Didacticism and Thematic Categorisation: Narratives of Chinese Student Experience

Wednesday June 20th, 2012 by No Comments


In recent weeks, we’ve been exploring representations and explorations of the Chinese student experience through visual means, and Gemma suggested that we watch Waves, a film by Li Tao made in 2007, which tells the stories of 4 young Chinese students who attend a high school in Wellington, New Zealand.

The documentary is divided into the four loosely interlinked stories that follow a each character, and, by extension, a separate narrative and thematic focus: Ken, the lonely student who misses home; Rose, the comfortably assimilated student; Lin, the student who is caught between two cultural traditions; and Jane, who resolutely holds on to her Chinese identity, rejecting the potential for assimilation.

It should be stated that the film appears to have been designed as a learning aid for teachers and administrative staff working with Chinese students in New Zealand. As such, Li Tao’s didactic approach to the representation of the stories is entirely legitimate. However, the demands of the instructional narrative notwithstanding, it is interesting to consider that here the Chinese student experience – more broadly, the experience of living away from the home and the family – is understood by way of categorisation; of the reduction of individual experience to easily defined commonalities.

Contemplating such a metholodogy can tell us much about the importance of understanding and indeed representing ambiguous and less easily definable narratives in the Youzi project.  Gemma and I are committed to an idea of ‘story’ as distinct from a conclusive and easily applicable byword for common experience(s).By this, I mean that there is absolutely no attempt in our work to represent or construct narratives which might be deemed to operate as authentic representations of the experience of one group. Narrative ‘types’ in this sense might be understood in terms such as ‘the integrated one’; ‘the one who misses home’; ‘the one who works too hard’, instead, the work of the project seeks to enable and facilitate the multiplicity of narratives united simply by a common thread; the primary circumstances of location (The University of Sheffield). What might emerge instead then are counter narratives, rich in personal detail and, ideally, ownership, and avowedly rejecting instructive exposition or inclusion within overarching contextual frameworks.

Waves also fascinated me on a stylistic level. The relationship between authorship and form is definitely a rich source of inquiry for the Youzi project – Gemma’s position as photographer, sound recorder and ‘filmer’, undoubtedly engages in a creative tension with her status as a Mandarin speaker and former international student – the aesthetics of distance and documentary observation are interwoven within the dynamics of personal relationships and experience. In Waves, Li Tao explicitly locates her own experience in relation to the students: she was once like them. We are reminded of this throughout the film: as English is spoken by New Zealanders (and, often, Chinese students) in the school and home stays, Li Tao’s voiceover (the most conspicuous trace of her authorship) and her interviews with the students (often undertaken in the homestays or schools and surrounded by non-Mandarin speakers) are conducted in Mandarin with English subtitles, and hint at wider tensions and issues around representation that we may wish to explore through our work on Youzi. For example, in Waves these authorial marks can be seen most vividly when Li Tao observes the students in their bedrooms. Here, the film moves away from the location of the students within diverse social and cultural environments – where their (and our) sense of difference is the source of narrative engagement – and move instead towards an intimate sphere in which a temporary solidarity of experience (between Li Tao and her subject[s]) emerges. For example, I was struck, by the moment in which Ken cries in his room following a phone conversation with his father where Li Tao’s camera stays with Ken as he sobs, before gently fading. In this sense, the fade, rather than the cut, implies the continuation of what I’m describing – the clear suggestion of an almost discordant solidarity between filmmaker and subject. Here, Ken’s tears continue off screen – Li Tao sees them; we do not. Gemma’s work, with its focus on the everyday, on narratives dictated by and emerging from conversation rather than recourse to the representation of ‘experience’, might represent something of a challenge to this approach.

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