Editor’s Note: This essay first appeared, in edited form, in the January 2012 issue of NewsChina.
It’s amazing how many near-death experiences can be squeezed into a two-hour stint within the confines of an elementary school in China. The most mundane, some might say instinctive, actions can have drastic consequences if not carried out correctly. Going down stairs, washing hands, walking across the room— all scenarios require elders to enforce China’s unwritten safety regulations, whether for the child in their own care, or a classmate in the care of another, less attentive ayi. Every movement of the child must be watched, and commented on, in order to ensure their survival. The extent to which these ayi hover over the children entrusted to them makes me wonder, are they more concerned with the child’s safety, or with simply appearing concerned?
Yesterday was the seventh day after the Wenzhou railway crash that claimed dozens of lives and rocked the Weibo micro-blogging universe. The seventh day after a death in China is called touqi (头七) and is an important milestone of mourning. All across China, instead of paying respects to the lives lost on July 23, netizens were venting their fury at a system hellbent on burying all the facts under a mountain of oppression and obfuscation.
Before I went to China, I made sure to know nothing about it. No books, no movies, not even the lottery numbers inside fortune cookies. The only thing I knew about China was that my rosewood end table and Zen-chic Roman shades were manufactured there. It was a conscious decision, because I wanted to hate the country and the people as much as possible, and I was afraid that if I weren’t completely ignorant going in, I might accidentally gain perspective and unwittingly feel empathy, which, let me tell you, isn’t very funny. So it was for humor that I endeavored to be as prejudiced and anal retentive as possible during my trip, to see how much of a spoiled dandy I could be if I really worked hard at it.
For many years I have griped at being patronized by Chinese colleagues, classmates and even friends with that age-old dismissal of my observations about their country or culture.
“You’re a foreigner. You don’t get it.”
Enter Let the Bullets Fly by the acclaimed filmmaker Jiang Wen, whose output I enjoyed while in college—particularly Devils on the Doorstep and In the Heat of the Sun, which I believe to be China’s most visually luscious film to date. Anyway, a colleague of mine arrived one morning at work raving about how subtly and ingeniously Bullets got its claws into the quagmire of Chinese politics, insisting it was Jiang Wen’s “masterpiece” and would “redefine Chinese cinema.”
Then the disclaimer: “I don’t think you’d be able to understand the political messages. After all, it’s about revolution, and pain, and suffering. It’s very Chinese.”
No, I’m not talking about the actual theory, which is the first joke that people make when I say that; I’m talking about television here. I understand that “hate” may be too strong of a word to deploy against The Big Bang Theory. A more accurate title might be “I Hate Chuck Lorre”, or “I Am Alienated by The Big Bang Theory and Not in the Good Brechtian Way.”