cultural transmission

19 Jun

While riding around Jiujiang on the No. 5 bus I’ve noticed that some of the bus stops–the nicer ones with shelters–have televisions set amidst the advertisements. People crowd around the tv, idly watching while they wait for their bus. I had never been at one of those stops until I started going to the spa every week, but now with my new routine, I’ve gotten to see up close what Chinese people watch while waiting for the bus. I expected it to be commercials, or maybe the news.

It’s America’s Funniest Home Videos.

It doesn’t say that it’s America’s Funniest Home Videos, but it’s pretty obvious. The people in the clips are obviously American, the clips are obviously set in America, and they are clearly home videos. Of people getting hit in the crotch, falling off stage during school plays, getting bitten by llamas, and letting their dogs drive the ATV.

People in Jiujiang love America’s Funniest Home Videos.

It makes sense–from what I’ve observed, physical humor is hugely popular here. Most of my students don’t know Pirates of the Caribbean or Hannah Montana, but they all know Mr. Bean. They adore Mr. Bean.

I have a theory that’s there a connection between the huge importance that they place on face and saving face and their huge amusement at seeing people fall, trip, or generally look stupid.

In all of the classrooms in my school, the teacher’s desk is at the front of the classroom and one step up off the floor. The floors are concrete, and the teacher’s desk is on a raised platform of concrete that is about 6 inches higher than the rest of the room. This platform doesn’t extend from wall to wall; it runs the length of the blackboard.

I routinely fall off this platform. Usually, it’s when I’m writing on the board with my back to the class, and I take a step back to examine what I’ve written. I’ve never fallen down (like, off of my feet), but I walk backwards off the edge of this platform all the time, and I trip, stumble, over-correct, and flail my arms around trying to maintain my balance. It happens at least once a week in one class or another and my students always gasp and stare and titter.

I’ve occasionally seen the same thing happen to other people in the school. Usually, there’s a big reaction, and the person who almost fell turns bright red. I’ve seen my students, and even other teachers, become genuinely upset and flustered by stumbling over this concrete ledge even when it seems like no one noticed.

I don’t turn bright red when I stumble in the classroom. Sometimes I say, “whoa!”, and if it was an especially dramatic almost-fall, I might take a second to laugh at myself once. But then I just go on teaching. I feel like I spend 80% of my life stumbling around like a jackass (and here in China it’s probably been closer to 95%). You know when you’re striding down the sidewalk, feeling pretty good, and then you trip over absolutely nothing–a crack, a pebble, a rolypoly bug? And the momentum of almost-falling makes you lurch forward for a few steps like you’re about to break into a run, and then you right yourself? And you look back to see what tripped you, and half the time there’s nothing because the rolypoly bug has crawled away?

That’s my preferred method of travel.

I still feel pretty good about myself, in spite of the jackassery, because–well, number one, I choose to believe that everyone is basically stumbling and flailing through life and they just don’t talk about it (if this is not true, don’t tell me). After all, falling is only human, as is the occasional ill-timed llama bite or baseball to the crotch. And number two, I think that Americans tend not to be so terribly bothered by looking stupid in this particular way. I realize that’s a very broad generalization, and it’s one I’m not prepared to defend all that stridently. My evidence is mainly the existence of America’s Funniest Home Videos, which has been on the air for 21 seasons.

21. I think that’s telling.

I’m not saying that I’m less self-conscious than anyone else on earth, or that Americans are less self-conscious than the Chinese. But I think maybe we’re self-conscious about different things. I’ve had students who were standing and talking in front of the entire class pass gas loudly and not even blink. Everyone has a chuckle and they move on. When I was in high school, if that happened to me, I probably would have started crying. Even today, part of me feels like I would just die. But from what I’ve observed, Chinese people are much less self-conscious about most bodily functions than we are in America–and when I step away from my own squeamishness, much like tripping and falling, passing gas is only human.

I guess what I am saying is that I think there’s a link between the subjects that carry a kind of sensitivity in our culture and the subjects that we find funny, between what makes us blush and what makes us laugh, and I think maybe it explains why they’re watching America’s Funniest Home Videos at the bus stop in a small city in the middle of rural China.

Even if I’m wrong, it’s interesting.

As a footnote, if anyone reading this ever considers submitting a video to AFHV, you should know that there’s a chance that that 10 second clip where the ass of your pants goes up in flames might someday be enjoyed by a few million Chinese commuters, shoppers, and school children.


One Response to “cultural transmission”

  1. Kathy June 19, 2011 at 4:24 am #

    Flaming pants and stumbling around…too funny!

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