Intermediate Phrasal Verb Take On
Although the popular sitcom left United States airwaves nearly 10 years ago, it lives on in China via the Internet and an exact replica of Central Perk, spreading American English and culture to young people, writer Dave Gerow explains.
Author: Dave Gerow
uring its initial run from 1994 to 2004, the TV show Friends took the United States by storm. Its effects on fashion and slang are still apparent not just in America, but over much of the English-speaking world. In fact, the appeal of Friends extends even further beyond the U.S. than you might think. In China, where American culture is lapped up with gusto, Friends remains one of the United States’ most popular exports.
No Chinese television station has ever broadcast Friends, but in a country that knows no copyright boundaries, it’s not hard to get your hands on the show. Since the 1990s, it has been widely available in China’s black market DVD shops, and today it’s easy to download or stream the show with Chinese subtitles. There was talk of airing it on one of China’s state-run networks in the mid-2000s, but the idea was scrapped. A CCTV representative explained: “After a careful preview, I found each episode had something to do with sex”. He concluded that the general Chinese public was not ready for such an American experience.
But for those Chinese citizens who are ready for Friends (or Lao You Ji as it’s called in Mandarin: “Old Friends Chronicles”), the sitcom remains phenomenally popular. It has even inspired a small restaurant in Beijing called The Friends Café. Designed as an exact replica of the café frequented by the sitcom characters, The Friends Café is a niche attraction for Chinese and foreigners alike. The iconic orange couch points at a TV set which plays episodes of Friends endlessly.
The café has been open for three years, and the owner (who was at home with his new baby when I visited) goes by the name of Gunther – the peroxide-haired manager of the sitcom’s Central Perk. Everything is Friends- themed, so it would feel just like being in the TV show if not for the metafictive paradox of actually watching episodes of Friends while being in the fictional café. The coffee is served with the word Friends written in chocolate over the top, and Phoebe’s singing gigs are listed on the chalkboard. The fourth wall opposite the couch, which is never seen on the TV show, is covered with photos and scripts autographed by the entire cast.
The waitress who served me has chosen Julie as her English name, but she told me all the waitresses go by the name Rachel. Julie discovered Friends in 2009 – five years after the show had finished its run on NBC. Until that time, her experience with American TV had been limited to family-friendly fare that aired on Chinese TV. “When I was in middle school, I saw Growing Pains and Lizzy McGuire. Those were the first American shows I saw.” When her foreign teacher in university recommended Friends, she was able to find it online easily. “At first I just wanted to learn some English from it,” she said, “but then I really loved the show … I don’t know why China doesn’t import this – it’s so great!”
Friends’ usefulness as a language teaching tool has been touted by students all over China. Bookstores even sell copies of the DVDs alongside English textbooks. Fu Yan, a Friends fan from the northern city of Harbin and a proficient English speaker, told me, “I learned many common words people use in real life. It is very different and more useful than what we learned in school!” Later, while describing a scene involving her favorite character, she said, “Come on, it’s just so Ross!” She was speaking in the same colloquial slang Friends was written in: the effect of the show on her spoken English was evident.
I wanted to know what the Chinese learned about Americans from watching the show. Fu Yan said with a laugh that American people appeared to be “quite stupid, actually … and independent.” Back at The Friends Café, Julie was thoughtful. “American people?” she says. “From these six people, I think they are so understanding. But I don’t know other Americans.”
Julie believes the show contains a message that the Chinese might learn from. “Everybody should understand each other. It’s not very common for Chinese people to talk about things. I think [these six characters] are good – they talk about what they think. That’s good in friendship. If they fight or quarrel with each other, they always find a way to talk about it. I think most Chinese people don’t like to talk about their real feelings.” Julie’s favorite character is Monica, whom she admires. “She’s so energetic and never gives up. I wish I were like her.”
Other American TV shows such as The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family are easily available online in China and are popular with young, middle-class Chinese, but Friends remains a perennial favorite. Just as Americans formed a special bond with those six characters in the ‘90s, many young Chinese are still doing the same.
Ten facts about friends
1. The first line of dialogue in the very first pilot episode of Friends was “There’s nothing to tell.”
2. A 30-second commercial during the break in the show in America cost advertisers £500,000.
3. Other titles considered for the series included “Once upon a time in the West Village”, “Insomnia Café” and “Across the Hall”. The original title, “Friends like Us”, was shortened to the current one-worder.
5. According to Aniston, her famous “Rachel” hairdo was created by accident when her “friend” Chris cut her hair with a razor.
6. Courteney Cox, who was born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, is known as CC to friends and family.
7. David Schwimmer attended Beverly Hills High, the school on which the series Beverly Hills: 90210 was based.
8. Matthew Perry appeared in Beverly Hills: 90210 earlier in his career. He said of his role: “It’s kind of a blur, but I remember playing the most popular kid in school who ends up with a gun in his mouth because his Dad is so overbearing“.
9. Perry’s wit is so legendary that the scriptwriters have often incorporated his gags into the show.
10. Cox had the honour of being the first person to say “period” on American TV, making a commercial for Tampax.