My “China Thing”

Summer is over and I have my work visa in hand. I’ll be heading back to Shanghai next week and I’m actually pretty happy about it, primarily for three reasons.

1. I’m bored out of my mind

I live in a small town, far from everything in the US. It’s incredibly hot here and there are sandstorms almost every day, limiting the time one can spend outside. The last friend I had in this town moved away last week, leaving me with my cat and my husband, both of whom are sick of me. My husband is at work 14+ hrs a day anyway, so entertaining me is a huge burden on my poor kitty. I’ve kept myself busy reading, studying Chinese, working out, and listening to courses on iTunes university. I’m ready to go do something and feel useful again.

2. My back hurts!

I have a back injury and now a hamstring injury (thanks a lot, pole dancing instructor) that I haven’t been able to find any solution to other than traditional Chinese massage. I’ve tried physical therapy, chiropractors, western style oily gross rub-down massage (there aren’t any other options such as deep tissue in this crappy town), medicine and acupuncture. At best, those methods offer temporary relief, but most of them are really expensive. They just can’t compete with 60 RMB blind massage. I haven’t had one since I came home and I’m walking like one of those 400 yr old nai nais that spent her whole life carrying heavy buckets of water on a pole across her shoulders.

3. I feel like a weirdo in America.

You know when people ask you about what you’ve been doing in China and you try to explain and about 30 seconds into it, they get that glazed look in their eyes? Yeah, that’s basically every conversation I’ve had since I’ve come home. I blame my husband. He makes me go to parties and stuff (ugh, people) and he introduces me to people by saying “This is my wife, she just finished a master’s degree in Chinese!” I know he’s trying to help and he’s proud of me, but it just doesn’t go well. WHY CAN’T I JUST STAY HOME WITH THE CAT?!?! I simply try to avoid the topic now. People ask me what I do and I say something like “I’m in between jobs right now” and then ask them what they do. Everyone would rather talk about themselves anyway, right? The few people who try to seriously understand whatever it is that I do, can’t really make heads or tails of it because they don’t know anything about China other than what’s in the news and we all know that’s not exactly putting China in the best light. They can’t (won’t?) understand why I would go there, much less keep going back. I hear questions like “But isn’t the food really unsafe? What do you eat there?” or “How do you breath with all that smog?!” These are valid questions, but even though these issues aren’t the end of the world for me, it’s hard to make people understand why I keep going back. The other reaction I often get is even worse than the usual indifference/confusion – and that is when people think I’m just showing off. I get that mostly from people I went to high school with. Most of my former high school classmates are still at home (small town, population less than 10,000), have a bunch of kids, make minimum wage and/or are on meth. When you run into a person like that and they ask you what you’re doing with your life, it’s pretty damn hard not to sound like you’re bragging. However, I feel like they shouldn’t ask that question of the former Honor Society president and women’s cross country team captain (I know, I know, I was hot shit) and expect to get an answer that’s going to make them feel better about themselves.

At the end of the day, my “China thing” (as it’s often referred to) is none of anyone’s damn business and it really has nothing to do with anyone else, but I just hate never knowing how to deal with these conversations. I like the fact that I don’t have to have this conversation in China with other expats. There’s an unspoken understanding and you rarely get asked about it, much less judged for it. My Chinese friends and my expat friends have more context for understanding my life, which makes it easier for me. I don’t have to go into minute details to make myself understood and I can speak Chinglish. I guess I’m just lazy. No, that’s not all it is…I don’t like feeling like I don’t belong and in a lot of ways, I don’t belong in America anymore. Maybe it would be easier if I was staying here for a few years, but I’m not ready to find out.

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Shanghai Calling 纽约客@上海 – The Movie!

This is not my photo.  I found it on the internet.  Daniel Henney is pretty hot.

This is not my photo. I found it on the internet. Daniel Henney is pretty hot.

Basic synopsis:

A slick and immoral American lawyer, Sam Chao (Daniel Henney) is sent to Shanghai to head up the company’s Shanghai law office.  Upon his arrival in Shanghai, he is greeted by Amanda (Eliza Coupe), a relocation specialist who’s job it is to help him settle in.  Since this movie takes place in China, a very relevant part of the story line is the fact that Sam Chao is an ABC who can’t speak Chinese, whereas Amanda is a blonde haired, blue eyed American who can, thereby making this not only a romantic comedy, but a romantic comedy that makes fun of all the cliches that go along with Sam and Amanda’s linguistic situation.  Chinese people all insist on speaking to Sam in Chinese, waitresses give Amanda the Chinglish menu, etc etc – it’s all funny because it’s true.  Aside from the love story, there’s a lot more going on in the movie.  Via Fang Fang, Sam’s assistant, the movie takes a look at the social and economic pressure put on young Chinese people.  The complexity of the Chinese legal system and prevalent use of guanxi is also touched on in how Sam tries to deal with a legal suit before knowing anything about China’s 国情 and after refusing to take Fang Fang’s advice on the matter.  Without giving too much away, the lawsuit that Sam is dealing with would have been an easy one in which to make the Chinese out to be the bad guys, but that isn’t the case here.  I also really enjoyed how the movie made fun of some of the “foreigner in China” cliches – the skeezy English teacher, the arrogant business man who thinks Chinese people don’t know anything, the foreigner who thinks he’s Chinese, and the I’m never going back, these are my people guy.

Shanghai Calling got some pretty harsh reviews online.  I however, really like this movie.  I suspect that the people who didn’t like it were people who aren’t in on the joke of what it’s like to be a foreigner in China.  I made my husband watch the movie with me and he’s never been to China.  We had to pause it a few times so I could explain something that seemed obvious to me, but made no sense to him.  Shanghai Calling’s only failing perhaps is that a wider audience wasn’t taken into consideration, but I think it wouldn’t have been as good if they had done that.

Shanghai Calling trailer 

One last thing that I thought was interesting from a linguistic standpoint was the technique that Eliza Coupe’s accent coach, Cheng Yang Yang used to “teach” her Chinese.  Eliza Coupe’s character didn’t speak a lot of Chinese in the movie, but enough to judge how well said technique worked.  Cheng Yang Yang obviously didn’t need Eliza to actually know Chinese, she just needed to be able to get through her lines, basically using memorization. The first thing Cheng Yang Yang did was to transcribe her lines from Chinese into a kind of Englishized pinyin.  For example, “ni xiang chi shenme” became “knee shee-ahng chir shun muh.” She then helped Eliza refine the pronunciation a little and then for the tones, she used a melody and had Eliza put the melody onto the words she was saying.  According to Cheng Yang Yang, at this point Eliza “immediately sounded like a native Chinese speaker!” Ok, well…Eliza didn’t sound like a native speaker, not even a little bit.  She definitely sounded like an American, with a heavy accent and some awkward pauses. I wouldn’t say the technique worked that well and it sounds like a lot of work, I doubt that any time was saved by teaching Eliza her lines this way.  Since Eliza’s character in the movie didn’t begin learning Chinese until college, it’s normal that she would have an accent.  I probably wouldn’t even really have an opinion on Eliza’s Chinese, except that Cheng Yang Yang made such a big deal advertising this technique.  Given all the fanfare, I would have expected better results. It was still a great movie.

Cheng Yang Yang’s technique