Friday, January 28, 2011

LangLang Madness: The Case of the Propaganda Song

Ever since Chinese President Hu Jintao spent a day at the White House, the American media has been in an uproar about Chinese doings and has made ominous predictions about Chinese world takeovers. One aspect of this media furor is the world famous pianist, LangLang, who allegedly played an anti-America propaganda song right there, in the White House – the symbol of American leadership and of the Republic.

This blog is in no way political, and does not aspire to be. However I am compelled to counter some of the negative and fear mongering media stories that are currently making such a hit on the airwaves. So, against my better judgement, I am jumping into the fray just this one time. Being as I am your eyes and ears in Mainland China, I feel I have a duty to set some minds at ease with regard to the subject.

First, a bit about LangLang. He is twenty-eight years old. At twelve years old he was sent to America and matriculated at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he graduated with honors. He is fluent both in Mandarin Chinese and in English. He now divides his time between China and America, with most of his time spent in America. He is hardly a renegade and, as he has divided his time between China and America since his twelfth year, one could hardly consider him a political figure, much less a tool for Chinese propaganda. His entire life has been about music.

He is much too young to know about a movie made in 1956 that did not cast America in a good light. The song he played at the White House, My Motherland, existed long before the movie the Battle of Shangangling Mountain. The lyrics to the song describe an insurmountable love for one’s homeland and talks about the young women being like flowers. Many times in Chinese cinema, a poignant melody is played as a counterpoint to violence, to depict the futility of violence. The movie Blood Brothers, a recent movie starring Chinese actor Liu Ye (who also played opposite Meryl Streep in Dark Matter) employs the same tactic. I have a hard time believing that Chinese piano virtuoso LangLang was instructed to smear America while playing for world leaders at the White House. Much less can I believe that he chose to do so on his own.

But, that is speculation on my part. I cannot know the motives of one pianist that I’ve never met, nor can I fathom the mind of Hu Jintao or the political machines that are constantly revving their engines and gaining purchase on shaky ground. What I can tell you is what I see and experience with my own eyes and ears every day, while living in China.

· Every single school student, from the most impoverished rural hillside to the most posh academic environment must learn English. This is compulsory, not an elective. Since the 1990’s, every single Chinese student has been bilingual, and that other language is English. To that end, China actively recruits foreign teachers to teach their students the proper way to speak English.
· Restaurant menus are printed in English. Every time I’ve gone to a restaurant there has been a menu written in English for me to peruse and make my selections from.
· China has an abundance of Western restaurants. Not just McDonalds’ or KFC but steak houses, Italian restaurants, French restaurants, ect. There’s even a classic American diner in Wuhan. And the menus are all available in English.
· Chinese movies are subtitled in English. Granted, not many movies are released for American viewing, but those that I have watched, either streaming online or on DVD all have English subtitles.
· Instructional signs are in Chinese and in English. Go to any major transportation hub – train station, bus station or airport and you will see signs in English. If you cannot find your way using the signs you can go to any official – railway personnel, police officer or information booth attendant and they will be happy to help you, whether their English is well spoken or not. If, for some reason you still don’t understand them, they will go get someone who speaks better English, so that you can understand what they are saying.
· Road signs are also bilingual. Not only around town and not only Wuhan, but in the other cities I’ve visited. That includes intercontinental highways, such as the one running to XiShui that I was on just the other day. The only exception I’ve seen so far to that is the small villages and smaller towns I’ve been to.
· American Industry is welcome in China. Major corporations like GE and Apple, and retailers such as Wal-Mart all have establishments in China. The stores are heavily patronized and the Chinese eagerly purchase the goods from overseas corporations, thus putting money in American coffers. And, the door is open to more such partnerships.
· Chinese news media is abundantly available in English., and CCTV, which broadcasts a channel in English, just to name a few. Although my Chinese language skills are far from stellar, from what I can translate, it seems that the translations into English are accurate.

Taking it down to a personal level now…

Everything has been done to assure my safety and comfort while living and working in China. From a Chinese liaison available to me 24/7 for any issue from banking to my health concerns, to accommodations that are admittedly below standard by American measures but certainly far above standard from a Chinese perspective. My work schedule is minimal and I have a bounty of free time. I get paid more to work 6 hours a week than engineers who work fifty or sixty hours a week.

And that’s just the job. Let’s talk about the people.

· I have been warmly welcomed in people’s homes, and been given standing invitations to return. And that’s not just one or two homes; it is the homes of several people: Sam and his parents, Summer, Ken, Della, George, some of my students, some of the vendors on the street that I patronize regularly. Just to mention a few.
· I have been treated to meals in fine restaurants where I am not allowed to pay my share. When I try to treat people I invite, they invariably pay the ticket before I can get my money out… and its not for lack of trying on my part, either.
· Everyone with whom I have occasion to practice my Chinese language skills are thrilled to the bone that I am making an attempt to learn their language and culture. They, in turn, like to practice their English skills with me, even the farmers at the farmer’s market.
· People (usually men) have given up their seat on the bus for me. Considering how hard it is to come by a seat on the bus, that is really saying a lot.

Although it is true that people still point and stare to the extent that I am sometimes uncomfortable with the attention, there is no animosity in their curiosity. Usually a smile and a wave and a greeting from me will satisfy the curious. Or posing for a picture with them. Overall, I have to say that my living experiences in China have been overwhelmingly positive.

Am I wearing the wrong colored glasses? Should I change my name to Pollyanna? Perhaps.

But, from everything that I’ve seen and experienced since I’ve been here, I can honestly report that I have not sensed a single bit of animosity toward America. Nor have I felt threatened in any way by any official. Based on my experiences, English speakers – certainly Americans among them, are welcome and are treated as revered guests in this country. The news media does not disparage American activities. It appears to me that everything is being done to assure the American visitor or worker their safety, comfort and enjoyment here.

A note about censorship: much is being made of China blocking such sites as YouTube, Facebook and blog sites. While it is outrageous to the American mind – who believe in the right to free speech, I can understand why, from a Chinese perspective, that this is so. The Chinese wish to uphold a certain moral standard for their citizens and thus employ censorship to do so. That is not so different from Hollywood, some fifty years ago, who dictated that Joan Collins could not show her navel in the epic movie Cleopatra because navels were considered lewd and obscene at the time. The makeup artist pasted a large fake ruby in her navel and thus did not have to alter the costume… just in case you’re curious.

I said all of that to say this: I believe that the American news media is not presenting a fair and unbiased accounting of China.

Final note: I did not write this to change your mind or to sway you to another way of thinking. For all I know, I am displaying a perfect ‘sheep to slaughter’ mentality. What I am trying to say is that, maybe broadening your perspective might give you a substantially different picture than is being presented to you by the American media. Bottom line: it is my experience that China is America friendly.

OK, long post… I know. I’ve reviewed it and gone over it and edited it and just couldn’t bring myself to cut anything out. Everything I’ve written here is vital to support my point. Please forgive me but… consider what I’ve written, OK?


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