There’s a Chinese term specifically coined for immigrants like me—“crevice survivors.” It was created by people who emigrated generations before me. They used it to describe their suffering of being squeezed in the narrow gap between two cultures—not being able to assimilate into the new one completely, while losing touch with the old one they grew up with.
Many things have happened since I left China almost 20 years ago, and the dilemma of living in the middle of nowhere culturally just began to take its toll on me. Though, with the Internet, I am not completely ignorant of popular culture and celebrities in China, I sometimes have no idea how or why they came into fame.
Libo Zhou, a celebrity stand-up comedian from Shanghai, is one of them.
According to Baidu Zhidao (the Chinese equivalent of Wikipedia), Zhou spent his early days at Shanghai People’s Comedy Troupe and in non-entertainment-related industries such as finance, wholesale and interior design. In 2006, Zhou returned to the stage in Shanghai, making his debut as Shanghai Qingkou, or Shanghainese Solo Show, a term he coined himself. His humor and originality made his show an instant success among his Shanghainese
audience. Zhou quickly rose to stardom and began hosting popular shows, such as the Libo Show and China’s Got Talent, which helped bring his celebrity status to the national level. He now has a Weibo (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter) following of more than 35 million.
Like many celebrities these days, Zhou’s fame is mixed with negative publicity and haters online, the only channel through which I read about Zhou. Though I had never watched any of his shows, I already felt I knew too much about him and did not want to watch them. Therefore, I was shocked when my mom asked me to take her to Zhou’s talk in Flushing on June 19, because she is a fan.
By the time we arrived at Flushing Town Hall, the auditorium was almost full. The topic for the night was Believing in Art. But, the topic was obviously not Zhou’s choice, because he disliked it. “When we speak of believing in something, we are already talking about doubts,” Zhou said. He called himself a Shanghai Qingkou artist and was not shy about expressing his contempt for titles such as “talk show host” or “entertainer.”
Zhou spent most of the night discussing the art of speaking. He showcased his quick wit by playing video clips from his previous shows, which are not available publicly. In his signature Q&A session during the performance, he was asked what his plan would be if he were to be China’s President Xi Jinping for one day. In seconds, Zhou began to answer that he would make that day a holiday for everyone, so he could take off. Zhou recognized that American talk shows were often filled with political jokes, but he was proud that he was able to joke about Chinese politicians without offending the law. During his talk, Zhou mostly spoke in Mandarin, but when he occasionally slipped into Shanghainese, many in the audience laughed out loud.
It was clear that Zhou is not afraid of tough questions and he can fire off his answers quickly with a mixture of humor and seriousness. During the press conference following the talk, I asked him, “What would you say to my English readers of the Great Neck Record so they would be motivated to go watch your show in Carnegie Hall?” Zhou immediately answered, “If they don’t understand Chinese at all, I would tell them not to waste their money on my show. Really.”
After the laughter died down, Zhou put on a more stern look and explained that although language is a barrier for humor to get across cultures, he believes that humor is also about ideas which should not be bounded by languages. He added, “after all, looking for something funny is human nature despite our cultural differences.”
On our way home, my mom asked me in her typical I-knew-it tone, “So, did he change your mind tonight?” It was still hard to admit that I was wrong in front of my mom, even in my 30s. But, I acknowledged that my previous loathing of Zhou was biased by his Internet image. While technology and social media allow us to access images and video clips that are so convincing sometimes, these materials could still be a biased selection and taken completely out of context. I would trust less what I read online in the future and give everyone who I have not yet met a chance when we meet for the first time.
Because of my upbringing, I under-stand why many people in China would find Zhou’s confidence and quick wit abrasive and repugnant. However, I do not mind his style at all, thanks to my years of exposure to American culture. I did consider most of Zhou’s jokes too dry for my taste, but I could still enjoy his wit in other ways. Maybe I am a “crevice survivor” not by force, but by choice. It is because of my experiences with both Chinese and American cultures that I have made a conscious decision to stay at a distance so I can examine both cultures critically all the time.
Recently, Zhou posted a statement on his Weibo, which he hadn’t updated for nearly two years. He discussed his fame and notoriety. In the end, in his typical bold fashion, he told everyone, “I would be the first non-musical artist to perform on stage at Carnegie Hall.” The statement has been retweeted more than 2,000 times, probably with more hate than like. But, I wish him success.
Libo Zhou’s performance will be held at Stern Auditorium on the Perelman Stage at Carnegie Hall on July 8, at 8 p.m. Tickets cost from $68 to $298 and $2,388 for a box. Tickets can be purchased online at www.iemshowplace.com or by calling 718-888-3113.