A Well-Intended TV Addiction

We all look for ways to pass the time and avoid the summer heat, often falling into a trap and getting hooked on a new tv show. Sometimes tv can be educational, so what can we learn from Chinese dramas?

Have you noticed how dangerous the endless summers in Dongguan can be? Confined indoors by either the relentless sun or the multiple typhoons and deserted by most of your expat friends, you never know what vices you might succumb to eventually. My downfall this time around came in the form of Chinese TV dramas.

It started off innocently enough: after all, I was just following well-intended advice from local friends. They’ve been urging me for a while now to improve my Mandarin listening (and reading) comprehension skills by watching more Chinese TV. The easy-to-follow dialogues of popular dramas, supplemented by simplified characters’ subtitles, would do wonders for my language proficiency, according to them. It’s simply a must for someone at my learning level, they said.

So, finding myself sufficiently bored and with some extra time on my hands during the summer, I finally started browsing the somewhat limited number of Chinese series, available on Netflix. The logic behind it was the ones that the giant corporation decided to buy were the ones they’d deemed most suited to Western tastes. Being a stranger to C-Dramas, I didn’t know where to begin.

It was hit-and-miss for quite a while. I’d watch a trailer, read the summary and then, just a couple of minutes into the first episode of a magical-historical drama or a teenage romance, I’d give up and decide that I’m not prepared to waste my time on such rubbish after all. Then I stumbled upon a reasonably likable character and an intriguing-sounding plot…

Well Intended Love (奈何BOSS要娶我) taught me (maybe) how to use the expression naihe (奈何) to form rhetorical questions. It also taught me the rules of a modern Chinese love story. The stereotypical male protagonist: a tall, wealthy, super-intelligent and ambitious control freak with a poker face falls for the humble, beautiful, fragile and kind-hearted heroine but would not reveal his feelings until she’s also hopelessly in love with him. There’s not an ounce of Western-style political correctness anywhere in sight. Forget about any explicit sex scenes too, the most passionate moments are marked by little kisses that wouldn’t make even a pre-teen blush. The twists of the plot are fascinatingly bereft of any logic. It’s refreshingly different.

The most passionate moments are marked by little kisses that wouldn’t make even a pre-teen blush.

My proudest linguistic moment in the whole show was when I understood the logic of the nickname the drama’s hero came up with spontaneously: his lover’s name is Lin (林) and all of a sudden, he affectionately calls her MuMu (木木). Can you see why? Not if you’re only listening or looking at the English subtitles, right?

Emboldened and intrigued by this first surreal experience, I progressed to the more subtle C-Drama, Here to Heart (温暖的弦). The Chinese title proves to be much more interesting to translate. The title has the names of both protagonists: Wennuan and Xian, it’s also the inscription on a seal that our hero, Xian, gives to his college sweetheart, Wennuan, but it could be translated as “The warm cord”, referring to the unbreakable connection that the two lovers hold on to for years.

It’s an excruciatingly slow-moving romance, prolonged by the unwillingness of both parties to show their true feelings or communicate with each other. Yet, I stick to it and even shed a few tears once the infuriatingly reserved young people finally hug and reveal their love for each other.

All of a sudden, I recognized some of the stars on the covers of magazines, or the lead song from a drama. I can even relate to some of the online gossips about a star couple’s break-up. It’s still too early to tell whether it’s beneficial for my language acquisition or not, but I wonder if my new addiction might prove to be a disaster for the healthy TV-free lifestyle I’d managed to carve out for myself here in Dongguan.