In Guangzhou, on those long, dreary, cold, rainy evenings in the apartment I shared with my ex and Tex the indomitable cockroach, it was not unusual for a group of students to stop by for “coaching.”
I don’t think it was about “coaching.” I think it was about long, dreary, cold, rainy evenings in the dormitory (or as they said with their British accents, “dormitree”.) Our apartment had a couple of advantages, mostly space. But we had a television and it was amazing how stressed students could become about their studies when there was a soccer game televised or a Shao Lin movie. TVs were somewhat rare throughout China at the time and so were films, especially foreign films.
So, when the night was extremely long, dark, rainy and cold, my students would sometimes say, “Tell us a film, teacher.” I “told” them as many films as I could remember. They learned a lot about Monty Python. By the end of winter, my students could act out this scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (and they knew why it was funny 🙂 )
Every time I “told” a film I remembered the Foreign Service Test (that I failed) where the first question was, “What film would you show in the People’s Republic of China?”
I actually learned that answer to that question IN the People’s Republic of China. One night we were invited to the American Consulate to watch an American movie. It was Heaven Can Wait starring Warren Beatty. We went. It was a stupid movie and, I thought, a stupid choice because Heaven, as it’s depicted in that film, is pretty alien to China, as is American football, never mind the LA Rams but OH WELL.
But…we never knew when a movie was going to pop up. One evening we were riding our bicycles home from Guangzhou. We had various routes, and one we liked was through a relatively unpopulated, tree filled agricultural area near what is now the Inner Ring Road. That evening we saw, in a clearing, dozens of People’s Liberation Army soldiers placing benches in rows. A couple of others were hanging a giant canvas on a rope between two trees. Afraid we’d strayed into another forbidden area, we stopped.
“Ni hao!!” said one of the soldiers coming to where we stood with our bikes. “We have Engrish movie! You join us?”
That NEVER happened. We leaned our bikes against a tree and sat down on the bench we were told to sit on. The projector was turned on and the film rolled on both sides of the hanging canvas. The music came up.
It was Roman Polanski’s 1979 film, Tess. A far better choice for China than Heaven Can Wait. The problem (for us) was that it had been dubbed into Guangzhouhua (Cantonese) A beautiful young female voice in Guangzhou is NOT the same as a beautiful young female voice in the English speaking world by a long shot. Tess spoke to us in a Guangzhou opera voice, shrill, high-pitched, and nasal, with exaggerated (even for Cantonese) inflection. We wanted to — but didn’t — laugh.
We sat through the whole film. Afterward there was much “Thank you for sharing our film,” and hand-shaking. As we turned our bikes toward home in the moonlight, China seemed to me a beautiful place filled with sweet and incomprehensible surprises.