Jesse Appell ’12 speaks to justFeatures about being an American in China and the University’s future as an international school
Appell says improvisation translates easily from English to Chinese because of its reactionary and human nature, but written satire and stand-up require knowledge of cultural opinions.
During his senior year, Jesse Appell ’12 was awarded a Fulbright fellowship, that sent him to China to study Chinese comedy. He describes his research as discovering “what Chinese people think is funny,” and does this through writing satire in Chinese, performing on Chinese television, and performing Xiangsheng—a traditional form of Chinese comedy. While in China, Appell produced a viral video, “Laowai Style,” a parody of the K-Pop sensation “Gangam Style,” which received millions of views and prompted interview requests from multiple news outlets, including The Economist and TEDxBeijing. Appell returned to campus in November to perform his newest show “The Great LOL Tour of China” at International Culture Week. He spoke with justFeatures to discuss his False Advertising past, the burgeoning international future of the University, and what he has learned about cultural assimilation through the mediums of comedy and language.
justFeatures: What made you interested in Chinese culture? How can other people who are interested in Chinese culture begin to experience it?
Jesse Appell: It was always something I was interested in, learning other languages. When I started taking Chinese at Brandeis, I knew I wanted to go abroad. Brandeis makes it super easy to go abroad. ... There are so many international students on campus, just go ahead and talk to them about what is going on. That will ask of the international students to be a little less insular, which is really good. It’s the American side of the equation’s job to reach out a bit more, especially when dealing with Chinese international students; other cultures may be a little more active in reaching out and sharing, so they might not need as much of a giddy-up from the American side. Just act interested.
JF: What about Chinese culture, that you have observed, makes you say that?
JA: I know enough Chinese students now who are studying to get into schools abroad, and you have to study for years and years to get the language right. A freshman student coming to America will be overwhelmed not just by language and culture differences but by the same overwhelming schoolwork and friendships and all the things that make going to college socially difficult.
In Chinese culture, it’s the job of the host to invite the guest over. As an American in China, China sees me as a guest. But as a Chinese person in America, an American person does not have that same concept. The American mindset is ‘this is America, if you want something, go take it,’ as opposed to holding a banquet for all international students to be invited to. A little cultural understanding could go a long way, and ultimately add value. Chinese students are paying full fare to come to Brandeis, and they deserve to socially interact with American students. This is the great thing about an international university.
JF: What were your impressions of the Chinese language program at Brandeis?
JA: Professor Lu and Professor Feng [GRALL] were amazing, and the department continues to grow… I get to see them whenever I come back, and get a chance to have dinner with them. I met up with Lu Laoshi the day before I left Brandeis, and she gave me some hot chocolate packets to take back to China, which is a great gift because it’s really hard to find cocoa powder in China.
JF: How was it being back on campus in November to perform?
JA: It’s always fun to be back on campus. I got to see some old professors, I got to do a cool show on campus. Even after you graduate, it’s possible to remain part of the community, and I’ve gone from being a student, to being somebody who’s bringing back knowledge of the world outside of Brandeis, from my time abroad and my Chinese comedy shows.
Also, trying to match up two parts of the university that don’t communicate that much, which would be the university at large and the Chinese students.
JF: Why do you think there is a lack of international students who participate in improv comedy troupeslike you did during your time at Brandeis?
JA: As an American in a Chinese comedy troupe, I can say it is very hard, even on a purely linguistic level, to be able to perform without a script. Foreign students partake more in speech competitions, or Acapella, because it’s something you can practice. Comedy in general is really hard, because you need knowledge of the culture as well and all the references that go along with that culture. The first step would just be getting international students into the audience, because I don’t see a lot of international students in the audience either. When I was back this time, I got a chance to perform with my old improve troupe False Ad. I looked out into the crowd, and I’m so used to seeing 100 Chinese people when I perform, and I noticed none. If Brandeis is [a certain] percent Chinese, you would think there would be [a certain] percent Chinese in the audience, but there were none. That type of social life is not what people are trained to accept when they go to a liberal arts school...
The trick is that a lot of the spirit of the school comes from the fact that students will do events and students will go to events. If you change the demographic of the school, you’re changing what types of events occur and which people go to those events. This is something the University should be aware of if they want international students to go to events such as improv shows.
JF: Why do you think an international student going to an improv show would be valuable both for the student, and for the Brandeis community as a whole? What uniquely can an improv show offer?
JA: It’s so key because it’s about people and it’s about fun. An improv show is pure fun. If you can’t be able to go and have fun in that context, then you are very limited in terms of what type of culture you are able to operate in. There are a lot of different types of culture within American culture. Business culture, for example, is something that a lot of people are comfortable operating in. Chinese people who have never been to America can operate within American business culture. But it’s more difficult to go into a situation where people are having fun, having a drink, laughing about how the blender in Chums goes off at the worst parts of the scene. Those types of things are really human, and those are the things that make our connections with eachother.
JF: How has living in China influenced your comedy ? Has it changed at all, or are jokes that were funny in college still funny when translated to Chinese?
JA: When I’m making stuff that I think is funny, using my life experience as somebody who has lived between the two cultures, Chinese people understand that the most, as people who have themselves lived between the two cultures. When I’m doing improv in Chinese, it feels the same as doing improv in English, with the caveat that all the words are different. Because the charm of improve is it’s your natural reaction, and you see people going with it, you see the humanity in different characters come out. And that translates really well. Stand-up comedy is different, because it uses lot of pop culture references. Talking about a hot-button topic such as income inequality is going to be very different in China than in America, in terms of how people show income inequality. How that winds up being played out in the comedy differs between the two cultures.