Monday, December 22, 2008

Kung Fu Panda

Back when it was warm, I had the chance to sub for a class called 'Western Culture.' It's a 'class' comprised of watching American TV shows like 'How I Met Your Mother' and then going over the slang and then listening for the slang during the second viewing. It's like that first time I went into the Lida office and a bunch of students were watching every episode of 'Friends' and not laughing. O, they were practicing their slang comprehension. So yes Hollywood, make your shows according to the Nielsen market and know that you are representin' in English comprehension classes across the world. Then, there is a whole other side of comprehension that may be problematic to the non-sitcom watching American.

Since I didn't have access to the 'How I Met Your Mother' discs, I showed what I did have access to: Kung Fu Panda. I had actually heard from very smart sources, like the NYC actor Debargo Sanyal whose face lit up at the uttering of the title, that it was really good. And so for the 'Western Culture' class, (which was basically my Speaking and Listening class) we heard the fat-ass voice of Jack Black go from a noodle-making panda to a disciplined kung-fu master. It is the American Dream updated for the new, economically expanding Chinese population, and laced with enough core Chinese values in its enactings to hit home with the young Chinese population and charm the pants off of the 'Western Culture' class. They really took to it like it was a really good salesperson. I really took to it like it was the perfect cultural ambassador.

The hugest thing that the students responded to, and quote over and over again:
Yesterday day is history
Tomorrow is a mystery
Today is the present
that is why it is called a gift.

Ah wisdom. You say 'fortune cookie say' but the cadence really hit home. Americans love to make fun of these little ah-so ditties, but in Chinese, they really are concise and wise this way. That was one of the remarkable things about this flick, that it could re-spin these American stereotypes into a good-natured and earnest embrace of the truism (after all, stereotypes are true; they just are not enough to represent the whole truth). Any offense taken may just be one's own self-conscious discomfort with being minority asian in majority america, or you're just a thin-skinned, overargumentative liberal who has no idea what their actually arguing for.

We had an exuberant conversation following the movie. Here are a few things the students responded to:

We all have our place in the world.
Nothing is impossible.
The word 'flabby'
The pronunciation of 'shi fu' (master) as 'she fu' (like the english pronoun for girl).
There is now a Level Zero.
'Wuxi finger hold' no such thing, American invention?
You don't belong here (in our world)
You don't belong here (in my room)
Fat jokes.
The refrain: There are no accidents.
The illusion: A peach seed can wish to be an apple tree or an orange tree, but no matter what, it will grow to be a peach tree.
Guide. Nurture. Believe.
I need you to believe. You must believe.
Trust in your Master
When you've been trained, you may eat.
He taught you well--but he didn't teach you everything.
The mark of a true hero is humility.
Continue your journey without me. I am proud to have been your Master.
Definitive article swticheroo: I am not a big fat panda. I am the big fat panda.

It seems the students responded to the wisdoms of life and the empowering belief in self which is counter to both Chinese humility and Communist bureaucracy. There were a few things I helped  illuminate to them about the American psyche...and I had some favorite points too:

It was smart of Dreamworks to play off of Jack Black's movie persona. Here he is kind of a dufus schlub, dreaming of being a master and then having someone believe in him and give him the awareness of making masterhood possible. I had to inform the students that as much freedom and possibility that Americans are given, there is huge self-doubt and a constant need of empowerment. You would think if you had all of the resources and materials and power in your country, that all of the citizens would be functional and self-assured (like in Switzerland). But because the U.S. is so huge, and so diverse, with two coasts of possibility, that too many dreams diffuse focus. And perhaps the citizens are more easy to control because they are addicted to materials and do not have a focus of purpose, and so they need constantly need boosting, need assuring, need a Master to keep with them, to constantly advise (ja, Dr. Freud?). 

'O,' said the students. 
(They actually didn't say O. They got hesitant, or just let it gloss over).

Trust in your Master:
'I stayed, because if anyone could change me, it was not me: it was you. I can. I can. I will.'
(Panda's need for Master to continue, before he can wholly believe in himself.)

How are you gonna change him into the Dragon Warrior? 
I don't know. 
Yeah, that's what I thought.
(It sounds like such a dramatic retreat, but 'I don't know' is truly wise and brave. I think it deters co-dependence).

I eat when I'm upset--emotional eating.
(After I pointed this out, the students got this. And understood better why Americans are so fat. And why the Chinese are getting fatter.)

This is one of my favorite pop-culture switcheroos:
Panda returns to noodle shop. We've kind of in the back of our minds been wondering how a fat panda is the son of a neurotic duck. Noodles are foregrounded.
Panda Son: I can't believe I'm your son. 
Father Duck: I have to tell you something:
(Maybe because Angelina Jolie is the voice of the tiger, we're thinking it's gonna be a touching adoption revealing moment).
Father Duck: The secret ingredient is nothing.
(Aha, once again, it's all in the mind. It's what you want it to be.)

And for the final believe-in-your-self grand slam, 4 RBI sweep:
The ever-pursued Scroll, which is the secret of the Dragon Warrior is finally revealed.
The scroll has nothing. It is just reflective. It is just you. No secret ingredient.
This is a moment when the Chinese feel like, whoa, the Americans are really really into themselves--give me some of that!

Panda: You're alive! Or we're both dead.
Master: You are the Dragon Warrior. You have brought peace to this Valley. And to me. I am at peace.
Panda: Should I stop talking?
Master: If you can.

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Blogger Leon said...


that was probably the longest article i read concerning a cartoon. at the rate Hollywood is going, there were deeper messages from two cartoons this year (Kung-fu Panda & Wall-E) and it is probably going to stay that way. Wall-e was real depressing. it was scarier than Al Gore's "inconvenient truth".

i did pick up on messages through-out Kung-Fu Panda(KFP). particularly the one about the secret ingredient. i guess i still remember those commercials about "ancient Chinese secret". the one about the secret recipe being nothing was supposed to be an uplifting one. however if you look at it from another viewpoint, it kind of explains the state of our world/nation/locale today.

the whole economy sucks and while things can be pumped up/hyped on the way up (low-cost loans, sub-prime, easy-credit, etc.). we are experiencing the reverse of the secret recipe being nothing. when we all realize that there is nothing there, we go into a downward spiral of depression/gloom/despair. it is going to take us a while to get out of this. we need a little faith in a secret sauce getting us out of this. the secret ingredient message is like that old chinese story about a guy with a "magic" rock going into a poor village and making a hearty soup from everyone pitching in with something from their own cupboards. let's hope that Obama can come into town with his magic rock.

will be back in Chengdu Jan 12~16. will call you then.


December 26, 2008 at 10:20 PM  
Blogger Alice T. said...

Yes cartoons are the new venue of universal wisdoms, at least the brain is eased enough to take the message in along with all the pretty, unblemished pictures.

Using eastern zen to solve western grief will take a while--until the material don't count as much--and so probably won't work until we've all been without stuff for a while (I got a head start!).

You know capitalism, dude...just gotta wait it out.

Your cuz,

December 28, 2008 at 8:41 PM  

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