Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Home On The Range

The other day I was clicking around in a cool website, Sinosplice, and discovered a compendium of Chinese blogs. I've only begun to check these out. It's a long list. Some are published outside of China, some are by Chinese writing in English, but the majority are personal accounts by foreign expats living in the PRC. I came across one, "Cat In China," written by a young woman about her year teaching in a small Hunan city. I was struck by several things. Out in the provinces, life for a foreign teacher was something I could understand, more than twenty years distant from my own experiences in Beijing. The stares, the isolation, the poor facilities and unfathomable bureaucracy...the lack of decent coffee! The lack of much of anything familiar. You go to Beijing these days, and it's a big city, with fancy Hong Kong shopping malls, just about any Western product you'd care to lay your hands on, good wine, and Starbucks. Foreigners don't attract much attention at all (well, even in '79, Beijingers affected a more blasé attitude than you'd see elsewhere in China), and a huge chunk of northwestern Beijing has become a "Korea Town," with Korean restaurants, shops and signage. Beijing is becoming an international city. In the last four trips I've taken there, I think I was only called a "laowai" once, which has to be some kind of record.

But still. Here was Cat in China, out in the provinces, with only a small group of foreign teachers like herself in town. And from that isolated place, she's able to publish a blog, to communicate to the outside world, to link up with other expats like herself in China, to talk to friends and family about her life. It was so different twenty years ago. For one thing, there were hardly any foreigners in China at all - Westerners, I mean. We only met each other face to face. We had no way of talking to each other, or to our family and friends back home. There wasn't any email. Phone calls were expensive. Letters took a couple of weeks to arrive. Yeah, I know. "When I was in China, we had to send our letters by clipper ship!"

But we were truly isolated. And for the only time in my life, I was in a place where I saw nothing in the environment that reflected my culture. No advertisements. No American products. No newspapers, books or television shows. This was, I will admit, somewhat liberating. Lacking external reinforcement, my mind was free to spin bizarre and Byzantine interpretations of the culture I'd come from, which I think were nonetheless fairly accurate.

Another thing that even folks like Cat In China in the provinces have, that we didn't have back when, is access to American media. Pirated DVDs are ubiquitous in China; you can watch just about anything, even things that are officially censored. Boxed sets of "Friends," for example. A Chinese film called "Devils at my Door-Step," a prize-winner in the Berlin Film Festival that was banned in China, was nonetheless openly displayed in Beijing DVD stores.

When I was in China, any kind of Western media was pretty much unavailable. Except for the film, "Sound of Music." Everybody had or had seen a VHS of "Sound of Music." Chinese versions of "Do-Re-Mi" were played on trains' loudspeakers. As was "Home On The Range," for some reason. The popularity of "Sound of Music" in China was a little ironic on a personal level. I had that film committed to memory, mainly because I thought Christopher Plummer was hot, in a dark, twisted, perverse kind of way. I could quote passages of dialog verbatim, and I knew all of the songs. You want "Do-Re-Mi"? I'll give ya "Do-Re-Mi," and a chorus of "Edelweiss" if you're not careful...

In China, you are, after all, expected to sing. To entertain. First because you are the token foreigner, and second because this is what everyone used to do in a culture that didn't have a lot of mass media entertainment. This is what people did when they had to entertain themselves, and in China, the tradition remains today. People still sing when they are gathered together to celebrate.

As a Model Representative of the United Federation of Planets, er, I mean, the United States of America, Paul and I were frequently called upon to sing "typical American music." The only song the two of us could come up with that we both knew was the Beatles' "Rocky Raccoon," and we sang that song all across China. Years later, in Shanghai in 1993, I made several good friends because I was the only Westerner willing to stand up and sing in a karaoke bar at a party during the first Shanghai International Film Festival. By then I'd been playing in rock bands for a number of years, and it wasn't much of a stretch. But those endless choruses of "Rocky Raccoon" were what got me started...

While in Beijing in 1979, I witnessed the premiere of the first American television show broadcast in the PRC - "The Man From Atlantis." In case you missed it, "The Man From Atlantis" featured a pre-Dallas Patrick Duffy as an amnesiac in a Speedo who can breath underwater and swims kind of like Flipper, and he washes up on a San Diego beach and is immediately exploited by Secret Government types. Being from San Diego myself, I found it decidedly odd, seeing Patrick Duffy wandering around San Diego on a TV in a hotel lobby in Beijing, watching several dozen hotel workers watching the television as a Jack in the box Drive-through clown asks Patrick Duffy what he wants, in Chinese. The next day my students asked me if we had many such robots in America.

China had been so isolated from any kind of Western media, and now, post-Cultural Revolution, as China began to "open" to the West, some people were anxious to sample what they'd been missing. While on a tour of the Beijing Film Studio and its associated college, I struck up a conversation with some older students, who asked me if I could get them an American movie to view. I'll try, I said. I somehow found out that the New Zealand Embassy got a supply of films, which they showed in their Expat Club in the Embassy district. The film they had at that moment was "Network" - you know, Peter Finch playing Howard Beale, "the mad prophet of the airwaves"? As I recall, it was a real hassle to get ahold of that film, lots of phone calls and conditions. And then, once I did, the Film School began having second thoughts. It might not be "convenient" to screen the film, I was told. I was kind of pissed. I'd gone to a lot of trouble to get my hands on that film. Finally, a compromise was reached. The school officials decided to limit the themselves. Cadres only.

Well, I wasn't crazy about it, but what could I do? I and the film arrived, and we screened it in a campus auditorium.

The auditorium was almost completely full, with mostly middle-aged men in Mao suits and leather shoes. Could there be that many officials working here, I wondered, or had they spread the word to their comrades in other locations?

Thing is, I'd forgotten a lot of details about "Network." Like, the sex scene with Faye Dunaway and William Holden. China at the time took a very dim view of any kind of depictions of sexuality, and here was Faye Dunaway on top of Bill Holden, screaming in ecstasy about ratings. Sitting in the back of the auditorium, I started getting really nervous. The officials just sat there silently, watching the screen, mute and still. Then the part with the Black revolutionary came on, you know, the one who sells her soul to the network to get the "Mao Zedong Hour" on the air, the reality show that features terrorist action of the week?

Oh god. I am so in trouble, I thought. I'm gonna get arrested. Thrown out of the country. Struggled against, at the very least.

I was so embarrassed.

But nothing happened. Nobody said a word. And nowadays, if you walk through Beijing, you'll hear cellphones playing "The Simpsons."


Anonymous said...

Great story!!!

Other Lisa said...

Thank you, anonymous - drop by any time!