It was strange to be the 194,563,906th person to see Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” on YouTube. Stranger still was that I had never heard of the song before.
A friend linked me to a remix which I found infinitely charming, and it struck me that I had not heard the original. I sought it out and gawped blankly at my screen. This was obviously a popular song, a hallowed member of the current cultural zeitgeist of the homeland. This was something that had already become an assumed fragment of cultural heritage, a shared globule of media experience to which all North Americans, and many other global citizens, had already absorbed. In fact, Happy was beyond the saturation point when I came across it. It had already surpassed osmotic spread, whereby every human in that hemisphere had long since realigned their neural networks to simply include the song’s existence. It was something everyone already knew, had talked about, and gotten over.
And I had never heard of it.
In Korea my media exposure was cut off because Koreans generally liked Korean things. I could have been on the forefront of Korean pop culture if I had tried, which I certainly didn’t. I had a television which picked up local channels only, and thus I used the device mainly as a coaster for keeping beverages aloft or drying cardigan sweaters. When I stumbled upon televisions in restaurants or shops, I gazed at the screen only long enough to see various competitions featuring pop stars, dozens of women with wet eyes, and at least a half-dozen mothers with cancer on each and every program.
Korean movies were playing everywhere, but I worried that the fast pace of the Korean would take it beyond my language skills and so I never went. And Korean pop music, which seemed to be piped in through every storefront and personal electronic device and also the sidewalks, I absorbed only semi-willingly.
My connection to western pop culture, the cherished thrum that vibrates all of my cells in just such a special way, was tenuous and bleak. Western music that filtered into Korea tended to be loud, obnoxious, at least three months old, and almost always had Will.i.am’s repugnant fingerprints all over it. Movies tended to come out at wildly different times than in North America, both weeks before and months after scheduled release dates in my homeland, and thus I was discombobulated and unable to predict when and where I should go to the theatre. I would walk to the CGV and stand forlornly before the listings, hoping in vain that they would take pity upon me and open Batman a week early.
Television became something that existed only on the internet, and I started to find the idea of even owning a television to be strange and archaic. This was not in a delicate, yuppyish squeal of being above the device – I watched just as much television as I always did, but it tended to come in whole seasons, in pre-packed binge-worthy portions. The idea of a television program coming out once a week and with only a half-hour of content at a time seemed strange and old and like a dusty relic.
If anything, my move to China has stranded me further in a vague and oceanic desert. Great dunes of inaccessible music and television stand before me, ridges and peaks of Mandarin-language drama and Mandarin-language rock.
Moreover with so many people perfectly content with content in the language they speak, the moderate trickle of foreign audiovisual goods has dammed completely. Suddenly I am in a cave on Mars, with my eyes shut and my fingers in my ears. My straining, tenuous grasp on modern culture is entirely stilted and thrown by the wayside as I am left adrift, musicless and tvless and movieless.
Movie theaters in town are essentially a den of horrors, as the local custom dictates that talking loudly on your smartphone throughout the film is acceptable behaviour. Whatever movie theatres do exist understandably show a plethora of Chinese films, and what English movies they do show are a mystery. My combings of the English and Chinese internet have turned up precious few listings of actual movie showtimes, and the idea of physically going to a theatre to find this information makes me already feel defeated.
When I hear Chinese radio it is bewildering and terrifying, a stream of tonal ballads interrupted only periodically by long strings of phone numbers and advertisements for food (the only parts of the radio I can adequately translate). I imagine a Chinese person freshly arrived to Canada, accustomed to their own pleasant background hum of forgettable music and predictable advertisements, and how alienating and adrift they would find swell of blaring swell of Western content, the very beat of my heart.
Because I am coming to realize that even the crap is important to me. The dregs and swill of North American pop-culture still form some aspect of the milieu, they still act as Jenga pieces in my understanding of the universe. For every great song and brilliant television program I have missed, I have also missed dozens sonic turds and poorly-scripted shows. For every life-altering piece of cinema that has slipped past, there are also ten theatrical bombs.
And I miss the bombs and the turds and the duds, just as much as I miss the gems. They form the way that I speak, they are parts of the lens through which I view the world or talk to my friends or relate to other humans also invested in consuming and processing the stories around them. The internet allows me to mainline just precisely what I want, but I’ve lost my connection to the pulse. My distant home doesn’t swaddle me in English music and film, it doesn’t speak to me as I walk down the street, and it doesn’t sing me to sleep at night in a tongue I can understand.