A Foreign Face

When I was living in Changchun in the 1990’s it was common to field requests to be “token foreigners” at various events or productions. Changchun is home to one of China’s largest film studios so whenever a director was in need of a foreign face for a film, he/she would call up the Foreign Student Office at Northeast Normal University and ask to borrow some foreigners.

Sometimes the officials in that office would ask us; other times they would announce that we were being taken on an outing and haul us off to the studio. Of course we never got paid; were told that it was a good opportunity to practice our Chinese. Mostly we sat around all day, drinking tea and talking amongst ourselves.

One year another student and I, a young man from Ghana, were asked to appear in a local television commercial for some kind of medicine. We spent all day mastering the phrase “[name of medicine], hao yao!” (good medicine). We had to say it in a certain rhythm, in unison, with big smiles on our faces. For some reason, it took hours for us to deliver the lines just as the director wanted us to.

As we were leaving the studio, I belatedly said to my co-star, “I suppose we should have asked what the medicine was. With my luck we have just been featured in an advertisement for birth control!”

A couple of weeks later a Chinese friend called and excitedly told me that she’d seen the ad on TV.

“What kind of medicine was it advertising?” I asked, somewhat nervously.

“Cold medicine,” she replied.

Whew! Another linguistic bullet dodged!

I thought of all that when I saw this short New York Times documentary titled “Rent-a-Foreigner in China.” It’s about a housing development in Chongqing that uses “rented” foreigners to attract customers.

“Once you put a foreigner out there, everything changes.”

That’s right. For some reason a foreign presence gives face, a truth that I think we foreigners may never understand.

Five Women Explorers in Tibet

On Top of the World: Five Women Explorers in Tibet

I’m a sucker for a good travel book, and I’m loving this book my friend and fellow traveller Noel gave me for my birthday. Here’s an excerpt from the flap:

In the late 1800’s, when women were laced into layer upon layer of cumbersome clothing and bound by strict Victorian morals, a small band of astonishing women explorers and travelers burst forth to claim for themselves the adventurous life. Among them were the five dauntless women who are the subject of this book: three British — Nina Mazuchelli, Annie Taylor and Isabella Bird Bishop; one American — Fanny Bullock Workman; and one French — Alexandra David-Neel. Some other some were drawn to Arabia, Africa and the Gobi Desert; but the magnet that drew these five women from the comfort and safety of home was Tibet. Tibet was the final impenetrable mystery, the ultimate in exploration.

 

A Chinatown Grows in Brooklyn

The New York Times recently published a fascinating article about the influx of Chinese immigrants into Brooklyn and the growth of new “Chinatown” enclaves all over the borough.

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It’s a wonderful depiction of the ebb and flow of immigrant communities in the city:

Just before 5 p.m., wave after wave of smiling toddlers came bounding down the stairs, their grandparents from China breathlessly in tow.

The parents soon arrived, weary from their jobs as postal carriers, police officers, restaurant owners and financial analysts. They whisked their children, fresh from lessons in math, Chinese and Spanish, into sport utility vehicles for the short trip home.

Such is the intergenerational tableau at IP Kids, a Montessori school that opened three years ago at the meeting point of Bensonhurst and Gravesend — long a hub of immigration in Brooklyn. Here, down the block from L&B Spumoni Gardens, the aging fixture of a once Italian neighborhood, and under the elevated train tracks, New York is transforming again.

With Chinese immigrants now the second largest foreign-born group in the city and soon to overtake Dominicans for the top spot, they are reshaping neighborhoods far beyond their traditional enclaves.

Nowhere is the rapid growth of the city’s Chinese population more pronounced than in Brooklyn.

As the sidewalks on Eighth Avenue overflow with new arrivals in Sunset Park, Brooklyn’s first Chinatown, and grocery stores proliferate along 86th Street in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn’s second Chinatown, immigrants have been pushing southeast toward the ocean. The newcomers have created satellite Chinatowns in neighborhoods that have long been enclaves for European immigrants: Bay Ridge, Borough Park, Coney Island, Dyker Heights, Gravesend, Homecrest and Marine Park.

As they say, read the whole thing.

Photo: Brooklyn, by Mikel, via Flickr

Walking Backwards Through Shanghai

I love Shanghai, but I’ve never seen it from this perspective — a backwards walking tour. This short film, “Walk in Shanghai” by JT Singh, will mesmerize you AND make you want to drop everything and head to Shanghai.

Here’s an excerpt from the introduction to the film on Vimeo:

With its futuristic skyline and sprawling network of streets, subway lines, and highways, Shanghai represents not just China’s unbridled dynamism, but also the rapidly maturing global economy. The bustling city of Shanghai, however, holds a further, complex and equally exhilarating narrative nestled at the feet of its towering skyscrapers. ‘Walk in Shanghai’ tells the story of the lively, multifaceted and above all else, very human experience unfolding at the street level of this massive city.

To guide you through the streetscape is JT Singh. As he leads the viewer on his curious adventure through central Shanghai, he glances around corners, weaves through crowds, and with a barely perceptible pause here or an impulsive turn there, stumbles into the unhinged entropy that flows through the hidden alleys, accidental views, and captivating scenes embedded in the city’s vibrant street life. The peculiar reversal of the city’s movement against his own distinguishes his story from that of the other 24 million people taking 24 million walks in Shanghai. It’s through a heightened focus on one man’s seemingly unstructured journey that we discover the ultimate protagonist of this story: the transcendent power of using your legs for discovering a city.

‘Walk in Shanghai’ is only an introductory tour of Shanghai’s urban streets. The remaining story of Shanghai’s suspense and beauty can only be experienced in person, and through using your legs as the main mode of transport.

But here’s the question that I can’t seem to shake: who’s really walking backwards? Singh or the crowds?

Related Posts:

Shanghai!

Shanghai — From a Construction Crane

Holy Trinity Church, Shanghai

Shanghai Books

Chinese Language Learning Infographic

The folks at Learn Mandarin Now recently queried more than 50 bloggers (including yours truly) about their favorite resources for learning Chinese. Based on the responses, they put together this helpful graphic listing the top ten recommended language learning resources.

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What would you add?

Image credit: Learn Mandarin Now

Related Posts:

How Long Does it Take to Learn Chinese?

Learning ABOUT Chinese (and Language Learning)

My Favorite Language Learning Quotes

Learning Chinese in the 1920’s

Learning Chinese in the 1600’s

A Letter to Chinese Language Learners

All Aboard!

This post is for all you train lovers. The Guardian recently published a wonderful photo essay of China’s last steam train line,which runs along a rail line in Sichuan province.

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Here’s the introduction:

It’s a bumpy ride, and it takes over an hour to go 12 miles. But the trip from Shixi to Huangcunjing in rural Sichuan is one of the last regular passenger steam train services in the world – and a lifeline to locals, who could not travel to nearby towns without it.

Click on over to The Guardian to see all the photos.

Related Posts:

Of Tones and Trains

So, How Fast is this Train? 

A Tale of Two Tickets — The Train

Dancing on a Chinese Train

On the Train

Night Train to Manchuria

Image credit: Kevin Freyer, Getty Images, via The Guardian