I rarely look at the bulletin boards that line the walkway to the student dorms (which is probably because Jon and I rarely go to the student dorms (...unless we're on a panty raid or something but usually then we're too hammered to read a bulletin board, am I right? High five!)), but the other day a flash of color caught my eye, and with delight I saw a photographic recap of English festival featuring these two ugly mugs:
I won't show you the other pictures of our students holding up their own inspirational messages but just trust me, they are precious. Here's a section featuring photos from our performance at English night:
I love how, in order to get Jon's head at top-right in the frame, I had no choice but to also include the crotch-grab in the upper left. Which, in case anyone is wondering, was not part of our Monty Python routine.
Last week I published another Chinese translation puzzle, and this week I am proud to announce that the winner is Julia W.... and my entire Wordplay class. Looks like I've finally made a puzzle that's easier for native Chinese speakers than the other way around! Yeah!
Anyway, the answers are:
1. animal (4): Nose loves ear flute = 鼻爱耳笛 = BIRD
2. vegetable (4, 4): Fart cancer peace meaning; ladder son one chair = 屁癌安意；梯儿一椅 = PINE TREE
3. mineral (4): Two fish pen outside = 二鱼笔外 = RUBY
When I first saw the video above, I was intrigued but not impressed. Although I think "Nobody took a bite of this peach when it was ripe!" is a really funny line, something stopped me from laughing. Maybe it's the all-too-familiar cadence in his delivery, or that he kind of reminds me of a few of my more precocious students, but for whatever reason I just couldn't take him seriously (or not seriously, whichever the case may be).
And then I saw this article in the Wall Street Journal (via sinoplice). Apparently, Joe Wong is not funny to Chinese people:
Mr. Wong's first live gig in Beijing, in late 2008, was "not successful," he says. In America, he says, it's funny to poke fun at yourself. But in China, there's no humor in misfortune. The audience struggled to grasp the punch lines, and Mr. Wong recalls looking out on the blank faces of a "polite but serious" crowd.
"That was an unfunny routine," says Ding Guangquan, a Chinese comedian, who invited Mr. Wong to perform there.
I find this incredibly endearing. Why? Because this explains why I am not funny in Chinese except to the few who already know me well enough to know when I'm trying to be funny. And not just in the self-deprecation arena, such as when I flex my Olive Oyl-like biceps, or describe what an awesome cook I am. I'm also talking about a joke that I get the opportunity to make just about every time I meet a new person, and which for some masochistic reason I continue to blurt out automatically despite all evidence that it just doesn't work:
Me: Hi, nice to meet you.
Him/her: Wa! Your Chinese is so good!
Me: Not as good as yours!
Him/her: (genuine confusion, nervous laughter) Ei? But I am a Chinese!
Every. Goddamn. Time. The fact that my new friend is obviously Chinese is clearly the root of the humor, the root that was meant to stay underground, where roots grow. It's the same reason why it's funny when Joe Wong says "Hi, I'm Irish," a joke that, according to the WSJ article, escaped a few Chinese netizens:
"How come the first sentence, 'I'm Irish,' can make Americans laugh?" one viewer asked in the comments on a subtitled video circulating in China. Because everybody in America is from Ireland, someone theorized. "It has nothing to do with that," said a third. It's because being "Irish itself is hilarious."
Wait, wait, wait, this is the best part of the article:
Mr. Wong isn't the first, of course, to find humor doesn't translate. Judy Carter, an American comedian and author of "The Comedy Bible," says she bombed when she did a gig for a Chinese audience in California. To set up a joke, she opened with "I just broke up with my boyfriend..." A collective sigh of sadness emanated around the room, she says.
I literally laughed out loud just then. LLOL, if you will. God, that's funny.
Anyway, I'm not trying to say that Chinese people are dumb for not "getting it". But I also don't want to say that I'm dumb for not "getting" Chinese humor. Once on a bus in Guangxi, Jon and I watched a TV program featuring some cross-talk comedy, kind of a traditional Chinese two-man stand-up. We noticed that, just like many American routines, there was a straight man and a foil, the difference was that the straight man's job appeared to consist entirely of describing what the silly man was doing (in this case, imitating the static of a radio) and explaining why it was funny: "Stop pretending to be a radio; you're a human!" "Hey, what's this now? Rock and roll?" "Oh! A news program!"
I also own a book of Chinese jokes for kids. I cut these jokes a lot of slack because we have some pretty dumb American joke books, but a lot of these are unfunny in a profoundly different sense than just bad punnery or lack of creativity. For example:
In a middle school literature class, the teacher was reading aloud from a piece called "The Last Lecture". When the teacher got to the last sentence, "Class dismissed, you can all go....", one student, who had been nodding off, heard this sentence and promptly stood up and left the classroom. Everyone stared at him, dumbfounded.
Of course that joke wasn't exactly a knee-slapper to begin with, but clearly it's exactly one sentence longer than it should be. Right?! Here's another example of this phenomenon from a similar article on sinoplice (apologies for the double quote-indent):
A former co-worker of mine has extensive experience telling jokes to Chinese audiences in Chinese. His Chinese is quite good, and in most cases, he is able to elicit the desired chuckles. His advice to me (should I choose to carry on the torch at future training seminars) was: “When you tell a joke to a Chinese audience, you may need to make the ‘punchline’ a bit later than you would ordinarly deem necessary.”
I’ll share the joke he told me. It’s a generic “smart people, dumb people” joke, which he filled in with Chinese and Japanese for convenience (and automatic audience approval).
Two groups of foreigners were visiting the USA. One was a group of three Japanese businessmen, and the other was a group of three Chinese businessmen. They happened to be taking the same train.
The Japanese bought their three tickets, but then happened to notice that the Chinese guys behind them only bought one. They were confused by this, thinking perhaps there was a miscommunication, but decided to mind their own business and not say anything.
Once on the train, the two groups were sitting very near each other. As the ticket-taker started coming around, the Japanese watched the Chinese with interest.
Suddenly the three Chinese guys sprang up, walked down to the end of the car, and crammed into the small restroom together. When the ticket-taker came by, he could tell someone was in the restroom, so he knocked on the door, calling “TICKET.” The Chinese slid their one ticket under the door. The ticket-taker collected it and moved on, and the Chinese came out shortly thereafter and sat back down.
The Japanese were duly impressed by the crafty Chinese.
On the train ride back, as luck would have it, the same two groups wound up on the same train. The Japanese, nervously seated with one ticket among the three of them, eyed the Chinese as they entered. The Chinese didn’t seem to have a single ticket. The Japanese didn’t know what the Chinese were up to, but they were nevertheless glad they had a chance to use the new trick.
When the ticket-taker drew near, both groups headed for the restrooms. The Japanese crammed into the restroom on the right side, the Chinese crammed into the restroom on the left side.
After a few seconds, one of the Chinese quietly emerged from the restroom and headed to the one occupied by the Japanese, who were nervously waiting for the ticket-taker. The Chinese guy knocked on the door and called out “TICKET.”
The joke, in its original form, is supposed to end there. My co-worker found it wise to add the following for his Chinese audience, however:
The Japanese slid their ticket under the door. The Chinese guy grabbed it and went back into the other restroom.
Stuff like this makes me want to pull my hair out, because ostensibly I'm in China to understand the Chinese mind, but this is something I'm not sure if I want to understand. That's why this part of the article, the part that talks about Chinese stand-up that does work, is so validating for me:
Younger audiences are starting to warm to the stand-up style, with a Chinese twist. There are footnotes: after the punch line comes an explanation of why it's funny.
In Shanghai, Zhou Libo's stand-up show has become a top event. His repertoire spans global warming, growing up poor and, that perennial crowd-pleaser, China's emergence as a global economic power.
He jokes about China's massive purchases of U.S. Treasury bonds: "I am really confused about why a poor guy lends money to the rich. We should just divide the money amongst ourselves," he says. "But on a second thought, each of us would only get a couple of dollars!" Then Mr. Zhou adds: "Because the population is so big."
So anyway, this is why I find myself feeling strangely sympathetic to Joe Wong, a Chinese person who knows what it's like to be funny in America but not in China. On second thought, Joe, I will take a bite of that peach. In a completely heterosexual, just-one-dude-laughing-at-another-dude's-jokes kind of way.
Last year I had a few Senior I students in my Time Travel class without English names. Thanks to my semester in Australia, I was equipped with a whole pantheon of new friends with cool names, and so it was that I christened five Chinese children Natasha, Siobhan, Rory, Hamish, and Eamon.
Four out of five never reappeared in my class this year. Natasha is MIA. I can't remember what Rory looks like. Hamish and Eamon actually kept their names (yeah!), though now they are in Jon's class. The only one I have left is Siobhan.
So I couldn't help but be a little disappointed when she asked to change her name during roll call at the beginning of the year. I thought for sure it was because of the not-so-intuitive pronunciation, but she set me straight:
"It sounds like a bad word in Chinese," she said, blushing.
"What?! In Mandarin?" The closest words in my Mandarin vocabulary are probably 师范 (shīfàn, "pedagogical") or 示范 (shìfàn, "to demonstrate").
"No, in Cantonese." Other students began to giggle.
"Okay, what would you like to be called?"
I let her change it, of course, but my curiosity about this "bad word" was far from slaked. As politely as possible, I grilled her after class.
"So, what does 'Siobhan' sound like in Cantonese?"
Quietly, cautiously, she mumbled a word that, to me, didn't sound much like Siobhan. See-futt? I felt a little bad about asking this little girl to explain a potentially egregious profanity to her teacher, so I turned around and appealed to her rowdy male classmates, who were quick to oblige.
"It means ass." Okay, then, thanks guys; see you next week!
Thirst for knowledge temporarily quenched, I nearly forgot about this word, even after Jon and I started learning Cantonese, because I didn't know really know what the word was, meaning I only knew how to pretend to say it. I didn't know the characters, so I hadn't really "learned" the word.
Well, as of tonight, I've finally "learned" it. Guess it took a few chapters before our textbook got around to discussing slang words for "ass", but this week's "Going to the Doctor" lesson took care of that. One character jokingly asks his doctor to jab him in the ass with an ass-needle (I think that's the proper English medical term for ass-vaccines these days, correct me if I'm wrong), and thus the following word has entered my Cantonese vocabulary:
屎窟 (si2 fat7)
屎窟 literally means "feces cave". So, I guess I didn't really do this girl any favors by trying to name her Siobhan. I probably wouldn't be happy if I had to tell other Americans that my Chinese name is "Shithole Wang" or something. So... Tracy it is.
I bought the Black Dynamite DVD last year but until last night I never even tried to watch it. Every time I've seen it in the DVD pile I think the same thing I do when I see the covers of other unwatched DVD's like Paul Blart: Mall Cop and Land of the Lost, which is, "Why did I buy that, again?"
But last night I checked Rotten Tomatoes and apparently, people think it's pretty okay:
Consensus: A loving and meticulous send-up of 1970s blaxsploitation movies, Black Dynamite is funny enough for the frat house and clever enough for film buffs.*
So I decided to pop it in. It's a dud, as it turns out. And I don't mean I thought it was a bad movie, I mean the actual DVD won't play in my computer. So I still haven't seen it, and therefore cannot remark here on its contents.
What I will remark on, however, is the back of the pirated DVD packaging. These are almost always funny, but usually for the mangled English or dubious fact-checking** (my copy of L.A. Confidential lists the female lead as Marilyn Monroe). This time, though, the English description of Black Dynamite appears reasonable:
This is the story of 1970s African-American action legend Black Dynamite. The Man killed his brother, pumped heroin into local orphanages, and flooded the ghetto with adulterated malt liquor. Black Dynamite was the one hero willing to fight The Man all the way from the blood-soaked city streets to the hallowed halls of the Honky House.
And to give you a sense of what that sounds like, here's my translation back into English:
"Man" kills his own brother, brings heroin into local orphanages, and transports poor quality malt liquor into the Jewish region. The whole city is soaked in blood, full of evil.
Based on their translation of "ghetto", I think it's time to update whatever dictionary they're using. Also, the issue of who killed who's brother aside, the whole idea of "Black Dynamite" or blackness in general is mysteriously absent from this description.
Sigh. It's a tough job, making fun of underpaid translators for pirated DVDs, but somebody's got to do it.
*Jon came up with a snappier version which ends with "funny enough for the frat house and smart enough for the art house."
** Aha. I see now that the credits at the bottom of the back cover are actually from John Q, not Black Dynamite. I thought Denzel Washington looked funny in that mustache! I can see how the DVD copiers could be confused though. John Q did have that one crazy nunchuck bell-bottom battle.
By Gus Tate on April 12, 2010 11:02 PM
And so it was that Jon and I performed Monty Python's famous "Argument Sketch" for our students and their parents and fellow teachers. Note that the greatest burst of applause we receive is the moment we first show our faces. God, we're terrific.
The rest of English Night 2010 (actual title: English Festival 2010: The Evening) was, like most things our best students do, not just super-cute but very impressive. From our honored guest third-row seats we were privileged to witness an epic retelling of the final scenes of Pirates of the Carribean III (so epic as to bring to mind the last scene of Rushmore), a lip-bitingly cute a cappella version of "That's Not My Name" (fun fact: did you know that the Ting Tings named their band after one of their Chinese friends (婷婷 Tíngtíng)?), and a passionate redubbing of the argument scene from The Break-Up, which includes a double-mention of the word "prick", which, lest the administrators in the audience forget, is a naughty, naughty word. Plus, the headmaster (who, apparently, annually regales everyone with an English speech despite his not being able to speak English) switched it up this year with a soulful, not-quite-on-the-beat-or-even-consistently-off-it rendition of "Edel Weiss". I wish I could have recorded it all for your viewing pleasure, but I told our cameragirl Serena to save memory card space in case our skit got a six-minute standing ovation plus triple encore. It didn't but, you know, gotta plan ahead.
I mentioned recently that I gave a special lecture last week as part of English Festival 2010. That lecture is what finally forced me to do something with the 3,790 photographs depicting the entirety of my caloric intake during the year 2008. I called the presentation: "What I ate in 2008." Essentially it was just a slideshow of all my food that year in rapid succession, followed by a slightly more in-depth "director's commentary" on some of the more interesting photos.
These photos have been on display for a while at my Flickr collection, though as of last week I hadn't yet made any effort to organize them into a more viewable format, besides attempting to review the highlights on my blog last year, an effort that quickly ran outofsteam.
But now I am proud to present the three videos which I developed for this lecture. They represent the three stages of my 2008 experience: last semester at Princeton, summer in Kentucky, and teaching in China. If you're reading this blog, chances are you shared a meal or two with me that year, so be prepared for a quick appearance of your face, a face that was likely growing impatient as I struggled to obtain the perfect angle or lighting.
Last semester at Princeton:
Summer in Kentucky:
Teaching in China:
The actual presentation, which I gave to an unexpectedly large audience of maybe a hundred or so students (most of whom were younger and not in any of my regular classes), was largely a success, with one little snafu: I had forgotten how much more often Julia's face appears in these photos compared to my other friends (by the way I should take this opportunity to mention that Julia also took photos of all her food that year). This would not have been a problem for a more mature audience but I should have known better; once people started to recognize this young woman as a frequent dining companion of mine, they started getting a little rowdy. When I opened the floor for questions, one boy stood up and asked,
"Who's that girl?" *giggles all around*
"That's... my sister." *confusion*
Another student stood up. "Why does your sister have black hair?" *excessive giggling*
"She dyed it." *mass confusion*
A girl from my oral English class shouted from her seat, "Is that your girlf..."
"Okay! Who has a question about food?"
But once I got that under control, everything went pretty smoothly. The verdict from the students: I eat way too much chocolate in America and not enough in China. Vice versa for green vegetables.
Finally, I must say, concerning the recent NYT article about food diarism, that everything they talk about, the obsession over getting just the right shot, the comments from random people, the preference for interesting or photogenic foods, is very true. And it really does bring back a lot of only-tangentially-related-to-food memories when I browse through them. Like trying to convince my tablemates that tomatoes and cheesecake is actually a good combination (it wasn't), or that German beer that tasted like hot dogs and how far my own two legs carried me across Lexington under its influence, or almost spilling pork juice on a family of Uighurs on a bus across Xinjiang. As salamu alaykum, more like a salami alaykum, am I right?
It's English Festival time here at HuaFu. That means a lot of things, like me giving an hour and a half lecture on a topic of my choosing (more on that later), Jon judging the movie dubbing competition, and both of us fulfilling strange requests like supplying the emcees of English Night with baby photos of ourselves.
Last week at English corner, a student ambushed me with a whiteboard and told me to write an inspirational message to advertise English Festival. I really wanted to think of something witty yet accessible. Sadly, all I could come up with was:
The real treat, for all the die-hard Jon and/or Gus fans out there, will be our performance at English Night this Sunday. We're going to do Monty Python's Argument Sketch. Sorry, Henry; I know we already performed the shit out of that one in 8th grade, but Jon and I were fresh out of ideas and ran up against a deadline. Funnily enough, that's very similar to how David and I came up with "Who's on first?" last year.
So anyway, get excited. Come Sunday, we're either going to have a video of hundreds of Chinese high school students laughing at our fake mustaches, or seven minutes of crickets chirping because no one understands why a man would want to pay for an argument.
Today during lunch I watched part of a tense curling match between China and Japan (fun fact: the events that led to the Japanese invasion of China actually started with a minor disagreement over a foul line violation during the famous Sino-Japanese Curl-Off of 1913). As the sweepers swept, furiously and then not all and back to furiously) I suddenly realized: Oh shit; it's Tomb Sweeping Day.
Yes, I know that both Passover and Easter have come and gone recently, and ethnologically speaking I should be more worried about belatedly finding eggs or painting my door with lamb's blood, but as a cultural ambassador I try to respect the traditions of my current nation of residence whenever possible, i.e. whenever it doesn't require me to eat a moon cake. So Tomb Sweeping Day caught me with my pants down, so to speak. My paternal ancestor's tombs: have I left them perilously unswept?
Then it hit me: I've already swept a few of my ancestor's graves, in a very literal sense. Last summer when I helped my dad clear some rocks and tree limbs out from the small overgrown cemetery on the Tate family farm?...
...That was me Sweeping Tombs! Never mind that my dad did basically all the work already and I mostly just took photographs; it's the thought that counts. I'm like, so Chinese and I didn't even know it!
But back to Easter, can anyone tell me whether or not Jesus saw his shadow this year?
I can't be sure, of course, but I think Chinese might be the only language in the world in which the phrase "cow's cunt" means "awesome/great."
The first time I heard this phrase was from a HuaFu student who was surprised to hear me pronounce a Chinese word. "哇 (wa)!" she exclaimed, "好牛屄喔! (hǎo niúbī wo! — it's so cow's cunt!)". At the time, I was aware that 屄 (bī) was slang for some part of the female genitalia, but was not yet aware it could hold such a positive meaning when bovine. Thus my initial reaction was something like "Really? Is my pronunciation that bad?" But she quickly explained, and the internet quickly corroborated her story. (Later I met a HuaFu graduate selling t-shirts featuring the letters "NiuB", which he eagerly explained meant, "the pussy of a cow." I'll never forget the way he so matter-of-factly employed a long "U" sound: pūssy.)
And so it was with great excitement that last Saturday night Jon and I found ourselves in a theater in Shenzhen, joyfully screaming "屄! (bīīīīīīīīīīī!") along with a few hundred Chinese audience members, in an effort to "reclaim the word 屄". That's right, we were at the Chinese Vagina Monologues (阴道独白).
It was the first public performance in Mainland China, or so we were told. There had been a low-profile student performance at Sun Yat-sen University, and they were originally planning this public performance in Guangzhou, but the local authorities wouldn't allow the words 阴道 (yīndào — vagina) on any signs, posters, or even text messages ("dirty" words get deleted automatically). But apparently Shenzhen was down with the v-word, because what Jon and I saw was pretty uncensored. I didn't feel like anyone was holding back, the audience seemed to appreciate the content, and the Q&A session afterwards was lively. In fact it was pretty much exactly the same as the performance I saw at Princeton, linguistic differences aside. I had hoped they would add at least one monologue from a uniquely Chinese perspective. By which I mean, 90 degrees to the right, am I right? Anyone? (Chinese women have sideways vaginas. What, you didn't know this?)
As entertaining as the show was, the best part of the trip was when, as our bus was leaving Guangzhou, our group leader asked everyone on board to stand up and introduce ourselves. Jon and I had just been attempting to speak French with each other, which is our code language around people we think might have good English:
Jon said, "Il faut faire attention, il y a beaucoup d'étudiants ici."
I said, "Oui. Je suis d'accord. Ne parlons pas l'anglais."
When the introductions began, the girl sitting right in front of us stood up and introduced herself as a French major at Sun Yat-sen University. Her male friend sitting beside her mentioned that he studied in France.
So... good thing we can't actually speak French, otherwise we might have actually been able to say something incriminating. Nevertheless, both of us felt pretty sheepish, and attempted (successfully!) to avoid eye-contact with the francophone couple during the remainder of the outing. Way to go, us!