Before I get to the post this week, I do want to mention that I was interviewed by a blog about teaching English in small-town China. Most of it discusses the practical aspects of looking for and finding a job here, but if you are interested in learning more about that, you can read that article here. Now, on to what you came for!!
I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that you’ve heard at least a passing mention of the supposed Mayan prophecy that the world is going to end in December 2012. I’m pretty sure that in the coming year, we’re going to hear more and more about it (though not from any particularly hard-hitting news sources); as if a lacklustre disaster movie and over 30 million Google search results (for “Mayan and 2012”) weren’t enough already (oh no, I just realized I’m contributing to the madness…)! And just like Y2K, once the date passes and nothing happens, everyone will deny they ever worried about it at all and it will slide into the past as the butt of a joke or two.
Something you probably don’t know (unless you live here) that China takes to foreign celebrities like magnets. Yao Ming’s break into the NBA has meant that millions of young boys have taken up basketball and now idolize players like Kobe Bryant and Lebron James (one guy who used to work in the office of the school I teach at chose Carter as his English name, after Vince Carter). The Backstreet Boys enjoyed rampant popularity here long after their fame in North America died down. As in the rest of the world, “Beiber Fever” seems to be spreading and unfortunately, like swine flu and H1N1, there appears to be no vaccine yet. Nicolas Cage enjoys a baffling level of fame here in mainland China, regardless of how much his acting may be panned in the US.
China has a huge audience for these celebrities, fueled by the increasing availability of the internet (at home and on mobile devices) and growth of social media here. Despite attempts by the government to ensure that locally-produced television, music, and films shown in China meet strict moral guidelines and measures to limit and censor foreign media, celebrity worship is alive and well in the Middle Kingdom.
Yet, it’s not every celebrity who “makes it” over here. The Chinese public is actually quite fussy about their celebrity heroes. Sometimes the biggest stars are nearly unknown. For example, Kobe Bryant is hugely popular, but I hear very few boys talking about Shaquille O’Neal, and Michael Jordan seems to be known more for attributing his name to a line of shoes than for his accomplishments on the court. The Beatles are widely known, yet the Rolling Stones remain a mystery to many Chinese listeners. And sometimes, as in the case of Mr. Cage, a star enjoys popularity here long after their career has taken a downturn in the west.
Finally, another thing you might not know unless you have China experience, is that Chinese people love a good conspiracy theory. Decades of dynasties and deception have coded it into the DNA, perhaps. If Chinese people were into Elvis Presley, I’m sure there would be tons of sightings every day to try to prove that he wasn’t really dead.
What does all this have to do with each other? Why am I mentioning it all in one blog post? I’m glad you asked.
Because my husband came home one night talking about how Chinese people on the internet are starting to catch on to the idea that the world is going to end in 2012. This surprised me a bit; I would have thought they would immediately discredit any prophecy coming from a civilization that was wiped out since, you know, China has a very long, superior history, and blah blah blah (hee hee, wink wink!).
I asked him more about it and it seems that people here are claiming that they know the end of the world is coming because of the “deaths” of their two most venerated celebrities. They reason that these two men, held to such high esteem in China, have not actually passed away in recent years, but instead have purchased tickets to safety and are hiding away somewhere so that they can survive whatever catastrophic event is coming that will destroy the rest of us unless we can manage to buy our own safety in the same manner.
Who are these two idols whose “deaths” provide the evidence for the coming judgement day? Who are the two men who will salvage civilization and help ensure that the human race will survive? Who are the two most popular celebrities in China, the cream of the celebrity crop?
Steve Jobs and Michael Jackson.
I can’t wait to hear the Jobs/Jackson duet remake of (a much more literal) “We are the World”.
(And yes, I have tried to explain to Chinese people, including my husband, that the only real claims to fame Michael Jackson had in the last 10-15 years of his life were not from his music at all, but from his increasingly strange behaviour [hello, dangling baby!] and appearance and a couple of sex scandals, but they always fall on deaf ears. MJ can do no wrong in China [personally, I think it was the facemask he wore that won over fans here].)