One of the things a lot people ask me about being in Shanghai is what it's like to live in a Communist country. And my normal answer--carefully considered as I drink my Starbucks while walking past KFC on the way back from the Levis store in my local mall--is that, for the most part, it's pretty much the same as living anywhere else, albeit with better Chinese food. Because of this, it's easy to forget just closed off the country has been for how long, and how little most people know about the outside world.
I'm sure it's a product of, shall we say, a lack of accurate Chinese-language information, but I still find it shocking. For example, in my experience, most people here, even college graduates, seem to have no idea who Jesus is. (Don't worry, I haven't suddenly become a missionary or anything--it comes up when trying to explain Christmas to people.) Now I'm not saying Americans are all geniuses or anything--I don't even want to know the percentage of people who wouldn't be able to point out China on a map--but I'm guessing if I said "Buddha" to your average American, I wouldn't be met by a roomful of blank stares. Unless they had been smoking "the Buddha," in which case I would almost definitely be met by a roomful of blank stares. And a demand for Cheetos as well, but that's beside the point.
Whatever. The other day I was watching CCTV-9, which is the government-sponsored English-language news and information channel on cable here. It's always pretty funny, since the coverage is, how shall I say, often slanted in one direction? Sort of like Fox News that way, but with less yelling. (And even worse hair, which is apparently possible.) Mostly, I suppose, because there's no side to disagree with in China: today, the Communist Party did this right, kept doing this really well, and planned to start doing that other thing even better than they ever have before! And don't even get me started on the various programs dealing with the "history" of the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression, which is always good for a few laughs. I mean, for a war show, at least.
Anyway, there was a news show on, and it was talking about travel insurance. More specifically, how travel insurance is still pretty new in China and not many people buy it. This in itself struck me as odd, for a few reasons: first, as far as I can remember, most Chinese airports seem to have travel insurance desks; second, I only remember the desks because I have seen big lines of people waiting at them, which I thought was funny since, in my experience, almost no one in the US gets travel insurance. Although you would never know that if you were in China, since the next nugget of information the newscaster dropped was that--apparently--98% of all travelers in Western countries purchase travel insurance. Um, okay …
My first reaction was, of course, to laugh about what a complete lie that was. But then I started to wonder why they even said it. Obviously, no foreigner watching would believe that, so was it targeted at Chinese people who know enough English to watch the CCTV-9 news but hadn't been abroad enough to know the information was wrong? Are there really that many people who fall into that category? And if there are, what was the newscast hoping to accomplish? Was it paid for by the travel insurance industry so they could make more money? Is the travel insurance industry part of the government? (Since all the airlines are government run, I would guess that's fairly likely.) The more I thought about it, the more I was surprised--and amazed--by the depth of media control implied in that one throwaway fact. And while it's not very funny (as opposed to, you know, my usual hilarious entries), I do think it's pretty interesting.
Or at least, sort of interesting. After thinking about it for a few minutes, my head, naturally, started to hurt, so I flipped over to our pirated Philippine satellite TV and started watching a Seinfeld rerun:
- Who does this guy think he is?
- I'm Keith Hernandez.
Ha! Good stuff, good stuff …