Watching C-Dramas as a Chinese-American
When my (White) friend first told me she watches C-dramas, I was surprised. So I told her that, and she just stared back at me and said, “Why?” I suppose I just didn’t realize that people I knew watched them too. After all, I only started watching because I speak some Mandarin and figured I could work on that at the same time.
As it turned out, my friend’s story was similar to mine, barring the language motive. Last year, my sister and I started watching C-dramas, also known as Chinese television dramas. We had basically exhausted all of our usual content, and the lockdown, especially during the summer, created endless amounts of time for us. So we turned to Mandarin-language tv shows, and it wasn’t long before I was fully invested.
Actually, the story starts slightly before then, with my sister watching K-dramas. For context, K-dramas, or Korean dramas, are South Korean scripted television shows. K-dramas have been popular in Asia since the 1990s but didn’t become truly big in the United States until the last few years when many Americans turned to international media during the pandemic. Commonly recognized by Americans is the survival drama Squid Game, though many other shows have become popular through streaming services like Netflix and Hulu.
With K-dramas now flooding the Recommended For You list on Netflix, I soon noticed that there was another category of show creeping up in the algorithm: C-dramas. I was unaware that Chinese television is actually quite popular, with China being the second-largest market for television programming, and that C-dramas had been sitting just under the rising fame of K-dramas. I was just more easily persuaded to watch a language I already knew, so my sister and I watched Love O2O: a video game romance set at university containing thirty 45-minute episodes. We finished it in days.
If you’re familiar with K-dramas, C-dramas share some similarities. They contain numerous genres, such as science-fiction, horror, and mystery. Though K-dramas are noted for their soap opera-type romances, C-dramas are better known for their historical dramas. I lean toward the romances myself, but that's personal taste. They also typically have plot twists, emotional storylines, quality acting, and high production value.
While watching C-dramas did improve my Mandarin a little bit, I found that they had so much more to offer. I loved the relationships, scenic shots, and soundtracks. But more importantly, I loved that the shows featured things I knew. Sure, the plots were novel, but I was familiar with the way the lead girl would interact with her parents and the customs observed at home. I knew the food. My sister has heard me say, “they have dou jiang!” (or some other dish) a few too many times, but they all still surprise me. When Shuangjiao made bone soup in Use For My Talent, I could see the soup my mother makes when my sisters and I are sick. Soup with ginseng and dried red dates and foods that I know wouldn’t be stomached by the American public, at least not initially. Gu Weiyi’s mother in Put Your Head On My Shoulder makes a black sesame walnut dessert that we sometimes eat, and in that show, they, too, eat plain congee with youtiao on cold days.
But it’s not just the food, or that I can hear my relatives in the script, gossiping about who is getting married. It’s that I can see them. I grew up watching Disney Channel and Nickelodeon, where the occasional Asian character was always awkward, smart, and dimensionless. And although there has been more Asian representation in television and film in recent years, such as Crazy Rich Asians and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, there are limited choices. In a USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative study that analyzed 1,300 Hollywood films from 2007 to 2019, it was found that only 3.4% of the films had API leads or co-leads—API referring to Asian, Pacific Islander, and/or Native Hawaiian. 39% of films had no API characters at all. This report also found that many of these API depictions were harmful stereotypes: hypersexualized women, emasculated men, foreigners with exaggerated accents, or simply characters expendable to the plot. So when an Asian character comes on screen in Hollywood, it’s hard not to feel like there's a little tokenism at play.
In C-dramas, the leads are always Chinese. That makes perfect sense. No one would be surprised to hear that Chinese dramas have Chinese leads. But to me, that means I get to watch Chinese girls go to work and eat lunch with friends and live a normal existence in a house that reminds me of my home. I get to watch Chinese girls be the love interest every time. She gets to fall in love and live out sappy but heartwarming romance tropes. I wanted bigger and lighter eyes as a child. Now I watch close-up shots of brown eyes shot in dreamy lighting.
I know the Chinese experience depicted in C-dramas isn’t necessarily accurate, and I know it’s not the same as my Chinese-American experience. But I see myself enough in these shows where I genuinely believe I could fit in with the cast and the story. I don’t have that with American television.
So about my friend: I might not have been able to process that non-Chinese people around me would want to watch Chinese shows at first, but I am glad she watches them. She obviously doesn’t have the same connection to the shows I do, but she enjoys the storylines and relationships regardless. I love talking to her about them, especially when I point out the things I know, and she says she wants to try the food. I love seeing my culture on screen, and I love how other people want to see it too.
If anyone is interested, Put Your Head On My Shoulder is very good. That one’s my favorite.
Cao, Yuqi. “The Differences between Chinese Dramas and Korean Dramas.” Yan, 29 Nov. 2020, https://yanchinaentertainment.com/the-differences-between-chinese-dramas-and-korean-dramas-2020/.
Chang, Victoria. “How Chinese Dramas Helped Me Build a Relationship With My Sister.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 16 Mar. 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/16/magazine/chinese-tv-dramas-story-of-yanxi-palace.html.
De Witte, Melissa. “The Secret to K-Pop, K-Drama Success Is Its Relatable Appeal, Says Stanford Scholar.” Stanford News, 9 Nov. 2021, https://news.stanford.edu/2021/11/09/secret-k-pop-k-drama-success/.
Kim, Regina. “The K-Drama Renaissance.” ELLE, Hearst Magazine Media, Inc., 18 Aug. 2021, https://www.elle.com/culture/movies-tv/a37293494/korean-drama-renaissance-explained/.
Rahman, Abid. “Asians and Pacific Islanders Account for Less than 6 Percent of Speaking Roles in Hollywood Films, Study Finds.” The Hollywood Reporter, The Hollywood Reporter, 18 May 2021, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/general-news/asians-and-pacific-islanders-in-hollywood-films-1234954926/.