Sunday, July 8, 2012

A Response to This American Life's "American's in China"

A while back I listened to the podcast show of This American Life's episode, "Americans in China." As I listened I was amused to hear familiar tales of life in an Asian country, coming from seasoned expats. At the same time I was a little peeved that the good folks at This American Life didn't consider the same show but with Korea as their backdrop. Heck, why not even a similar show with both Korea and China together? Maybe now that Samsung is becoming a big hit abroad, popular media will pick up on what life is like out here. Until then I feel like responding to their episode with bits of my interpretations to life on the peninsula.

Point 1: Foreigners on TV in China might be more exploited than foreigners on TV in Korea.

In the beginning of the show you are treated to an introduction about how foreign folk (mainly non-Asian) are often asked to be shown on TV. Not just this but typically they are made to sing or dance for the audience, which makes some people feel like monkeys.

Benji: When foreigners go on TV shows, the most common thing is, they like to dress them up in old Chinese garb, like the Tang Dynasty clothes, and make them sing some old Chinese song and say some ridiculous phrase in Chinese. And then the host will come out and just kind of make fun of them ....
Like I've heard that in Chinese TV, the things that get the best ratings are children, animals, and foreigners, which just kind of says it all. It's just that foreigners are considered cute and adorable. It's kind of like a baby who can't take care of himself and needs to be loved.
Sound familiar? The thing is though I haven't felt like foreigners have been made to do the same thing here on Korean TV. Sure foreigners are interviewed and put up on Arirang TV or news shows, but they haven't been randomly plucked off the street and whisked to the studio. I've known several bloggers who have been on popular tv programs here, but they were given notice and a choice.

However, I would say that foreigners are often depicted in non-sensical and racist ways on Korean TV, as seen in the MBC video (the scandalous one that reveals the "truths").

Anyways the theme of the show seems to be about how foreigners are interpreted in the communities around China, and how the foreigners themselves have learned to live and love the country.

Point 2: Always the outsider

The show transitions into a segment about the senior expats in China and how they have become so adapted to the atmosphere, that their almost "Chinese" themselves. Then it grows into a segment about one family that lives in the rural part of the country. Where on the one hand they are the welcomed foreign traveler that brings English language to the village, yet on the other they are the complete outsider.

This piece centers around Michael Meyer who has written the book, "The Last Days of Old Beijing." He lives in the rural town of "Wasteland", which is uncanny enough. As a man married to a Chinese woman, he gets asked about his family there a lot. Yet even though probably every villager knows him by now, he still receives the stare.

In urban China, the sight of a foreigner no longer causes a crowd to gather and stare. But in the rural half, people still approach me with friendly, cautious curiosity, the way you might if a giraffe wandered down your street. I read that the comedian Steve Martin used to hand autograph seekers a signed name card that confirmed the person had met Steve Martin and found him to be warm, polite, intelligent, and funny. I've often thought of making a similar card to present with a silent smile, answering the usual six questions asked of me in this order.
I've had the same idea, to have a small laminated card with the basic details of my life on it. "Where are you from?" "How old are you?" "How long have you been in Korea?" "Yes I can eat kimchi and use chopsticks." ...etc. Something to present the next person who starts asking me these questions, to which I can hurry things along and get to more personal and fun questions about myself.

But he also expresses the encounters he has had that were humbling, like a construction worker who asked him a philosophical question about life. I too have randomly found myself having a strange yet deep conversation with Korean strangers on the street (in English).

The show continues to show how Michael's life in rural China becomes how he is a representation of his country. People ask him about political and economical life in America, and why they are such a superpower. Similarly, I've felt like a small diplomat over here covering for my country when huge issues occur.

He moves on to the disruption his presence causes in the village, that he really has no control over.


Like teachers, writers are worthy of pity in China, even out in the sticks. But I know the trouble my presence causes, cutting a wake across the surface of village life. China's distrusts the single traveler, the person without a work unit or even a name card, especially when the person is a la-wai, an old outsider, as foreigners are often called. And with reason-- we can always leave.
Chinese doesn't use tenses or differentiate between singular and plural. So one la-wai is the same as six la-wai. But in situations such as this, in a town so small, where I am a visitor, teaching, sure, and invited to weddings and funerals and New Year's dinners, but a guest always. I know how to describe my numbers. Just as there is a murder of crows and a school of fish, in China, even in the middle of Wasteland, the foreigner is always a hassle of la-wai.

I think I can never voucher for being that disruptive in my neighborhood, as I live in a highly dense part of Seoul. But I can say I've recognized my presence in the schools I've worked as one where people walked on eggshells around me. Not because I was a terrible person (I'm a nice person!), but because they didn't want to speak English or deal with whatever might happen. This only meant for me to warm up to people in my school slowly, so to make my presence a warm one.

~~

It's a fun podcast and gives you some insights into what expat life in China is kind of like. Certainly, interesting to see the similarities and differences. I do wonder what it would be like to be an expat of one country for a long time, and move to the next. Readjustments not only in language surely must be a hurdle to overcome. Anyways, take a listen to this podcast and see what you can discover for yourself.




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