I started the Daily Anecdote series to give everyone a glimpse of the joys, hilarities, and mysteries of everyday life in China. I also want to share a bit about what Chinese people think life outside of China is like.
I was reminded of our popular misconceptions of foreigners last week while stuck in traffic and boredom. A furniture delivery truck happened to roll by my window then. Plastered along the length of the truck body was a giant ad depicting three Caucasians lounging about a living room. These characters sat on an excessively flowery sofa, dressed in fine evening attire (slinky gowns and monkey suits) and holding champagne flutes. Hovering around them were two other Caucasian figures, also dressed to the nines, playing the saxophone and oboe.
I laughed out loud. Is this what Chinese people think foreigners do all day? Sit around in cocktail dresses listening to jazz? And does an ad like this really help the furniture company sell tacky couches?
The answer to question one is, yes, this scene IS what Chinese people think foreigners do all day…sort of. At least, it WAS at some point in our recent history what we believed westerners were up to. (As for number two, I have no idea if more or less couches were sold as a result of this dubious ad strategy).
ALL DRESSED UP AND NOWHERE TO GO
On the question of attire, when China first opened up to the West most of us were “informed” of how foreigners dress through TV images of parties and revelry, things we had not experienced first-hand under previously austere regimes. Thus, we believed this is how people ALWAYS dressed. So we channeled our newfound fashion freedom and modest prosperity into dressing UP. I had a happy childhood staring with jaw agape at Chinese women aerating park lawns in their stiletto heels or elbowing onto public buses in sequined gowns.
As more and more westerners came to China to study or work, and as more Chinese were able to travel overseas, this misconception gradually dissipated. We now accept that casual wear is appropriate for the weekends, sportswear for doing sports, and so on so forth. Yet, there is still the chance these days that when an adventurous backpacker makes his way to a remote inland province, he is disappointing hundreds of Chinese with his preference for cargo shorts and Tevas. What a letdown for a farmer’s first encounter with a foreigner not to be with one dressed in coat and tails!
The choice of sax and oboe on the furniture truck ad is also an apt, albeit a bit outdated, cultural generalization. For us, jazz is western and Kenny G is jazz. In 1996, my family took a cruise down the Yangtze River to have our first and last look at the sights along the Three Gorges before they would be flooded by our nation’s magnificent hydropower plans. On this relatively luxurious yacht we awoke daily to the sound of Kenny G’s “Going Home” piping through the centralized speaker system. At the time, we thought it was pleasant and terribly sophisticated. It wasn’t until I went to college in the US that I learned that jazz doesn’t start and stop at the sax. Nor has Kenny G ever come up in any discussion I’ve had with serious jazz aficionados!
I like to save the best for last, and nothing is better than how Chinese people think foreigners talk. Every country has its own sounds for imitating, or mocking, foreign languages (“ching ching chong chong” comes to mind). In China, the equivalent is “ji li gu lu,” a sound halfway between what a happy pig frolicking in mud may make and the rumble of a rolling wheel. This is not deprecatory, it’s just exceedingly happy.
There is the even more amusing issue of voice dubbing in imported movies and TV shows. I can almost attest with certainty that five voice actors do all of the dubbing for western characters in the media. Whether it’s Carrie Bradshaw from “Sex and the City” or the Virgin Queen on the screen, the same nasal female voice does the speaking.
The signature dubbed voice is higher pitched than usual, deliberately “airy”, and persistently sing-songy. The dubbers insist on saying English names in translation a rolly-polly half Chinese, half English mix…like, “Oh, Luo-buh-ta” for “Oh, Robert!” It’s uncanny, really, and you have to hear it to believe it.
Chinese misconceptions of foreigners have evolved over the years, for the better. We no longer think westerners do their household chores in gowns and tuxes, we don’t always associate their musical tastes with Kenny G, but we haven’t gotten around to hiring some new voice actors yet. So, for the time being, we still have to put up with “Oh, Robert!”