Hāfó Welcomes You! 哈佛歡迎你!

The Chinese century has well and truly begun. At least in Cambridge.

Sign of the apocalypse, and clearest evidence yet that the world really is going to end this Saturday? The latest omen of how a debt-ridden America must truckle to its Chinese paymasters? Or, on the contrary, a heartening if campy illustration of the world's hyper-connected youth civilization? Or (my guess) mainly a reminder that many writers for The Simpsons during its glory years were Harvard grads?


Judge for yourself. It's a video of Harvard students extolling (while singing in Chinese) their teachers and experiences in 中文Bb -- Chinese Bb, Elementary Modern Chinese. It's called Hafo Huanying Ni! -- "Harvard (Hafo -- ah, the joy of Chinese transliteration) Welcomes You!" -- and I'll get to the back story after the clip. You can hear the sweep of the melody and refrain in the the first 2 minutes, though some nice mock-heroic poses like the one above appear at the beginning and at time 2:30 and afterwards, and in the big finish.

The joke factor here is that this is a nice takeoff of Chinese "morale-building" propaganda in general, and in specific of a video that blanketed every square millimeter of China through the Olympic year of 2008. That was Beijing Huanying Ni! -- "Beijing Welcomes You!" -- which ran on nonstop loops in every subway car, as an "interstitial" ad on every TV station, as a pre-landing video on every Chinese airlines flight, as outdoor music over public loudspeakers, and in so many other places that for anyone in China then it is as hard to remove from the mind as the Flintstones song. Here's the original (with English subtitles). If you want to skip to the famous refrain, with the song stylings of Jackie Chan, he starts about time 1:10.

The idea of Hafo celebrating its Chinese teachers and welcoming students would have oomph in China, where Hafo is the shorthand for "prestigious American education" in the same way that Boyin (Boeing) is the shorthand for big American planes. And this is full of nice, jokey touches about the teachers, the courses, and so on.

I was planning to do a "serious" item about Chinese soft power, but I'll save that for later. Instead a brief language point: When thinking about the incredible range of English that is spoken around the world, I have often wondered how, say, an immigrant from Russia could comprehend the English spoken by someone from Haiti -- or from Chile or France or Japan etc. I have assumed that comprehension is easier if one of the parties is a native English speaker, than if everyone is working in a second language. (Ie, that I could communicate more effectively in English with a native speaker of, say, Korean -- than if that Korean were trying to talk in English with a native speaker of Portuguese.)

But maybe that's not right. I'm reminded by the Hafo clip that it is so much easier for me to understand Chinese when a foreigner is speaking it than when it is coming out of the mouth of a native Chinese speaker. (And, yes, it helps in this video that the kids are native English speakers, and they're singing - slowly, and the vocabulary is fairly basic, and there are subtitles in Chinese characters which removes ambiguity about homophones etc.) So maybe my working hypothesis about English is wrong too, and two non-native speakers might have an easier time chatting than I would with either of them. That doesn't seem right -- but I can't test the hypothesis directly myself. I am sure that linguists have resolved this point, and perhaps I will consult the linguist in my own household.

For now, thanks to Clement Tan for this tip, and to the producers of 哈佛歡迎你!