As a Mexican woman, I was confident that I could breeze through Netflix’s remake of Meteor Garden. Could I handle a soap opera? Of course, we pretty much invented them. Could I stand a teen romance? Please, I read all Twilight books. Could I take on content from another culture? 
Yeez, that’s part of my job

So, did I? Abso-fucking-lutely not.

Maybe I should start by explaining (as much as possible) what Meteor Garden is. In its simplest form, it’s a Chinese teen soap opera about two cross-starred lovers. They suffer, they fight, they eventually win. Nothing new here.

But it’s the getting there that feels like a rollercoaster, to put it mildly. And not just any rollercoaster that has steep up and downs, but one that also turns you upside down, and spins like a tornado, then goes into the utmost layer of the atmosphere, and lets you drop at the end. One that shakes you so bad that it seems as if your brains were about to fall out.

What I’m trying to say in a Meteor Garden-esque way is that the show is very confusing, even implausible at times, but I couldn’t stop watching it.

I must admit that we started on the wrong note. The summary said it was about a girl bringing down to Earth a group of demigods and I assumed it was something similar to Percy Jackson. And then the first scene is the main character (a girl named Shancai) giving a flying kick to some guy’s face (he later becomes her husband). It all indicated that I was about to see some Percy/anime/Harry Potter mash-up.

After that scene, it all turns blurry. And it only generates questions, lots of them.

BEWARE: There are some spoilers ahead, but I can honestly say that you could read them and still don’t really know what’s going to happen in the show.

1. What are the codes for cool in China?

Within that first episode, we are introduced to the aforementioned demigods, known as the F4. At this point, I still had faith that these guys were real demigods with superpowers and magical qualities. But they just turn out to be popular guys. Their first scene is surrounded by screaming teens taking pictures of them. But they’re not in a boy band either. Suddenly, a senior student appears out of nowhere to explain who they are. And the first thing we learn about them is that they are, in average, 1.85m tall. Not that they are successful or unique or anything else. Just their height. Is it really that important? In Mexico, it is definitely an admired trait, but not so much as to be one of the main reasons for someone’s popularity.

After learning about their height, we get to know that all of them are top students with one particular talent, for example, being a master of tea or earning their first million when they were 18. But, most importantly, they are champions of bridge, “an elegant and civilized card game”. And then there’s a complex explanation of how to challenge them to a bridge game and the myths about losing to them. Is bridge an important game in China? Why bridge and not chess? Is there a cultural reason to choose this game over other? In Mexico, the popular guys would definitely play soccer. Nothing that feels too brainy or elegant.

2. What are the rules for romantic relationships?

Three chapters in and still there were no signs that this show would turn into something like Percy Jackson. Instead, it just got progressively more involved with the love-hate relationship between Shancai and one of the F4 guys, Daoming Si. It all starts because Si steps on her phone and breaks it, so she goes around the university searching for him and trying to make him apologize and pay for it. Of course, he refuses and is rude towards Shancai, after which he develops a crush on her and stars treating her even worse: childish pranks, rude interactions, even some violence. The rest of the F4 just smile and shake their heads, calling him “immature” or “clueless” about dating. Is that considered normal? I felt quite uncomfortable with him calling her ugly and stupid, even more when he almost hit her in the face. Why does teen romance have to be so intense? Why should we strive for relationships like that of Romeo and Juliet? I’m all for not dying with your first love.

However, I appreciated the fact that there’s no Shancai makeover, like there usually is in teen romances (I’m looking at you, Cinderella, She’s All That, Grease, etc.) And the moments when the F4 try to change her to impress people, it backfires. There’s something very endearing about watching a bunch of so-called demigods, admire and even feel a bit scared by the will of a “tiny” woman. Unfortunately, the other girls in the show either have to change to get the guy (*cough*Xiaoyou*cough*) or end up alone (if Jing is happy this way remains unclear).

3. How is a regular narrative constructed?

We are all now used to cliffhangers, especially if you are a fan of the BBC’s Sherlock (four years of wait, for Christ’s sake!). But just-hangers are a difficult pill to swallow. And Meteor Garden is full of them. Episodes don’t end at a suspenseful moment or right before something big happens. They end in the middle of the scene, when nothing is really happening, sometimes mid-dialogue. At least, that’s the feeling. And it’s a successful trick for you to keep on watching “just one more episode” until you’re suddenly on episode 30.

This, coupled with weird transition scenes that not necessarily relate to time or location, create a blurry tone. How serious are they taking the soap opera? Is that song used in a tongue-in-cheek way? Are they exaggerating their gestures or is it common in China? I feel that Shancai was just as confused, because she kept falling for the F4’s jokes, and so did I. One of the scenes was so dramatic in a soap-opery tone that when it turned out to be a ploy for Shancai to declare her feelings for Si, I got angry along with her. Feelings are a delicate thing that should be handled with care. 

4. How marked are social classes in Chinese society?

Another key theme in the show is the class difference, well, money difference, between Shancai and Daoming Si. Again, I couldn’t quite figure out how big that difference is or how disruptive it is for Chinese society. From the beginning, we learn that Si is a millionaire, not just because of his family fortune, but also self-made. But exactly how poor is she? And what does that mean for their interaction as members of different classes?

Unlike Mexican telenovelas, where the poor and rich characters have almost no interaction outside of designated places (street markets or the mansion of the rich character where the poor girl is usually a maid), Si and Shancai meet at university, and they appear to frequent similar places. Also, is there an accent in Chinese that marks class differences? The subtitles lost this subtlety, in any case.

One difference that is highlighted is that of worldly knowledge. Shancai doesn’t speak English or any other language, and is skeptic of leaving China because she won’t like western food. But again, this doesn’t clarify where Shancai stands. I’m assuming she’s somewhere in the middle classes since she can afford to travel abroad without so much hassle.

5. How close are Chinese families?

From the little I knew about traditional Chinese values and philosophy, I believed that family would be the core of society. But, except for Shancai, parents were quite absent from the lives of their children. So much that none of them showed up for Shancai and Si’s wedding. That would be the worst offense to any Mexican parents. Worse than disobeying them and running away from your home and bodyguards.

There’s a scene where Shancai is being reprimanded for not showing enough respect for her seniors. But in the few occasions when parents show up, they play an antagonist role to their kids. Si’s mother tries to control everything in his life, from afar since she lives in London while he stays in Shangai. Jing’s parents who react badly to her announcement that she’s pursuing a law degree to help the poor. Or when we learn why Ximen is afraid of love and commitment. But I guess that is what parents are for: traumatizing you for life.

6. What did I just watch?

After watching 49 episodes in less than two weeks (I actually have to work, you know?), the biggest question of all is why did I keep watching it? I have some theories. The first one is that it is so confusing and different to what I’ve seen, that it ended up being funny, albeit unintendedly. The sense of humor in the show is something that you learn to love with each passing episode. Another theory is that the show plays with genres, moving from soap opera to anime to comedy. Sometimes in the same scene, like in Shancai’s kidnapping. This genre-swapping gives a bit of fresh air to a story that could easily turn into just one more teen cliché.

Yet, I firmly believe that the reason why I got so hooked up with Meteor Garden is that it required some effort on my part. It’s like playing a video game that perfectly balances the work you put into it in order to win. It’s hard enough to feel like a challenge, but also easy enough to give you hope that you can actually succeed. (This is called “flow state”, click here if you would like to know more about how it works.) And Meteor Garden creates flow so well: one minute you don’t understand what’s going on, the next it’s just silly banter, the next you’re not sure if it’s a dream or real, the next you don’t understand what a red envelope is, the next… You just keep on working through the whole 49 episodes. And while you’re working, you inadvertently fall in love with the characters.

If you’ve seen this version of Meteor Garden or any other, let me know what you think. I would love to discuss Lei’s outfits in detail.

*Leaves to play “River” for the millionth time.*

[This text was originally published in October 2018.]


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