She responded with the following:
我刚才一直想你现在应该怎么学习汉语。Basically, she's telling me that my old methods of studying Chinese (flashcards, 1-on-1 classes, chit-chatting with people I meet, etc.) aren't going to work in America. She suggests that I watch Chinese TV both for language practice as well as understanding Chinese culture better. She recommends that I watch the shows with my wife, Qian, since she'll be able to help me any places that I get tripped up with the language.
你和你老婆一起看，不明白的地方她可以马上告诉你， 而且你可以 了解一些深一点的文化，比如，有的句子虽然很简单， 但是很“有名”。而且，你陪她一起看中国的电视， 我觉得这样可以让她不那么想家。
Teacher Ma specifically suggests watching a show called《蜗居》- "Wo Ju," which has been horribly translated to "Dwelling Narrowness" by the shows producers (Qian tells me that "Wo Ju" literally means something like "a snail's home." From what I've read, it loosely means "humble abode."). Teacher Ma says that "Wo Ju" is having a big impact in China and that everybody is talking about it.
Teacher Ma's recommendation piqued my interest. And then about a day after I read this email, I read the following post on Ben Ross' blog:
After finishing Fen Dou and taking a short break from Chinese television shows, I am now 11 episodes into a new series, Wo Ju (蜗居). Broadcast in 2009, Wo Ju has been the most popular and controversial series to come from Mainland China in some time. Due to its controversial subject matter, Beijing TV pulled the plug on Wu Ju ten episodes in, and Shanghai moved it from prime time to a late night time slot. Many people (myself included) have thus taken to the Chinese Internets to watch the series in its entirety.That whole part about controversy and having the plug pulled, it got me real excited about watching "Wo Ju." Qian and I started watching episode 1 on Sunday, April 18th. We just finished episode 31 of 35 this evening, Thursday, April 29th. Yeah... we're addicted.
Qian and I are, obviously, really enjoying the show.
I have to have a disclaimer here. My Chinese is not fluent. I'm getting about 1/3 to 1/2 of the dialog in the show. The stuff I don't understand, Qian is summarizing. Is this ideal? No. Am I catching every detail of what is going on? No. Am I using Qian as a crutch? Probably. Am I getting what is going on in the show? I think I am.
Watching soap operas are a tried and true method of learning a foreign language. They're not rocket science. I remember in Spanish III class in high school watching the soap opera, "Destinos." Just looking "Destinos" up on Wikipedia, I hadn't realized that Destinos was actually created just for people learning Spanish. "Wo Ju" was not created for people learning Chinese and there are parts of the dialog that I just don't get. But the basic story line, like all soap operas, is pretty simple. And I'm getting a lot out of the show despite any language problems I'm having.
The story revolves around two sisters from a small city in China who have moved to the made up city of 江州 (Jiangzhou). Jiangzhou is, for all intents and purposes, Shanghai. The older sister (Hai Ping) is married to a decent man. The younger sister (Hai Zao) has a very nice boyfriend.
Both have their share of problems though.
Hai Ping is OBSESSED with buying a nice condo so that she can bring her young daughter, who is currently living with Hai Ping's parents in her hometown, to Jiangzhou. Hai Zao has a nice job (both sisters have white-collar jobs and graduated from good universities) and a caring boyfriend. But she is not very mature and makes several whimsical decisions throughout the show.
That is very short, but will do for now (just go read Ben's link, it'll help you figure out the main characters).
I've been shocked at how racy the show has been. There have been sex scenes (no nudity) that wouldn't make network TV in America, corruption amongst government officials is rampant, and the exploration of the housing bubble and property rights is a big part of the story-line.
I'd like to expound upon some of the major themes of the show that I've noticed:
1. Housing prices are out of control and condo ownership is a fleeting dream for many.
As I mentioned above, the two sisters in the show are well-educated and have decent jobs and the men in their lives are the same. They are not poor. But at the same time, buying a satisfactory condo in Jiangzhou is impossible.
One of my favorite scenes in the show is in episode six when Hai Ping and her husband go look to buy a condo. They begin by looking at a very modest, second-hand places. They can't believe the prices people are bidding though. Hai Ping is so disgusted that she is convinced that the other people touring the condos with her are friends with the seller and are only there to drive up the price.
Frustrated, they go to a much nicer block of new apartments that haven't been built yet, but that are for sale. They go to a real estate office with a large diorama of future high-rise condos and try to bid on one of those in-the-future-to-be-built condos. They have no chance though. The condos are going for prices that Hai Ping and her husband cannot afford. In fact, they are not even close to being able to afford anything "suitable."
Hai Ping is so frustrated at this time. She is living in a very shabby and dank one room apartment with her husband. It is not big enough for their daughter to live with them. Because they cannot buy a condo, they cannot live with their daughter. Hai Ping is heart-broken.
I've written about housing prices in China a lot on this blog. Just a couple months ago, new Shanghai condos were up 68% in over the previous year! That is insanity. And such craziness is affecting normal people a great deal.
2. Related to point 1 on the housing bubble, the residents of apartments that are being torn down to make way for new condo complexes are not properly compensated.
This point is shown in the show by the neighbors of Hai Ping in their dingy one bedroom apartment. The apartment block where Hai Ping lives is in a prime location for juicy new condos to go up. Although Hai Ping wants to move out of the apartment, not everyone there does.
The resistance to moving is most outwardly personified in a lovely, little old grandma. She has NO interest in moving out of the apartment where she lives. She is smart enough to know that the compensation she'll receive from the government/developers for her apartment being torn down will go nowhere in the heated up real estate market of Jiangzhou. On top of that, she simply doesn't want to move.
This section of the show goes hand in hand with a book I just read. Wild Grass by Ian Johnson (a book I highly recommend) tells three stories of people taking on the system in contemporary China. One of the stories he describes is centered around the destruction of hutongs in old Beijing.
"Wo Ju" portrays the government and the developers in urban China in the same way that Johnson did in his book. The government officials and developers building up these complexes are only in it for the money and they're all making a killing off of it. While the people in their wake are simply out of luck.
3. Moving from the countryside or small cities of China to big cities such as Shanghai can split families apart.
Hai Ping does not live with her toddler daughter. In fact, she's never lived with her. Since her daughter was born, she has lived with her grandma and grandpa (Hai Ping's parents).
There is a very sad scene where Hai Ping and her husband are back in her home city visiting her parents during the Spring Festival. Hai Ping has been looking forward to seeing her daughter for months. Her daughter doesn't even recognize her mother. She cries as soon as Hai Ping holds her and demands to see her grandma.
Hai Ping has chosen making it in the big city over being a mother to her daughter.
4. Although living in the big Chinese city provides new opportunities, life there is no cake walk.
This theme doesn't only apply to China, of course. I wrote a screed on this topic several months ago. Getting rich and having nice things ≠ happiness. More and more, "making it" sucks everything out of the people trying to live a more prosperous life.
There is one particular piece of dialog in "Wo Ju" on this topic I liked a lot. In an early episode, Hai Ping (the older sister) persuades Hai Zao to stay in Jiangzhou. Hai Zao was getting disillusioned and was thinking about going home to the small city where her parents lived.
Hai Ping asks Hai Zao a series of questions like, "Does our hometown have a history museum? Does it have concerts? Does it have cafes? No! Jiangzhou has all of these things. You need to stay and make your life here!"
The funny thing is that Hai Ping had become so obsessed with saving money for her fantasy condo at this point in the show that she never saw any of these things that make Jiangzhou so great. She and her husband had resorted to eating 方便面 (instant noodles) every day in an effort to save money! This great culture that Hai Ping spoke of is completely out of their grasp.
5. The life of an 二奶 (mistress) can seem to be a realistic means of setting up a stable life for a young woman.
I may be completely off base here, but I feel as though married men, especially successful married men, having mistresses and girlfriends is more accepted in China than it is in the West. Maybe I'm just reading too much into a stupid soap opera and a few people I knew in China. This very well may be the case. This statement is an anecdotal observation of mine and I'm willing to concede that infidelity, particularly in the instance of a sugar daddy supporting a young woman, happens just as often in the West as it does in China. Either way, a lot of guys in China have girlfriends outside of their marriage.
I'm not going to get into too much detail, but the life of a sugar daddy's mistress is glamorized in the show. The woman in the show who becomes a married man's girlfriend is given a wonderful condo to live in, a BMW to drive, and a credit card with unlimited resources to go shopping with.
Some downsides to this kind of life are shown. The mistress is often lonely and wants to see the man more than she does. But overall, the show, shows a lot of the positives of being an 二奶.
6. The absence of a solid rule of law makes life in China largely based upon one's 关系 (connections).
There are several instances throughout the show where the well-connected do as they please and break laws and help those in trouble who they care about.
I could keep going. But this post is already WAY too long and I'm going to stop.
If you want to watch the show yourself, go to either Youku.com or Tudou.com or any other Chinese video site for the Chinese version. Qian and I have had better luck with the Tudou.com versions since they download faster here in America.
Also, there does appear to be a version on Youtube with English subtitles. It doesn't look like all of the episodes are there, but there is at least the first one.
For more plot summaries, media, and information on the show, you can read this great resource from Danwei.org on Wo Ju.
Obviously, I've enjoyed this show a lot. I still have a couple episodes left and am looking forward to finishing it up. I recommend it to anyone interested in China and especially to anyone who's made it this far into my post.