Saturday, February 04, 2006

They Live

By Skald

One of the best benefits of living abroad was that I did not understand the language. In particular, I could not read Japanese or Thai.

I love travel and Im a passionate language teacher. And yet, I have never been able to muster the motivation to learn a foreign language. In both Japan and Thailand, I learned just enough to get around. Once I could navigate markets, taxis, and other everyday encounters... all motivation to learn the language vanished.

Ive contemplated this phenomenon often. As a language teacher (English, of course), I feel a certain "obligation" to learn another language. Im certainly smart enough to do so. I picked up survival Japanese quite quickly, for example. So whats the problem?

Well, there isnt one. Ive come to realize that deep down, I dont want to be fluent in these languages. Why not? Because a great deal of mental peace comes with not understanding the predominant language where you live. Sitting in a coffee shop in Thailand, I found it easy to concentrate-- even when surrounded by talking Thais. But in America, one loud person will grate on my nerves and distract me.... I just can't tune out what they are saying.

Another benefit: I can't understand, and am therefore uneffected, by local marketing. The billboards are there, but I cant read them. The radio commercials seem just as banal, but I dont understand them. And so, though surrounded by blaring marketing messages.... and chattering small talk... I move in relative mental peace.

This is not so much the case here in SF. Try as I might, I cant avoid the damn marketing messages. They are everywhere. I dont watch TV... but ads are plastered on walls, on billboards, on taxis, on T-Shirts, on the sides of buses. I can read and understand every one of them.

The worst jolt for me, upon returning to the US, was this assault on my mental tranquility. My first week back I took a ride with my friend in his car. Automatically, he flipped on the radio. For the next hour I was assaulted by tired oldies and relentlessly smirky ads. I became jittery and agitated. I asked him to turn it down, but he seemed annoyed. I tried to think, or just quietly observe the landscape,.... but I couldnt get the damn radio out of my head.

There are people, MANY of them, who live most of their day like this. They wake up and read the newspaper over breakfast. They get in the car and immediately turn on the radio. When they arrive at work, they've got a radio there too. Its kept on during the entire work day. They then drive home with the radio blaring yet again. After munching a bit of food, they turn on the TV.

At the gym, you seem them with headphones in their ears. You get the feeling they are terrified of being quietly alone with their thoughts for even one minute.

Which brings to mind the fantastic B-movie by John Carpenter, "They Live". If you havent seen it, RENT IT. I think it was made in the 80s (or early 90s). The acting is cheesy, the budget is low, but the theme of the movie is dead-on. Its a great spoof (and criticism) of the way we are mentally conditioned by marketing and media. As an extra bonus, it stars "Rowdy Roddy Piper", a former professional wrestler (of the WWF type)-- and has one of the greatest (and most ridiculous) fight scenes on film (how many times can a man get kicked in the balls and still function?) !!!!

The movie is ridiculous and very tongue-in-cheek, but subtract the sci-fi elements and you've got a pretty accurate critique of our mental landscape.

After watching the film, try playing this game in your home town: whenever you see a piece of marketing (or hear one), try to decipher its central message (other than, obviously, "buy this"). Think, what exactly is this saying.... pay particular attention to the images used on TV ads or on billboards. Ive found the following messages to be most common: "You can fuck lots of women if you buy the right stuff", "You will be cool if you buy the right stuff", "Never tolerate discomfort, buy the right stuff to prevent it", "Be admired-- buy the right stuff", "The world is scary and full of danger, buy the right stuff and protect yourself", "Buy the right stuff and become powerful",.... and finally (per Fight Club)... "You are the money in your bank, the car you drive, the clothes you wear, the products you use... you have no internal worth separate from these things... you will be judged solely on these criteria".

If you think these messages don't effect you, you're kidding yourself.


Jim said...


You are on a roll lately and it so good to read your stuff. I find myself nodding my head as I read. Please keep it up as I check in everyday to read. Fascinating writing!!!

Plark said...

Ditto to that.

I find those first few moment back in an Englsih speaking country the worst. I can't filter out any talk or chat.

But those are very apt observations Aj.

Much agreed.

Anonymous said...

I once had a temp job at a cheesecake bakery. All of the workers were Asian immigrant ladies. At lunchtime, the sight & sound of their voices laughing, giggling & joking in their native languages was beautiful! I would close my eyes & realize I was in paradise!.. .. .. Toledo Bogeymann, Britt,Ia.

Ryan Garou said...

Not only is They Live a fantastic movie, it added the phrase "Get set to sweat!" to my vernacular