These stories and conversations took place in a Media and Communications Studies class at a Canadian college. Students come to the college from many countries, in the hope of enrolling eventually in a North American university.
Photo courtesy of Ivan Zhao
When young men in Taiwan are inducted into the army, they are enrolled in “sit-down classes” and given psychological aggressiveness training, which is largely a matter of learning tone of voice and types of sentences. The rules are: never ask a question, always give an order; don’t say “Would you like to,” say “Do it”; always raise your voice when you speak—in fact, yell all the time; put emphasis on the beginnings of words and phrases when you speak.
The young man who explained all this to the Media and Communications Studies class said that aggressiveness training strongly contradicts the habits people learn in civilian life in Taiwan: to be respectful, co-operative and soft-spoken. It took him a while to get accustomed to the switch between the civilian and military ways of being and speaking, but when he got used to it, it was not hard. Once he was in uniform the transformation worked automatically, and out of uniform he was never tempted to yell at his friends or his family. He said that Taiwanese boys who graduate from high school are generally eligible for officer training, and only officers learn the psychological aggressiveness techniques. When student officers in the sit-down classes are spoken to aggressively by their teachers, they sit and listen and do not talk back. The students practise speaking aggressively only to students of lower rank, never to students of equal or higher rank. A few of the students are women. The young man said he had never been spoken to aggressively by a female officer.
As officers rise in the ranks of the Taiwanese army, things change with regard to who speaks aggressively to whom. A colonel might still speak aggressively to a captain, as a captain might speak aggressively to a lieutenant; but once you get to be a general you don’t have to speak aggressively to anyone. Generals, the young man said, never speak aggressively. They act more like politicians.
People in Korea use the text-messaging function on their cellphones more frequently than they use the voice-mail function, which is preferred by young people in China, Japan and Taiwan. The young man who reported this fact to the class said that Koreans find it easier to use the text function to communicate complex messages, such as those involved in ending relationships. It is easier for them to say “I don’t love you any more” in text mode than in voice mode, not to mention face-to-face mode. In Seoul people walk around punching messages to their boyfriends or girlfriends, or their ex-boyfriends or ex-girlfriends, into their cellphones and often bump into each other because it’s not easy to spell out words while walking around.
A man told the class that his grandfather was a cranky man who, when he watched television, commented continuously about the clothes, jewellery and cosmetics worn by people on the screen. His grandfather could never be quiet while watching tv, he said, and so it was hard work to watch tv with him. But when his grandfather listened to the radio, he shut up completely. He paid close attention to what people said and never uttered a word in response to the voices that came from the radio.
The man said his cranky grandfather considered television to be a two-way communication, whereas radio was one-way. His grandfather heard radio voices as monologues and found it easy to be quiet in their presence, whereas when the television was on, there seemed to be other people in the room and he could not help speaking with them. When the television people failed to respond, the grandfather had no alternative but to speak to family members about the strangers in his living room. Look at those people, the way their lips are painted, how their hair is coloured, how they walk, the cranky grandfather would say.
The cranky grandfather’s habit of speaking whenever the television was on was painful to the man, who was a filmmaker and didn’t like it when his grandfather provided another soundtrack for a film he was trying to watch and learn from. He wanted to watch the films, not listen to his grandfather, and he had moved all the way from India to Canada so that he could watch movies on television without hearing his cranky grandfather’s voice.
Two young women from Thailand analyzed a cigarette ad for the class. The ad showed two Caucasian men in short pants and hiking boots standing on a rocky pinnacle, holding loops of rope. The young women said that in Thailand fishermen often held ropes like these, with nets attached, before throwing them into the water, so these Canadian men might be fishermen. The only problem was that the men in hiking boots and shorts were standing hundreds of metres above the ocean, an arm of which could be seen in the distance among many mountains. How, the young women asked, could these Canadian fishermen throw their nets into the sea when it was so far away and so far down?
When he joined the army, a young man from Singapore spent five days in solitary confinement in a Singaporean prison. All conscripts into the Singaporean army have to undergo this confinement, called “POW Treatment,” in order to learn how to resist revealing a password if they are captured. The inductee who is learning how not to reveal his password is placed in a totally black concrete cell and eats food thrown in through a hatch high up on a wall and scattered on the dirty floor. He sees or hears no other human being during these five days of learning.
The young man who described the practice to the class said that most inductees into the Singaporean army do not complete the POW Treatment training: they reveal their passwords before the five days are up. He himself had completed the training because he had successfully applied the only known method of doing so, which was to smuggle a tiny radio into the blacked-out cell and listen to it whenever he felt in danger of going crazy, which occurred many times during his confinement. He said that his fellow inductees had tried other methods —meditating, talking to themselves, singing, chanting, holding their breath—but these methods had all failed, and the recruits had all revealed their passwords.
A young man from China said that the North American cigarette ad that the class was analyzing was “stupid” because it did not show anyone smoking and it did not show a pack of cigarettes. How would people know the ad was for cigarettes? He said that ads in China showed what was being advertised and showed people using the products that were being advertised, so when you looked at an ad, you knew what it was trying to tell you. North American ads did not make sense.
A week later the class analyzed an ad consisting of a black-and-white image of a deserted city street with a red Don’t Walk traffic signal prominently displayed in the foreground. Below the photo, in black type on a strip of white background, ran the government health warning about smoking. The young man from China said that he now understood how Canadian and North American ads worked. This ad was encouraging people to smoke. The red Don’t Walk sign flashed on an empty black-and-white street, and you would be stupid to heed a sign that said not to cross when there were no cars around; this same stupidity applied to and was being transferred to the health warning.
Why would you believe anything your government was trying to tell you about health? the man asked. He said ad makers in North America were quite clever and had found out how people thought.
In Dubai, men do the shopping and women do the cooking at home, but when the family goes to a restaurant the man makes the decisions about what to order and what to eat. That’s why the man in the KFC ad that the class was examining was reaching out of the framed photo in the centre of the ad and grabbing the box of KFC on the periphery while his wife and children remained at home, inside the photographic frame, so to speak. The young man from Dubai who explained this said that people in Dubai don’t go to restaurants often, but when they do, it is the men who decide where to go. The women are lucky, he said, now that Dubai has KFC, because they have to do less cooking. But they also get unhappy at times because they no longer have control over what the family eats, especially when the husband gets takeout. Dubai pizza restaurants use the same design strategy.
A young man from Beijing told the class that he drank Coke Classic because he wanted to communicate the idea that he was a traditional Chinese. He wore Nike running shoes, American-style army fatigues and a large American-style army jacket with a fur-lined hood to show that he was a modern Chinese, and he always carried a red-and-white can of Coke Classic to signify that he was mindful of tradition. Pepsi and Diet Coke drinkers were a different kind of Chinese: they were less worried about the American, possibly imperialist influence on traditional Chinese values. The red colour in the Chinese Coke Classic ads signified Chinese New Year and good luck and then Coca Cola. His parents, he said, drank Coke, but they didn’t look at ads.
The young man who wore his baseball cap sideways said he didn’t know why he wore it that way, other than to signify that he didn’t like to wear it with the visor in front or in back. He said some people do wear the visor in front or in back; others, who were like him, wear the visor to the side. His classmates asked him to swing the cap around so the visor was at the front, just for a moment, so they could see what it looked like, and he said he could not do it, that it was impossible. Nobody he knew wore a baseball cap with the visor in front, and few people he knew wore the visor in back. In Japan, where he came from, he said, people didn’t talk about these kinds of things.
A young woman said she liked wearing ripped jeans because they were sexy and showed parts of her body that were not usually seen by others. She often tore extra rips into jeans that were already ripped when she bought them, and she put these new rips in places the manufacturers hadn’t thought of. She wore her favourite ripped jeans when she was in North America and her less favourite ones, which had fewer rips in them, when she went home to Indonesia. Once when she went home wearing a pair of North American jeans into which she had torn a rip near the top of her thigh, at the front, her mother had taken the jeans away and sewn up the rip. So she had to walk around in Indonesia for a month with a patched-up rip in her jeans. When she came back to North America, she cut the rip open again.
In class, when she looked at a Levis ad that showed a young Caucasian woman with long legs wearing a very short denim skirt with a frayed hem, the young woman from Indonesia said it was a good ad because it showed the “dirty and sexy” side of women. She said the woman in the ad was probably rich because she was white and North American and had, except for a black smudge on her cheek, flawless skin. She was self-confident enough to go out in the street in a rundown part of the city on her own and even to risk being taken for a hooker by appearing to look like a kind of hitchhiker, which she obviously wasn’t. The young Indonesian woman said long legs were something all Asian girls like herself, who were born with shorter legs, wanted to have. The self-confidence to walk out on the street and to have sex when you wanted to was also something Asian girls tried to attain, but they didn’t always succeed. She herself wore Levis clothes because she sometimes felt that when she did so, she could have the same freedoms as this Western woman who was not a hooker but could pretend to be anyone she wanted to be.
The young Indonesian woman said the theme of an ad that showed a famous Japanese singer biting her lower lip and closing one eye, with her messed hair hiding part of her face, was “bite me,” which meant that the singer enjoyed sex and could have it with any man she chose whenever she chose it, but she could also not choose it. The singer was famous enough not to need a man or to get married, which was what most women thought they needed, and although she probably secretly did want to get married, she would not settle for any man but the best. “Bite me,” the young woman explained, was what the singer was saying to any man who wanted to date her and whom she didn’t want to date, and it also meant that the singer sometimes enjoyed being bitten.
Once while living in Burma (now Myanmar), Goran Simic and his brother, whose father was the Serbian ambassador, were stopped by rebels on their way to the international school in Yangon. They were hauled out of their diplomatic Mercedes limousine and forced at gunpoint to witness the beheading, at the side of the road, of a uniformed Myanmar government official. “Look,” said the rebels to the boys, and prodded them with their rifles. “Watch.” Standing nearby were two photographers and a video cameraman, who were recording the beheading. When it was over, the rebels took the rolls of film from the cameras and the tape from the video camera and pressed them into the boys’ hands. “Take them. Show the world!” the rebels shouted. “Show what we are doing.” The rebels herded the brothers back into their limousine and told the driver, who had been watching from his seat, to drive on. Then the rebels sped off.
When Goran and his brother got to school, they gave the films and video to their teacher. They never learned what happened to them. Years later, in the Media and Communications Studies class, Goran wondered whether the incident that he and his brother had witnessed might be called a media event. He could see, after taking the class, that it may have been one, but when it was happening he hadn’t thought of it that way.
One day after the Media and Communications Studies class, I went to the steam room at my local community centre. Inside, a man from Africa whom I had met before asked a woman who had said that she was Chinese what the dragon dancing around in Chinatown on Chinese New Year was all about. The woman said she didn’t know exactly, but she knew it had something to do with Chinese tradition, and that China was a pretty old country. After a pause the man asked, well, how old is China? Is it 4,765 years old? The woman said she didn’t know exactly, but it was probably close to that because that’s what the Chinese calendar said. It might be older, but in the times before that—and she gestured in the air to indicate these times—people had nothing to write on. No one said anything for a moment, and steam rose up hissing from the heated stones. Then the woman said to the man that although China was a pretty old country, it was not the oldest country in the world. Egypt, she said—and she made an inverted V with her hands and the man from Africa said pyramids, and she said yes, pyramids—I think Egypt and pyramids are the oldest country in the world and they are older than China. She thought this but she didn’t know for sure because she didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about these things. She didn’t have enough time to do that kind of thinking, she laughed. I prefer to watch television, she said.