Friday, November 14, 2008

Movies, entertainment and culture

I have been watching Chinese movies lately and usually have a lot of questions afterwards. A lot of the themes dont make sense to me. I asked my roommate (picture above) if he has the same issues when he watches American movies or television. He says he has the same thing, he does not understand a lot of what Americans do on tv. I think he has learned 90% of what he knows about American culture from the televisions shows Friends and Desperate Housewives, his two favorites. When I asked him for some examples, here is what he said:

Su Ya Dan: In Friends, I dont understand why Monica's parents dont like her. They like her older brother, Ross, and not her. I dont understand this. Do most American families favor one child over the other?

Me: I dont think so. I think most families treat kids the same.

Su Ya Dan: Also, during Christmas can anything serve as a gift for someone else?

Me: Hmm, it depends. You usually ask the person what they want and then buy them that.

Su Ya Dan: One time in Friends, Joey got his girlfriend a pen as a gift for Christmas. Is this normal?

Me: (laughing) No this is not normal. You usually get them something they want, not a pen. This is a bad gift.

Su Ya Dan: So what do you give your friends as gifts.

Me: Well, I think guys often dont give gifts to their friends. Girls often do because they like gifts but guys dont.

Su Ya Dan: But in Friends, all of them gave gifts to each other, including Ross, Chandler and Joey.

Me: (laughing) oh really? Well, Friends is not real. I think most American men dont often give their friends christmas gifts. If they have a girlfriend, then you must, but not other friends. Any other questions?

Su Ya Dan: In America, when you move to another house, I dont understand why the neighbors give you presents. Is this true?

Me: Neighbors give you presents? I dont think neighbors give their new neighbors presents.

Su Ya Dan: In Desperate Housewives, some new neighbors moved into the neighborhood and the people gave them cakes and other things.

Me: Oh, well yeah. It is polite to give your new neighbors a cake, some cookies or a bottle of wine. You want to make them feel welcome, right? Do Chinese people not do this?

Su Ya Dan: No, we never give gifts to new neighbors. We might ask them to share a meal but not gifts.

Me: Traditionally, neighbors give new neighors some cake or something but presently, Americans move a lot so it is less common. I dont even know any of my neighbors.

I found this conversation to be very entertaining. Being in China, I have also realized how influential movies and television are in shaping the outside world's perceptions about America. Everyone in China watches American television and movies. It seems by far the most popular show is Friends. It is alwasy the first one they mention. They use it to learn English and the plots and humor are fairly easy to understand. Others are Desperate Housewives, Lost, Prison Break and Hero's. Prison Break is especially interesting because all young Chinese people talk about it as one of their favorite shows but I dont know anyone in America who watches it. Is it very popular there?

So I think American Hollywood has a much more profound world influence than I previously realized. They are responsible for shaping the way the rest of the world views American life. Im not so sure this is a good thing.

Cultural Lessons

Last night I watched a Chinese movie called Red Sorghum. This movie, directed by Zhang Yimou (the guy who directed the Olympic Opening and closing ceremonies), is very famous in China. It came out in the late 1980's and was one of the first Chinese internationally critically acclaimed films. But to me, and I would guess the vast majority of western audiences, it just did not make sense. I will give a brief synopsis.

SPOILER ALERT: The movie is set in the countryside in China during the 1930's. It opens with a young poor beatiful girl (the famous Gong Li) being carried in a sedan chair by some hired men to meet her new husband. She has just been sold to an old, rich leper who owns a wine plantation (every little girls dream, right?). Her father is very pleased because her marriage price was a large mule (what father would not be pleased?). On the way to meet her new leper husband, the entourage is attacked by a bandit who attempts to rob them and take Gong Li. But one of the hired workers attacks the bandit and takes back their stuff as well as Gong Li. As she gets back into her sedan chair, some romatic looks are exchanged between her and this hired worker. She arrives at the winery and this worker disappears, but he reappears later when she is coming back to the winery from her parents house. This hired worker decides to dress up as the previous bandit and kidnap Gong Li. After a brief chase he is successful and then reveals his indentity in the Sorghum field. Then he clears a spot in the field and they do the dirty. Later, the leper husband has been found to be mysteriously murdered (presumably by the hired worker) and Gong Li takes over the winery. The hired worker comes back, drunk as a skunk, and tells everyone very boisterously how he slept with Gong Li in the field and how she likes him so much. She is not very happy with this and the winery workers throw him out.

As the winery is finishing its first batch of wine of the season, the hired worker comes back again. He again appears drunk and it front of everyone begins urinating in all the brand new wine jugs. But no one does anything. Then he stands in front of Gong Li, staring at her for a long time, then without a word, picks her up over his shoulder and carries her out like a piece property. Gong Li does not say a word. The movie then fast forwards nine years where it is revealed that these liasions have produced a son.

The movie then shifts to the Japanese occupation in WWII. The Japanese force all the Chinese to do hard manual labor. The Japanese are very cruel and even force a skilled Chinese butcher to skin another Chinese person alive! The people then decide to rise up against the Japanese and join the Communist underground resistance. The hired worker, Gong Li and the rest of the people plan an ambush of Japanese troops with improvised liquer bombs. When it is carried out, it has marginal success but most of the Chinese die, including Gong Li. It ends with the hired worker and the son looking over the aftermath of the ambush in the Sorghum field.

After I finished I told my roommate that I really did not understand this movie. I hated the hired worker and did not understand why Gong Li liked him. He was constantly drunk, rude and treated Gong Li like he owned her. He told me that this was a Chinese traditional culture movie, so it is hard for a foreigner to understand. He told me he liked the hired worker, he was very "masculine", could protect Gong Li, and this is what traditional Chinese women wanted in their man. He said that things have definitely changed since this time but this "masculine" quality of Chinese men is still very important.

So I found this to be a very interesting lesson in traditional Chinese culture. I've found that Chinese movies are a good way to learn about China and its history. I will watch a movie and then ask some Chinese people about. They are usually excited that I have watched their films and I have found it to be a good learning experience.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Language Progress Update

I should also give an update on my language progress. Even though it doesnt feel like it, I have definitely made a lot of progress with my Chinese. I think I am at least at the survival level where I can accomplish the essential life requirements to get around in China. It is still definitely challenging, especially capturing the tones correctly. You can know how a word is spelled in pinyin but if you say it with the wrong tone it is a completely different word. So this aspect of my Chinese is what I want to improve the most.

I had one discouraging experience this past weekend when a few other students, my roommate and I went out to eat and then walked around a shopping area in Harbin. In one of the stores we were talking to the store people who were excited and surprised that we could speak Chinese. They brought up the American election, our economic crisis and other topics. I was adding little to the conversation but still able to follow what was being talked about. Then out of the blue, one of the ladies told my friend, "oh your chinese is very good." Then gestured to me and said, "Oh, and yours, not so good."

Ouch! First of all, I wanted to say, tell me something I dont know. And what am I supposed to say to that. I just said thank you in the most sarcastic way my Chinese was capable of. I talked to my roommate later about this and asked him isnt this kind of a rude thing to say to a complete stranger. He said that NE Chinese, women especially (his words), have a reputation to speak very zhishuai or frank. So dont be offended. Easier said then done I guess.

One thing that is hard about talking to Chinese people is the way they look at you when you are speaking Chinese. A lot of times they will look at you like you are either from another planet or will just laugh at you. The second one is the worst because it just makes you feel like an idiot. I know that this kind of body language is not on purpose, and Im sure Americans do the same to foreigners back in the states, but it can be discouraging.

My classes are still going pretty well, they are much more clear than they were in the beginning of the semester. One thing that has been interesting is the teaching methods because they are pretty much the same as I would expect back in the states. One thing different is that you actually have to spend a lot of time on your own studying, that is something that a lot of Americans are not used to. Teachers always tell you that you should be studying as much time on your own as you have class hours in a week, which of course no one really takes seriously. But here it is definitely true. Some days I probably spend much more time studying on my own than in the classroom.

I was expecting realy strict disciplinarians as teachers when I came to China, but they are all very nice and encouraging. Half of my teachers are still in their 20s so this makes class a little more interesting because it is more fun to talk to people closer to your own age. I do have one teacher that is a little different then the others and better fits the mold of what I was expecting before I came here. She just isnt really encouraging and I often get frustrated by her teaching style. She has a way of unintentionally (I hope) of making me feel stupid. For example last week we read this newspaper article and were answering true or false questions about the material:

Teacher: Dou Ning, do you think number 1 is dui bu dui (true or not true)

Dou Ning: Hmmm, dui

Teacher: Ohhhhhh (with a look of shock on her face), Dou Ning thinks dui (long pause). Liu Yu, Li Hua (my classmates) what do you think?

Li Hua, Liu Yu: Bu dui.

Teacher: So, Liu Yu and Li Hua both think bu dui. So Dou Ning, why do you think dui?

Dou Ning: Hmmmm (not having anything to say), because I think it is dui.

To me it comes off as, I just cannot believe you do not know the right answer. This is so easy and simple. Also, sometimes when one of us says something incorrectly she will ask the rest of us if we agree with what the person says. So we are forced to say something like, "I dont agree, what that person said was wrong." But who likes correcting your classmates (or being corrected by them)? Basically, Im not a huge fan of her style.

But I also think we as Americans are used to encouragement and be coddled more so than most other places in the world. For exmple, this teacher is really hard on our class because she really wants us to improve and thinks that this is the best way to do it. Anyone bad feelings on my part are just a result of differences in culture. And I can only imagine how frustrating it is on her end. If she were writing a blog it would probably twice as long as mine with frustrating stories.

A lot of times I feel like my ego and self esteem need more encouragement to keep me going strong. But again this probably comes from my American upbringing. Things are different here and I just have to get used to it. No other way around it.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

大连,青岛,北京的旅游--Trip to Dalian, Qingdao and Beijing

In the middle of October we had a week of Fall break after our Mid-term finals which gave me a chance to do a little traveling around NE China. Four other CET students and I traveled to Dalian, Qingdao and Beijing. It was a very interesting adventure and I learned a lot about how to travel around China. This will be a good experience for me during Christmas vacation when I have about two months in between terms.
So we hoped on train to Dalian a few hours after our exams were done set off for Dalian. Dalian is several hundred miles SW of Harbin and the train took about 10 hours of so. Dalian was not too exciting, not many cultural attractions or other things to do. We went to the city square (which was actually a circle), hiked up the local mountain, visited a park, etc. We only stayed for one night and it was definitely enough for me. Here are some pics:
This first picture is a KFC in Dalian, a very strange looking KFC at that. KFC (or kendiji, which literally means Kentucky) and McDonalds (maidanglao) are probably the most popular American restaurants in China. They taste pretty much the same as in America and are a good retreat when you just cannot handle China anymore. KFC and McDonalds compared to normal Chinese restaurants are a lot more expensive, about the same price as in America. Also at night and on weekends they are usually packed with young people; not really the same as in the States. This other picture is a child playing with pigeons in the public square.

One of the weird things I noticed when I first arrived in Dalian was that there were tons of brides all over the place. Several caravans of wedding entourages passed us as we were walking down one of the main streets of the city. If I had to guess I would say that a lot of people chose this day to get married because it was the 18th. 8 is the most lucky number in Chinese culture, not sure why. That is why the Olympics started on 8/8/08, an incredibly lucky day. On the other hand, 4 is the worst number because 4 (si) sounds the sames as the word for death (also si but a different tone). In one of our hotels, they did not have a 4th floor, similar to how some buildings dont have a 13th floor in America. Although this bride happens to be wearing the traditional white dress, we say many others in blue, green and red dresses, very interesting to see.
This other picture is on top of the largest hill in Dalian. When we hiked up there we saw they had this sweet slide all the way down. It was super fun! It felt like being in a bobsled and it went super fast. Id say it was probably the most fun thing we did the entire week.

At the bottom of the hill was a little amusement park that we walked through. I thought these giant bubbles on the water were very cool. I have never seen them in America. It would be really fun to be inside one and walk around a lake or something. The other picture is Luke banging a giant gong.
This picture of me on the right is inside an aquarium in Dalian. Apparently this is the largest underwater viewing tunnel in the world, but I think I would doubt that. All the attractions said they were the worlds greatest, biggest, tallest, etc. something.
After staying in Dalian for a night we bought a plane ticket through out hotel and flew to Qingdao the next day. I think arranging travel plans compared to the US is a lot more difficult, and not because of the language barrier. In the US, you can do everything online and pay using a credit card....very easy. But credit cards are still very rare in China so you have to make a lot of phone calls, visit places in person, etc. But it was not that big of a deal.
Qingdao was absolutely beautiful. It was a former German concession city back earlier last century and so is very western and modern. Also, the weather was very warm so it was nice to be able to wear just a short sleeve shirt for a change. Our hotel was a 5 star hotel and extremely nice. When we got into a taxi to the hotel from the airport, our taxi driver said about out hotel, "oh that place is very expensive, I know a cheaper one." He actually drove to some other hotel despite the fact that we told him what hotel we wanted to go to. This is very common in China. Chinese people always really going out of their way to help you in any way they can. I think it is very interesting but sometimes a little annoying.

Despite the fact that the hotel was 5 star it was actually pretty cheap. A nice room for two people with an ocean view cost about $30 a night per person, not too bad.
Buying sweet sunglasses at a market and visiting the local brewery.
At this brewery they had a "beer room." It appeared level but was really lopsided so it was easy to lose your balance. Here is Luke having some fun with it.
So after a few days in Qingdao we got on a train to Beijing. Beijing is obviously a must to see in China because there are just so many cultural attractions. We had three days so we decided to see the Olympic buildings, Summer Palace, Great Wall and Temple of Heaven. Beijing was a lot colder than Qingdao so we had to put the jackets and winter hats back on.
Here is the Birds Nest, the place where Usain Bolt took over Track and Field during the Olympics. This building was incredible. The architecture was unlike anything I had seen before. Even amidst the pollution, which is evident in the picture, it was quite a sight.
I put these two pictures of Randy and Katherine on here posing with other people because this was a very common occurence. It was very common for people to come up to us and ask to take a picture with them like we were a celebrities or something, especially Randy. My guess is Chinese people do not see a whole lot of black people so Randy was defintely popular. We kept calling him Kebi, the Chinese name for Kobe Bryant.
Being a foreigner in a place like Beijing is not uncommon because they are all over the place. But the places we went to had a lot of other Chinese people from all the country who dont see foreigners too often. So my guess is these people were the ones who were intrigued to see some non-Asian people.
Next we went to the Summer Palace, the centuries old summer getaway for China's Emperors. Western powers destroyed large portions of it on two different occassions, once in 1860 during the Opium War and in 1900 during the Boxer rebellion. This is something that still shapes a large part of China's cultural identity and outlook on the rest of world. It also an example of the progress it has made as a country over the last century. In the past, foreign powers could easily come in and do all sorts of damage which the Chinese were defenseless to stop. This is contrasted with today, where China is becoming a world power and seems to have a bright future.
Here is a license plate I saw in Beijing. Who would have thought?
Finally we made it to 长城(changcheng: the Great Wall). This was the highlight of the trip for me. I had seen another part of the Great wall in Dandong but it was not a major section. The one outside of Beijing is stunning, stretching as far as you can see and completely full of people. I can only imagine what it is like during the peak summer months.
Hiking the Great Wall, quite a thrill.
So that pretty much sums up the trip. We hopped on plane after three days and made it back to Harbin. We had planned at first not to speak English during the week but we slowly started to change...i think it was inevitable. So it was nice to be able to clearly understand and communicate with one another for a change. And it was good to get some experience of traveling in China. I feel like I will be fine on my own when the time comes here next month.