Thursday, April 26, 2007

A Heroic Death on CCTV

Just when I thought things were the most predictable this term, I had one of my more memorable "only in China" moments last week. Lili from the English department office called my cell phone late Wednesday afternoon and told me "there is someone from CCTV here looking for a foreign actor. Are you interested in having a try?" CCTV stands for China Central Television, and is the Chinese national television network. At first the words "token foreigner" flashed through my mind, as I have seen the sometimes clownish roles given to foreigners on CCTV.

"Well, what do they want me to do?" I asked, though I knew better than to expect to get such a wealth of information.
"I don't know" she replied.
"I'm across town. What time do they want to meet?" Another silly question.
"Could you come to my office right now?"
Long thoughtful pause. Well, I guess I didn't come all this way to lead a boring life. "Sure, I'll be there soon."

When I arrived they simply took my picture, shook my hand, and went on their way. White face, blue eyes; he passes the audition. They had first recruited Phillip, the foreign teacher from Manchester, and apparently he was shooting the first night, so they took him away to parts unknown.

I got the story from him the next day--they were filming a Tang dynasty drama for CCTV1 about an hour outside of Zhangye and, for reasons that are still unclear, wanted some young male foreign faces for some very small bit parts as soldiers. I'm no expert on the Tang dynasty, but I would venture a guess that the number of British and American soldiers on the fields of Chinese battle was minimal. Phillip was given a short but dramatic role with speaking lines that ended in his execution. Ironically, the one with the least interest in learning Chinese was given the speaking role, and he had to get his lines translated so he could say them in English. It all gets dubbed over when they go back to Beijing anyway, and a foreigner is a foreigner.

The next night Phillip was busy and they needed two foreigners, so Andrew was roped into taking part by Lili ("Dan needs some help..."). Andrew tends to shy away from anything involving either an audience or the English department calling to ask "are you free this evening?" but he reluctantly agreed. We met outside the English department at 6pm, and I was told by different sources that we would be home by 2am, 12am or between 9:30 and 10:30pm. Phillip had returned at 4am so I didn't have my hopes up.

The filming took place in an area outside of the city called Danxia Dimao (丹霞地贸), which we had been to before as part of a foreign teachers' trip. They had built a full set on and around the hills, which was very professionally done. The name of the television show is 神探狄仁杰 (shén tàn dí rénjié), and is apparently a popular show comparable to a Chinese Sherlock Holmes. Di Renjie is the name of the man character, a portly man with a thin, earnest sidekick. A website with pictures of the show can be found here. I was told by students that older people in China like the show but they weren't interested. I'd like to think I've participated in the Chinese equivalent of Matlock.

I'm glad Andrew was there and I had someone to talk to, because we were in for a long night. When we arrived they got us into costume--fancy Tang dynasty soldier uniforms, tights, and shoes that were much, much too small. The "dressing room" was the inside of a truck which was open to the world. There were one or two people in charge that were friendly to us and would check on us every once in a while. We were told they would do a few scenes before ours, and we just had to shao deng yixia, "wait a moment." My heart sinks when I hear this phrase in China, because "a moment" generally means between 20 minutes and an hour and a half. Chinese people have a tolerance for waiting that far surpasses that of the typical Westerner, and if the wait is truly just "a moment" no one will feel it necessary to even mention it.

There were a lot of people involved in the filming, plus some curious onlookers gathered on a hill, and the place had a bit of a carnival atmosphere. The actors were wearing their various costumes and make-up, and there was a crew of giggly Chinese girls that could be seen chatting excitedly or playing childish games during the downtime. We didn't have to ask who the director of the whole production was--he made his presence known. Equipped with a full camouflage outfit and an inflated sense of self-importance, el generalissimo could been seen stomping around and occasionally screaming at people. The two main characters were also easy to pick out, but they carried themselves with dignity and professionalism.

Filming is known to be a slow process, and combined with the slow, deliberate pace at which most everything happens in China, the wait eventually became agonizing. It didn't help that we were outside on a cold night with almost nowhere to sit and wearing uncomfortable shoes. Around 10pm we still had no idea when we would film or even what our roles were. Around this time they called break for a meal, which was bad news--nothing would happen for a good hour-and-a-half.

Me and Andrew weren't hungry so we took a wander around. Way on the outskirts of the set was a lone man building a fire, who was so isolated we wondered if he was actually a nomad and his costume simply the clothes he prefers. It turned out he was a Uyghur from Xinjiang, so he was ethnically not Chinese at all, nor was it his first language. He didn't say as much but I imagine he would have trouble fully integrating with his Han Chinese workmates; China is indeed a fairly conformist society. Us three outcasts having a quiet talk by the fire was probably the highlight of the evening.

The hours continued to pass with no further sign of what we were even doing there. The night grew colder, and I gradually became less amused until really all I was looking forward to was going home. Sometime after 2am Andrew and I decided to check if our ride home was even there; a carful of Chinese people along for the ride had brought us, but due to the cold (and probably boredom) had been sitting in the car for hours. Sitting in the warm car was wonderful, but soon someone came to announce that our scenes were coming up next.

"Next" was a relative term; they had started work on the scenes we were involved in, but we had to wait another half hour in the cold before anything happened. Andrew was up first, and they explained his role around 5 minutes before he had to film it. It wasn't one of the more challenging scenes. All he had to do was be still and look dead--the entirety of his shot was him lying against a wall while the hand of his killer removed his helmet and revealed his foreign-ness. Probably the coolest part was that he had a stunt-double, a Chinese man with a helmet who gets violently thrown against the wall just before Andrew's shot.

To prepare him for his scene they gave Andrew a wig and a small dose of fake blood. While shooting the scene the victor had difficulty pulling off the helmet in one smooth motion, and it took a number of takes. The crew laughed and talked amongst themselves about how the foreigner's nose was too big--it didn't occur to anyone that the helmet was too small. Andrew finished his scene sometime around 3 or 4am, and I was told I was next.

They immediately packed up that scene and setting up in another spot, which meant another long wait. It was something like 4:30am when I began filming, and by that point I just wanted to get it over with. I also played a soldier who is killed and will get around 5 seconds of airtime. My scene was ever slightly more action-packed--someone slices a sword just in front of my face, at which point my helmet splits open (pulled apart by strings held by men on both sides side). There is blood running down my face (applied beforehand), I do my best expression of surprise/just-been-sliced-in-half-by-a-sword, and fall over, dead. When I was finished it was 5am, and we drove the hour home in silence.

I wasn't in much shape for my classes from 8am-12 and just cancelled them and slept until 2pm. Overall, I didn't enjoy the experience as much as I had hoped and I resented the total lack of respect for our time (I was surely the only one with work at 8am and they could have done our scenes much earlier). But, it was something that will never happen at home and I'm glad I went and have the story to tell. They were filming the third season which doesn't air until next year, but I'm amused to think that one of these days a Chinese national television audience will have a glimpse of two hapless foreign teachers in Zhangye.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Gansu photos

If you go to, search for "Gansu" and click on "most interesting," there are some really amazing photos of this part of China.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Video - A Long Way From Home

Recently I purchased some video editing software which, together with an anti-virus program, set me back 7 yuan (just under $1). At least in a place like Zhangye there is not just pirated software and movies, there is only pirated software, freely available on the shelves of the electronics stores. The only drawback is that the program is entirely in Chinese. However, I lucked out and found video tutorials in English on the company's website, and after some trial and error I figured out how to use it. I'm also somewhat familiar with computer vocabulary in Chinese, as my Windows and Microsoft Word are in Chinese. This can be a hassle sometimes, but on the other hand I like the challenge. Anyway, I've put together some of the early videos I took with my digital camera in China and made it into something presentable. All of it was taken in Zhangye during my first term of teaching.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

We are the Village Green Preservation Society

I'm sure I've mentioned my students' "duty week," one week each term during which they attend no classes and instead don their matching school uniforms and sweep the campus or burn garbage. In this peculiar Chinese tradition of unpaid-labor-as-education, there was a day set aside last week for the English department to plant trees in light of a recent environmental holiday. We were not forced or particularly encouraged to take part, but me and Andrew are usually up for anything silly, and so we were out in front of the library at 8am just like the students. To our slight embarrassment, we were shuffled onto a special bus for teachers and rolled past our students, who were walking en masse with humongous flags. Especially with their matching blue outfits, they resembled the least-threatening invading army in the world.

As it turned out, "promoting environmental awareness" looked a lot more like "free labor for the new Zhangye park," and "planting trees" looked a lot more like "digging a ditch." Because of the novelty factor for me and Andrew, the two of us seemed to be the most enthusiastic in the morning, grabbing our shovels and practically taking the lead while everyone else eased into the day's work. It didn't take long to figure out we were digging through farmers' fields--I mentioned in the last post that the government often repossesses people's land for its own use, and in this case the government of Zhangye had given these farmers money in order to put up a new park. We were assured the payment was adequate and everybody was happy to give up their land.

The Zhangye work philosophy often seems to be get twice as many people as you need working half as hard, and especially with the English department consisting of 90% Chinese girls it was not exactly the toiling under the sun I was expecting. Our students are fond of "chatting" and "taking a rest," activities at which they excel, and before long there was a lot of relaxing and lounging around. The digging of the big ditch branched out into digging big holes in the ditch, followed by an extensive lunch break. It was clear the work was just about finished by noon (there must have been over 500 students), but the leaders weren't interested in letting the students go back early and we mostly spent the afternoon goofing off and getting sunburned. We never did get to plant any trees.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Chongqing "Nail House"

Here's an interesting story that's being talked about in China:

As the article talks about in further detail, a strong-willed woman is refusing to vacate her home, which has been cleared for demolition as part of the development of her area. A historic Chinese law protecting private property was recently passed, fanning this woman's flames of discontent. The taking of people's land (all land is owned by the government in China, and some complain the compensation for their forced relocation is not enough) is one cause of social unrest, resulting in occasional riots and show-downs with the police. The most interesting part of the story is the photograph - a lone, rebellious house, perched atop its own island in a demolished neighborhood.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Learning Chinese Doesn't Make You Crazy

As time goes on, I feel that learning Chinese really isn't as difficult as people make it out to be. In the beginning things like pronunciation, tones, characters, and measure words are all big problems, but at the intermediate level I think it's probably a lot more difficult for a Chinese person learning English. Remembering two or three thousand individual characters to read a newspaper (and I'm definitely not there yet) may sound like an impossible task, but there's a logic to it all I think is really interesting. For example, a student recently sent me a text message in Chinese, and there was a character I didn't know, which looked like this: 疯. That might look complex, but when broken down is actually pretty simple and easy to remember. The outer part of the character is a shape that represents sickness and is seen in characters like 病 (sick), 瘦 (thin), and 疼 (ache). The inner part is the character 风, pronounced as "feng," which means "wind." When I looked it up it turned out to mean "insane," and is pronounced "feng," exactly the same sound and tone as in "wind." So, part of the character suggests the meaning (having to do with "sickness") and part of it suggests the pronunciation. Instantly remembered, whereas a Chinese student learning the English word "insane" needs to remember what probably seems like an arbitrary sound to them. Incidentally, now I know how to say "lunatic" (疯子) and "mad cow disease" in Chinese (疯牛病).

Full words are usually made up of two characters, and already knowing the meaning of two characters can make them extremely easy to remember. A student of English must memorize "confident" arbitrarily and know how it's different from "confidence" and "confidently," but in Chinese they all translate as one word, 信心 xìnxīn, to "believe" in your "heart." "Be careful" is 小心 ("small heart"), "everybody" is 大家 ("big family"), "archeology" is 考古 ("examine" and "ancient"), "computer" is 电脑 ("electric brain") and "safety" is 安全 ("peace" and "entire" or "all"). Names of machines and fields of study are generally very logical and simple in Chinese, such as "refrigerator" (冰箱, "ice box") or "physics" (物理学, literally "things-logic-study"). Verbs never conjugate in Chinese ("is," "was," "were," "are," and "am" are all the same word), nouns have no plural form, and I don't know the statistics but I'm sure Chinese uses a much smaller vocabulary than English. Also, Chinese grammar is far and away simpler than English grammar.

The sentence the student sent to me was roughly "Dong Yang [my Chinese name, 冬阳], I'm having a hard time, I don't know what to do about the TEM4 exam, I don't think I can do it, I'll soon go insane." The Chinese education system is very exam-intensive, and stress-inducing. My students are so worried about this upcoming national exam that when I asked them to make statements using "I hope..." back in December several classes said "I hope I pass the TEM4!" Learning English can be quite a burden for them, and I hope we as foreign teachers and representatives of the English-speaking world can provide some small amount of motivation and encouragement for them.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Chinese Small Talk

Saying "hello" can be more complicated in China than where I'm from. Hello in Chinese is 你好 nǐhǎo, which isn't complicated to say and is an easy greeting for acquaintances and strangers (and never have I so often talked to strangers). However, when greeting friends Chinese people don't like to say nǐhǎo, instead using their own brand of rhetorical questions. But rather than "how are you?", they especially prefer "have you eaten yet?" or "where are you going?" I've heard of uninformed Chinese students in Western countries asking everyone in English if they've eaten yet. Of course, sometimes it's 9 p.m. and you know exactly where your friend is going when you run into them, in which case I usually just go for the awkward smile and head nod. Also, incredibly obvious comments go over well. I would say by far the most common greeting from a friend you've made plans to see is "you're here!" When it's time to get going, it's general practice to announce "I am leaving," and small restaurants that are familiar with me will almost without exception say 走了zǒule, "so you're leaving" as I head out. Today while I was eating lunch a woman I recognized entered the restaurant with her friends. I finally realized she was the woman who sold me my cell phone. Our entire conversation, which she started, was literally "so you're eating food!" "Yep, I am eating food." These little exchanges are certainly nothing new to me, but I continue to get a kick out of them.