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Does he secretly eat children or something?
January 10, 2012 2:11 PM   Subscribe

Dashan represents or symbolizes something very powerful to a Chinese audience...[the] Chinese have a very complex and conflicting view of themselves and the world at large...Dashan represents a Westerner who appreciates and respects China, who has learned the language and understands the culture and has even become “more Chinese than the Chinese”. It’s a very powerful and reassuring image that appeals to very deep-rooted emotions.
Mark Rowswell, aka "大山" Dà shān, the massively popular, Canadian-born 相声 xiàng sheng performer and celebrity in China, offers his own thoughts on his persona (mostly referring to it in third person), why the Chinese public is enamored with it, and why his fellow Western expats tend to resent it. posted by stroke_count (33 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
Rowswell comes across as awesome
posted by Bwithh at 2:14 PM on January 10, 2012


A while back someone linked to this Dashan joke and considering the punchline revolves around an untranslatable word, it is hilarious.
posted by griphus at 2:17 PM on January 10, 2012 [14 favorites]


One of my professors- also a Westerner who performs xiangsheng in China- pretty much summed up Da Shan by saying "he got there first." When he was a student in China, there were literally almost no Western students in the entire country, because they'd juuuust begun opening up. The way my professor told it, he just happened to have some friends who asked him to appear in a televised sketch, because wouldn't it be funny/shocking to show a white guy speaking Chinese? (And it would have been!) That sketch pretty much launched his career as a TV personality. Not to put him down at all- he does seem cool, and has clearly put a lot of effort into really understanding China and Chinese.

I think a lot of resentment of Da Shan comes from this feeling that, if you'd been born 20 years earlier and gone to China to learn Chinese 20 years earlier, the same amount of effort on your part would have been met with much more praise...
posted by showbiz_liz at 2:24 PM on January 10, 2012


The white elephant in this room is the fact that it's the only elephant in the room that's white.

Resentment of being white and necessarily being associated with 'DaShan' is probably the same kind of stuff I get whenever I talk to people here in the states and, somewhere, somehow, Jet Li or Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan get brought up, either ironically or not.
posted by dubusadus at 2:33 PM on January 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


Thanks for the post, I have new respect for the person and the character.
I could make a short public statement like that of Christian Bale recently or Björk a few years ago. It’s very easy to do and ensures you get very good coverage in the Western media. You go home and everyone thinks you are a person of moral conviction who stood up to the great Chinese monster. But the fact is that these kinds of statements elicit almost no sympathy whatsoever from ordinary Chinese citizens. They simply are not culturally acceptable to the broad Chinese audience. And it’s very difficult to see what impact they have other than to further convince ordinary Chinese people that China is misunderstood and that the Western world is antagonistic towards China and resentful of China’s development. What use is that?

QFT
posted by Treeline at 3:14 PM on January 10, 2012 [5 favorites]


Okay, so I’d like to follow up my pithy comment with a more substantial rant.

For one, small talk is, by its very nature, pat and prone to common topics. Jet Li for your Asian friends, alcoholism for your Irish ones, Hannukah for your Jewish friends, Skrillex for your DJ friends, Dan Savage for your gay friends and so on and so forth. It’s not something particularly endemic to Chinese culture; it just happens because they’re easy topics and because there’s not a whole lot of anecdotal exposure to white people in China.

Resentment builds when this kind of small talk is repeated over and over again and it’s always about something you don’t really have any control over. Imagine being born with a tweaky liver and forced to be vegetarian in order to survive. Now imagine just about everybody you meet makes that funny quip about how good bacon/hamburgers. For the rest of your life, you’re haunted by this quip. Unending and incessant it plagues all of your conversations. Now imagine that it happens not just when you go out to eat but also just whenever, that everybody who can see you can tell that you’re vegetarian.

The frustration comes from the fact that you have absolutely no agency over your identity. You will always be vegetarian, no matter how much you want to eat meat, no matter how much you appreciate that others appreciate it, you will always be seen as abnormal, a minority within the vast omnivorous majority. It’s not that Da Shan or whatever is good at one-upping native Chinese speakers, it’s the expectation that you will be like Da Shan, that you will fit into all the individual aspects that make up his mold no matter how much you don’t want to. You are subject to the identity he (Mark) has created.

All of these Caucasian males coming from the States and Canada, who grew up in a culture and workforce largely dominated by heterosexual white men finally feel the pressure of what it’s like to be part of the minority. This, unsurprisingly, sucks, and so they lash out at the only evident symptom, Da Shan.

In a sense, his adeptness at Chinese and his being white ends up being the same kind of association given towards Bruce Lee’s martial arts and being Chinese in the States. And while I do appreciate the skill and dedication it takes to be Da Shan (or Bruce Lee for that matter), it’s not the skills that are the focus but the reduction of that skill to a type. It’s obvious he has no ownership of the relationship but he misunderstands stereotyping problem; it isn’t about you releasing a public statement, Mark. It’s about racism and the way the Da Shan character has yet to do anything but play the part of a foreign spectacle.
posted by dubusadus at 3:36 PM on January 10, 2012 [6 favorites]


considering the punchline revolves around an untranslatable word

Somewhere in the intersection of "befuddled" and "enlightened"?
posted by zippy at 3:45 PM on January 10, 2012


Those of us who have traveled here from 2200 remember that Dashan was one of main reasons that Canada was spared during the Great Sino-American War of 2070.
posted by twoleftfeet at 3:55 PM on January 10, 2012 [6 favorites]


If you're struggling to understand his humor, watch the classic Abbot & Costello routine Who's On First? Imagine this kind of humor magnified by ten.
posted by twoleftfeet at 4:06 PM on January 10, 2012


Still better than Dane Cook.
posted by Xoebe at 4:10 PM on January 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


From the comments: "Dashan, however, is a media personality. A phenomenon. He's part of China's cultural landscape." But they don't want to admit it, because *what's the biggest difference between me and him* he's not from around here *jealous awe* but damn can he play...

I guess the constant reminder that you're not as skilled as someone else would be frustrating. It would depend on your personality whether you resented him (easy to do), idolized him (easy to do), or wanted to be like him (difficult to do).

We all understand that undercurrent exists, but at least our constant cognitive dissonance correction allows us to justify it away. You could focus on the cultural aspect but really this is a universal thing; I think it's interesting that this can happen on an international scale, and also on an individual one...like that one time my friend grabbed my guitar at my house party and got all the girls too. Damn showoff. If only I didn't have this girlfriend/job/gaming addiction/laziness, I could totally be better at guitar...
posted by Khazk at 4:10 PM on January 10, 2012


How to understand Chinese humor. It's not easy.

I have a huge amount of respect for Dashan. It's hard to find a comparison. Maybe Chaplin in The Great Dictator. Maybe Will Rogers during the Great Depression. Neither of those quite capture it, though.

Dashan performs in front of hundreds of millions of people on the New Year show. He's probably one of the most famous people on the planet, if you count total viewers. He should be better known in the West and I hereby nominate him for a Nobel Peace Prize. This is the first comedian I've nominated for a Peace Prize. I nominated two comedians for the Chemistry Prize, but they didn't win.
posted by twoleftfeet at 4:21 PM on January 10, 2012


How to understand Chinese humor. It's not easy.

Yeah, it seems very self-referential.
posted by eugenen at 4:23 PM on January 10, 2012 [7 favorites]


One of my professors- also a Westerner who performs xiangsheng in China- pretty much summed up Da Shan by saying "he got there first." When he was a student in China, there were literally almost no Western students in the entire country, because they'd juuuust begun opening up. The way my professor told it, he just happened to have some friends who asked him to appear in a televised sketch, because wouldn't it be funny/shocking to show a white guy speaking Chinese? (And it would have been!) That sketch pretty much launched his career as a TV personality.

My high school English teacher's daughter was a minor celebrity in China for a while, for what sounds like a similar reason — she was apparently just about the only Chinese-speaking white actress around at the time. Looks like this guy's run with it a lot farther than she did, though.
posted by nebulawindphone at 4:27 PM on January 10, 2012


Yeah, it seems very self-referential.

Well, no, but it is often sarcastic. How to understand Chinese humor.
posted by twoleftfeet at 4:31 PM on January 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


griphus: "...the punchline revolves around an untranslatable word..."

Untranslated, sure, but hardly untranslatable. 哭笑不得 is almost identical to the English "don't know whether to laugh or cry".

...

When I was living in Taiwan, friends would fairly often tell me I should go on TV since my Mandarin is so good. There were plenty of precedents: 巧克力 Chocolate (who was forced to leave Taiwan a few months before I left myself), 傑夫 Jeff, Samantha K... But it all seemed so exploitive and seedy. The foreigners exploiting their privilege, the locals painting the foreigners with their stereotypes -- all just pretty yucky. That kind of existence really didn't appeal to me. Poagao has provided a much better example, I think.
posted by jiawen at 4:58 PM on January 10, 2012


That quota thread reachs its too much information point when someone brings up a real life "Dashan's sloppy seconds" anecdote. Eew.
posted by Bwithh at 5:49 PM on January 10, 2012


This is the best comment another western ex-patriot of the time:

Because many times I was Dashan.

So people would ask me if and tell me I was Dashan. I'm white, 6'0", have brown-ish hair, wear glasses. To the untrained eye (i.e. a billion Chinese people), I look exactly like Dashan.
posted by sammyo at 5:52 PM on January 10, 2012


I find it remarkable that effectively the most famous Canadian in the world is one almost no Canadians would recognize.
posted by mek at 5:54 PM on January 10, 2012 [6 favorites]


From two leftfeets's link comes:

Son: "Dad, I have a problem. I just came to Germany, but I can't seem to fit in. I am the only kid in my class who drives a Benz to school. My classmates take the train."
Dad: "It's OK, I just transferred 5 million Euros to your account. Go buy a train."


Which is a very fine joke.
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 8:04 PM on January 10, 2012 [7 favorites]


What's Chinese for "Raaaaaaaandy"?
posted by bardic at 8:06 PM on January 10, 2012


lots of people are famous because they happened to be in the right place at the right time - and had the talent to make the most of their opportunity. I don't see why this makes Dashan any less talented.

but do the characters of his name say "big mountain"? (I only ever knew a handful of characters - but I remember Da as being the last character for "Jianada" (Canada)).
posted by jb at 9:53 PM on January 10, 2012


Does he venerate Master Kong? Does he observe filial rites towards his ancestors? Does he practice the cultivation of the Five Excellences? Because if so, then perhaps he may be begun to be considered to be "more Chinese than the Chinese."
posted by Apocryphon at 10:14 PM on January 10, 2012


'Da' has four distinctive tones in Chinese called 'pinyin'. Da, the fourth tone, means 'big' and 'shan' with a first tone means 'mountain'. Jianada does have the fourth tone but that's simply because it's the one that sounds the most like the 'da' in Canada. Jianada as a word would literally translate into 'house take big' which is nonsensical. I'm guessing out of my butt but I think it's onomatopoeic because it sounds like a real word for a real country, which it now is.

Frankly speaking, Da Shan is a not a real name; it's closer to a cutesy nickname like "Johnny Appleseed" or "Dick Johnson" or "Chareth Cutestory, Maritime Lawyer".
posted by dubusadus at 10:28 PM on January 10, 2012


In Taiwan, strangers will often compliment any Mandarin a foreigner can stutter out, including, say, a sneeze, just as a matter of basic politeness. Once they know me, however, it's just talking, and I've found on trips to China that it's pretty much also just talking there as well.

@Jiawen: Jeff Locker's Chinese was pretty good, but both Chocolate and Samantha K had excruciatingly awful accents, the kind that make you suddenly understand it when locals do the awful fake "foreigner" accent as a joke. Still, I'm glad that Da Shan is almost completely unknown here, and I'd like to think that he'd get laughed at a lot if he came for his accent, though mainland tourists are becoming more common these days.
posted by Poagao at 1:20 AM on January 11, 2012


@dubusadus: the "jia"in "jia na da" (Canada) isn't the character for "house" (家)it's the character for "add" (加)
posted by bearette at 2:22 AM on January 11, 2012


I've had Chinese people tell me that Dashan (大山; lit. "Big Mountain") is a funny name in its own right, but not why it is.

My own harebrained, completely unfounded theory is that it has something to do with its shades of perceived grandeur compared to Zhongshan (中山; lit. "Middle (medium)/Central Mountain") the polite name of Sun Yat-Sen, the venerable father of modern China - while still being technically "correct" or apt, as he is quite tall.

But I don't know.
posted by flippant at 2:31 AM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is really interesting as I find the similar sort of thing happens in South Korea. My parents live in San Francisco and they get Korean shows via satellite and I remember seeing clips where various chat shows would feature white men (not sure if they were European or American) speaking fluid Korean... and as far as I could tell, that was the sole reason for them being there. They talked about their wife's cooking, attempts at making kimchee, pretty mundane topics. They would get the biggest laughs for using local colloquialisms because I guess it sounded funny coming out of them? I don't know if anybody has risen to the top to be the most famous like Dashan.

My husband is Scottish and taking Korean classes to be able to talk to my parents better. When we visited Korea a few months ago I joked that if he got good enough then there was a good chance he could get his own tv show while we were there.
posted by like_neon at 2:42 AM on January 11, 2012


Of course they don't like it when they get stereotyped against this guy. Being non-white in America has the exact same connotations.
posted by chiffonade at 5:34 AM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


I've had Chinese people tell me that Dashan (大山; lit. "Big Mountain") is a funny name in its own right, but not why it is.

My own harebrained, completely unfounded theory is that it has something to do with its shades of perceived grandeur compared to Zhongshan (中山; lit. "Middle (medium)/Central Mountain") the polite name of Sun Yat-Sen, the venerable father of modern China - while still being technically "correct" or apt, as he is quite tall.

But I don't know.


I was under the impression that it was sort of a 'hick' name, like Cletus or something.
posted by showbiz_liz at 6:50 AM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


How to understand Chinese humor. It's not easy.

I have a huge amount of respect for Dashan. It's hard to find a comparison. Maybe Chaplin in The Great Dictator. Maybe Will Rogers during the Great Depression. Neither of those quite capture it, though.


It's not hard to find a comparison. The humor explained in the corrected link sounds exactly like the kind of humor in the 30s-50s: the back-and-forth routines, the terrible groaners.
posted by Sangermaine at 2:15 PM on January 11, 2012


One that springs to mind is Fozzie Bear from the Muppets, since he's supposed to be a parody of that style of humor. Add "Wocka Wocka!" to the end of those 3 examples jokes; it works.
posted by Sangermaine at 2:18 PM on January 11, 2012


Before this post I hadn't heard about Dashan for about five years.
posted by pomegranate2012 at 8:07 PM on January 11, 2012


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