Education About Asia: Online Archives

Rebeka Goes to China

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SAN DIEGO, CA  92121-1021

1992. 28 MINUTES

Reviewed by Diane Carson

In August 1988, when her parents move to the foreign visitors’ guest house at Zhongshan University to teach English to Chinese students, seven-year-old Rebeka accompanies them. Thus begins a ten-month adventure that few children could envision, a thorough immersion in Chinese culture including learning to read, write and speak some Mandarin. In June 1990, a year after her return to New York, Rebeka, answering questions from an off-screen narrator, reflects on her experiences and provides an illuminating context for integrated video footage and still photographs. Through recollections presented in roughly chronological order, Rebeka describes her initial difficulties in an all-Chinese school on the Zhongshan University campus, the strict classroom environment she encountered, her ease in making friends, the games she and her friends played, and the celebrations they enjoyed; that is, the many details of her daily life, all presented in accessible language with illustrative pictures.

Rebeka begins by acknowledging misimpressions of China that she held before her trip, such as believing needles would be stuck in her fingers for punishment. She then happily reports that reality contrasted dramatically with, and nullified, her fears. I suspect many of us who have visited China would echo that viewpoint (I would) and acknowledge the numerous misconceptions to which too many, perhaps unquestioningly, still subscribe. Significantly, then, Rebeka Goes to China offers first-hand observations that will help dispel some erroneous, contemporary ideas, ideas too seldom challenged. For students, it will open the topic of China to nonthreatening discussion given Rebeka’s frank acknowledgment of her own wrong-headed beliefs. Equally important, Rebeka provides the particulars of a China we seldom see, that of young children as they learn and play. Through a vast array of topics and her clearly enjoyable experiences, Rebeka encourages discovery of another culture.

Because of Rebeka’s age and the video’s low-key approach (we’re never bombarded with statistics or academic lectures), Rebeka Goes to China will find in elementary and junior high school classes its best audience. To that end, producer/director/ editor Lucy Kostelanetz keeps the focus on Rebeka and her friends. We never see her parents except in photos, nor should we. Rebeka’s opinions and thoughts provide a refreshingly casual glimpse of China as she talks about routine topics: food, language, schoolwork, and play. On mastering the language, she explains that it took about four months to learn some Mandarin and six months to feel comfortable with it. But we see Rebeka having a good time with a girlfriend despite their language barrier. In another scene, Rebeka explains her Chinese name, and she talks about mischievous students pronouncing the word for their teacher so that it sounds like they’re calling her “rat.” Rebeka’s Chinese classmates alternately show off for, or act embarrassed before, the camera. They play hopscotch, jump rope, and Rebeka teaches them musical chairs. They do exercises before going into class, and two girls sing “Happy Birthday” to Rebeka for her eighth birthday, first in English and then in Mandarin. In short, we watch Rebeka and her friends as energetic children of high spirits and good humor meeting across cultures.