16 May TV-Asia

Ron Tanner, chair of the Writing Department at Loyola College-Maryland, won a grant from the National Parks Service to help Marshallese college students preserve the oral culture of the Marshall Islands. He’s spending the 2008 spring semester (5 months) on Majuro to direct this pilot program, called the Marshall Islands Story Project. To get the full story of his personal experiences, be sure to check the archives to your left.

My motel has satellite TV. When the weather acts up, all 29 stations go out. But that’s infrequent. The transmitters sit in Southeast Asia (Malaysia is my guess), and all programming is packaged for Asia. For instance, I didn’t know that many American rock bands make videos for the Asian market, using Asian models. The VJ’s on MTV-Asia are, of course, Asian. Some speak like Americans, some like Brits, but all are fluent and very hip. Just as we have Entertainment Tonight, so does Asia have its Access Hollywood, with its Asian correspondents interviewing the biggest Western stars. Increasingly, Asia’s got money for everything the U.S. sells. And Asian fans and paparazzi are an appreciative lot. So, increasingly more bands and actors are touring Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Korea, Japan, and Australia.


Here’s the run-down from my set: public TV from Australia, a Fiji station with lots of rugby, BBC-world news, CNN world news, Fox news, ESPN (with lots of soccer), music video station (“V”) from Singapore, MTV-Asia, two Chinese stations, two Japanese stations, two (South) Korean stations, Animal Planet and National Geographic (Australia), Nickelodeon (New Zealand), NOW (hi-tech, British), two all-movies station (one exclusively Chinese, lots of Kung Fu), two Indian stations, two Marshallese stations, and Aljazeer-English, the Muslim international news station.

One of the Marshallese stations plays only music and runs stills of local ads, very basic. The other shows videos of local events—everything from the RMI president’s latest speech to the awards ceremony for the local bill-fishing club. The news stations represent the full spectrum, from the tawdry Fox, with its glossy lily-white newscasters (no woman older than 32 and every one A beauty-queen), to left-leaning Aljazeer, with its globally-diverse correspondents. CNN is centrist. BBC is left of center. Aljazeer is by far the most interesting. You can’t get it in the States. It’s banned. I can’t speak for Aljazeer-Arabic. That’s the station that showed controversial videos—including beheadings–some years back. Aljazeer-English is on par with the BBC. It’s buttoned-down serious, wide-ranging, and soft on no one, not even the Arab nations. The only difference between it and other world-news stations is that it actually talks about the Arab nations and the many facets of Muslim culture.

Only a few of its extremely diverse correspondents are camera-pretty. The network strives mightily to be even-handed, though, as I said, it’s more left-leaning than any other news station. That means it ferrets out censorship and human rights abuses in every nation. Fox news, by contrast, is like a cartoon. I repeat, Aljazeer-English is banned in the States. To whose advantage is that?


Recently on one of the Chinese stations I saw Kung-fu star Jackie Chan pitching an energy drink. Americans became familiar with these concoctions when Red Bull went mainstream in the States. The Chinese invented energy drinks, sugar water and caffeine mostly. There are all kinds in the grocery stores here. Chinese also sell medicinal herbs on TV, which is kind of cool to see. The Fijian station advertises only Fijian stores. It’s like watching a small-town station. Contests and promotionals on the major channels—whether Nickelodeon or MTV—are for Asian audiences only. Announcers have British or Australian accents. Touted vacation spots are Macao (gambling), Korea, Singapore, and Dubai. Many segments on shows like Animal Planet also have an Asian focus. The show about animal rescue, for instance, takes place in Australia.

On Asian TV you won’t find shows about gardening, house repair, consumer awareness, car repair, dog training or just about any other domestic interest common in the States. When you think about it, this makes sense. Dog training? Dogs are food in many countries out this way. House repair presupposes a standard of living that allows not only the leisure to do such repair but also the means to own a house and buy materials to fix it up. Not so common out this way. There are two hardware stores on Majuro, by the way: Ace and Do It Best; both are Stateside franchises. There’s plenty of building going on here, in part because nothing lasts, but every-day folk simply make-do. Most of the Majuro population live in dwellings we would call “shacks.” That’s because 1) they don’t own the land, 2) they spend most their time outside, and 3) they’re poor.


I find comedic characters in Asian movies interesting. They are cartoon silly—giddy, childish, and squeaky-voiced. The kind of characters who would make Jerry Lewis look like a newscaster. In the main, Americans, Brits, and Northern Europeans are fond of fairly staid comedic characters. Mr. Bean is a good example. Will Ferrell is another (he’s silly but not wholly unbelievable). Americas have little patience for the bug-eyed, manic clown. We want our funny men to be wise-guys or the put-upon, can’t-get-a-break guys. It must have something to do with the fact that Americans are workalholics and so-called realists. We don’t suffer fools easily—with the exception of our presidents.

The most bizarre TV hails from India. I’ve never seen anything like it. Keep in mind, the Indians have all of those wild gods and exotic dances and outlandish tales. Every time I flip past the Indian channels I catch glimpses of men wearing eyeliner and sequined turbans and singing in front of a backdrop of swirling stars and sari’d women dancing circles around them and singing their nasally, dizzying counterpoint, the spectacle watched eagerly by lipsticked gods—everybody over-bejeweled and wearing those fancy pantsuits. And there’s always one of those mincing, squeaky-voiced funny men nearby, hopping and rolling his eyes. Heaven forbid you were high and came upon one of these shows.


Updates: It’s been raining hard off and on for days. Streets get flooded. For the first time since my arrival months ago, I heard thunder. I don’t know why thunder is infrequent here. You should see the clouds that make the rain—they rise from the horizon like the Rockies, only taller. The project remains behind schedule, for reasons I’ll discuss next time. Newton and I are seriously considering canceling the trip to Wotje—it’s too much work for too little gain. My students are showing up every day for training but never on time and never all of them at once. Some stay late. Some leave early. I don’t know what it will take to get them focused. They’re building two websites—one for their NGO, the other for their first client. I’m in a terrible rush. They aren’t. Most are preoccupied with graduation this week. They’ll be rehearsing every day. Apparently they have to learn a couple of songs. There will be much revelry and much drinking. I don’t know how long it will take to get them back into the classroom after graduation day. I have four weeks left. Jill still hasn’t received her passport. Today is our anniversary: five years. I am very lucky to have found her. How many spouses would allow their partners (with minimal complaint) to go off on an adventure like this?