Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Ha ha ha America

I missed this one the first time around… but it seems to be making a resurgence in the blogosphere. A seventeen-minute film, “Ha Ha Ha America”, screened at Sundance to some acclaim in magazines like “New York” and video sites like “FilmThreat”.


Still from Ha ha ha America

The film is listed on the Sundance website as being “A translated harangue from China to the U.S.A. that laughs at our missteps.” It’s a series of images of contemporary China, intercut with images of President Bush and overweight Americans, over a techno soundtrack. The heart of the video is a pro-China diatribe, offered in subtitles in “Engrish”. It begins:

Ha Ha Ha America
China move fast
too fast for
American hillbilly
So commence cry
as you not keep up
Too bad so sad
Already you behind
Ha Ha Ha
China giant blooming

Some bloggers are finding it “brilliant, compelling” or “both hilarious and profoundly meaningful”, and more than a few folks appear to be taking it at face value: “It’s a translation of a short film from the Chinese perspective about American political and economic blunders. It’s funny, horrifying, full of truth and outright lies, yet there’s a ring of truth to the whole thing that gives you a kind of queasy feeling.

(Update: Sonny, the author of the quote above, makes it clear that he saw the film as satire. Apologies for my misreading.)

A commentor on Mefi asks, “Why does China hate America?”

So here’s the thing – the film is made by Jon Daniel Ligon, whose bio at his firm Improved & New Advertising, lists him as a former J Walter Thompson Senior Vice President with an MFA in creative writing from Brown University. In other words, it’s not the translated work of an angry young Chinese filmmaker, but the creation of an American author interested in using film as a writer’s medium, who has made “a film meant to be read instead of watched”.

So what? Film is fiction. What does it matter if an American ad executive and filmmaker presents himself as an angry Chinese nationalist with limited English skills? As a fiction author, can’t I write from whatever perspective I want? (Someone let James Frey know he’s off the hook…) Is it okay if I start blogging in Liberian pidgin and portray myself as living in Buduburam refugee camp west of Accra?

The blogosphere tends to amplify cool bits of media without much regard for their authorship. A comment by “braveheart” on the Videobomb site expresses a worry that I share: “The level of English shown is well below that of most Chinese who do have some English, and the taunting rudeness is just so, I hate to say it, North American….This could almost be a piece of black propaganda, intended to create ill will towards China. I fear it will be passed around as authentic Chinese taunting until the video sites post the creator’s name and country.”

(My worry is a bit more specific – that even with the authorship of the video in plain site, bloggers will take the frame tale – the translation of a Chinese rant – at face value.)

Of course, not everyone is falling for it. Shanghaiist, a blog populated by expats and Chinese writing from Shangai, notes “Are the Chinglish subtitles that serve as narrator for this 17-minute masturbatory farce really a translation of some nationalistic Chinese rant? Doubtful. Does the message come from China at all? Again, doubtful.” And Asiapundit found it “mercantalist, protectionist, and very loose with facts”. But as the blogger on Shanghaiist notes, “But what do we know? We both live in China.”

As much as I’d like to believe that everyone understands that this is a savage skewering of Sinophobic American attitudes, another video making the rounds – “Who Should We Invade Next?” – is a good reminder not to overestimate my countrymen’s knowledge of geography or international politics.

14 Responses to “Ha ha ha America”

  1. sean coon says:

    ethan, your civility is too refined (though your meta-poke of a title is spot on). that second video shows much more than a lack of knowledge or international politics; it exposes a video-game, chickenhawkish attitude towards the rest of the world. while i would’ve rather seen *all* of the responses to the question (i’m sure there were people that told the interviewer that the question was ridiculous), the responses are true to a mainstream american cultural awareness.

    so, the question i pose to you, is how do we begin to affect such attitudes? your blogging begins to bring a worldly POV of human beings, eating away at propaganda and stereotypes, but the majority of our country simply consume, vote once every 4 years and allow these attitudes to fester. the chasm is much greater than a blog(s) can span, especially when we’re so very often preaching to the choir.

    how do we reach the common american who is busy trying to keep up with the jones’, or in many cases, trying to get from under the heels of the jones’?

  2. Hans says:

    ethan, this is a racist chauvinist a m e r i c a n video, make no mistake.

  3. Ethan says:

    Hans – I’m in full agreement – my purpose in the post was to try to clear up any uncertainty about the authorship of the video.

    Oh man, Sean, why do you always ask the hard questions? If I knew how to stop preaching to the choir, there’s a book I’d write. What’s prevented me from writing something on globophilia is the worry that there’s no way to write for non-globophiles without a) rubbing their nose in ignorance or b) fearmongering. I’m not psyched about Africa because I’m afraid of it, or because I’m afraid of looking stupid for not knowing about African politics – I’m psyched about Africa because I’m psyched about Africa.

    GVO is, in part, our attempt to get people excited about, not scared of, other parts of the world. But we’re preaching to the converted as well – about half our traffic comes from outside the US and Europe, usually from the countries we’re featuring. While that’s a great thing for ensuring those perspectives are part of dialog, we’re having trouble reaching Americans who aren’t already hardcore globalists…

    In other words, I have no idea. I’d love your thoughts on it, though.

  4. Sonny says:

    As I said I thought it was funny/horrifying/queasy. I saw the information on the authorship of the short on the Sundance site before I posted. I thought people should view it for what it was, satire. I make the assumption that most are smart enough to look the credit and the directors name and figure it out.

    I saw the whole thing as a send up of American attitudes. I leave it to readers to figure out what to make of it and the motives behind it’s creation. I certainly has an abundance of poltical content that panders to sinophobic biases. That was the horrifying part for me. Although I think others would find that China’s comparative level of growth coupled with the de-industrialization of America to be horrifying. From my own travels in the far east I think that China is beginning to show signs of moving away from an export based economy. The truthful part is that we are, through the “wisdom” of the marketplace, running huge trade deficits with China that will have profound long term political and economic consequences.

  5. sean coon says:

    well, ethan, that’s my curse i guess. ;)

    i had a really great conversation with kent bye of the echo chaber project this past monday. he’s trying to create and release a documentary (about the media coverage leading up to the war in iraq) via community contextualization (tagging) and editing. it’s a pretty revolutionary approach. if he can establish a transparent methodology and platform for creating a participatory approach to both journalism and the TV media, well, he’s challenging the tactical processes that these industries are bound to service.

    essentially, he wants to tap into the wisdom of the crowds, thinking, as i do, that the participatory numbers will continue to grow outside of the early adopters and open source community once the mechanisms are (a) made available to everyone and (b) are incentivized correctly.

    if you have an hour, i think it’s an interesting conversation. all of his podcasts are…

    i owe you a post-thanksgiving email. i’ll hit you up with a few other ideas there…

  6. stroll says:

    Hello, and thanks for the link. I essentially agree with Sonny’s comment. I think that the use of “Chinglish” is meant to demonstrate the U.S. stereotype of the funny little Chinaman, while the *content* of the subtitles makes an argument that China is en route to “conquering” the U.S. economically. I also figured immediately that it was made by an American. To me, what was compelling is that its not a simple message to easily figure out. It covers a complex range of topics and the audience is left to “figure it out” with our own knowledge of history and current events. Anyway, nice blog you’ve got here. Cheers.

  7. Ntwiga says:

    Ethan,

    You have this knack of picking the right stuff to blog on that just amazes me.

    Take this China piece: you post the piece which is no big thing of itself but you go on to post your thoughts that set me (and it seems quite a few others) thinking about stuff.

    I will give you my two cents on this but I am not sure you will like it.

    have a saying that “Business is War”. Make no mistake, the message of this film behind the “Chinese-speak” veneer is exactly this. There is a battle in progress and currently, the numbers tell whom is on the receiving end quite clearly. We could spend time thinking about the medium and method in this film delivers this message but that is a big mistake since the battle is still in progress. And the battle is an economic one. The $210 billion vs. $34.1 billion should be scary.

    Deal with the very valid message instead of checking out the messenger.

    I wrote a post about a month ago on my blog about the state of the economy where I quoted arguments that a nation needs to make stuff (products) rather than depend on just services if it is to be competitive in the global economy where services can be delivered from any where in the world. So we need to ask, is this still a manufacturing economy and if not, do we think that it can flourish on just the service sector.

    All questions for oh-so-much-more-qualified-than-me policy setters and economists I am afraid.

  8. Ntwiga says:

    I wish that blogs had a comment preview funciton so that my comments do not turn out looking like the incoherent ramblings of a maniac.

    Some missing stuff from my post: I meant to say that The Japanese have a saying that “Business is War” and that the trade deficit numbers given at $210bn vs. $34.7bn (I think).

    I also meant to try and point out a casual relationship between the manufacturing capacity of a nation and its global competitiveness but the comment monster swallowed that section of my comment whole. Fianlly, this is the missing link to the post in my blog where I talk about the state of the economy

  9. Ethan says:

    Thanks for the comments, folks – apologies for mischaracterizing folks who “got it” as folks who didn’t. Ntwiga, you’re absolutely right that there’s an interesting argument inside the film. I tend to feel like it’s a complex enough argument that I’d have preferred it presented “straight”, not in “Chinglish”… but the fact that we’re having this conversation suggests that the film is at least somewhat compelling…

    If you’re interested in a more serious take on the dangers of an increasing US/China trade gap, let me recommend a paper by my mentor, Dick Sabot. He was editing it when he passed away last summer, but it’s an excellent overview of some of the macroeconomic stuff going on behind the scenes of this conversation – http://www.cgdev.org/content/publications/detail/3409/

  10. Ntwiga says:

    Thanks for the link to Dick Sabot’s paper Ethan, I plan to spend some time reading it tonight. Pity I never bothered to finish up that PhD (or Bachelors for that matter) in Economics.

    In the meantime, do not consider it too bold of me to direct your attention to a shorter commentary in the Economist about economy that Alan Greenspan handed over at the end of his service as the Chairman of the Federal Reserve.

    While is not as analytical and comprehensive as Mr. Sabot’s work and I think the phrase “burning the furniture” might be abit much but, it is, I think, as honest an attempt as you will get out of a European writer to reflect on the facts as are.

  11. Ethan says:

    Ntwiga – I remember the Economist essay from when it came out a few weeks back – it’s a very solid piece. Lots of smart economists believe that the US is making some tragic missteps in letting our savings rate fall below zero and becoming increasingly dependent on consumer credit – my guess is that you’ll find Dick’s paper largely in agreement with the Economist essay… and you’ll also find some worries about what this situation implies for aid to the developing world…

  12. John says:

    America needs to wake up. This film is satire but it is lampooning some very disturbing trends and facts. It might be a good time to learn some Chinese.

  13. Vlad says:

    Hey,

    Very interesting movie and some good humor as well. I’m really not sure if you were serious about the point, but I could understand the fact that some of the points is very true such as China surpassing the USA in the near/far future. One thing though, just curious about the techno song in the background – what is it? Thanks.

  14. Sderew says:

    Hello, and thanks for the link. I essentially agree with Sonny’s comment. I think that the use of “Chinglish” is meant to demonstrate the U.S. stereotype of the funny little Chinaman, while the *content* of the subtitles makes an argument that China is en route to “conquering” the U.S. economically. I also figured immediately that it was made by an American. To me, what was compelling is that its not a simple message to easily figure out. It covers a complex range of topics and the audience is left to “figure it out” with our own knowledge of history and current events. Anyway, nice blog you’ve got here. Cheers.

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