Asian Artists in America

So apparently BoA released an album in Japan in February, and I didn’t even notice. It’s been two years since her last studio album in Japan, and she’s planning to release an album in Korea later this year, which will be five years since her last album there. The reason that she’s been (relatively) “inactive”1 in Asia? She released an album in the States early last year.

She seems to have stretched herself quite thin, working in at least three countries. She collapsed after an awards show in Korea and was generally suffering poor health around 2006, if I remember correctly, because she was working too hard, promoting both “Girls On Top” and “Outgrow” at the same time.

How successful are these crossover attempts, though? When Hikki (宇多田光, utada hikaru) was about to crossover, back in 2004, she pointed out that there aren’t really any Asian artists in the U.S. Her first album, titled “Exodus,” was not the right album to crossover with, though. The melodies she used seemed like they wanted to be expanded instead of squeezed into one song together, in general; for example, “Kremlin Dusk” featured four lovely melodies, but consolidated into one song, the song felt less cohesive. She also used lyrics that were sometimes not what her fans were used to (many of the songs centered around sex) or not what fans of the American music industry might be used to (might I point out the lyric “I need someone who’s true, someone who does the laundry too”).

Her second crossover album (but not second studio album — she released an album, “Precious,” when she was just 15), titled “This Is The One,” released March 14, 2009 (three days before BoA’s album). It was much more well-suited for American audiences, featuring more R&B melodies and catchy hooks, although a few of the songs were still a little on the Hikki-is-still-trying-too-hard-to-stand-out-and-be-unique side of things. The lyrics were also more toned down, less explicit, but still had enough of the sex appeal that I think Hikki was trying to capture in her first album as a change from her Japanese albums written for her Japanese audience. She remarked, in an interview, that she was surprised that people really liked “Apple and Cinnamon” as much as they did; apparently many fans informed her that it was their favorite song off of the album.

Three days after the release of Hikki’s second crossover album, BoA’s first crossover album hit the market. It was not as heavily marketed as it could have been, but her fans generated a lot of interest and roped in many new fans in the U.S. (I actually showed one of the “Eat You Up” music videos to my lab partner who then became obsessed with it, and later he told me that he and some of his frat brothers watched the video on the order of fifty times in one night.) Her album was placed in the “dance” section at music stores when it hit the shelves, and that is definitely what it was: all of the songs had a pretty solid beat and would make pretty good dance music at a club or dance party. Her pronunciation was better than I expected, even in interviews (it’s easier to pronounce words correctly when singing in a foreign language than when speaking in a foreign language), but it’s unclear to me whether it was good enough to impress the American fans she was trying to woo.

(Personally, I think BoA is amazing. One, she’s a good singer. Two, she’s quite a good dancer. Her Japanese dance teachers, who are known for their strictness, have praised her talent and hard work, and the choreographers that have worked with her have expressed amazement at her dancing ability. Three, she’s fluent in Korean and Japanese, speaks conversational English, and has some understanding of Chinese. Four, she’s really hardworking and dedicated to her career.)

Interlude over: I should point out that Hikki has some sort of accent, although it is not Japanese. She is bilingual, having grown up in Tokyo and New York, but she overenunciates her English, which makes her sound non-native despite the fact that she is plenty fluent in English. Anyway, BoA’s album was fairly homogenous in its dance genre, and didn’t have the variety that her fans expected and wanted. Her Korean- and Japanese-language albums have ballads, upbeat dance songs, jazzy songs, R&B songs, etc, allowing her to showcase her singing ability. I think many fans were disappointed that she didn’t show more sides of herself on this album, and she really didn’t give herself a fair chance, marketing only one facet of her many talents.

I’m not sure whether American pop culture is quite ready to accept Asian culture just yet. Here, I feel the need to refer to Maurissa Tancharoen’s “Nobody’s Asian in the Movies”, but this brings us, perhaps, to a slightly different topic than the one I started out with, and it’s late, so I will take my leave and possibly continue this in a linguistic analysis next week.

1 For BoA, “inactive” means that she missed a year in releasing albums, seeing as she’s released a studio album in Korea once a year from 2000-2005, and a studio album in Japan once a year from 2002-2008.

F.I.R. – “北极圈” (North Pole) Translation

The lyrics to F.I.R.’s “北极圈” (pinyin: běi​ jí​ quān​; translation: “North Pole”) are mostly as follows, but that it gets repeated twice, and the second time, the second set of words in the brackets are used. I think there’s a third repeat, but only partial, as well.

A note for the translated section: implied words appear in [square brackets], while alternate interpretations or more poetical versions of the preceding word/phrase appear in [(both square brackets and parentheses)].

今天 寂寞感觉忽然又出现
浮现 过去梦中的画面
哭泣 因为不想伪装悲伤那一面
当你 头也不会离开北极圈

有谁能为我 捡起了伤痛
撒向了{海中,天空} 能重新再来过



Today the feeling of loneliness suddenly reappeared
The images from within past dreams came back
[I] cry, because [I] don’t want to fake that hurt aspect/face/side [of me/things]
But your head [(mind/thoughts)] will never leave the North Pole

Who can, for my sake, having picked up the pain
Fling/scatter [it] towards {the middle of the ocean, the sky}, to be able to start anew

I don’t want to hear excuses
I just want to walk away, alone
Leave [my] tears at the street corner
Still, I wish you would hear
Love becomes
Sheets and sheets of monotonous ice and snow
You don’t need to say anything more
Now I thoroughly understand it all

I don’t want to beg for anything
I just want don’t want to be bothered [(I just want to be left alone)]
Leave love at the street corner
Just as though you will never see it
Memories change
At the second [(at the moment)] an aurora appears
I begin to smile slightly
And after this [(from now on)], [I] will strive to get by very well

Thoughts on Language Learning (Part 1 of ?)

People have been mentioning learning Japanese by watching anime. Personally, I never really got into the whole anime/manga craze, but I did learn a lot of Japanese by listening to Japanese pop songs. How effective are these, actually, though?

JPop songs are certainly not an unreasonable place to pick up vocabulary. You listen to enough songs, look up enough translations, notice enough patterns, and you begin to get a feel for a not-small body of vocabulary as well as a little bit of grammar, if you think hard enough. Chinese pop songs, on the other hand, are a different matter: there are no tones to the words when sung, so trying to pick out vocabulary is kind of futile unless you look up lyrics on sites that have both the Chinese characters and their romanization (pinyin). For example, in a song by Jay Chou (周杰倫, zhōu jié lún) called “Shanghai 1943″ (上海一九四三, shàng hǎi yī jǐu sì sān), he uses the phrase 消失的 (xiāo shī de), which means “that which is lost.” Given that he is talking about time, it would not be unreasonable to mistake his lyrics for the phrase 小时的 (xiǎo shí de), which means “of the time when [I] was little,” because the spellings for the two phrases are exactly the same, although in spoken Mandarin, the two phrases have different tones to mark the difference between the two.

Anime/dramas, then: I admit that I don’t watch much anime, but it seems like it uses very stereotypical speech styles. For example, pretty much all the girls talk the same way, instead of having different speech styles that might reflect varying levels of tomboyishness among them (as I understand it). Dramas also seem to have this problem, although perhaps to a lesser degree? (I’m really not sure, myself.) However, anime/dramas do have the advantage of actually being spoken language as people would usually speak (although again, I feel that anime is more stereotypicalized, and people who are excited sound really excited).

I also noted that learning a language from a book or other standardized material, without a real, live, teacher, is somewhat difficult. Such books are written for general consumption (om nom nom?), but a good teacher will draw upon knowledge that the students already have. For example, in the Japanese-learners meetup this weekend, I gave examples in Spanish and in Chinese for the benefit of the people who knew something about either.

Learn Chinese!

There are two parts to this post: Firstly, I would like to advertise the Chinese conversation group that we’re starting, similar to the Japanese Learners group, but with some key differences. The two big issues considered were how we wanted to split our time between practicing listening/speaking and reading/writing and whether the group should/could be open to beginners. After an initial meeting to discuss these questions, we reached the following resolutions:

It seems more feasible / easier to practice listening/speaking than reading/writing, but combining the ideas of “wouldn’t it be nice to have a children’s book that helps with reading/writing” and “let’s write a manhua” (a.k.a. “manga” in Japanese or “manhwa” in Korean), we may devote parts of our sessions to discussion of writing a children’s book that helps with reading/writing. Otherwise, our conversations will probably be us telling stories or what happened last week, etc (basically, random conversation around whatever topics we think of).

I think we don’t want to exclude people, but given that we don’t seem to have any particular idea on how to teach Chinese, the solution we came up with is to have the group be open to anyone, but just not make any guarantees about how much you’ll get out of it. I would be up for teaching a 1-2hour-long introductory foundational session on useful things to know about Chinese (like pinyin, characters/radicals, possibly some basic grammar, etc).

Essentially, beginners are welcome, and I will present introductory material whenever needed, so if you’re interested in learning Chinese, you should blanche yourself onto zhongwen and vote in the scheduling poll. I strongly encourage interested people to join, and not to let current proficiency level scare you out of joining, because the group really does have speakers at varied levels, and not everyone grew up listening to Chinese or anything like that.

For the second part, I would like to append the words “with fortune cookies … NOT” to the title of the post. See, the other night, a group of us went to dinner and received the following fortunes:

Old age is always 20 years older than you are.


All that we are is the result of what we have thought.

On the backs of these fortunes, though, the fortune cookies attempted to teach us Chinese. One fortune cookie claimed that “驚(jīng)喜(xǐ)” means “Surprise” and “猕(mí)猴(hóu)桃(táo)” means “Gooseberry.” Well, they are at least somewhat “right,” but they’re also somewhat wrong. The first phrase contains the word “喜” which is used in such expressions as 恭喜发 (the popularized pronunciation, “gung hay fat choy,” is Cantonese, and some of you may recognize that it is used around Chinese New Year), 喜欢 (meaning “to like”), etc. Basically, the word involves some expression of liking/happiness, and “surprise” in English doesn’t necessarily involve that. Thus, a better translation might be “pleasantly surprising.” The second phrase actually refers to Actinidia deliciosa (common name kiwifruit, usually shortened to “kiwi”), which is apparently also known as Chinese gooseberry. Well, gooseberries (Ribes uva-crispa) and Chinese gooseberries are not the same thing. And I don’t know about you, but when I see “gooseberry” on a “Chinese” fortune cookie, I don’t immediately leap to the conclusion that I should be thinking about Chinese gooseberries. It makes me want to call up the company that makes these fortune cookies and tell them, “y’all’re right, but only in your own little world in your own little minds.” Honestly, neither of these translations actually involves any long and detailed background on the etymology of the characters/words. How hard can it be to get it right?

Big Bads in Buffy and Why We Love Them

One of the amazing things about Joss Whedon is the three-dimensionality of all of his characters. They are fairly consistent, multi-faceted, and most all of them can be related to by some subset of viewers. In particular, the Big Bads have certainly been more interesting than most Big Bads on other shows, in my experience. First off, then, a list of the Big Bads (as seen at the end of the season seven premiere):
Season 1: The Master
Season 2: Drusilla (Angelus/Spike)
Season 3: The Mayor (Faith)
Season 4: Adam (The Initiative)
Season 5: Glory
Season 6: Warren Mears (The Trio)
Season 7: The First (Caleb)

The Master, I will admit, doesn’t seem to have much going for him in terms of relateability. He’s gross-looking (fruit-punch mouth!), evil, and generally unlikeable. But let’s keep in mind that season one was a very straightforward period of Buffy, when there was little-to-no story arc that continued between episodes, and many issues were black-and-white. Joss hadn’t yet really started to explore all of the gray issues that don’t have clear good-vs-evil or right-or-wrong dichotomies.

Drusilla, Spike, and Angelus, on the other hand, are definitely much more interesting. The relationship that Drusilla and Angel have makes them just like any other couple, which obviously makes them accessible to fans. They’re crazy in love (and a little crazy, to boot), and their story is just like any other love story, similar to Bonnie and Clyde. Angelus/Angel, of course, are sympathetic characters, because we’ve gotten to know Angel and we know how much Angel cares for Buffy, while Angelus’ instinct to destroy that which was most dear to Angel is also a very common reaction; people try to hide their weaknesses from the world, and what better way to do that than by wiping all traces of those weaknesses from existence? After all, destroying one’s perceived weaknesses makes one stronger, right?

The Mayor and Faith also had a close relationship. Sure, the Mayor’s evil, no question, but he cared for Faith like no one else did. He left the magic gizmo for her, gave her an apartment, interrupted his all-important dark ritual because she was in trouble, etc. She was the only one he lost his temper over. She trusted him, and he was her father figure. The father-daughter relationship, or more generally, parent-child relationship, is one that people can definitely relate to.

Adam is literally a conglomerate constructed from many different sources. His naivete appeals to our sense of curiosity, and part of us wishes that we could go around taking part interesting things just to learn about them, like he does. However amoral he is, we remember that he is, in a way, a product of the Initiative, and a representation of all of their victims (the demons and people sacrificed to create him). He is only doing what he was programmed to do, as a lost child of sorts; he considered Maggie to be his mother, and when she died and he didn’t have anyone to guide him, he turned the wrong way. He was supposed to be a prodigy, and with the right guidance, he could’ve been that. I guess, in the end, he’s fairly monstrous and not so sympathetic, but he does have the naivete of a lost child, and his unfortunate circumstances are something to pity him for. And for Frankenstein fans, Adam is awesome, of course.

Glory had the girly thing going for her, and who doesn’t love a little bit of crazy? More seriously, though, all she wants is to go home (never mind if she unleashes hell on Earth in the process). She also has her counterpart, Ben, who is irrefutably human. They have some sort of odd relationship that I might call parent-child-like, because he is, in a sense, her guardian. And she is, of course, the childish bitch who absolutely needs to get her way lest she throw a fit and eat some brains.

Warren, Jonathan, and Tucker’s brother (er, I mean, Andrew ^_~): they definitely call out to the geeky, nerdy misfits in us. Jonathan had his earlier spotlights in “Earshot” and “Superstar,” while Warren had a spotlight in “I Was Made To Love You,” and we got to know Andrew throughout season seven. Seeing their paths to or from wrongdoing really allowed us to empathize with them. All they wanted, after all, was some recognition of their awesomeness as geeks/nerds. We always knew, though, that they were out of their depth as bad guys, which made them all the more pitiful. Warren was the power-hungry one, Jonathan was the one who just wanted to fit in, and Andrew was the poor kid who went along with whomever he thought was cool (in this case, Warren). Warren’s (near-)death and his terror leading up to that moment almost make you feel sorry for him (although not quite, perhaps), Jonathan’s continued abuse that he puts up with definitely causes “aww” moments, and Andrew’s story in season seven, especially in “Storyteller,”  shows what a scared little kid he really is on the inside, which is something he shares with so many of us.

(A short mention of Dark Willow: she just lost her love. Heartbreak, rage, desperation, non-understanding of why, sense of being lost…and honestly, who can resist yellow-crayon-breaky Willow?)

Finally, we’ve arrived at The First. The First is, first of all, awesome. Literally. How can anyone imagine such a primordial source of evil? Seeing The First take Buffy’s form, though, really brings out the similarities between the two, which gives The First some qualities that resonate with viewers. And Caleb…he’s the crazy, but the kind that we’re familiar with: a super-conservative radical.

In the end, though, I’m not sure that I can do the Big Bads justice with this post. Partly because I feel like more thought could be put into it, but more because you have to watch the episodes to understand the little quirks that make them special to us. Unfortunately, I would never actively push people to watch Buffy/Angel, because the time consumed is simply too great of a commitment to make. I will merely continue to passively comment on this-or-that aspect of buffyverse, and leave the decision to you….

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