What to ask the Chinese populace?
August 8, 2008 9:24 AM   Subscribe

I am leaving for Beijing in a few days. I am bringing a video camera and plan to interview English-speaking Chinese people on the street. My goal is to edit the footage together into an informative and insightful piece. If you could ask the people of China any question, what would it be?
posted by srkit to Society & Culture (32 answers total)
What do you think of the government? What did you think of it 10 years ago? Do you think things will get better or worse?

Subsitute Tibet, and repeat.
posted by phrontist at 9:32 AM on August 8, 2008

Do you guys have any idioms that reference Americans? Like how we have "Not for all the tea in China"?
posted by Greg Nog at 9:34 AM on August 8, 2008 [2 favorites]

I've always been curious about the average Chinese person's level of concern for the environment.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 9:36 AM on August 8, 2008

Insightful about what, exactly?

I'm going to go out on a limb and say security will be tight with the Olympics going on. The Communist guards would be on higher alert.

Communications in China are heavily censored and controlled, and yes, people are still regularly arrested for "inciting unrest" from what we would consider innocent photographs.

Be careful about the type of questions you might ask. Don't ask stupid questions about politics. And don't be surprised if you don't get answers for some of them. I suggest familiarizing yourself with sociopolitical and cultural differences in journalism sites (e.g. playthegameforopenjournalism.org, or search for "journalism tips"). China is very, very "not Western."

You may not have any interest in the big-time journalism reporting over there, but I wouldn't be surprised if you were treated as such if you have a recorder trained on a citizen with a guard in the background.

The idioms idea seems harmless, though.
posted by Ky at 9:37 AM on August 8, 2008

Be forwarned that there are plainsclothes police who look like common tourists everywhere in Beijing, making sure no "inappropriate" controversial questions are asked, and in particular, videotaped for dissemination. Several examples of this were in the news yesterday (mention on NPR, saw footage on BBC World News), including the arrest of people thought to be disturbing the public order mentioning and political controversy or questioning / informing Chinese citizens about political issues.
posted by aught at 9:38 AM on August 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Be careful, government questions could endanger their lives, whether they're willing participants or not. Also be careful in taxis... WSJ: "Beijing Taxis Are Rigged for Eavesdropping"

I'm curious: what's their big personal goal? Where do they want to be in five years? What's the achievement they're most proud of? And what's their favorite film vs. their favorite American film?
posted by sharkfu at 9:43 AM on August 8, 2008

It's probably doesn't totally fit with your artistic vision, but I'd seriously look into getting a translator too and talking to some people who don't speak any English. Those who do speak English well are going to be from a very different class and sector of society than those who do not. I'm speaking here partly from my experience traveling in China but mostly from my experiences in Egypt, where speaking English correctly and fluently was largely a privilege of the upper middle class or higher. You're also missing out on most old people; English is widely spoken by young people but not as much by the older Chinese.

I think that China is going to be very influential in the coming century, not just as an economic powerhouse but as a source of global culture. As it becomes an economic superpower it's going to start having an effect on the world's overall patterns of behavior.

So, I think it might be useful to ask them what their dreams and visions are, because these are going to become the world's dreams. Ask them about what they feel is important in their lives.

Keep in mind, though, that there are some restrictions on the questions you can ask comfortably. When I was in Egypt and taking a course in ESL, I was told that I could introduce any number of topics in my classroom, but the big three to avoid were religion, politics, and sex. Religion might not be the powder keg subject in China like it is in the middle east, but I think this rule is still a pretty good one.

Honestly, the more I travel the more I think that people are fundamentally the same, even up to believing that their cultural and social norms are different from everyone else's (nearly every person I've heard talking about their own culture says, "We n-ans love our food and are very serious about it!" as if this is a unique feature to their culture. Aside from American consumerist culture, I guess, which values glutamates and modified food starch above all else, there really isn't a culture that is anti-good food). So keep in mind that while the people in China face a much different situation than people in the west, they still have most of the same goals as everyone else.

Uh, so I guess I'm not really answering all that well, but maybe just try to get them to generally talk about themselves and let the questions develop as you meet more people?
posted by Deathalicious at 9:45 AM on August 8, 2008

Ask the following:

* How come people from tibet are allowed to carry knives anywhere in china? Is this okay?
* How come people from Tibet do not get the death penalty when they murder someone? Is this okay with you?
* Is it true that sichuan girls often have several boyfriends at the same time?
* Which area of china has the most spicy food? Which area of china has the best food?
* In America, coke is free with your drink, in China it is the same price as in the store, and in Europe it is 10 times more expensive. What's your opinion on that?
* If a japanese man wants to marry your sister, and your sister says she will only marry him if you allow, would you allow?
* What's your opinion on russian bar girls?
* Which area of china is the laziest?
* Sinchian men sell drugs and the police do not do anything. Is this right or wrong?
* What's your opinion on KTV girls? Should this be allowed or not?
posted by ChabonJabon at 9:46 AM on August 8, 2008 [2 favorites]

Also: In China, there is no tipping. Is this good or bad?
posted by ChabonJabon at 9:47 AM on August 8, 2008

I'd stick to pop culture/folklore type stuff to avoid any sort of trouble with the police. You're interviewing locals during the most sensitive, overtly-watched time in their lives for decades. Why risk them getting in trouble?
posted by mdonley at 9:49 AM on August 8, 2008

I wouldn't risk it.
posted by SirStan at 9:50 AM on August 8, 2008

On postview: yeah, I was hoping it was obvious enough to not have to point out that China is effectively a police state. And, by the way? Asking a Chinese person about Tienanmen is kinda like going to the US and saying "So, what's up with this whole racism thing? Are you still sending too many black people to prison, and are too many people shooting each other with guns?" Look, everyone knows about it, everyone's against it, and in all honesty Tienanmen is sorta a drop in the bucket of persecution. So that topic is neither informative nor insightful. I'm sure you weren't going to talk about it yourself; it's just that every so often I hear about someone going to China who's planning to ask people about Tiananmen (or, heaven help us, tell them about Tiananmen).
posted by Deathalicious at 9:52 AM on August 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

I kinda like questions 2-n from ChabonJabon. Totally inappropriate, but if you were able to get answers to those questions that video would absolutely be both informative and insightful.

It might be totally awesome to get someone well versed in Chinese popular culture to give you a primer on what's going on there, then you go in and ask them all of these questions that really deal with their big pop-culture issues. Then, you splice the documentary with commentary form yourself and/or Chinese pop-culture expert who explains the references and contextualizes them for you.

Kinda a This Chinese Life or something.

If someone from Europe did this for the US, went to the States and really asked people about Paris Hilton, and tried to sort of contextualize her fame and people's attitudes towards her with the general worship of fame in-and-of-itself that's so omnipresent here as well as a sort of deference to rich jetsetters, I think that could be a pretty insightful short. It would be awesome if it was in English but the filmmaker/narrator was from Sweden or Denmark or something, because there's something about someone speaking earnestly about something kinda silly in Scandinavianly accented English that is just so transcendental.
posted by Deathalicious at 9:58 AM on August 8, 2008

Oh, and finally: totally risk it. I don't see China getting any freer later on, and even if they will be watching more closely there are way more people to watch. So yeah, stay off the tough subjects but there's probably not going to be a better time to be traveling around China with a video camera. You'll totally blend in with all the other lao weis.
posted by Deathalicious at 10:01 AM on August 8, 2008

Most people on Chinese streets don't speak English (at least not enough to answer impromptu interview questions), so this will be rather difficult without an interpreter. Being a foreigner in Beijing isn't enough by itself anymore to attract attention, especially not during the Olympics. So you'll have to seek people out. I'd recommend checking out one of the universities in Haidian district (Beijing University or Qinghua for starters).

If you ask about national issues, you'll likely get extremely boring responses. I'd stick to questions about what people think lies in their future, job, finances, etc. However, I think you'll still probably get a lot of boring responses, as people aren't very likely to disclose personal information to a guy they just met with a camera.

Also, if you are involved in any activities that seem journalistic, but you don't have a journalists's visa, you could run into trouble. Normally, I don't think this kind of project would be noticed, but this is not a normal time.
posted by bluejayk at 10:09 AM on August 8, 2008

I would ask what makes them, as a person, uniquely Chinese.

And this is probably getting into too shaddy territory, but I would love to know what they think of adoption or Int'l adoption. It would probably be okay to ask, "If you were married and not able to conceive a child, would you consider adopting an orphan?" That used to be something that would be completely hidden or not done at all b/c of the lack of blood tie which is oh so important in many Asian cultures. But now it seems like it's happening more. I also wonder if they even realize so many Chinese babies are being adopted by Westerners.....though that number has dropped in the last couple years in a dramatic and sudden slowdown - no doubt intentional by the government - and least in my not-so-humble opinion.
posted by texas_blissful at 10:13 AM on August 8, 2008

Thanks for the great responses so far. I didn't want to make my original question too verbose but I'd like to follow up by saying:

I will mostly avoid getting political with the questions.
I will definitely will not be mentioning Tibet.
I am after more lighthearted questions (like the idiom one, tipping, their future - great!).
This is a hobby project, not something I plan to submit to film festivals.
I'll be using a flip video recorder which I believe will raise many less eyebrows than if I was recording on a handicam or similar recording device.
I know flip video kind of sucks and is only 640x480 resolution, but as I said, it is just a hobby project.
By "insightful" I just meant providing Westerners a window into how a portion of the Chinese people feel and think, in some small way.
posted by srkit at 10:32 AM on August 8, 2008

"Were you in any way hesitant to speak with me?" "Why?"
posted by JakeLL at 10:52 AM on August 8, 2008

Ask them what they think about sanctimonious Americans who believe they know everything about China and what should be done there.

Please note that my ire is not directed at you, and that I actually would like to find out what Chinese people think about that contingent.
posted by sinfony at 11:08 AM on August 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

"How do you feel about Americans coming to your country to raise a fuss?"
posted by 2oh1 at 11:25 AM on August 8, 2008

Sounds like a great idea! Contact me through MeFi mail, as I may have some submissions options for you for the material, in addition to film festivals.
posted by operating thetan at 11:25 AM on August 8, 2008

"What are your views on people who emigrate (legally or illegally) to America?"

"How were you affected by the "clean air" Olympic project? How quickly do you think things will return back to normal"

"What's your favorite movie?"

"What Cell phone feature (besides phone) do you use the most?"

"What do you think of Jackie Chan and Jet Li? Sellout (explain if necessary), or not?

"What does Cream of Sumyunguy taste like?"
posted by Debaser626 at 11:37 AM on August 8, 2008

You might be asking the question "why are you arresting me?" If you aren't very careful.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:47 AM on August 8, 2008 [2 favorites]

If it's just a personal project I would probably not do it with a camera this trip, maybe next one. Not having media credentials while interviewing people will draw the attention of the authorities, even if you're not asking political questions. Don't expect them to be understanding or compassionate they're a little overworked at the moment.

Journal it, blog it, write it down, but I wouldn't do it on camera.

(And n'thing that most people in Beijing don't speak enough English to make this project anything but frustrating. In my limited (in)experience. If you have a translator though....)

I find the easiest way to get the most interesting cultural insights in another country is to go to a bar and buy some drinks for the locals, but your mileage may vary.
posted by Ookseer at 11:54 AM on August 8, 2008

This is a really neat idea. It sounds like you already know that some subjects are touchy and that's good.

ChabonJabon had some good ones. I second asking about food - Chinese people in my experience (visiting there and here in the states) love to talk about food! (Who doesn't?) Especially, every city/area has their own specialties. They will probably love if you ask about their favorites. Ask them what they think of Western food.

Ask about cars - do they want one? Do they have one? Do they think the recent push towards getting cars in China is a good idea?

Have fun and be careful (and bring really comfortable clothes!)
posted by wundermint at 12:39 PM on August 8, 2008

I think that what you're considering doing is an extraordinarily bad idea, which could ruin the lives -- or cost them -- of the people you talk to. See this.

Do your "art" somewhere else.
posted by Class Goat at 1:21 PM on August 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

This is a really neat idea.

I don't want to sound negative, but, as OOkser said, I'd think again. China, as you probably heard, is not a democracy. Information is not free, and journalists are now allowed en masse entrance as long as it is for olympic coverage. I know it's a personal, lighthearted project and as I read the previous answers you already know that. But, being a foreigner filming people on the street, I think, could draw more attention from the authorities than you probably want.
posted by _dario at 1:27 PM on August 8, 2008

I guess what I was responding to was your idea of really talking to people and being interested in their culture and views - and that is great. Using a camera to interview them journalist-style may not be; I don't know what the security situation will be. Maybe you want to wait until you hit a bar or something later or if you're in someone's private home. Maybe you should just keep a journal. But I wouldn't give up on the idea entirely. Good luck.
posted by wundermint at 1:56 PM on August 8, 2008

Nobody will care in China who you talk to. In my experience, the U.S was a lot more restrictive and confrontational than China. I went to both as a foreigner, and I felt a lot more free in China.
posted by ChabonJabon at 4:45 PM on August 8, 2008

Now, I don't know how much cash you're thinking about investing in this, but I think you'd have a lot more luck actually making a documentary out of it. If you've been paying attention, the government recently released a list called 八个不要问/Eight Don't Asks for the Olympics, a list of annoying questions you're NOT supposed to ask foreigners. I can see a documentary based on turning these questions around on Chinese people working out...or something based on that theme. Consider it, because once you get a license to film here, you're free to film and edit pretty much as you like.
posted by saysthis at 7:15 PM on August 8, 2008

Class Goat, there are miles of difference between what srkit was planning, and handing out political flyers or discussing issues surrounding Tienanmen square. I'm not sure I would agree with ChabonJabon's assessment of relative freedoms of the US and China...what I would say is that in my experience, Western nations tend to treat foreigners with suspicion and doubt, and often try to keep them on a short leash. In developing countries, where the west is admired/feared/slightly resented/huge source of military funding, the foreigner population gets treated with overwhelming deference and foreigners are given the benefit of the doubt over locals. I didn't feel restricted in China either, but I wasn't Chinese. I didn't feel restricted in Egypt, but that's because as an American I wasn't really personally affected by the situation there, so I didn't need to protest, and in fact in Egypt you cannot really protest. Even on days with planned strikes the people stay inside out of fear of undercover military police [Just to be clear: this means there is a strike, but basically no one shows up to march in it].

A lot of people make quips about the US stripping away its people's freedoms, and they are and we should be upset about it...certainly more upset than we are. But we still enjoy a huge amount of civil liberties. To equate the US's society's relationship with government to the same relationship in China is sort of a joke. The fact that many British people still don't know what Prince Charles said in perhaps the grossest phone sex line ever to Duchess Camilla is a testament to their highly restrictive libel/slander laws in an otherwise free and open society.
posted by Deathalicious at 11:36 PM on August 8, 2008

You might be interested in August 7th’s episode of the BBC’s World Have Your Say

"Talking to China
Ordinary people in China respond to your questions. Everything from Tibet and Tianamen to having only one child.
Duration: 49mins | File Size: 23MB"

posted by blueberry at 12:29 AM on August 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

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