Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Teaching and Contrasting Cultures using “Dust in the Wind”, “Winds of Change” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” Part 1

By Kevin A. Stoda, international educator in Taiwan

Over a three week period, I introduced three different songs using the theme of “wind” to my (English) listening class students in the local junior high school. I did this in order to help my students to comprehend how much culture a song can embed in it. I also wanted the students to compare and contrast their own culture to the symbols or metaphors used in the songs. For this teaching project, I chose “wind” because wind metaphors are common in the Chinese cosmology of elements: Earth, wind, fire, water, and metal. I also wished to look at earth and the song “Dust in the Wind”, of course, makes that more easily comprehensxible.
Moreover, I had shared with the students prior to this that I was raised (a good portion of my life) in the state of Kansas, and I am old enough to have been in high school as the state’s most famous rock band, named Kansas, recorded and made globally famous the song, “Dust in the Wind.”
Kansas is also, naturally, famous for its wind.
Just think of Dorothy’s tornado, which took her to OZ in one of Frank Baum’s classic novel.
In addition, last summer several of my junior high school students had read an abridged version of the Wizard of Oz and, of course, had then seen the classic movie—i.e. as part of a voluntary summer English course here on Beigan Island (Taiwan).
“The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum, tells the story of Dorothy, who gets caught in a Kansas tornado and lands in the imaginary land of Oz.” I could also add, “This story has been dramatized on stage …[ as well as in] film.”
Naturally, back in the 1930s, before Kansas had planted so many more trees, Kansas winds were busy blowing dust. The “Dustbowl Days” are just as much a part of Kansas history memory as are the buffalo and Native American way of life, which the Kansas farmers and ranchers had supplanted two to three generations earlier.
Naturally, it is a dust-bowl-era tornado, which one witnesses in the black-and-white portion of the classic, Wizard of Oz, movie.
Interestingly, the very island where I now live and teach is also covered with trees today, however, like Kansas of the 1930s, 70 years ago or more, the island of Beigan was similarly barren of such large wooden vegetation
The “great treeing of Kansas” began with the Dustbowl years—when farmers in Kansas and elsewhere stopped planting from fence-row-to-fence-row and planted brush and trees instead as protective barriers against the winds of Kansas. With the same earnestness, Martial-Law-controlled Beigan Islanders and the Taiwanese military planted many trees in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s to help provide much more protective cover for themselves and their military equipment.

Western cosmology basically claims that “man is dust” and “to dust he shall return”, i.e. as shared at most all funerals. This belief stems from the advancement of three Ibrahimic (Abrahamic) faiths arriving in the West from the (near) Middle East . These faiths had then came to be dominate in Europe , North Africa and later in the Americas over two millennia. In the Abrahamic tale of Adam, God creates man out of clay. He then breathes into him “the breath of life”.
In this western tale of creation of humans, two elements-- air and earth--dominate.
Likewise in some of the Chinese cosmologies—of which there are many—humans and other creatures are created by the hands of Nuwa. According to several traditions, “Nuwa is the goddess who separated the heaven from the Earth, creating the Divine Land (China). She is the original ancestor of the Chinese nation. According to [another] legend, Nuwa was also the younger sister of Emperor Fuxi (said to have lived during the third millennium BC) and she herself was an empress.”
Nuwa, who is also named Mixi, “loved peace and delighted in making things. She moulded figures from the yellow earth and gave them life and the ability to bear children: this is how humanity was created.” according ot some Chinese lore, this first happened on the 7th day of Nuwa’s journey on the earth: “On the seventh day, she bent down and took up a handful of yellow clay, mixed it with water and molded a figure in her likeness. As she worked, the figure came alive - the first human being. Nüwa was pleased with her creation and went on making more figures of both men and women.”
As noted above, the traditional five elements in Chinese cosmology included both water and earth. So, the main difference between the creation of man in the West and in East Asia have to do with geography and climate. Namely, the Western religions found their birth in desert or arid regions, where wind (air in movemnt) itself is an important element that is observed to carve mountains, while in rainier East Asia mountains are more often washed away by the combination of water and wind. Both mythologies, however, have clay, dust, earth , or mud as the core element to creating human beings.

As I began to prepare for my lessons on the common theme or metaphor of “wind” , I emphasized to my junior high class that symbols and metaphors in one culture may not be easily understood if (1) you are not of that culture and if (2) no one explains the metaphor or symbolism to you. I told the class that this song, “Dust in the Wind” from my home state of Kansas, would be a good example of this.
First, I asked the class what they thought the term “dust” meant in the title of the song and whether they actually understood how fundamental a concept it was to an English speaker from a Western Land. They showed no recognition of the important imagery of either the word “dust” (or dirt) or of the “wind” at that point. Then I wrote the word “Creation” on the board and explained that all the major Western religions believe that man comes from dust (earth or clay). The class still appeared mystified—unable to recall from the corners--or recesses--of their minds the aforementioned-myth of man’s creation by the goddess Nuwa.
I quickly explained that the creation story of man from dust or clay was known pretty well--almost universally--by all Westerners: I am referring to the story of God making man from earth and then breathing (breath of air or) life into him. I then asked the class if they could recall a similar myth in Chinese beliefs on the creation of humans. I explained also that the song, “Dust in the Wind”, was a standard karaoke tune—sung all over the world. Finally, I reemphasized my point that the song. “Dust in the Wind”, originated in Kansas where the imagery of dust and wind comes easily with memories or experiences with changing weather and tornadoes. Moreover, I explained, the ever-changing weather in a place like Kansas (where there are no mountains blocking wind from the four corners) likely has influenced people there to be more interested in religion or God in general—than in places where weather is much more predictable.

I then asked the students to listen to the song of “Dust in the Wind” on a CD as a cloze listening exercise. I handed out the papers and told the students not to look at the back-side because the answers to the cloze activity were written on the back—along with a translation in Chinese[1] , which I had found on the internet. ( For those not in education, “cloze tests” or activities are basically what we called “ fill-in-blank” tests or exercises when I was a kid.)
The students were permitted to listen to the cloze st of lyrics of “Dust in the Wind” three times and then were allowed to turn the hand-out over to check their answerrs in English. When they had finished checking their answers, I asked the class to read carefully the Chinese translation to the text. After doing so, I then asked the class whether the translation was similar to the text.

After reflection, the class agreed that the translation was fairly accurate or faithful to the original text. Then I noted—as I had in my introduction—that if one would say in the passing, “In the end, it’s all dust in the wind anyways”, most people would say that is to be interpreted as “in the end, it all doesn’t matter.” Alternatively, “we are dust, and to dust we shall return”.
For example, here is one very popular on-line interpretation of the meaning of “Dust in th Wind”: The interpreter explains, “This song is a reminder that we are mortal and we are very very small. ultimately everything we do in life will be lost and forgotten in history. This does not make me uncomfortable, rather it shows me that my problems are minuscule and should not be blown out of proportion. after all, if I am so small, than my problems must be even smaller. and if you fail, oh well, its gonna be forgotten in time anyway. give it your best shot, you only live once.”

Finally, I asked my students whether—by looking alone at the Chinese translation of the song—whether one would have come up with a similar interpretation of what “dust” and “wind” mean in the Kansas classic. The entire class of students shook their heads. The answer was clear. They, as East Asian peoples, needed to be explicitly taught what the symbols were in the West and why they are important. Otherwise, even if the translation is accurate the meaning is not evident.

In summary, the explicit teaching of culture (or cultural elements or cultural symbolism) is something that has been historicallly under-rated in recent pushes to “internationalize” in Asia, i.e. through foreign language education. Conversely, in the USA—where there has been a backlash against multiculturai education in recent decades—there has been opposition to the idea of explicitly teaching about differences, similarities, and making comparisons about and among cultures. Quite obviously, this is a no-go in the globalized societies we live in. It is certainly a no-go in foreign language education, where culture is expected to be part of the curriculum. [2]

To be continued: In Part 2, my class later looked at “WINDS OF CHANGE” by the Scorpions.

[1] http://blog.sina.com.tw/bodyheat/article.php?pbgid=8472&entryid=227777
Dust In The Wind
(戀戀風塵) Kansas肯薩斯合唱團
I close my eyes
Only for a moment and the moment's gone
All my dreams
Pass before my eyes in curiosity
Dust in the wind
All they are is dust in the wind

Same old song
Just a drop of water in an endless sea
All we do Crumbles to the ground
though we refuse to see
Dust in the wind
All we are dust in the wind

Don't hang on
Nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky
It slips away
All your money won't another minute buy
Dust in the wind
All we are is dust in the wind
Dust in the wind
Everything is dust in the wind 我閉上雙眼



[2] Most interestingly for me is the fact that in a high-context culture, like Taiwan, China, or Japan, this need to explicitly teach cultural symbols—beyond the teaching of a few national holidays—is not obvious. Educators who understand that East Asian cultures are high-context cultures know that the learning of “high context” nuances are only taught indirectly over time ourside of the classroom, but in school, these cultural elements are also taught explicitly. For example, Chinese moral and cultural education are taught with regular textbooks here in Taiwan.

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