Chicago Tribune  August 30th, 2001 
 

The great wall of confusion
Wang: Chinese don't quite get American thing


MICHAEL KILIAN
Published August 30, 2001

WASHINGTON -- Who is the most popular American actor in China?

Then again, who is the least popular American actor in China?

According to a reliable Chinese source of my brief but memorable acquaintance -- the prolific young author Annie Wang, a lady who spends parts of every year in the U.S. and China -- the answer to both questions may be (yes) Richard Gere.

"Richard Gere is very well-liked in China," she said. "He's my sister's favorite actor. But he's not liked officially at all."

Chinese women may adore him, but it was Gere you'll recall who asked a global audience at the Oscars to try to send telepathic messages to Beijing condemning the Chinese for their evil conquest and occupation of Tibet.

It was also Gere who drove Chinese authorities into a wild frenzy with his 1997 film "Red Corner," in which he played a heroic American lawyer who gets framed for murder by a corrupt, dictatorial Chinese judicial system.

Doing the American thing

From fast food joints and yuppie bars to big-time American movies and "Sex and the City" style dating, China has been awash in American culture for some years.

But, according to Wang, who has written seven books and worked as a teenage newspaper columnist and radio talk show host in Beijing, the Chinese people haven't quite got the American thing right -- and the Chinese government, not at all.

Now 28, and the author of her first book in English, the just published: "Lili: A Novel of Tiananmen," she's been around for nearly all of China's American cultural revolution, which followed almost immediately after Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution.

"I grew up drinking Coca-Cola, eating hamburgers and Kentucky Fried Chicken and reading books like `Catcher in the Rye' and `On the Road,'" she said, over lunch during a recent visit to Washington.

"China started having an avant-garde art movement. People made fun of Chairman Mao in paintings. Women formed their own rock 'n' roll bands. At first they mimicked Madonna's sounds, and then they started to write their own music."

Wang thought of America in hippie and Yippie terms.

"I had a burning desire," she said. "I was so much into the American culture of the 1960s -- the Beat Generation, the `Summer of Love.'"

But when she finally came to the U.S. in 1993 to study at the University of California, she was astounded to discover how much American had moved on.

"I went to Berkley only to find how post-modern the U.S. had become -- the booming of Silicon Valley, friends of mine becoming [computer] millionaires."

Cosmetic changes only

Just as she initially failed to understand the dynamics of American society and culture, she believes the Americanization of China is proceeding superficially, at best.

"There are cosmetic changes in China," she said.

"You go through China and you see a lot of places with signs in English. Americans are considered very desirable. People go to Starbucks. Hollywood films are imported to China every year. People listen to Ricky Martin, Madonna and the Backstreet Boys. They can name members of NBA teams. American culture is everywhere.

"At the same time, very few people have an understanding of American values, of the concepts of Americans. Like the concept of individualism, free will, the right to choose. I go with friends to the Hard Rock Cafe and go dancing at the discos. But we are different now. They think stability is the most important thing. I think individual freedom is more important."

She said there's a difference even in understanding English words in a cultural context.

"`Individualism' is a good word here," she said. "It's such a bad word in Chinese. It means selfishness and egotism. Another word would be `privacy.' In Chinese, it's something evil, something you don't want others to know. Another word would be `ambition.' The translation would be, `a wild heart.' It has really negative connotations."

American movies and music have contributed to a sexual revolution in China, she said, but its practitioners are nothing at all like the feisty Sarah Jessica Parker and friends on HBO.

"Young women enjoy this new sexual freedom, but they're not independent," she said.

"They think it's kind of cool to become a kept woman. They don't feel ashamed of being dependent. They think they're being American, but a lot of the times they're just playing the role of the old concubines."

Jackie Chan is a star in both countries, but Chinese films that become big hits in the U.S., such as "Crouching Tiger; Hidden Dragon," often are flops in China.

"People have seen too many movies like `Crouching Tiger; Hidden Dragon,'" Wang said. "Many Chinese people think it's too Chinese."

Books are big, but you have to be careful.

Wang has a new book whose title translates to "Unbearable Shallowness" that is all about China in the new millennium. Her Chinese publisher left in the parts about China's emerging gay society, but had her delete the political references.

Sensitive subject

Her novel "Lili," about the relationship of a cynical Chinese woman with a naive American journalist in Beijing at the time of the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising, is being published here by Pantheon, but not at all in China.

"Tiananmen Square is still a very sensitive subject in China," she said.

"Madonna is fine, but free thinkers are dangerous."

Chicago Tribune, Inc.  All rights reserved.


 
 

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