With the popularity of Manga and artists like Crumb, it was only a matter of time before comics went to China.
MandMX.com — billed as “The One and Only Chinese/English Comic Strip on the web!” — has celebrated (and poked fun at) life in China for foreigners and Chinese since 2008, in a uniquely bilingual comic with MandMX’s signature bug-eyed, and often seemingly paranoid, characters doing and saying the things we only imagined or kept hush hush.
I wonder how that character must feel now, knowing that MandMX are taking him and his crazy foreigner-in-China world to print — in their first book titled Electric Voices and Stinky Tofu.
These comics do so much more to put the reader right back in China, thanks to those little details in the comics (see their website for an example). There are mobile phone numbers spray-painted on the walls with on-the-fly advertisements, laotouzi in wife-beaters with dangling cigarettes, and, yes, even those eyesore air conditioning units clinging to the exterior of so many buildings in China.
But its the bumbling, innocent-abroad scenarios, mostly played by this bug-eyed foreign “everydude,” that really hook you — made even funnier, and more relevant, because they’re presented in two languages. He asks a Chinese girl to split a pear with him, not realizing that, in Chinese, it sounds exactly the same as “break up.” His name, “Ben,” sounds like “stupid” in Chinese (and he wonders why everyone laughs). He even mistakes a leftover noodle on the table for a “cool Chinese character.” Most of the time, the Chinese in the comics — who truly share the stage — look much smarter and savvier than the foreigners. Ah, my Chinese husband would be proud.
All of this sounds cool. And it is — if, like me, you can read both English and Chinese. But what if you can’t? I could just imagine the frustration of reading only half a cartoon, and — in some cases — getting only half the joke. The authors provide pinyin in a few specific “Learn Chinese” strips, but otherwise, you’re on your own. So, unless you’re already an intermediate or advanced student of Chinese — or you’re a Chinese speaker who can read English — you’re going to find half of Electric Voices and Stinky Tofu either challenging (as in, I just spent an hour flipping through my Chinese dictionary and still haven’t read more than one page of the Chinese comics) or just plain discouraging.
But whether or not you can read Chinese, you’ll probably be as puzzled as I was about the structure. Yes, the material is entertaining enough to keep foreigners and Chinese turning the pages. But you can’t figure out where the authors mean to go. Besides a 10-page autobiographical sketch of the author’s experience in China, the book has no clear storyline or organization, such as comics grouped by theme. On the blog-to-book scale, that makes this feel a bit more blog than book. And speaking of blogs, the authors even halt the funnies for a quick overview of China’s blogosphere. Maybe they wanted to tip their chopsticks to the blogs supporting them, but this disruptive content can’t compare to the sumptuous Chinese banquet that their individual comics really are.
In the end, Electric Voices and Stinky Tofu won’t leave you with any grand, meaningful statements about life in China. Nor will it really help with your Chinese, unless you’re already reading it (or have a lot of time to kill and a Chinese dictionary on hand). Still, the comics stay true to life in China, and will leave you with plenty of laughter. Now that’s something any foreigner in China, struggling with the challenges of a new culture/language and their own patience, could use a little more of.
Electric Voices and Stinky Tofu is on sale for $15,99 (plus shipping and handling) at the MandMX Online store.
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