The Ending of 蜗居

Posted in Pop Culture at 7:19 pm by Benjamin Ross

Ok, so if you want to watch 蜗居, and you’d rather not find out the ending, I suggest you stop reading this post. But for readers who don’t plan to watch the show and are instead relying on me to spill the beans, here goes.

So a major turning point happens about 2/3 of the way through the series when Xiao Bei finds out about Song Si Ming and Hai Zao. After much crying, bickering, and screaming, Xiao Bei agrees to take her back, although says he can’t guarantee that he will forget everything. The one condition is that she must never see Song Si Ming again. One slip up and Xiao Bei says he’ll leave. Xiao Bei is clearly shell-shocked by the knowledge that his girlfriend was cheating on him with a guy almost twice his age, but as time progress he slowly reverts back to his old self.

Meanwhile Hai Ping and Su Chun find themselves in a bit of a pickle as Su Chun is arrested for stealing designs from his work unit. (This was done in order to make money off them to appease his materialistic wife). Through a seemingly inexplicable chain of events and guanxi, Su Chun who had been facing several years of jail time is set free. Originally Hai Ping is led to believe that it is Mark (an American whom she has been tutoring in Chinese) is behind the dropped charges. Later she discovers that it was the work of Song Si Ming.

Hai Zao and Xiao Bei’s relationship gradually reverts back to normalcy until one day when Xiao Bei finds a text message on Hai Zao’s phone from Song Si Ming. The message is old, from before Xiao Bei’s discovery, but he is incensed at the fact Hai Zao had not deleted it. Xiao Bei walks out, and other than a brief flashback, this is the last we see of him in the series.

Hai Zao immediately flees to Song Si Ming. Song has an apartment for Hai Zao to move into and more or less takes her in as his concubine. Hai Zao stops showing up to work, and spends most of her days sitting around reading magazines and killing time waiting for Song to return. Song finds himself balancing his life between Hai Zao, his work, and his wife and daughter who become increasingly impatient with his constant absence.

While Song seems to be handling his personal life with ease, his situation at work becomes increasingly stressful as he finds himself involved with some sketchy real estate deals. It’s at this time he also is being investigated on corruption charges (this is the area where of the show where I had some difficulty figuring out the details, so if anyone would like to fill in the cracks, please be my guest).

The crescendo of 蜗居 begins when Hai Zao reveals to Song that she is pregnant. While Hai Zao’s reaction is to get an abortion, Song insists on her keeping the baby and she finally agrees. At the same time, Song’s wife, who is entirely cognizant of her husband’s extracurricular activities, demands a divorce, to which Song will not comply. As the stress at home and at work builds, Song takes a bank passbook with 5 million RMB and gives it to Hai Zao for safekeeping. He tells her that if anybody tries to take it from her, do not give it up.

When Song’s wife (we never learn her real name) finds out about the money, she pays a visit to Hai Zao. She demands the passbook, and when Hai Zao refuses to give it up, a skirmish breaks out. The altercation leaves Hai Zao passed out on the floor with her maid rushing inside believing that she is dead.

Later we find out that Hai Zao is ok, however her unborn child has been killed in the fight. Meanwhile, Song is at his corruption hearing when he receives an urgent call about the situation. He rushes to the hospital and en route his car is struck by oncoming traffic, killing him instantly.

We then flash forward three months. Hai Zao is in bed being spoon fed by her mother and refusing to talk. (Apparently she has not said a word since the day she lost her baby and Song Si Ming.) Hai Ping takes her for a walk and in a soliloquy lasting about 8 minutes, summarizes everything she has learned from the preceding events. Ultimately it had been Hai Ping’s greed which had caused the events leading to Hai Zao’s unfortunate circumstance, and the speech touches on these ideas as well as several positive notes on chasing dreams. (If anybody has a transcription, it would be worth posting, since this essentially sums up the message of the series.)

After her speech, Hai Ping receives a call from Mark who asks to see her immediately. Mark reveals to Hai Ping that before Song had died he had wanted to give a new life to Hai Zao and their baby, and had arranged for them to go to the United States. Mark also tells Hai Ping that he wants to invest money in her to open a Chinese school for foreigners in Jiangzhou. This had been Hai Ping’s dream she had alluded to in previous episodes, but for brevity’s sake I had not mentioned in past posts. In the last two scenes we see Hai Zao at the airport being sent off to the US and then a frame of Hai Ping in front of her new school.

蜗居 is a deep series, and I would be lying if I denied having any emotional investment in the show. You knew it had to end with a bang, but I really did not expect such tragedy. I also did not expect much hope to come from the unfortunate chain of events. Everything is still sinking in, and I’m going to try to post a few more analytical thoughts in the days to come. As Chinese is not my native language, and as I have yet to go through the online plot summaries, there may be several inaccuracies in my description of the show. Please feel free to make corrections where necessary.



Just finished 蜗居…and Other Observations on Chinese Television

Posted in Pop Culture at 8:23 pm by Benjamin Ross

I just finished 蜗居. And rather than spending multiple days to write a be-all-end-all overly-protracted blog post, which often hampers the progress and content of this blog, I’m going to try to keep my thoughts short and sweet as I blog my reactions to the show.

Watching 蜗居 was one of the most rewarding China related experiences I have had in a while. For anyone willing to allocate a significant chunk of time to improve their language ability and understanding of modern-day China, I highly recommend 蜗居. Counting pauses, re-watches, and time for looking up words, I’d estimate it is around a 50-75 hour time commitment to get through the whole thing.

After finishing the show, my internal reactions felt as if I had just finished reading a long novel, rather than watching a television show. To be sure, much of this is due to the theme and character development of 蜗居, but it is also due to a particular characteristic of Chinese television show production.

TV series in China are generally not broken into seasons. Instead the entire show is filmed as one block, often thirty of forty episodes long. The disadvantage in this is that bad shows get a full run, rather than being canceled after a season or two. The advantage though is that it enables producers to plan out the entirety of the show all at once, rather than season by season. 蜗居 takes particular advantage of this fact. There are very few plotlines which are self-contained in a single episode, and the climax of the show occurs at the very end. Since there are no season breaks, it is unnecessary to build in extra climaxes at points where broadcasting would drop off for several months.

Thus, 蜗居’s 35 episodes, each lasting exactly 42.5 minutes are essentially a single long play movie, clocking in at just over 24 hours in length. The end of one episode often cuts off mid-scene leading directly into the next. Thus, watching 蜗居 is like reading a novel, in that one can pick up and leave off at arbitrary points, rather than taking each episode as a single unit.

Owing to this characteristic of the Chinese television industry, the producers of 蜗居 were not subject to the constraints of creating superfluous plotlines and climaxes. Instead, it allowed them to develop the story in a more natural fashion, along the lines of how a writer pens a novel. This presents a contrast to American TV shows, which even if they continue episode to episode (i.e. Lost, Sopranos), they still must be broken down into seasons with some resolve at the end.



Meet the Cast of 《蜗居》

Posted in Pop Culture at 3:48 pm by Benjamin Ross

I’m now a little over 2/3 through 《蜗居》 and it is shaping up to be a truly captivating series. 《蜗居》 is not fast moving, nor action packed. The plot develops at an unforced, natural pace, relying little on sensationalism or action. Instead, 《蜗居》’s strength its complex and dynamic characters…whom I would like to introduce below.

There is no one central character in 《蜗居》, but if I had to approximate who figures most prominently in the plot it would be Hai Ping. Hai Ping is in her late 20’s (possibly early 30’s) and lives with her husband Su Chun in a tiny apartment in Jiangzhou, the fictional city where 《蜗居》 takes place. She is a graduate of a top tier university but is currently working in a dead end office administrative job.

Hai Ping with husband Su Chen

Hai Ping’s tragic flaw is in her greed, although this manifests itself in what she wants for her family, not for herself per se. Namely she wants to buy a condo. The driving force behind this is her daughter Rang Rang. Since apartment is too small and their expenses tight, Rang Rang is being raised in their hometown by Hai Ping’s parents. Once a condo is purchased, the plan is for Rang Rang to return to her parents.

Hai Ping’s husband Su Chun is your typical Chinese Zhang San (John Doe). He has a danwei job as a designer which provides a modest income, drinks and smokes in moderation, is faithful to Hai Ping, but also does nothing to stand out as an exceptional husband or father. This is not good enough for Hai Ping, and she frequently berates him on account of his mediocrity.

Hai Ping’s sister Hai Zao has also moved to Jiangzhou upon graduation from college. Hai Ping too works an office job in Jiangzhou and lives with her boyfriend Xiao Bei. Seven years younger, Hai Zao is naïve, immature, and inexperienced compared to her older sister whom she frequently turns to as role model and advisor. Hai Zao’s has deep admiration and feeling of gratitude towards Hai Ping, which turns out to be her own tragic flaw.

Hai Zao with boyfriend Xiao Bei

Hai Zao is prettier than Hai Ping and has attracted the attention of Song Si Ming, a married, wealthy, government official in his 40’s. The casual work relationship between the two evolves into a full-fledged affair, which the two manage to keep secret from their respective partners for some time. Hai Zao thus remains trapped in between two separate lives, her legitimate boyfriend Xiao Bei, and her sugardaddy Song.

Xiao Bei is Hai Zao’s boyfriend (and also my favorite character thus far). Like Su Chun he holds a steady job and is not independently wealthy. However, unlike Su Chun, he knows how to please women. Whether it’s cooking her dinner, taking her out window shopping, or sending cute instant messages to Hai Zao (whom he calls “Little Pig”) during the work day, Xiao Bei always knows how to make Hai Zao smile. Additionally, when it comes to serious matters such as finances or major decisions, Xiao Bei always has a prescience which seems behind his years. In short, he is excellent husband material…which is maybe why he is getting the short end of the stick? Xiao Bei is also perceptive and intelligent and it is seemingly only a matter of time until he finds out about his girlfriend’s affair.

Hai Zao with other boyfriend Song Si Ming

Song Si Ming is not the bullheaded, chain smoking, pleather man-purse toting, tinted window Audi driving, alpha male know-it-all Chinese bureaucrat that we all love to hate. He is well-mannered, soft spoken, doesn’t smoke, and has yet to be belligerently drunk on camera. Outwardly he treats others with respect and has the calm demeanor which would seem to make him an ideal family man. At face value, Song is likeable guy, one who seems to have retained a sense of humbleness regardless of his immense financial resources. Song seems to have everything a man could want, good job, beautiful wife, healthy kid, etc. Yet as he looks at himself in the mirror one morning, he realizes how old he has become. With all his money and success, he still feels a void in his life—a void which can only be filled by the object of a new obsession, Hai Zao. This proves to be his downward spiral as his obsession with Hai Zao tears him from his family and sends him on a mad quest for control and power. Cognizant of Hai Zao’s connection to her sister, on multiple occasions Song uses his money and power to bail Hai Ping and Su Chun out of otherwise formidable situations. Ironically though, it is often Hai Ping, not Hai Zao who is uncomfortable with this tacit arrangement.

Thus we have the bulk of the cast. There are several other minor characters, but the majority of the plot focuses on these key individuals. I’ll try to keep posting as I finish up the show. The deeper I get, the juicier it becomes.



Getting Started on 蜗居

Posted in Pop Culture at 9:26 pm by Benjamin Ross

After finishing Fen Dou and taking a short break from Chinese television shows, I am now 11 episodes into a new series, Wo Ju (蜗居).  Broadcast in 2009, Wo Ju has been the most popular and controversial series to come from Mainland China in some time.  Due to its controversial subject matter, Beijing TV pulled the plug on Wu Ju ten episodes in, and Shanghai moved it from prime time to a late night time slot.  Many people (myself included) have thus taken to the Chinese Internets to watch the series in its entirety.

I am currently 11 episodes into Wo Ju, and the following is a brief synopsis and analysis of what has gone down so far.  (There are some minor spoilers coming, so if you don’t want to know the result of the first 11 episodes, I’d suggest you stop reading here.)

蜗居 dwelling narrowness

Wo Ju begins with a couple, Su Chun and Hai Ping, who both grew up in rural China, have recently graduated from top tier universities and moved to Jiangzhou, a fictional Chinese city reminiscent of Shanghai.  They live in a tiny studio apartment and work low-level, white collar jobs, providing just enough income to scrape by.  Yet they are happy just to be together, content that they are “making it” in the big city.

The story then flashes several years into the future.  Su Chun and Hai Ping are still in the same studio apartment living the same post-college lifestyle.  In the interim however, two major changes have occurred.  First, Hai Ping’s sister Hai Zao, seven years her junior, has also graduated college, and at Hai Ping’s encouragement is looking for a job in Jiangzhou.  Secondly, Hai Ping is now pregnant, further compounding the stress of living in a cramped studio apartment.

Hai Zao soon finds a job as well as a boyfriend (Xiao Bei), and begins her own life in Jiangzhou.  Once their baby (Rang Rang) is born, Su Chun and Hai Ping face the spatial limitations and inconveniences of raising a child in a studio apartment.  While visiting Jiangzhou, Hai Ping’s mother is appalled at their living conditions and convinces Hai Ping to allow her to take Rang Rang back to the village.  The plan is for Rang Rang is to be raised in the village until Su Chun and Hai Ping can afford to purchase a condo.  Hai Ping is reluctant to give up Rang Rang (Su Chun is indifferent), but realizes there is no better option.

Again we flash forward several years and Su Chun and Hai Ping travel back to their home village where Hai Ping spends every moment with her beloved daughter, now a toddler.  However, she is discouraged to find that Rang Rang hardly regards her as more than a stranger, having been raised her entire life by her grandparents.  This brings Hai Ping to a sudden realization.  She and Su Chun must no longer delay home ownership.  For the sake of keeping their family together, they need a condo, and they need it now!  But the problem is that neither she nor Su Chun have enough money for a down payment.  This problem is continually exacerbated as real estate prices escalate.

Meanwhile, Hai Zao has been doing very well for herself, both at work and in her personal life with Xiao Bei with whom she is now cohabitating.  But as an attractive, young female Hai Zao must deal with 陪酒, an annoyance common in the Chinese business world for young women like her. 陪酒 refers to accompanying her boss to face-garnering business meetings (over meals, on the golf course, etc.) for the sole purpose of drinking and socializing with his potential business partners.  Hai Zao despises this aspect of her work and even contemplates quitting her job.  Ironically though, through these social engagements she strikes up a seemingly innocuous relationship with one of her boss’ business partners, Song Si Ming, a wealthy married, businessman in his forties (for point of reference, Hai Zao is still only a few years out of college).

Su Chun and Hai Ping meanwhile continue to struggle with the financial realities which subject them to living in a cramped studio apartment and subsisting on instant noodles.  They still cannot afford a down payment for a condo, and Hai Zao, who credits all her success and good fortune to the help and guidance of her older sister, feels compelled to rectify the situation.  The issue comes up in casual conversation between Hai Zao and Song Si Ming, and Song Si Ming cordially offers to loan Hai Zao the money for Hai Ping’s down payment.  It is apparent, but not spoken, at this point that Song Si Ming has an interest in Hai Zao which extends beyond platonic and business relations.  It is also apparent that he has something which Hai Zao, or more specifically Hai Zao’s sister Hai Ping needs, cash.  Thus we have the setup for a situation which has to potential to become quite juicy.

Up to this point, I can already tell that by all measures that Wo Ju is a show of much higher quality than Fen Dou.  The acting is better, the production level is of relatively high quality (I haven’t seen a single overhead mic yet), and the story line is much more realistic.  (The plot of Fen Dou was about as plausible as your average Harry Potter flick).  But what I like most about Wo Ju so far is that it showcases real problems and conflicts which are regularly encountered by Chinese urbanites, such as corruption, infidelity, and the housing bubble.  It portrays them in a realistic light, and without cheesy miracle fixes and crackpot story lines to undermine the plot’s integrity.  I still have 24 episodes left, so I’m sure there is much more action ahead.  I’ll try to keep everybody posted.



Adventures in Chinese Television: 《奋斗》Wrap Up

Posted in Pop Culture at 2:11 pm by Benjamin Ross

Back in late November, I set the goal of watching an entire Chinese television series 《奋斗》, and blogging about the process.  I made good on half the deal.  I finished the series about a month and a half ago, but thanks to several trips, grad school selection shenanigans, and other prioritizing, my blogging accounts dropped off.  Watching 奋斗 was a tantamount experience, both linguistically and culturally, and I didn’t want to leave everybody completely hanging.  So here are some of my thoughts.  This post does contain a few spoilers, so if you plan to watch the show, proceed with caution.

奋斗 and I have had a rocky relationship.  If it were my facebook girlfriend, our relationship status would be “it’s complicated.”  Several episodes in I wrote the beginnings of a scathing blog post condemning 奋斗 as the worst television series I had ever watched.  The plot lines are predictable; the characters static and subject to compulsive, unsounded, obsessions; the humor relies on formulaic, repetitive devices which could have been written by a class of high school sophomores; and the climax of the series involves an extended English quote from a Lionel Ritchie song.  Yet I watched the series to term, enjoyed it, and was emotionally invested in several of the characters.  In short, it was entertaining.

As a critic, one complaint which I consistently felt (and echoed on many Chinese message boards) is that the main characters’ “struggles” (奋斗 means “struggle”) are aided by a multitude of fortuitous situations and coincidences.  Here are just a few.

The 奋斗 gang, clockwise from the top left, Lu Tao, Xia Lin, Xiang Nan, Huazi, Yang Shao Yun, and Mi Lai

Two of the main characters have parents who are multi-millionaires with endless supplies of money, real estate, and employment opportunities.  When the going gets rough, fu baba always comes to the rescue with a financial bail out, a new job, or a free loft to house the whole gang.

Xia Lin, the girlfriend of the main character Lu Tao, frequently wavers back and forth between whether she will pursue her opportunity to study in France.  Unlike Lu Tao and Mi Lai, Xia Lin’s family is not wealthy.  Yet, in the world of 奋斗 going to France to study abroad apparently doesn’t require much money.  It also doesn’t require a visa either, as Xia Lin (and Mi Lai, Lu Tao’s ex-girlfriend) each make sudden decisions to study abroad.  As one Chinese forum post put it “It’s as if France is next door to Beijing.”

Another character of humble origins, Huazi, pursues life as a small business man.  He begins by opening a barbershop, then a cake shop, then a Thai restaurant, then a pool hall, all of which are wildly successful, and simultaneously managed by only he and his girlfriend.  Speaking from experience here, running a successful barbershop in China takes many years of training, hard work, and building a customer base.  Competition is cut throat, and most new shops go out of business within a year of opening.  The chance of somebody with no tanning opening up four different enterprises in four different industries, and being wildly successful at all is laughable at best.

Another objection I have to the show is its message:  put simply, the goal of life is getting rich.  These values are promulgated by Yang Shao Yun, one of the female leads, and one of the most despicable characters I have ever seen on television.  Yang Shao Yun falls in love with Xiang Nan, one of the main male characters, and against the warnings of their friends, they marry a few weeks later.  As their marriage progresses, Yang Shao Yun continuously scolds and belittles Xiang Nan, whose salary of “a mere 10,000 RMB/month” isn’t nearly as much as Lu Tao’s.  She also despises Xiang Nan’s car, an Autuo, and wishes that like Lu Tao, Xiang Nan would buy an Audi.  On multiple occasions Yang Shao Yun threatens divorce, only to be talked out of it by a teary-eyed Xiang Nan, whom she continues to nag and berate.  Their relationship is a continuous downward spiral of arguments and threatened divorces until finally Xiang Nan shocks everybody by agreeing to a divorce.

Once the divorce settles, Xiang Nan meets a new girl, Yao Yao, who is a successful attorney, and independently wealthy.  Initially, Xiang Nan is intimidated by his new sugarmama, but these fears subside as Yao Yao reaffirms to him that she loves him for who he is, not for his bank account.  In a symbolic gesture, she sells her Toyota sports car because she prefers to ride in his Autuo.  Meanwhile, Yang Shao Yun falls into a bout of loneliness and depression, wishing she had Xiang Nan back.  I took pleasure in watching the bitch crash and burn in the mess she had created.  This also provided hope that 奋斗 was providing an anti-materialistic message after all.  However in the end, just as Xiang Nan and Yao Yao are walking into the marriage bureau to apply for their marriage license, Yang Shao Yun shows up crying.  The two reconcile and get married.  Ouch!  Bam!  Kick in the junk!  I wasn’t expecting that at all, and it left me questioning the motives behind the themes of the show.

奋斗  is geared towards China’s “80’s generation,” those born between 1980 and 1989.  I would imagine though that much of 奋斗’s appeal is to rural Chinese of that age group who have never lived the city life as portrayed in the show.  Remaining in their villages, 奋斗 provides a glimmer of a fantasy city world where opportunities abound and the streets are paved with gold.  Most Chinese urbanites with whom I have discussed 奋斗 have dismissed it unappealing for the same reasons listed above.  It’s too unrealistic and glamorizes the ugly, materialistic side of modern China.

As an American, watching 奋斗 was an invaluable experience.  It improved my spoken Chinese, tweaked my listening, and provided a cultural window into the lives of Chinese 20-somethings, even if they were caricatures of real people.  If I was Chinese, I probably would have never watched the show in its entirety, but using it as tool for cultural and language learning, it served its purpose.

I am now in the process of watching《蜗居》, a popular 2009 Chinese television show, which according to many of my Chinese friends is the most realistic TV program to come out of Mainland China in a long time.  As I progress, I’m going to try to write more about 蜗居as well as the process of learning from television shows, which I am increasingly convinced is THE way for advanced speakers to continue improvement.  I’ll try to make good on my promise to keep up on the blog this time around.



Halfway through 《奋斗》

Posted in Pop Culture at 3:54 pm by Benjamin Ross

Well, I’m just over halfway finished with 《奋斗》 and wanted to check in with a few updates and observations. So far, I still agree with everything I previously wrote as to watching the show being an extremely efficient acquisition method. I’ve been spending about two hours a day to watching the show (time I probably should be devoting to grad school essays), and have already noticed improvements in my speaking ability, listening, and vocabulary.

As for the show itself, it’s entertaining…for me. If I were an educated Chinese person, I probably would have given up watching at about the fifth or sixth episode. First of all, the plot, while never dull, repeatedly rests on a series of ridiculously coincidental events. The main character, 陆涛, is an aspiring architectural student and just after he graduates college, discovers that his biological father 徐志森, whom he had been told was dead, was actually alive in the US, and moving back to China. 徐志森 just happens to be a millionaire real estate developer, and offers 陆涛 a job working for his company. After working for 徐志森 for several months, 陆涛 receives an offer to work for one of the top architectural firms in China. He leaves his 徐志森’s company to take the job. However, soon after he starts the new job, he is informed of an impending project with a new client. Who is this new client? Yup, it’s 徐志森’s company. So 陆涛 starts cooperating with 徐志森 on the new project, but soon faces a new nemesis. His stepfather, 陆亚迅, just happens to work for the 规划局 (Planning Bureau) and attempts to thwart 陆涛 and 徐志森’s real estate venture. The situation further complicated when 陆涛’s ex-girlfriend, 米莱, whom he had dumped in favor of her best friend 夏琳, goes into the real estate business (her father is also a millionaire real estate kingpin), solely as an chance to win back 陆涛.

Clockwise from the top left, 陆涛, 夏琳, 向南, 华子, 杨晓芸, and 米莱

In another unrelated scene, 杨晓芸 and 夏琳,who are close friends, run into each other at the abortion clinic (not entirely unbelievable based on the prevalence of abortion in the Middle Kingdom). However, neither of them is aware the other is pregnant, even though they talk every day. They both just happen to be waiting in the same line to get their abortions, on the same day, at the same abortion clinic. Now I guess this would all be somewhat plausible, if the story happened in some small village where everybody knows each other. But 《奋斗》 takes place in Beijing.

My other criticism of the show is its underlying message: essentially that the key to happiness is to make as much money is possible so you can buy a nicer house and car than your peers. In Chinese, this is called 瞎攀比, a phrase which is evoked frequently throughout the show. This is especially depicted by a character named 杨晓芸, who marries 陆涛’s friend 向南, shortly after their first date. 杨晓芸 is the prototypical 80s generation materialistic bitch, and constantly scolds 向南 because he doesn’t make as much money as 陆涛, and he drives an ugly old station wagon, as opposed to 陆涛’s Audi (陆涛 became a millionnaire just over a year out of college, so he’s not exactly an easy act to follow). 向南 for his part, is unsuave, whiney, oblivious to the needs of women, and convinced his wife regards their marriage as “heaven.” The couple are constantly at ends with one other, and 杨晓芸 refers to her marriage as the worst decision of her life. In one scene, while shopping in a mall, 向南 makes a comment about 杨晓芸’s mother. 杨晓芸 starts hitting and slapping him in public, as 向南 yells back, and a crowd gathers. The scene ends with 向南 crouched on the floor, surrounded by bystanders snapping photos with cell phones, crying, and yelling “She stole my heart. She stole my heart.” The two are painful to watch and I am eagerly awaiting the episode where they finally get divorced and vow never speak to one another again.

All that being said, the show does have its bright spots. My favorite character is the third lead male role, 华子. Unlike 陆涛 and 向南, 华子 did not go to college, and therefore has to take the blue collar struggle through life. He gets fired from his job as a used car salesman, and decides to open a barbershop, and then a cake store, with his girlfriend Lu Lu. Lu Lu is sweet, caring, not materialistic, and unlike the others, is not from Beijing (coincidence???). She appreciates 华子 for his character, (not his bank account), and the two have the healthiest relationship in the show. 华子 for his part is a joker, and provides most of the show’s comic relief, often in a self-deprecating fashion, as he is the only one who is not 白领 (white collar). He’s also by far and away the best actor of the cast.

《奋斗》 is entertaining enough that I’m going to continue watching the entire series, but from an artistic perspective, I’m starting to comprehend why my Chinese friends always tell me that Chinese shows are so lacking in quality. The cinematography is fair, the acting for the most part is sub-par, and the plot could have been concocted by a high school screenwriting class. Multiple Chinese friends have recommended that I watch the show 《蜗居》 which they say is both artistically worthwhile, and extremely controversial right now. So I think that’s going to be the plan once I finish with 《奋斗》 . In the meantime, I plan to watch 《奋斗》 in its entirety, and would be interested to hear comments from anybody else who might be watching.



On the benefits of learning Chinese from television shows (Part 1)

Posted in Linguistics, Pop Culture at 1:52 am by Benjamin Ross

In the last few posts, I’ve been focusing on several of my own personal beliefs and opinions in regards to Chinese learning. By now most of you are probably quite familiar with my various stances on the topic. A few weeks ago I suggested 10 ways to study Chinese which are more useful than going to class. Of the 10, 9 were based primarily on personal experience. However, one of the methods, ironically the one which I believe provides the best path to advanced language mastery, I admittedly haven’t given much effort toward over the years. And this method would be…the power watching Chinese of television and movies.

So after all the discourse on Chinese learning, I decided to give Chinese television another shot. The most formidable hurdle with Chinese television…I’m not really sure how to put it nicely is…well, a severe lack in quality programming. While Chinese students lap up shows American shows to the point where I am no longer surprised when Chinese acquaintances ask me “Your last name is Ross, like Ross Geller?” or “If you date a Chinese girl, would you like her to be like Carrie or Miranda?” there has yet to be a Chinese show which has so captivated foreign audiences.

struggle 奋斗

This has been my obstacle as well, and I owe a big “thank you” to Peter Jeziorek for suggesting I watch 奋斗 (Struggle). 奋斗 originally aired in 2007 and is one of the first shows to focus on the 八零后 generation, those born between 1980 and 1989, the first generation to grow up entirely during the years following the Reform and Opening Up. The main characters of the show are a group of friends who have recently graduated from college, and are dealing with the typical struggles which face young adults in China such as finding a job, love and marriage, and the looming burden of caring for one’s parents.

奋斗 is not the greatest show I have ever watched. The acting is fair. The story grows excessively corny at points. And the plotlines are predictable. But the characters are well-developed and it tackles enough realistic issues of Chinese society to make it both interesting and educational. So far, I’ve completed five episodes, and I am shooting to watch all 32, for two reasons. Firstly, it’s a much needed Chinese workout. Secondly, from a pedagogical perspective, I am curious what specific effects watching Chinese television will have on my language skills. If all goes well, expect more blogging as I get deeper into the project. But first I wanted to provide a few random observations and thoughts I’ve had up to this point.


1) I call it “power watching,” because you don’t just sit back, relax, and watch a show all the way through. The method I have been employing entails watching each episode three times, pausing throughout to look up unfamiliar words, and replaying words and phrases which need to be added to my repertoire. I am quite convinced that had I been watching each episode only once, and without pausing and rewinding, the linguistic benefit would have been minimal.

2) For any method of language study to be efficient, it needs to be done every day. Therefore I have been spending 1-2 hrs per day, every day, in front of the screen, “studying.”

3) Often, I find instances where I am familiar with a phrase, but realize my inflection has been totally off, or a word for which I have been pronouncing the tone incorrectly. In these cases, I rewind several times and repeat the entire phrase out loud. This has served to both call attention to, and rectify, several long-ingrained mistakes and malapropisms.

4) Television shows have two major pedagogical advantages over movies. Firstly, watching, digesting, re-watching, and comprehending a thirty or forty minute shows is much more manageable (and practical) than doing so with a movie which could last two hours. Secondly, there is a certain sense of linguistic continuity that goes along with following the same characters episode to episode, which would not apply to movies, where each new film contains entirely new characters and concepts.

5) Certain aspects of the Chinese language cannot be taught or explained in words. They have to be felt. The example which comes to mind constantly as I watch 奋斗 is particles. There are no set rules for when you say 啊,嘛,呗,呀 or the multitude of other particle words which have no explicit meaning in Chinese. And for most of us laowai, we cope with this dilemma the easy way: we omit them. Although I still have a long way to go, I am starting to feel where and when I should throw a 呀 or a 哇 at into a sentence. It adds an entire new dimension to the tone of speech, and I’m going to pay special attention to this as I continue through 奋斗.

6) I suspect that the cultural benefits of watching a show based in modern times starring people roughly my age (I still have 2 more weeks of my 20s) are going to be significant. As a foreigner in China, you always affect a situation in a different way than you would had you been Chinese, especially those situations which involve yourself directly. Watching Chinese people interact with one another (albeit fictional Chinese people) has already provided me with cultural insight that probably would have been of considerable value in say…dealing with ex-girlfriends or professional endeavors.


Between work and Chinese friends, the days in Chicago when I use Chinese generally outnumber those where I do not, so I’m already having ample opportunity to test out what I have learned. Roughly a week into this project, I’ve noticed expressions from 奋斗 have begun creeping into my idiolect (along with an 儿化音 taboot). But more importantly, I’m noticing subtle influence on my patterns of speech, specifically in regards to accent and delivery. It’s as if the voices of the characters are trapped inside my head and are providing an active template for my syntax and pronunciation.

Although it’s still early in the game, I would already say that hour for hour, watching 奋斗 has been the most efficient Chinese studying I’ve done in years. It wouldn’t have done much good at the early stages of my language study, but at this point I feel like it is going to be the absolute best way to continue to improve. If all goes as planned, I should be able to finish the show by the end of the year, and will hopefully have more observations in the weeks to come.



Making a Fashion Statement in China

Posted in Fujian, Pop Culture at 5:38 pm by Benjamin Ross

It’s been several months since I’ve stepped foot in the Middle Kingdom.  However, my old cohort Rebecca McQuillen, is still in Fuzhou and recently logged these colorful snapshots (and captions) about fashion in China on her Facebook.  I have reproduced them here with her permission.

Real LV which is not seen very often. She went to Hong Kong to buy this beauty.

Retired look; This was at the the torch relay coming to Fuzhou.

Seeing a lot of price tags still hanging off clothing. It used to be the brand on the sleeve of business suits. Price tags are fairly new in the past 2 years.
College girl look

Love the colors and patterns. so cute

She is getting geared up for the 4th of July, I guess. I always wonder where they buy this stuff. Do with have sequenced flag purses at home?

Normal look for weekday afternoon. Gogo dress and high heels riding motor scooter.
Owner of local coffee shop; Her backpack is an over-sized teddy bear. Many adults wear and use things we in the West would consider for children only.

Menswear displayed in a window; This looks like a women’s outfit in the West, but they only sell men’s clothing in this store so was not an issue of only having a male mannequin.

“Less is more in the West.  In China, too much is not enough,” quote by Douglas Bonner, and this is another example.
Arm protectors; seeing less and less of these, but many young women who work in offices still wear them at work. Offices get cleaned maybe once a year, so they are quite dirty.
school boys and me

Face masks are now fashion statements.

Dogs dyed all different colors and made to wear doggy clothes is a normal site. Now more and more large dogs are being seen.

Airport porters with Chinglish, note this is in Shenzhen AFTER the Olympics.

Normal walk in high heels…looks like a homecoming queen, which is suitable cause she was at airport picking up a passenger.

Hanging out at nail salon
These hats are a huge hit on Gulangyu Island in Xiamen.
countryside look
Colored hair is everywhere. Yet they dye bottle color, not much mixing or toning down. It is still in experimental stage.

(I know this from first hand experience.)

What I like about Rebecca’s work is that it provides a pretty accurate cross section of a society which is only 30 years into a complete upheaval of common social practices;  how individuals clothe themselves being a major component of this.  Most of Rebecca’s shots were taken in Fuzhou, where only a generation ago, such photography would have yielded nothing more than monotonous blue and gray suits, straight black hair, and nothing more than a “Quotations of Mao Zedong” book as an accessory.  As China continues to change and develop at a rapid pace, so too will the fashion tastes of the populace. Many of the fashions shown here (sans the “countryside look” of course) will probably be by the wayside in just a couple years.  It’s already looking vastly different from when I left Fuzhou, and that was only August of 2007.



The 4th of July and Michael Jackson (repost)

Posted in Pop Culture at 10:10 pm by Benjamin Ross

originally posted 7/3/07

The 4th of July is the one time a year when us Americans can dress up in red, white, and blue, and drink beer and light fireworks as we sing off-key versions The Battle Hymn of the Republic. Its a day to eat bar-b-que, have block parties, and above all, celebrate. The reason for all the celebration, in theory, is to commemorate our Independence, and to be proud of being American. But what does it mean to be proud to be an American? Living in China, I often come across tiny moments which answer this question. The most recent of these came from an unexpected source.

Last weekend I was enjoying an evening with friends in a private room at a karaoke bar. After several hours of Chinese pop songs, one of my friends selected Michael Jackson’s Thriller to be played on the hi-fi. Unlike most Chinese karaoke videos, the Thriller video is the uncut version of the original.

As the first scene began with Michael proposing to his girlfriend, the normally raucous atmosphere of the karaoke room toned down to a curious movie watching mode. My friends’ eyes remained peeled to the screen as Michael morphed into a werewolf and chased his girlfriend through the woods. The frightened look in their eyes was suddenly spun around as the scene flashes to Michael and his girlfriend eating popcorn in the movie theater. Everybody in the room had been engaged, scared, shocked, and humored, and were now settling into the fact that this was not just a typical karaoke video.

As Michael danced down the street, heads bopped up and down to the bass notes of that famous Thriller instrumental loop. When the music faded and zombies emerged from tombs and man-holes, the girls began to squirm in their seats. As Michael danced with the zombies, the atmosphere reverted back to that of a karaoke room. Shots of beer were consumed, snacks were munched, and the group chitter chattered amongst each other.

The party atmosphere was broken once again when Michael’s girlfriend runs home only to find the zombies breaking into her living room. As the zombified Michael emerged, looks of fright and anxiety graced my friends’ faces one more time, only to be promptly swifted away as Michael reaches in to grab his girlfriend and then suddenly wakes her up from a dream. As Michael turned around and faced the camera with his glowing eyes, the karaoke crowd clapped with delight.

One of the girls turned to me, “Wow, I had no idea he was so handsome back then. He is really strange now.”

Michael Jackson was handsome in 1983. But it was not just his physical appearance. Michael could sing. He could dance. He had the red leather jacket. And his teaming with producer Quincy Jones and a skilled team of directors, actors, musicians, and choreographers, produced a 13 minute clip of pure genius. Watching the Thriller video in a karaoke room in Fuzhou in 2007, it is still every bit as fresh as it was when I saw it for the first time when I was only 4 years old. It’s a work of art, which has proven to cross not only borders of time but those of culture.

During the next song another one of my friends in the room turned to me, and referring to the Thriller video said “That was really incredible. There has never been anything done like this in China.”

Because of various factors, social, economical, political, demographical, and some purely coincidental, the United Sates is an environment where this kind of creative innovation has thrived for 400 years. As the world’s largest fondue pot of ethnic mixing, American culture has produced some of the world’s most profound innovations, personalities, and works of art from the last 400 years. From Thomas Edison to Bill Gates, from Huckleberry Finn to Homer Simpson, and from the Model T to Gmail, the cumulative achievements of American culture should make us all proud.

The Fourth of July is not only a time to celebrate our independence, but also a time to appreciate the achievements which have occurred since our independence. This Wednesday take a short break from the beer and bar-b-que to re-watch the Thriller video. Or read a few chapters from The Grapes of Wrath. Download a copy of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. Pop in a CD of Duke Ellington, Bob Dylan, or Elvis Presley. Use an iPod. Watch The Simpsons. Listen to one of George Carlin’s stand up routines. Reread the American constitution. Rent The Godfather, or eat General Tso’s chicken.

If anybody asks why you are proud to be an American, you will have a list of reasons to give them. And then you can return to the beer, bratwursts, and a capella renditions of This Land is Your Land.

michael jackson red jacket portrait
1958 – 2009



The New Face of Sports in China

Posted in Olympics, Pop Culture, Society at 1:46 am by Benjamin Ross

Note: Due to the timeliness of the following post, I’ve taken a short break from “From the Delta to the Backwoods.” Expect another update to the series by the end of the week.


August 18, 2008

On a scorching evening in Beijing, thousands of fans are pack into Workers Stadium to watch two international soccer powers collide in the semifinals of the Olympic Games.  Although people from around the globe have descended upon Beijing for the Olympics, the crowd arriving to watch Brazil battle Argentina is 90% Chinese.  In a country where soccer is embraced by the masses and visas to visit Western countries are not easily obtained, this is likely the most anticipated soccer match ever to take place on Chinese soil.  Of those lucky enough to get in, many have coughed up sums of up to 3000 RMB to purchase tickets from scalpers.

Beijing Workers Stadium Argentina vs Brazil Olympic Semifinals
The capacity crowd at Beijing Worker’s Stadium eagerly awaits the kickoff of Argentina and Brazil, playing for a spot in the Gold Medal Game.

As the opening kickoff ensues, the crowd fixates on the field, hollering, cheering, and soaking in what may be their only chance ever to watch world class footballers in person.  Halfway through the first half, heads begin to turn in the lower section on the west side of the stadium, and a slow murmur morphs into a barrage of emotion and shouts.  Cheers erupt, cameras flash, and a euphoric mayhem ensues, as from out of the fan concourse emerges an athlete renowned and loved by sports fans across Middle Kingdom.  But ironically, the athlete drawing all the attention at this soccer spectacle not a soccer player himself.  Rather he has earned his fame indoors on the hardwood, as both an Olympian and a perennial NBA All-Star.  I think you know who I am talking about, right?  In a land where ping pong is king but basketball is the latest craze, this star has become the Bruce Lee of a new generation, with his image sprawled across billboards, and his name imprinted on backs of jerseys in the schoolyards of far-flung rural villages.  Yeah, you know exactly who I am talking about, don’t you?  Wanna guess?  I’ll give you one hint…It’s not Yao Ming.

As the newly arrived celebrity and his two acquaintances take their seats, the mob begins chanting in unison, “KE—BI, KE—BI, KE—BI.”  Before long the entire west side of the stadium has joined in the chant.  “KE—BI, KE—BI, KE—BI.”  “Kebi” is of course the Chinese name Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard Kobe Bryant.  Bryant, a purported fan of the Argentinean soccer squad, had just sat down to enjoy the match, as he was mobbed by a mass of autograph seeking, camera flashing, Chinese soccer fans.  It was as if the match between the two South American powers had been temporarily suspended, so that everyone in attendance could catch a brief glimpse of the NBA superstar.  Throughout the fiasco, which lasted roughly 15 minutes, chants of “KE—BI, KE—BI, KE—BI” continued to roar throughout the stadium.

Over the last decade, the NBA has rapidly been replacing soccer as the premiere spectator sport in China.  NBA fervor rose to a new level in 2002 when 7 foot 5 inch Yao Ming of Shanghai was selected as the first pick in the NBA draft by the Houston Rockets. Since then, Yao has played in 5 All-Star games, given proper lip service to his country and its leaders, and avoided any major off-the-court blemishes to his personal record.  But the main knock on Yao thus far been his failure to deliver a championship caliber team to the 5.7 million people in Houston (and the 1.4 billion in China).  The Rockets Yao-era post-season woes have caused some of the rage over China’s tallest celebrity to taper off of late.  Recent years have seen numerous Chinese fans who were once loyal devotees to the Houston Rockets, switch their allegiance over to the Los Angeles Lakers and Kobe Bryant.  According to Jiang Yuan, a 26 year old NBA fan in Xiamen, “Pretty much everybody in China knows Yao Ming.  But among those people who really pay close attention to the NBA, Kobe is more popular.”

Kobe-mania is indeed spreading throughout the Middle Kingdom.  In addition to the billboards and jerseys, last summer at the Olympics, I ran into a group of college age Chinese boys who were all wearing yellow shirts with purple letters reading “I Love Kobe.”  This was at a beach volleyball event.  I didn’t go to see Kobe play live.  I couldn’t.  Tickets were nearly impossible to find and selling for over ten times their face value.  Even CCTV highlight shows, where were at one time were virtual play-by-play recaps of Yao’s performance, are increasingly focusing more time on China’s adopted favorite son.

Interestingly enough, the NBA’s other dominant figure, LeBron James, has yet to leave as much of a cultural imprint on China as has been done by Kobe in recent years.  Even CCTV announcers can be heard pondering, “Why isn’t LeBron James popular in China?”  One theory, suggested by Jiang, is that Kobe’s game is dependent on “elegance and form” while LeBron’s style is based primarily on raw strength.  “Chinese peoples’ bodies are not as strong as those of Westerners.  Therefore they prefer those players with elegant playing styles like Kobe and Michael Jordan,” Jiang says.  This may also serve to explain why Kobe’s fame is seemingly eclipsing that of Yao, whose game relies heavily on him standing a full head above most other players.

I love Kobe T-shirt in China
A young Chinese fan wears his basketball allegiance on his shirt.

With all this in mind, the current playoff series between the Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Lakers may bear more significance for Chinese NBA fans than any other in NBA history.  This is not the first time these two giants of basketball have competed against one another in the post season. Yao and Kobe faced each other in the post-season in the first round of the 2004 playoffs, with LA easily disposing of the Rockets in five games, and most attention focused on the nominal rivalry between Yao and Shaquille O’Neal.  At that juncture, Kobe had yet to completely emerge as the MVP-caliber player he is today, and Yao was still a scrawny second year player, being dominated in the post by a formidable Shaq Diesel in his prime.

Fast forward to 2009 and China’s two favorite NBA stars are both posting career seasons and battling out a best-of-seven series in the second round of NBA Playoffs.  For Yao, a win against to Lakers could regain some of the ground he has already lost to Kobe as China’s foremost NBA superstar.  And for Kobe, a win puts him one small step closer to winning his first post-Shaq championship, and an even more devoted legion of Chinese Laker fans.

Few NBA enthusiasts would assert that the Rockets have much of a chance to win a championship in 2009, let alone take the series from the Lakers.  At the same time, the Lakers, assuming they handle the Rockets, will still presumably have their hands full in the NBA Finals against the red hot Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James.  Nonetheless, this series represents a potential crossroads for China’s two most-beloved NBA stars and could have considerable implications on their standings in the higher order of Chinese basketball deities.  One thing is for certain though.  You don’t need to be Chinese to become the king of basketball in China.  Just ask Chinese soccer fans.

Addendum: Just as I was putting the finishing touches on this post, it was announced that Yao Ming has a broken foot and will be out the rest of the Playoffs.

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