Soft Power: Chinese television shows tell stories of home

Six Chinese artists stand in front of a blue and purple backdrop. They are posing in various styles.
Shows like “Idol Producer” allow for a deeper understanding of what it means to be Chinese, columnist Valerie Wu writes. (Photo courtesy of IMDB.)

When I began drafting out this particular column — initially meant to reflect on my relationship with boba — I found myself wanting to probe deeper into why I wanted to write about arts and entertainment from a Chinese American perspective in the first place. In past installments of “Soft Power,” I’ve attempted to deconstruct and clarify certain dominant ideas about Chinese identity as they manifest in film, food and music. For me, these ideas have shaped my understanding of what it means to be Chinese. 

While reflecting on what new insights I could bring to this column, I realized that I had never questioned why my Chinese identity was so important to me or dissected the connection it has to my love of arts and entertainment. After a thorough examination, the closest answer I arrived at was Chinese television. More specifically, the ways that Chinese television shows have shaped my life as a Chinese American.  

In my household, Chinese television shows aren’t solely an extension of the home, but instead represent who we are. They are realizations of time spent together. They are purposeful representations of the people we choose to talk about, stories we love to watch and the culture we belong to. My affinity with Chinese television shows is an effect of why arts and entertainment are so important to me. Yet, in many ways, they can be seen as the cause as well. 

Growing up, watching Chinese television shows were so much more than a way to “pass time” — they were a way of understanding myself through others. Yes, they gave me many laughs, but they also brought me closer to a language, country and identity that I often questioned my connection to.

Chinese talent shows affirmed my belief that Chinese people were so incredibly brilliant, an idea that went largely overlooked in the popular talent shows I grew up watching. Chinese dramas taught me that being Chinese and being the romantic lead weren’t mutually exclusive. Chinese variety shows highlighted my favorite Chinese foods and showed me that culture wasn’t an intangible commodity, but a familiar and relatable way of living and learning. I learned Mandarin by watching television, and I learned what my Chinese identity meant to me through its representations. 

Sometimes it’s hard to put into words just what my Chinese American identity means to me. Instead of trying to articulate it, though, I think about it in fragments through the ways my family chooses to occupy our time: My father’s avid discussions at the dinner table of his latest Chinese television drama. My mother and I huddled together on the couch, a laptop between us because we want to know who wins China’s “Idol Producer.” My Chinese family in America, laughing at jokes that only Mandarin-speakers will get. Chinese karaoke sessions with the aunties in our neighborhood, where we discuss the Chinese movie celebrities we like over the latest Jay Chou song.

These moments are how I define home. If entertainment reflects how we choose to spend our time, then my consumption of Chinese television shows reflected my desire to understand myself as a Chinese American. In my own way, my response to television was inevitably shaped by my life outside of it. In return, I defined myself as Chinese through the stories and experiences I saw onscreen. 

Even now, though, despite progress in my language abilities, a TV skit in Mandarin could go right over my head. I would feel lost and confused and not really “Chinese” at all. My mother would lean over and translate, and I still wouldn’t really get it. 

Yet, when I look back and think about these moments, I won’t think about the difficulty I had in understanding, but the smile on my mother’s face as she explains. I’ll think about the glow of the television screen. I might not know the words they’re saying. I might not know who the characters are. In those moments, though, I know what home means. 

Valerie Wu is a sophomore writing about the arts and pop culture in relation to her Chinese American identity. Her column, “Soft Power,” runs every other Monday.