one. Thanks goodness you balked at "dames" but perhaps it is a British influence.(?) But I also find the phrase curious. It appears to be at most sexist and at least from a male viewpoint. Perhaps children mature faster in Nepal, but I don't know many 5th grade boys whose interest in the opposite sex would motivate them to go to the plains. And on the alphabet, in American English, it is "A is for Apple," "B is for Banana," "C is for car" ...interesting perceptions. Good job, Luke!

  2. In the schools I've noticed a few other offensive terms (from an American perspective) that are used in a seemingly innocent manner by Nepalis. One is that the school custodians are referred to as 'peons.' This term doesn't seem to come with the attitude of superiority that you would associate with it in America. The second is that 'Native Americans,' by the few people who have heard of them, are referred to as 'Red Indians.' Certainly there is a lot of British (and, to a hilarious extent, Australian) influence in the textbooks, but I think the 'dames' thing is just a misinterpretation of the word by a nonnative speaker - the precise degree of offensiveness and the sexist connotations of the word are a lot more difficult to pick up on than its simple definition.