So what is crosstalk?
It’s traditional stand-up comedy. Something like Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First” routine. It can be traced back to the Qing Dynasty. Then, before Liberation, it became very satirical. Today, it’s loved mostly in Beijing, Tianjin and other northern cities.
What drew you to it?
I was trying to break into the media world in the ’90s, and the easiest way to get on TV in China then, and probably even today, is if you learn crosstalk. It’s also a great way to learn Chinese, to get your Chinese very colloquial, and very, very funny.
And you studied it with kids?
Yeah! The Children’s Cultural Palace is a weekend activity center, they have one in every city in China. They mainly teach English, computers, and calligraphy, and maybe how to build model airplanes. At the one in Beijing, Mrs. Ma has a comedy class. What was the reaction of these kids to a foreigner joining their class? They accepted me as one of their own. Like one girl in the movie says, it was cool. She said that her friends were really envious of her, because it was really cool to have a foreign friend. And even now, in a way, many Chinese people want a foreign friend. Maybe it proves that they’re international.
What about the fact that you were so much older than the kids?
I was older than some of their parents actually. But age never really factored in, because China was such a different place back in 1996. There weren’t that many foreigners, especially who were interested in old, traditional comedy. That interest was essentially the basis for our friendship.
How about your teacher, Mrs. Ma?
What did she think of it all? Mrs. Ma is quite a character. She enjoyed having me in the class because I added some energy and some life to it all. We would study Chinese tongue twisters, and I would teach some English tongue twisters, and I think it helped break up the class and liven it up a little.Teach me a Chinese tongue twister. There’s a simple one, “吃葡萄不吐葡萄皮，不吃葡萄倒吐葡萄皮 (chī pútao bù tǔ pútao pí，bù chī pútao dǎo tǔ pútao pí!)” which means, “I eat a grape, but I don’t spit out the grape’s skin. I don’t eat a grape, but I actually spit out the grape’s skin.” That’s a pretty easy one.
Oh yeah—real easy. So what was the highlight?
Probably going to one of my classmate’s school for International Children’s Day, which was also my birthday. We did a skit in front of about 300 students. The kids loved it. Seeing a crazy foreigner prance around on stage must have been better than going to the zoo.
Did you ever get punished in class?
I got yelled at a couple times when I was late to class. Mrs. Ma yelled at me. That’s in the movie.
How about being beat up?
They never did that to me, but there were a few kids who were kind of spoiled. In China, parents often attend class with their kids. They sit in the back of the class, or wait for them outside. Some of the kids, if their parents didn’t bring them the snack they wanted, they’d throw a little tantrum. Sometimes they’d even smack their parents.
You filmed the schooling, and went back 12 years later to track down your old classmates. Tell us about the documentary.
I’ve shown it in a bunch of film festivals and universities around the world, so far. I’ve also been working with Chinese teachers to use the film to help introduce China to their students. It’s a great tool to help shorten the gap between China and the West, and stimulate people’s interest in the country. The film shows how joyous life can be in China. The average Chinese person, let’s face it, is working hard and not making that much money, but the Chinese really have a great sense of humor. Howie’s documentary about his experiences, “My Beijing Birthday,” can be bought at mybeijingbirthday.com.