Saturday, March 15, 2008
Chinese aspirations of immodesty, ha ha
There we were sitting around a table having eaten one of those stupendous Chinese meals. Amongst the debris of bowls and chopsticks, with everyone who smokes doing so, it's time to be clever and entertain the table. Apropos something or other, I say, 'I'm only so-so at most things. The only thing I really shine at, to which I can claim that I am the greatest in the world, is being modest. I am the Most Modest Man In The World!' It's a standard, recycled nobody gag. Anyway, I get a laugh out of the Laowai but the Chinese don't get it. As an ex-English teacher I should have known that 'modest' is outside most second-language speakers' vocab.
A dictionary, by way of a mobile phone (they can do that now), is consulted and brows are furrowed and a long discussion ensues wherein it's explained to me that this is not such a good meaning in Chinese. One finds this a lot, particularly in Asia. Words such as 'modest', which we all understand as being simple, ain't. They're actually quite complex. 'Love, honour and obey' for instance will have an entirely different complexion in another language and vice versa. And sometimes you get it and sometimes you don't.
Anyway, back at the table, Maya the mad artist, launches into a diatribe about what's wrong with Chinese people and how people who are good at things aren't capable of celebrating like Westerners. Like sports stars who score a goal or somesuch. "We see Western people being natural and celebrating and saying they are good but we can't do that. We have to behave in this 'modest' way." Her vibe is that 'modest' is a thing expected or forced upon you.
I'm off now because she’s touched on a pet subject. "You think that those sportsmen's celebrations are spontaneous, that it just pops into their head then and there?" I explain how I've seen soccer players who form a little tableau and one pretends he's polishing the other's shoes. God spare us. It's a contrived and calculated show-pony wank-fest. Like the Australian cricketers who all have their trademarked celebration. One has his weird ground-punching thing that most closely resembles a man trying to start a lawn-mower. I'm perfectly sure he practises it in a mirror. I'm guessing the lawn-mower thing never occurred to him (nor that he looks like a dickhead). Soccer players are the worst though. Putting your shirt over your head and running around like you're an aeroplane is... is... what the hell is that? Who does this in real life? Apart from drunken arseholes?
"And what, Maya, you want Chinese people to behave like that? Don't believe the hype. What you see on DVD is not a reflection of us. Fuck Jerry Maguire. It's bullshit. It's the product of a machine designed to turn us, and you, into bedazzled LA Galaxy shirt-buying idiots. If you think that whatever 'modesty' means here is oppressive, it could be worse. You could find yourself in a culture where there isn't any and everybody is impressed with themselves for no reason at all - A legion of Bart Simpsons expecting to get high-fived for cracking out a fart. If Chinese sportsmen and women can win and behave like normal people in a modest fashion, like laowai used to a few decades ago, I salute them. I just wish we could rediscover it."
Anyway I headed the conversation into absurdity territory by suggesting that we found a new sports competition and all the best teams of celebrators get together and compete in who has the best celebration. Players would form football-boot-wearing theatrical tableaus and recreate Armstrong on the moon, or Marie Curie discovering radium, or the signing of the treaty of Versailles. I'd win of course because my team would (idea-disappearing-up-its- own-arse style) recreate the meal at which the idea for the competition was first thought up. Brilliant. The crowd would go nuts and then to celebrate? We'd play an actual game of actual football. Ha!
Maya thinks this is great and I should do it for real as an art installation. Um, okay, sure, this and a thousand other idiot ideas. I crack out a fart. High five!