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!"