Soap Opera? Play? Simulation? A Chinese Perspective on American Arts and Entertainment

Actress Leighton Meester is shown on the set of "Gossip Girl", Monday, March 16, 2009, in New York. (AP Photo/Charles Sykes)
Leighton Meester as Blair Waldorf in Gossip Girl (Photo: AP)

When I was still in China, the only American art or entertainment I knew about was the American soap operas. In fact, I got my initial impression of America from “Criminal Minds,” “Sex and the City,” “Gossip Girl” and so on. Although these soap operas were quite ridiculous, even to my eyes, I still believed that most often they presented what was really going on in America.

These soap operas told me that the crimes in America almost existed everywhere and could be extremely disgusting, that everyone has sex and is open about talking about it, and that people in the Upper East Side were presumptuous and arrogant.

Yet when I came to America, the first lesson I learned from my classmates was that soap operas are not as popular as I expected, at least not amongst college students. Lots of people I know haven’t even watched one episode of those “famous” soap operas.

What is unexpectedly popular among my college classmates (unexpectedly for me, anyway) is theater.

One of my professors required us to watch a play on campus and write about it for a class assignment.

I have to admit that I didn’t have much expectation before going – it was my first time seeing a live play. In China, that never seemed to be an important way for people to entertain themselves. When I thought about going to a play, what I imagined was a few actors playing for very few people, and I sort of pitied the actors, because this “working-for-no-audience” job seemed to be miserable.

Poster for The Wild Party at NDSU
Poster for The Wild Party at NDSU

The play I went to see was called “The Wild Party,” and it was put on by North Dakota State University’s Division of Fine Arts.

Different from watching a play at home, right before the play I got a brochure (“playbill”) about the plot, the roles and the actors, just like what I’d imagine was handed out before Shakespearean plays in old times. This gave me a tone of the play and I began to treat this play seriously.

During the play, I got totally crazy about the actors’ performance. It was extremely excellent; far better than what I would expect for a student-organized play. I was also amazed at the audience’s reaction. Everyone was respectfully quiet most of the time, and gave positive responses such as a big laugh or a great applaud when the play went to its climax. At the end, everyone stood up to clap their hands for these great actors, showing their highly respect and satisfaction.

The Wild Party, performed by a theater group at the University of Michigan

One of my American suitemates told me later that actually many Americans, especially college students, prefer the theater to a soap opera. She said that lots of people think plays are more realistic and lively. Also, some of their acquaintances may be in the play and it will be great fun for them to watch the people they know on stage.

After that play, I began to search for other plays. I got to know that actually there are many plays on campus, and the students who participate consistently put on great shows, contributing to it just like their real career. And almost each performance has a great many spectators. I was deeply touched by this devotion from both the actors and their audience.

This past weekend I had a pleasant shock from yet another type of entertainment activity. I joined a leadership program and participated in a simulation of helping slaves escape through the Underground Railroad.

The simulation is another interesting form of entertainment for American college students that I didn’t know about before.

We were each assigned roles to play – I was one of the slaves, and others acted as slave owners or abolitionists. Everyone took their roles really seriously, which I really wasn’t expecting. I felt totally unprepared and totally shocked all at once!

civil war simulation
Some of the participants in the simulation (Photo: Dēĕpti Ƭƴagi)

My role started when I was pushed to the stage to be bid on by the slave owners. In this process, those bidders gave their price based on the quality of my look, the strength of my teeth or so. Then, under the guidance of friends, I escaped and had to run as fast as I could with my “escape mate” outside in the snow, back and forth, back and forth! In order not to get caught by “slave-owners,” sometimes we also needed to find any safe location such as a real basement to hide. Every time our team arrived at a safe spot, we needed to count off in order to make sure that we didn’t leave anybody behind.

Despite the fact that most “slaves” were not black and did not wear costumes, everything felt as real as in that old time right before Civil War: “slave-owners” and our black friends were costumed, the settings kept changing from the inside of the house to the outside and everyone tried their best to treat these scenes as real. At one point, Civil War-era music started up nearby us: “Follow the drinking gourd, follow the drinking gourd.” When my teammates started singing in the corner of the basement, I almost started to suspect we were real slaves at that moment and really desperate enough to gain hope only from singing!

“Freedom!” This is the signal indicating us to run away. Off we quickly dispersed into the plain heavily covered by the snow. It was in Minnesota, 8 o’clock at night. The drum playing on one of the near slopes seemed to be doleful yet powerful.

After participating in the simulation, I feel I can really understand what those slaves went through during that dark period, and I also learned the importance of cooperating with my teammates and trusting those people who try to help us. But I have to say that even though the scenario we were acting was quite serious, the event also brought us great fun.

It is interesting to see Americans have so many creative ways for performance and almost every American is a born actor that can interpret those messages lively and dramatically. I really enjoy watching or participating in any of these activities. The Americans’ marvelous performance also stimulates me to learn more about acting skills and be more open about my own facial expressions and gestures to integrate myself better in this American society 🙂

7 comments

  1. Congratulations, again you were brilliant.

    I thought that the soap operas were very popular in the USA.

    Your way of seeing the American way of live is very interesting.

    1. I’ll just add that, as an American, I think soap operas are definitely a popular form of entertainment, but college campuses provide opportunities for a lot of more high-brow types of entertainment as well. In my own life, I certainly indulge in what might be considered slightly trashier TV (my worst TV vice is the show “Dance Moms”), but I also really like going to the theatre and going to concerts and such.

  2. Dandan, I so appreciated going on Kujenga with you and meeting you! I remember being so freaked out when you disappeared and we thought the slave masters got you! I’m glad the Underground Railroad simulation was such a powerful experience for you. Hope I entertained you with my lack of jumping over bushes skills.

    And Dandan, whenever you want, I will sing for you. ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. This is Lucy in China. What you wrote is interesting. Study abroad is a good opportuniny to improve our English level and the ability to communicate with others.
    I can see your efforts and I can see your gains.
    Come on! Dandan.

    1. Thank you. To study abroad also offers you a chance to experience a different culture and to think in a different way. Hopefully you can come and enjoy it in the near future =D

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