Not the actual, flesh-and-blood types, mind you. My co-workers are pretty awesome, and the kids are a variegated grab-bag, like all groups of children are. No, I refer to the menace that faces all elementary ESL educators in Korea: the characters. In an effort to be distractingly engaging, multi-cultural, and efficient in its deliverance of the Englishee, various companies and government agencies designed various cartoon characters to edutain the Korean children. Like all positively intentioned educational materials directed towards children that are shaped by the foggy, institutional, elusive desire to also be cool, it is a galling, obnoxious mess. The horrible, monstrous results (as well as their poor, pitiful live-action avatars) are contained within.
Julie – arrogant, self-absorbed, and bushy-haired. She has a high-pitched, nasally sort of whine like something you would get when blowing hot air through a small, irritating pipe. She hectors the other characters. She belittles them. She acts aloof and full of herself. She is a consummate nag, a 1950’s sitcom housewife, as condescending and castigating as she is unpleasant. Also, dig what they do to the poor child-actor’s hair to try to approximate the yellow abomination on the cartoon’s head. You can also see Zeeto in the above shot, the Great Gazoo of this lot, who plays concerts and hovers menacingly above ground. I came into the school year half-way into the semester, and thus I am ignorant of his origin story, but why do these children all see a mysterious green mutant rabbit? Are they having a shared psychotic break? Does this textbook actually take place in a mental institution, in which case every video clip suddenly becomes a dark, repressive take on mental disorder, like Sylvia Plath co-wrote the entire series under Korean pseudoynyms?
Will she get SAG points back in the U.S. for this? Pity the child actors.
Let’s talk about hog-faced young Tony, the obsequious blond toad. His voice issues as though from buried deep within someone else’s buttocks, where his mouth must logically be, as he spends much of his time sucking up. Why they instructed both his and Julie’s voice actors to sound as though they had been main-lining helium and dropping growth-stalling hormones is beyond me, but it leads to nothing good: only my own headaches, and dozens of my Korean students rightfully ridiculing his awful, blushing, cherub-by-way-of-Cartman face.
Here’s a still of Nameless Adult White Man. He doesn’t really have a character, per se, rather he is a looming, menacing presence. He is constantly lingering on the fringes, asking the child actors for directions, manning innumerable shops, and asking for careful repetition of English phrases. Do the children not recognize the danger? Why is he always there? Why does he appear in their lives again and again? Not to buy into stereotypes about foreigners here, but he is quite obviously a sexual predator. A proper educational textbook would identify him as such and tell you how best to scream for help.
Now, compared to her textbook kindred, Lisa is largely harmless. She has a pleasant family, she does her homework, her cartoon character is not offensively designed (see below). The only thing that bugs me is that they were obviously fairly loose with the casting, and thus hired someone who looks pretty Indian to play a black character. I get it, actors are not exactly chomping at the bit to get cast in Korean ESL videos, but it’s jarring to me every time. Not to the kids, though, as anybody not Korean generally blends into a weird, heterogeneous xenological goop of Waygook. But it bothers me, and isn’t that enough?
These characters are all regulars in the grade three and four texts and videos; the cast of the grade 5 and 6 years are mostly kept at bay by my co-teachers, who also hate the videos, and the students, who look upon them with the disdain of pubescents entering the Too Cool for Everything chrysalis of their childhood life cycle. This is probably a good thing, as untold horrors are surely contained within the depths of those CD-roms. The little experiences I have had were not positive. Most of my hate can be summed by the following picture:
There is nothing wrong with the character of Peter, per se. He is a nice kid. He is worldly. He likes music, obviously. He can use chopsticks very well. The problem, of course, is that the animators seemed to have adopted his visage from Civil War era America. Why is this monument is minstrelsy in an ESL textbook? I don’t know. I want to be happy that they bothered to include a black character at all, I really did, but yeeeesh.
The real fiend, other than the racism, is Nami. Now, I usually would never bag on someone with an accent or a heavy speech impediment, because speech language pathology is hard, and you can’t help your mother tongue’s phonemes. Everybody deserves their shot, even at voice acting, I suppose. My problem, of course, is that Nami sucks, and why the hell would you hire someone with this kind of voice to model properly pronounced English? Her speaking issues sound more like she has a dense field of mucous embedded in her sinuses, prohibiting her from producing crucial /th/ sounds, and she does not exhibit the regular stumbling blocks of Korean English learners, meaning they specifically went out and found a non-Korean English speaker with a terrible speaking voice to record. Further, these videos are usually the most jarring in terms of mix and recording, and thus certain lines are blasted enormously loud, others quiet, others cut-off mid syllable. Her errors in speech are made glaring, and whenever we are stuck showing one of the videos featuring her, I have to admonish the children to never, ever follow her example.
I see these people more often than I see the actual students. They are realer and more terrible than any other person, and their horrible, stiff, nasal line-readings are forever etched into my nightmares. Is there no better way to teach other languages than through demonic animations? As a child learning French, the only stupid character I had to deal with was damn Bonhomme, and at least he had the decency to only inflict his presence upon us during Winter Carnival, or whenever our French teacher ran out of ideas.