Thursday, March 25, 2010

Bring Me Far Away

Though I am tempted to write a William Jamesian exposition on the Varieties of Taxi Experience, in China there are really only two such varieties that I am aware of, not nearly enough for a scholarly work. There is the Grandfatherly Cabby experience, in which an impossibly old man asks you personal questions and says flattering things about your language skills - and then there is the Club Circuit Cab experience, which I describe below.

I always seem to get the Club Circuit Cabby first thing in the morning, when spirits are low. Approaching the vehicle, I can feel the pavement thumping under my feet. I open the door and am assailed by a sonic barrage that takes my brain a full ten minutes to sort out. Gradually, my feeble pattern recognition software clicks in: it appears to be an acid trance remix of Akon's Right Now (Na Na Na), featuring vocal samples from Joan Jett and what sounds like an Air China inflight safety announcement. Moments later, it has escalated into a full-fledged Missy Elliott/Thomas Dolby/John Denver gangbang. Please fold your tray table up and fasten your safety belts ... got them Platinum Visas, hot boyz ... S-S-SCIENCE! ... take me home, country road ... in case of emergency ...

The Club Circuit Cab Megamix is without beginning or end, and samples every worthless pop song ever recorded by man, woman, or beast. I have ridden long-distance Club Circuit Cabs where the music did not let up once for three hours. I am not sure how the Club Circuit Cabby does it. It is not FM radio he's listening to, as the Megamix does not fade out in tunnels. Nor can it be satellite radio, for no such thing exists here. But it might be the case that the cabby's stereo spontaneously generates acid trance megamixes via some kind of self-modifying algorithm - or what seems even more likely: the cabby possesses a single mix CD of infinite length, burned for him by the reclusive Gatsbyesque owner of The No. 1 Nightclub down on Renmin Lu.

The Club Circuit Cabby, in case you're wondering, is young and androgynous - that is to say, he is clearly a male specimen, but not much of one. He wears rectangle frames, acne sideburns, an expressionless face. He is motionless from the torso up. Though the volume is cranked up loud enough to induce undesired bowel movements, the cabby shows no outward signs of enjoying his Infinite Megamix in the least. But this is only natural. China is a loud place, and its inhabitants make noise not for the pleasure it affords, but for the same unknowable reason that songbirds twitter and Kanye West tweets.

The confusing slurry of pop entrails that make up the Club Circuit Cabby Megamix is by and large representative of modern Chinese music in general. While pop music in China is almost exclusively Chinese in origin, it is lifted directly from the U.S. Top 40 charts. Listen to the radio and you will hear Sean Paul soundalikes, rapping in proper Mandarin with a Rastafarian lilt. There are slightly trampy pseudo-Spearses, quasi-Nickelbacks, bizarro Beyonces ... In short, Chinese pop plagiarizes the absolute worst elements of Western pop, multiplying the awfulness of those elements exponentially in the process. But what you will seldom hear on Chinese pop radio stations are the genuine articles of awfulness themselves: Sean Paul, Britney Spears, Nickelback, or Beyonce. And you will almost never hear anything of a more refined taste, unless you're into The Carpenters or John Denver.

It should be clear by now that I have tried to dupe you, my dear Reader, into thinking you were reading another lighthearted commentary on cabbies and their many quirks, when I am really about to fly into a tirade about Chinese teenyboppers. For that I apologize: I didn't plan on this at the outset. But it is a Thursday afternoon and I am well into my fifth cup of coffee. It's either this or clean my room.

Let me say first that it is a bit chauvinistic of me to expect Chinese kids to enjoy, or even have the foggiest idea about Western music. And it is naive of me to assume that my college students might know the name "Bob Dylan," or that they should appreciate Kid A. There is no cultural context in China for the music that we (or Pitchfork) deem "high art," and only very recently has a context emerged for the kind of pop garbage we deem "low art." Consider the sort of lovey-dovey nonsense Americans listened to in the early 1950's. Rhyming "baby" and "maybe" was something new and fresh back then. It isn't hard to imagine why power ballads and choreographed dancing seem new and fresh to the up-and-coming Chinese youth. Heck, they still seem fresh to many of us in the West.

But it is part of my job as an English teacher to provide my students with the context necessary to appreciate what I deem "high art" - or at least "better art." It is very hard work, because your average Sichuanese undergrad possesses a very limited Western context to build upon. We are starting from scratch. Or perhaps even worse than scratch. To give you an idea, a certain widely circulated Western Culture textbook (to remain nameless) claims that "Americans fear cats, because they believe cats are possessed by witches." We have a long way to go, indeed.

On the first day of the semester, I had my students submit a writing sample. What would you like to learn about in our class? I asked them, and they wrote frantically for twenty minutes. Without exception, all 500 of my students wrote some version of the following: I want to learn about Western culture, Western film, Western music, Western literature ... At least there is no shortage of curiosity. But the nature of that curiosity is something I am still grappling with, and I hope that the following anecdotes baffle you as much as they continue to baffle me.

Last Wednesday, I found myself with about ten minutes to spare at the end of class, so I asked my students how they'd like to put that time to use.
"Listen to music!" came the unanimous reply.

I just happened to have Abbey Road in my pocket, so I explained that we were going to listen to The Beatles, and that this particular album was one of the most widely known, deeply beloved, greatly admired, culturally significant artifacts ever to come out of Western civilization. I made Abbey Road out to be the Chinese New Year, Jackie Chan and Yao Ming all rolled into one. Perhaps I was overhyping it, but my students, already familiar with Let It Be and Yesterday, were psyched.

But then something strange happened. The music started. Come Together - that sleazy bass, Ringo's goofball drum rolls, the tense harmony of Lennon and McCartney. Almost instantly, my students lost interest and started talking to each other, loudly, in Chinese. I watched in disbelief from my perch behind the podium. By the end of the song - come together, yeahhhhh! - The Beatles were only barely audible, and the classroom sounded like a vegetable market.

I had asked my students to pay close attention to the song, to answer a couple of questions about it, and to write down how it made them feel. But when I opened the floor for their thoughts and opinions, the class fell silent. A minute passed. Finally, the class monitor offered an adjective: boring, he said. Someone in the back mumbled "strange." That was it for The Beatles. And so much for Kid A, while I'm at it.

My efforts in the medium of film have not proven any more successful. As a segue into a debate on the benefits and drawbacks of technology, I played a few short clips from 2001: A Space Odyssey - the monkey wars, Hal 9000 going berserk. I had described 2001 as the stuff of legend, as a film that was constantly referenced in ... well, everything. But in the end, my students once again voiced boredom and a fair amount of discomfort.

"This movie is very 'fresh,'" said a girl in the front row, one of my brightest students, "but we want to watch romantic comedy."

Fresh is a Chinglish word. It does, in a way, mean new, exciting, and creative. But it also carries undertones of strange, unusual, and unpleasant. 2001 is all of those things. As are The Beatles. They are both, in the Chinglish sense of the word, very "fresh." But isn't this a college class? Shouldn't we be studying "fresh" things? And wait a minute - weren't my students interested in learning about Western culture? Aren't The Beatles sufficiently ... cultural?

Of course, I am running headlong into my own wall. My students might never respond to The Beatles and Stanley Kubrick. That isn't their fault. I could always make things easy for them. We could analyze Beyonce lyrics together. We could delve into the Hugh Grant Criterion Collection. But what would they learn? By sticking to pop culture, I would only be helping to reinforce the perceptions that many Chinese undergraduates already have: that every white male carries at least three concealed firearms to work, that all black Americans are capable of spinning on their heads for prodigious lengths of time, and that generally, we Westerners are a greedy, promiscuous, and violent lot of people, indeed.

My students are boundlessly curious, but it is a contradictory sort of curiosity. They are fascinated with the West and they want to know everything about it, but they only seem to glom onto the things that Hollywood and misinformed textbooks have taught them. I can show my students statistics, hard facts, numbers: America is only 72% Caucasian, and arguably even less than that. But at the end of the day, my students see me, Mr. Panda, my radiant dirty blonde locks, my piercing off-blue eyes, and they see me as a Real American. Minorities are Americans, too, I guess, but on the spectrum of Americanness, they are less American than Mr. Panda.

I have stumbled across all this through some trial and mostly error, by experimenting in class and by playing guitar at a dingy pole dance bar on the dark side of town. I was more flexible in the early days, more inclined to make concessions to stereotypes and expectations. But as I've gone along, I've come to question the purpose of my Chinese existence if I am not presenting what I perceive to be an accurate and honest portrayal of the West. That is why I will continue to play indie rock at a bar that specializes in Mariah Carey karaoke, and why, when my students demand music, I will play them The Beatles. But it's not just a question of authenticity: I also happen to like indie rock and The Beatles. I'm a better teacher when I'm teaching something that I'm interested in, and I'm a better guitar player when I'm playing songs that aren't garbage. The line between high art and low art is a matter of taste, but I can't help being of the opinion that Hugh Grant films are garbage, and that Mariah Carey songs are garbage sung by someone with a spectacular set of pipes. And call me an elitist if you like, but I'd rather not teach or perform garbage.

If you are a foreigner in China, every so often large groups of people will demand that you perform for them. Sing a song. Dance. Entertain us. It's impolite to refuse, so you will sometimes find yourself breaking into a song and dance number you didn't know you had in you. On other occasions, you manage to wriggle out of it and everyone goes home disappointed. This semester, on the first day of class, each and every one of my classes - about ten minutes in - asked me to sing a song for them.

"Can you sing a song for us?" a bespectacled girl in the back would ask, followed by a thunderous round of applause.

It is a truly bizarre request when you think about it. You have known this foreigner for all of ten minutes. He has come from the other side of the world to teach you English and your first decree is that he pull a song out of his wazoo and sing it a cappella in front of fifty people he has never met. Not only that, but the kids want to hear something they know. You can't sing a Hank Williams ditty. They want "My Heart Will Go On" or The Theme from The Bodyguard, or a selection from the little-known (but fascinating) oeuvre of English-language pop songs written for the non-English-speaking world.

I generally wriggle out of song requests, but sometimes the kids are so persistent that all I can do is postpone the performance.
"I can't sing without music," I'll explain. "I do play guitar, though, so next time I will bring my guitar and sing for you."
It usually works, too. Eventually, the kids forget about crusty old Mr. Panda and his phony promises. But this semester it backfired in spectacular fashion when someone brought an Epiphone acoustic to the classroom.

"Teacher, sing us a song now." A round of applause. No way out.
Midway through a Dylan tune, the crowd grew restless, almost violent.
"We don't like this song!" someone shouted. "Play 'Take Me To Your Heart.'"

And this, my friends, is where I will bring my Thursday afternoon tirade to a close - because "Take Me To Your Heart" might make for a satisfying conclusion, as well as a natural starting point for your Chinglish soft rock collection.

As every expat in China would be happy to tell you, "Take Me To Your Heart" is a hit single by Danish adult contemporary phenom Michael Learns to Rock, or MLTR if you're into the whole brevity thing. MLTR formed in 1988, and they have sold over 10 million records hence, "most of them in Asia," as Wikipedia notes in typically understated fashion. Take Me To Your Heart (not to be confused with the Rick Astley track of the same name) has proven to be MLTR's most enduring effort. Eight months ago, due to a mechanical failure in the karaoke machine, I found myself singing TMTYH (if you're into the whole brevity thing) at a KTV joint in Chengdu. Somehow, I seemed to know the melody already, though the lyrics were less than intuitive.

"Hiding from the rain and snow/trying to forget but I won't let go," I sang, wincing, voice faltering under the weight of so much clunky syntax. "Looking at a crowded street/listening to my own heart beat."

The imagery was vivid in my mind then, and remains so: a spear-wielding troglodyte, braving the harsh elements, hides briefly in a cave, then reemerges to stare grimly at cars as they pass, heart palpitating with the insuppressible animal instinct to gore, kill, devour ...

Then the pre-chorus build-up:
So many people all around the world/tell me where do I find someone like you, girl?

MLTR makes a valid point here. Overpopulation is without question one of the most pressing social issues of the modern era, but girls like you remain inexplicably rare, girl.

And then, finally, we have arrived:
Take me to your heart, take me to your soul
Give me your hand before I'm old
Show me what love is - haven't got a clue
Show me that wonders can be true
They say nothing lasts forever
We're only here today
Love is now or never
Bring me far away

Michael Learns to Blow My Mind. Yes. It's all in there. Take me to your heart, bring me far away - the romantic dichotomy of push and pull, of nearness and separation. Give me your hand before I'm old - the tenderness of corporeal intimacy both threatened and augmented by the looming spectre of death and dissolution. Show me that wonders can be true - here we see a repentant agnostic begging the heavens for salva ...

But no. Let us stop there. One mustn't sink in too deep. Let's just crank up those earbuds and drink it all in. Let's take it to our hearts, as it were, and not into our higher brain structures. Perhaps this is the mistake I have been making all along. Popular music in China is much the same as it is anywhere else. It is not something to be picked apart. It is, as music ought to be, an escape from reality - something that, if only for a moment, or three of them, brings you far away from wherever it is that you are.


Erin said...

I really enjoy your blog. I'm hoping to transfer to China from Romania this year and the stuff you share here is definitely interesting and informative. I'm already looking forward to performing some Beyonce classics for my classes. That'll be awesome. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

youja said...

Surely there is something between indie rock and pop music that neither your students nor you will hate (love is another matter).

I just think back to math classes, when teachers told me "you must know this!" well, they lied. I find surprisingly little use for finding the value of X in my day to goings on.