(THE CHINA CHRONICLES) #3: The Final Chapter (or “Oh my Lady GaGa!”)

Fact: Americans like to talk about themselves. A lot.

Cough. Twitter/this blog. Cough cough.

Thus, in true American fashion, I talked a lot about myself during my last week in China. This was primarily because I spent my time in the classroom, both observing my brother and teaching a lesson about New York. Nevertheless I also did a lot of reading and listening (not at the same time, of course, out of respect for my brother while he was teaching), so I’ll begin this final chapter by saying I visited China at a very, very unique time. A little lesson about the big country is about to happen, so try not to let your eyes skip down a few paragraphs to the Lady GaGa part because…

Fact: Politics can be just as interesting as pop culture.

Fact: The above fact is 100% fiction. I sat in on a Supreme Court this week in D.C. and I stayed awake by singing “Bad Romance” in my head while picturing what the justices would look like if they dressed up GaGa-style. Yes, even you, Justice Scalia. You know you wouldn’t object to wearing a jacket covered in Kermit the Frog stuffed animals. See picture below for a visual explanation as to why a wee bit o’ diversity wouldn’t kill the Supreme Court.

Copyright © 2010 Universal Press Syndicate

Now back to China. Both October issues of TIME and Newsweek have features on the country, so I read a lot about how the global perception of China and its role in the world is changing. In short, China is moving up the world and could be a very real competitor to the U.S. economy. As I learned from a presentation my brother is preparing, McKinsey and Co., a global management consulting firm, projects China will become the world’s third-largest consumer market, worth $2.3 trillion, by 2025. (That’s like…a lot of George Washington’s.) China’s currency, the renminbi, is undervalued to help manufacturers sell cheaply in foreign markets, which has contributed to its immersion as the key manufacturing base of the world.

In terms of education, China (particularly Beijing) has also undergone major expansions in education, nearly tripling the GDP devoted to it. It’s even identified the top nine universities and labeled them as their version of the Ivy Leagues. So what does this mean? More well-trained workers in the world, although ones that might lack the ability to express themselves freely. Premiere Wen Jiabao, however, would disagree: “I often say that we should not only let people have the freedom of speech; we, more important, must create conditions to let them criticize the work of the government.”

But I don’t believe him when he says this. I’d like to respond to this statement in letterform:


Dear Premier Wen Jiabao Sir Royal Highness Sir,

Do you know that Twitter and Facebook are banned in your country?

Much love,

Anybody Not From China

I feel better now.

Jiabao also says the two books he always travels with are The Theory of Moral Sentiments by Adam Smith and The Meditations [of Marcus Aurelius], so perhaps he should tuck those away, relax a bit, and try a little On The Road or Eat, Pray, Love.

After readings these articles and spending time in the country, I can also say an anti-Chinese sentiment seems to be growing in the U.S. While western markets remain in a slump, Chinese customers are quickly learning how valuable they are. For example, I noticed the employees in the Apple store in Beijing wore red shorts instead of the American blue, black, or orange shirts. I obviously couldn’t read what their shirts said, but the Newsweek article happened to discuss the Apple uniforms in China. As the article explains, the shirts say  “DESIGNED IN CALIFORNIA. MADE FOR CHINA.” in Mandarin, while on the iPhone or other Apple products in America you’ll find, “DESIGNED BY APPLE. ASSEMBLED IN CHINA.” China wants luxury projects tailored just for them, and that’s exactly what seems to be happening.

Now, back to me. (Finally!) Observing my brother’s class and sharing with them my experience in America illuminated much of what I read. To begin, I prepared a PowerPoint presentation. “Where do I start?” I asked myself as I sat down to make the slide show. It’s a more difficult question than you think. If someone said to you, “Tell me everything you know about America. And as quickly as possible,” where would start?



Seats with desks attached fill the room. A GROUP OF BOYS (early 20s) sit on the left side of the room, while a GROUP OF GIRLS (early 20s) claim the right side. Half are asleep on their folded arms. The others play on their cell phones.

TEACHER (21, navy blue NYU sweatshirt) turns the computer on. A map of the United States pops up on the screen at the front of the classroom.

It reads: “Where Is New York?”


Can anyone tell me where New York is?

Blank faces stare back.


West coast or East coast?

More stares.


Left side or right side?

Some students start looking at one another.

Teacher walks to the right side of the map and places his finger on New York.



And this is how my lesson began. Friends of mine who aren’t in film school often ask me what screenplays look like, so I decided to begin telling my classroom story in screenplay format. Had I continued, you would’ve seen many, many more lines from Teacher, and many, many fewer lines from GROUP OF BOYS and GROUP OF GIRLS.

I continued on to take them through a tour of Manhattan via pictures I’ve taken all around town—the Statue of Liberty, the F.R.I.E.N.D.S apartment, Central Park, NYU, etc. Most of the time I spoke very slowly, as if addressing a middle school class. While in their third year of college, the students’ English listening and reading comprehension is relatively elementary. I’d feel harsh saying this, but the other teachers agree. In any case, the students remained quiet and seemingly disengaged until I spoke the two words I later recognized as the two magic words:

“Lady GaGa.”

Lady GaGa, or “Stephanie Germonotta,” went to NYU, so I included a picture of her in my presentation. My brother also told me “Oh my Lady GaGa!” is an expression used by some of his students. I actually found this expression surprisingly useful during my trip specifically when 1) I noticed all the girls using umbrellas on a sunny day, 2) I watched flies dance around my food at dinner, and 3) I ate ostrich.

The only other thing that made them (read: the girls) gasp was my reference to “Gossip Girl.” I watched their faces light up when I said I’d met one of the actresses in the show. So, lesson learned: to get the attention of female students, make specific American pop culture references.

I think a list I made in my journal after teaching will summarize my experience in the classroom nicely and simultaneously serve as a good conclusion to this post:

  • Why do the boys and girls sit separately?
  • Is sarcasm culturally constructed? They certainly didn’t get Adam’s jokes.
  • The students don’t seem engaged. I felt like I was imposing on them while teaching. Like, they were thinking, “Why is this kid sharing all this personal stuff with us?” Made me think about whether my brother and I had the right to stand in front of them and tell them they should look beyond their country for new cultural experiences.
  • Almost none of the students expressed an interest in leaving China. How can they be international business majors and not want to engage with what lies beyond their country? They seem content living in this sad harmony. I guess it’s sad to me as an outsider but happy for them as insiders. They seem peaceful, I guess. They often turned their heads down when we asked questions, so maybe with more time and familiarity I’d be able to catch a possible pang of sadness with that downturn of their frighteningly linked heads. I can’t help but think some of them just want to stand up and burst out in song, like a cathartic release. “OHHH OHHH OHHH CAUGHT IN A BAD ROMANCE!!!!” Or maybe not.


When I sat down and decided to write about my trip, I thought hard about how I’d go about doing it. I didn’t just want to do a boring “I’m an American in China” type thing where all my comments ended with “…and OH MY GOD it was so different!”

But that’s really what I’ve come away from my trip with. China is unbelievably and frighteningly and interestingly different. We’re all humans, but everyone I encountered seemed to be wired…differently. The logic with which I navigate my daily American life simply didn’t apply abroad, and I’m thankful for this because I learned through this incredible discomfort. Just because people in America would choose a dinner at the Ritz over a meal at Pizza Hut doesn’t mean that in China, Chinese people would do the same. (One of the articles discusses how an employer offered his employees the choice of a dinner at the Ritz or one at Pizza Hut. They chose Pizza Hut. Mind you, Pizza Hut is a little more upscale in China. They have fancy white napkins! It also may be a tradition for the family to eat at Pizza Hut, so sticking to the norm feels good.)

© Elliot Back

The witty Dorothy Parker once said, “I hate writing. I love having written,” and I sometimes say, “I hate reading. I love having read.” (I said this after finishing The Sun Also Rises, which I finally finished at the end of my trip.) While I cannot say I hated traveling in China, I’ll say this: I was often frustrated due to the massive cultural and language barrier. But I still love having went.

Distance allows for belated understanding and appreciation, so I look forward to even more time passing by so I can live more and travel more and appreciate even more the experiences I had while abroad.

This is the last line I wrote in my journal about my trip:

Back to the States I go. Land of Facebook and cell phones. Oh Ugh my Lady GaGa!

On the way home. Taken on my cell phone and uploaded on Bookface.



  • The first installment of “What’s Making Me Happy This Week”
  • “Shame on You, Celebrity Bloggers Cloggers!” – A commentary on celebrity bloggers and why they won’t stop clogging our media toilets.

2 responses to “(THE CHINA CHRONICLES) #3: The Final Chapter (or “Oh my Lady GaGa!”)

  1. I read these. They entertain me. Pineapple. Giraffe. Just felt like typing those last two.

  2. you would show the FRIENDS apartment as an important NYC landmark….

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