Samuel and Jimi Hendrix

One of the best things about teaching ESL is that you meet awesome students. You can meet impressive, precocious youngsters who correct your grammar or wild, excitable hooligans that are incapable of sitting still. You can meet demure, sweet kids who draw you cute pictures or give you their last piece of candy. You can meet the kindergarten munchkins who’ll tell you they love you every day. You can also meet a kid like Samuel.

I’ve known Samuel for just about two years now. On his first day in kindergarten last year, he asked me if he could sing a song. I thought he’d stand up and sing “The wheels on the bus go round and round” or something juvenile and boring. He confidently strutted to the front of the room next to me and sang a popular K-Pop song called “Itaewon Freedom” complete with the dance moves! He sang until he forgot the words. The shy young 5-year olds sat smiling with jaws agape and clapped. My Korean co-teacher, Elly, laughed the whole time. I knew I found an extraordinary little soul. He didn’t know (or maybe didn’t care) what peer judgment was, or embarrassment, or being cool. He just knew he wanted to sing, that’s it. Throughout that year, we’d let him sing and dance for new teachers, visiting parents, our hard-nosed principal and basically, he’d sing even if we didn’t ask him to. Anyone who saw my Facebook page during the “Gangnam Style” craze of 2012 summer remembers Samuel. He was wearing the backwards hat in my video of the kids playing conga drums to the song on our field trip to the local funny farm.

He’s a natural entertainer. I heard one story where, on another field trip, he went up to some typically shy high school girls for no reason and sang a song to them. They blushed and covered their mouths like they were talking to some cute English-speaking foreigner. Another day, our attractive young female intern was putting some papers together for a parent newsletter. I happened to walk by the desk and Samuel was casually singing and dancing next to her, as if teaching her the moves. It was apparent he had been there awhile, for she wasn’t even paying attention anymore.

This brings us to last week. I called my pretty co-teacher a foxy lady (because she is the teacher of the room called “Foxy”) and she didn’t get it. I said, “You know, like the song, Foxy Lady…(nothing registered on her face)…The song by Jimi Hendrix…(still nothing)…You know Jimi Hendrix right?” I couldn’t believe it. Neither she, nor any of these six intelligent Korean women had ever heard his name let alone his style of psychedelic blues, radical behavior and flamboyant fashion. I thought he was a household name. (At least they knew Bob Dylan.) But it made me think maybe that’s why Asia and Asians are so dissimilar to Westerners. Entertainment seems to be America’s number one export and the only thing we do well lately. Their world of entertainment is so far removed from the West. I’m not familiar enough with it to explain. But I know their silly TV shows, overacted dramas and outlandish Friday night K-pop extravaganzas are incomparable to the unmatched quality of SNL’s comedy, The Simpsons’ writing, CSI’s production, or even Glee’s singing (if that’s your thing.) There’s a reason American TV and cinema is shown around the world. There’s a reason Western bands and singers can sell out arenas all around the world. There’s a reason why PSY was only a temporary global phenomenon. But there is NO reason why you should know his name but not Jimi Hendrix. The reason is unfortunately, inexplicable. If I have to explain it, you won’t understand. I’m trying not to be intolerant and biased. I know there is great music, TV, and cinema from the Asian world. Perhaps their culture values others traits more than musical creativity. Perhaps their culture doesn’t lend itself well to improvisation. Perhaps their culture is okay not having a U2, Beatles, or Jimi Hendrix to call their own. But, by the same token, where would the world be without Confucius or Lao Tzu? Would they be the Beat poets or the Bob Dylan of the modern age?

It’s hard to get across my feelings. Maybe you agree or disagree that the Western world is providing better music and movies that the Asian world. Maybe it’s a matter of economics, and Hollywood and big record companies have more money to throw into marketing; but what I do know is that when Samuel sings “We Will Rock You” by Queen, and does a decent Freddy Mercury impression, I’m more happy and more impressed than when he does the horse dance and sings about snotty girls who are overdressed and underfed wearing high heels south of the Han River in Seoul.

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