A Monday Matinee

As the temperature and humidity climb in Hangzhou interest in my brilliant expositions of the eroterica of biotechnology fades. So I concede to the relaxations of summer by offering to show instead a new American film, a documentary on health care. With apologies to Moore and the Weinstein brothers, the only available copy was a purloined one, but I clenched my jaw in Jesuit resolve that the ends justify the means. And so a select group of English-comprehending (not to say always Moore-comprehending) Chinese graduate students put aside their books, replenished their tea, and opened their eyes. More gratifying still, they opened their mouths, not an easy response, in my experience, from the usually reticent Chinese student.

First off: what does “sicko” mean? Anyone care to offer a dictionary definition? I gave up on definitions, in favor of examples. God, how many, how easily the examples roll off one’s tongue: “now, that’s sicko.” Hillary was a hit. There is an informal Hillary fan club here. Even allowing for a predominance of women graduate students in the department, I figure this is a good impulse, and bite my cynical tongue as need be. Though I did take pains to explain that the little bubble-caption $$ were not the Senator’s salary, but her share of the take from the Medical Insurance Lobby. Oops, another hit on the pause-button: how to gloss the difference between “lobby”, as in hotel, and “lobby”, as in a pernicious undermining of American democracy in the name of freedom of speech? Nixon evoked cognitive dissonance: we Chinese revere him, don’t you? “Uh, we can talk about that later.”

Tony Benn’s homily on the essence of democratic socialism should resonate in Chinese and American ears equally. Both societies are so widely off the mark.

“Amusement” I think aptly describes the students’ reaction to scenes of Soviet wheat fields and military reviews at Tian’anmen Square. “Cold War” has clear connotations here, if often dismissed with nervous laughter. While “Capitalists” were certainly vilified, and their running dogs — more easily gotten hand on — brutally pilloried, “capitalism”, an und für Sich (as Marx would have had it), has not been wielded as a spectre intended to evoke irrational fear, as Moore shows us is still very much the stage feint of American statesmen at the end of the 20th century. Certainly not since the 3rd resurrection of Deng Xiaoping and his many-colored cats — that is, not during the entire lives of my young audience.

The irony of sound medical treatment at last in Cuba, I’m afraid, was lost: “Of course Cuba is known for its excellent medical science and care, what’s the big deal?” was the gist of their commentary. It’s so disarming to talk to people not raised to hate Cuba.

But it was at the end of an afternoon of glib repartee, while picking up after ourselves, that there came the two questions that seized my throat. While taking my disc out of her computer and returning it to me, this student asked, almost casually, “Is this film legal in America?” “Yes, it’s getting wide circulation.” “Then why don’t people do something about it?”

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