Lessons from Chinese TV

As you also know, we don’t speak Mandarin. If you are a regular reader, you also know, we have cable television (when we decide to pay our bills). Why does a family, who doesn’t speak Chinese, need cable television while living in China? Well, for a number of reasons.

1. There are 3 English speaking stations. So there.

2. I like to think the TV helps me learn about Chinese pop culture. I primarily watch ICS (International Channel Shanghai). In addition to being one of the English language channels, they have some really stellar programming including “Funniest Home Videos,” Heidi Klum’s Project Runway (retitled “A Passion for Fashion”) and a show called “The Minds of Millionaires”. What I learn from these shows is that the Chinese like: silly home videos of pets doing crazy things and people accidentally falling; Heidi Klum; and hearing about how capitalism really can make your dreams come true. The Minds of Millionaires is a show where a woman interviews millionaires about how they made their money, doing business in China, etc. They are actually interesting if you can get over the host. She is this wacky American women who wears long silk shirts, makes lots of over-exaggerated gestures and acts likes she’s been over-coached on how to interview people. (Now, sit on the edge of your seat and nod and smile. Give some big eyes now. Again! More!)

I also watch a pretty Australian girl and an awkward Australian guy travel around China and I start to realize how big China really is. I am envious when they flawlessly move between English and Mandarin. Seeing a white person speak Chinese fluently is a little like seeing a female cab driver. (There are quite a few here but I can’t say that I’ve ever seen one in the US…you know, with all my urban living.) There is another Aussie who has a cooking show. She meets with chefs from fancy “expat” friendly restaurants in Shanghai and cooks one of their signature dishes with the chef. She only reinforces what I already know…I need to eat more adventurously. (And that the TV cooking show craze is another American export making its way to China.)

One type of programming where you don’t really need sound is sports television. There is a fair amount of NBA action here on TV but the announcers don’t really talk much. We’ve decided it’s either because the game moves too fast or they can’t pronounce any of the names (or both). (Okay, so that “we” there is really just George.) We also get on-the-edge-of-your-seat sports like table tennis, badminton, and darts. If you are really lucky you might catch some snooker, swimming or diving (but they only really show the Chinese competitors). And football (not American). There is a lot of football. So we miss out on stats and trivia about players but don’t have to listen to mindless talking just to fill dead air.

3. Chinese television helps us learn about language. I can recognize some words I know now on TV but I can’t really learn new words from it. There are two shows they run on ICS: In the Office (China’s version of the Office) and The Wizards of Waverly Place (I finally know who Selena Gomez is!). In the Office is a Chinese show with English subtitles. In addition to entertaining you with the usual office hijinx, the point of the show is to teach Chinese people English idioms. When the person uses one of these expression a box pops up and explains the expression. At the end of show they go over all of the new expressions and their definitions. “Today we learned, ‘to beat ones brains out,’ and ‘to be puzzled by something’ and they give the Chinese translations. I find it interesting to hear what expressions they highlight. Some are one’s I’ve never heard used and others are so common, you forget they wouldn’t make sense to a non-native speaker (“get the drop on someone” and “to underestimate someone” respectively).

The Wizards of Waverly Place is similar but shown in English with Chinese subtitles. The pretty Australian host of the travel show narrates and tells the audience what phrases to watch out for and gives the Chinese translation. I’m guessing unless you have ‘tweens, you haven’t seen this Disney show. Of all the shows they could use…they pick this one about a family of wizards, with bad acting and silly story lines. It runs at 8 pm weeknights. I’m not sure who the target audience is but like, “In the Office,” the phrases they use are funny. The other night Ms. Gomez taught the Chinese the appropriate use of “can’t stand something,” as in “I can’t stand it when you act that way, Dad!” Because, in case you missed it, that’s how bratty American teenagers talk to their parents. Selena’s brother on the show taught the Chinese the phrase, “made for each other” when he told his friend that he (the wizard boy) and his girlfriend (a vampire) were made for each other. What is it with the vampires?

For as much as I am learning about Chinese pop culture, I’m afraid what I’m really learning is that American pop culture is taking (has taken?) over the world.

4. Chinese TV is teaching me what’s newsworthy in China. Japan. In the Fall, the Japanese disputed China’s claim to the Diaoyu Islands.(Well, I guess the islands have been disputed for years but the argument heated up in the Fall and both countries deployed ships. These are uninhabited islands with no real value (that I can tell) but the Chinese and the Japanese treat them as if they were carved in gold. So there is a lot of news about the latest developments in this tete a tete. No one here seems to be too worried about North Korea. And we don’t get CNN so I can’t tell you how much is censored but my friend watches it and says they fade to white noise and “technical difficulties” fairly regularly if the story involves China.

5. Most importantly, I like to watch TV because it helps keep my minds off of stories like, “2800 dead pigs found in the deadly Huangpu” (river that we regularly cross). Last week, I read online that 200 dead pigs had been found in the river that supplies most of Shanghai. Later that same day the number was up to 500. That night, 800. I think the total is now somewhere around 3,000 (although I did see a report on an site Australian that claimed it was 13,000. But you know, nothing to worry about. Just some farmers who had a pig plight and didn’t know what to do with the dead carcasses. The river is notoriously polluted anyway so the carrion of 3,000 pigs…no biggie. The government has tested the water and it’s totally safe. Totally. It’s frustrating to read about it because you get the sense you’re not getting the whole story so instead of beating my brains out to understand, I’ll watch some more TV and try to practice my Mandarin (read: learn more English idiomatic phrases).

(P.S. I posted some pictures from Nolan’s b-day on his page. Will try to post some of Hunter tomorrow.)

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