It's been a very long time since I've written an update to all of you. You may have noticed that Kim wrote the last two. Well I'm back!
Over the last two months, our Mandarin classes rapidly increased in difficulty. It got to the point where the only way to keep up was to come home immediately after classes every day, and spend the entire rest of the day doing homework. I decided not to devote that much time to studying Mandarin, as I wanted to pursue other interests as well (including some pet software projects).
As a result, I started falling behind, and started enjoying classes a lot less. In the end, I decided to complete my first term of study, but then drop out of BLCU and skip the fall term. We had our first term final exams last week (June 28-30), and I suspect I passed, if not with flying colours.
Kim on the other hand, did devote the required amount of time to her Mandarin studies, and is generally more into it than I am. I'm sure she'll do well on the final exams. She's going to continue at BLCU for the fall term, while I spend more time on my pet software projects, and probably do a lot more cooking :-)
One consequence of all this - I had to leave mainland China temporarily to change my visa. The easiest solution was to come to Hong Kong, which counts as leaving the mainland, and where there are offices everywhere that can process Chinese visa applications quickly. I've had a nice little visit to Hong Kong (where I am right now), and tomorrow I return to Beijing with my new visa.
Hong Kong is really cool. It's a little like being in the West again, in that the infrastructure is modern, luxury products are available everywhere, and most locals are able to speak English (as well as Cantonese and Mandarin). Beijing is a lot more alien.
On the other hand, the prices here are like in the West too. I'd gotten used to Beijing prices, where you can buy dinner for 10 people for about $30 Canadian. In Hong Kong I spent that much on a nice dim sum lunch one day. Ouch! Also, the central part of Hong Kong is unbelievably crowded. I'm normally fine in crowds, but I had a hard time here, especially with the heat and humidity. Beijing has 14 million inhabitants, but it's a really huge city and not as crowded as you might expect.
Going back in time a bit, I wanted to tell you about an interesting experience I had a month or two ago. I was asked to play a role in a TV commercial. Yes, that's right - I'm now a professional actor. I got the role through a nice English fellow who's renting an apartment from the same landlord we are, and who occasionally does some professional acting here in Beijing. He was asked to play a role in this commercial, and was also asked whether he knew any other Westerners who could participate. He suggested me, and the rest is history.
It was a surreal experience. I had no idea what product I was about to help promote. They set a meeting time and place, and then kept calling me to change the meeting time right up until 12:30 AM the night before the shoot. (That's right, after midnight.) They proposed that we meet at 6:00 AM the next morning. (Yes that's also right: they wanted to get started 5 and a half hours after I hung up the phone). Apparently that sort of disorganization is common in the local TV industry.
I showed up on time, and then we spent a long time shuttling from one place to another in taxis and vans. (On our way, we passed a building with a large sign reading "Abandonment and acquirement tea house", which I think is a fantastic name. I'll have to visit it some time.)
When we got to our final destination, they put a make-up person to work on me. They asked me to wear a denim shirt, a cowboy hat, and a large camera around my neck. I was to play an American tourist. Finally I was told my role: They were promoting some kind of Tibetan medicine, and I was to pretend to be a happy customer. I doubt I'll ever forget my line, since I repeated it about 100 times:
"I had health problems for 14 years. I saw doctors in 20 different countries. But this Chinese Tibetan medicine is really special. Now I feel great!"
Actually I felt quite silly saying it. Give it a try and you'll see. Note how artfully the words avoid making any actual claims, as well as clarifying that this is "Chinese-Tibetan" medicine (rather than simply "Tibetan medicine"), in case anyone gets the idea that this product doesn't reflect on the glory of the motherland.
We wrapped up around 12 noon. I was paid 300 RMB for my six hours of work, which works out to about $8 Canadian per hour. It was an interesting experience, but not one that I hope to repeat. For one thing, I really didn't like representing a product I knew nothing about. For another, it was boring.
Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately, now that I think about it), neither you nor I will ever see the actual commercial. I was told that it wouldn't air in Beijing.
Probably when we go travelling in Western China and Tibet later this summer, I'll be recognized and chased by a horde of angry farmers who saw the commercial and spent their life savings on this product.
I'll end this email by telling you about a Chinese music CD that Madeleine bought for our friends Tom and Qiu when they came to Beijing in April. The artist is a famous Chinese singer called "Song Zuying". She has a beautiful voice - high-pitched, a little reminiscent of Kate Bush. The songs are traditional Chinese songs, and I think most of them are quite beautiful, if a little on the sappy side. In fact, they're so beautiful I almost hate to poke fun at them, but I'm going to anyway.
First let me quote from the jewel case:
"This is the treasurable version of hundred anthologies of vocal music performed by famous Chinese musicians".
And here are some of the song titles (to be read like a David Letterman top ten list):
If any of you knows what a "Grook" is, please let me know. Also, I'm curious about Hunan now, but for some reason Kim says our travel plans don't allow us any time to stop there.
Hope you have a great summer & take care of yourselves.
- Joe (and Kim)
p.s. Bonus info McNugget: Did you know there's no Chinese word for "propaganda"? The only translation I can find is a single word that means "disseminate, publicize, propagate, propaganda, and propagandize" all at once.
Back to China travels page