Thursday, August 22, 2013

It has taken me years to figure out the point of this post

For years, I have been telling students about something a girl wrote in my yearbook at the end of junior year. I've used the story primarily to entertain, but also to make a point about the kinds of things they can expect to remember 25 years after graduating from high school. Now that I'm teaching in Asia (again), I've just realized that my anecdote might help explain to my students one rhetorical difference between the East and the West.

In the West, we prefer the five-paragraph model of argumentation: introduce your thesis in the introduction and then spend the body of the essay proving why your thesis is correct. In East Asia, the writer prefers to spend the bulk of the essay circling around the topic, perhaps like a vulture assessing the situation below, before landing somewhere in the vicinity of the message. The East Asian way can be quite beautiful, but it requires something from readers: they must understand the point of the message. The thesis is not necessarily present -- in the introduction or the conclusion -- so the readers or listeners must pay attention to the argument as it swoops around and come to the one and correct conclusion on their own. My yearbook example will illustrate the point.

Once, there was a girl I liked back in high school. I thought she had a boyfriend, and I was quite shy, so I never pursued her. Still, we had a lot of fun throughout junior year, laughing and listening to music during our print shop class. (I went to an amazing high school, where our electives included things like drafting and shop classes. We were in the class that actually printed the school publications.) At the end of the year, she wrote a substantial message in the back of my yearbook. Among other things, she wrote that I'm a nice guy, that she enjoying working with me because I was so funny and always made her laugh, that I'm smarter than I pretend to be, and that I should listen to better music. She made fun of my taste -- classic rock and heavy metal -- and suggested I listen to "Don't You Forget About Me" by the Simple Minds and "If You Leave" by OMD. She also wrote that she hoped we'd keep in touch during senior year, despite the fact that we wouldn't be in the same classes. (I went to a big school; graduating class of almost a thousand.)

I tell my students this story to get a laugh, to tell them how naive I was, to teach them a lesson: If you like someone, tell them. I usually say something like: "I was so dumb back then that I thought she was making fun of me because of the music thing. I didn't realize that she was saying, 'I like you.'"

I just finished reading the first essay from one of my students in English class, and I thought, "Oh my god, this reminds me of that yearbook message!" She writes well, and the point is there, but it's not clearly articulated. In other words, she is not following the thesis-first approach that is favored in the U.S.

I'm going to tell that yearbook story again today, and this will be my message: The girl who wrote that message, she was Asian. And I didn't get her point. In the West, maybe because we're dumb or unsophisticated or something, we often misunderstand this kind of argument. I would have understood if she had started with her thesis: I like you. And then if she had presented the rest of her points as proof: I like you because you make me laugh; I like you because you're actually quite intelligent; I like you because you listen to music, and I want to introduce you to some of the songs I like. Then, I would have got it.

To be perfectly honest, I prefer the East Asian way. (But at the same time, they need to learn the thesis-first approach because their SAT and AP exams will be assessed by an American.) The Asian way is subtle. It gives the receiver of the message some responsibility, making the argument a conversation that will lead to a common destination. And it gives the writer an out: If I had responded poorly to that yearbook message, the girl could have easily responded, "Well, I never said I liked you!"

Thursday, February 07, 2013


Sitting around a Quad Dining Hall table, a group of us were discussing life and the meaning of Life of Pi. A couple of us had read the book; some of us had seen the movie; a few had done neither. So first, a quick summary: Pi tells the story of a boy’s journey to safety on a lifeboat. In the narrative, he is accompanied by a tiger, and the two coexist and ultimately help each other make it back to civilization. The bulk of the action is just the two of them, finding ways to eat and sleep and overcome storms and boredom. When the boat lands on land, the tiger scampers off without a backwards glance and the boy is saved. The end. But then, he reveals that there is another version of the story, and in a few sentences, he shatters the magic: there were no animals on the boat, just humans who killed each other. Perhaps the tiger is symbolic of his own animal instincts needed to survive. But all that is unresolved. As is: which is the true story? Animals or no animals? He doesn’t say, although we all know it must be the second one. On the other hand, the question he asks his interviewer (and us) is, Which story do you prefer? Tiger or no tiger? Easy: We prefer the story about the tiger. And this is where it gets confusing. He says, “And so it goes with God.” 

 So "what" goes with God? 

Does the fact that we prefer the story about the animals prove that God exists, or that God doesn’t exist? There are two stories. In one, everything is explained – through storytelling, mythology, fiction, lessons, a supreme being that created everything. In the second – cold, hard facts. No miracles, no magic, no real explanation for anything that happens. Just humans who kill each other senselessly. We prefer the first one, the one about the animals. I asked the table: What’s the message? Is there a God or not? Most quickly lined up: the religious kids said yes, and the skeptics said no. One girl, just to be different, said, “I don’t know.” Not acceptable, I said, you must choose one or the other. So she chose, although I later realized that, initially, she had been correct. The actual answer to the question of God’s existence is a simple “I don’t know.” We will not know – in the scientific way of knowing – the answer until we die. Until then, it comes down to belief (which is a very different way of “knowing” something). So, the question was incorrect. The correct question is, Do you believe in God? This question must have an answer. The answer might be, “Yes, absolutely.” Or, “I don’t know if there is a God, but I believe there must be.” Or simply, “No, I don’t believe.” 

 I suppose most people probably prefer the story of the boy surviving with the tiger. And this is why most probably prefer the stories in their holy books. Without those stories and lessons, what is life? A man walks into a school and kills children. A dictator engineers a holocaust. A society turns its back on the poor. People drop dead too soon. All of it cold, hard, and true. All meaningless. We are born, we live a while, we die. Just like every other living thing. And we’re replaced by the next generation, which is more sophisticated and technologically advanced and knowledgeable but, ultimately, cursed to repeat the same mistakes, cursed to repeat the same vicious cycle of biology: birth, life, death. Is there meaning behind any of it? Maybe, maybe not. We can’t know if there is or isn’t, but we can prefer to believe there is.