What Is Up?

October 26, 2008

A new video making the rounds on YouTube updates the famously funny “Wassup” commercial, using the same actors but in scenes of grim poignancy. Instead of hawking beer, they show the travails afflicted upon the citizenry during the last eight years. What once made us laugh has turned tragic.

The video reminded me of a Chinese student who visited us for two weeks in 2002 as part of an exchange program that my oldest son took part in at Wilson High School in Portland. “Thomas” — he adopted an English name rather than expect Americans to correctly pronounce his real name — was among a dozen students from Suzhou, a Portland sister city.

Thomas was disarmingly bright, personable, serious, and enamored with the United States. His English was masterful, especially in writing. We decided to send him home with a taste of American pop culture and showed him “Wassup” online. At first Thomas would say, “What is up?” with a hint of British accent. After repeated viewings and much coaching, he began mimicking the black actors’ exaggerated delivery in a hilarious high-pitched voice.

Back in China, he sent a long and passionate thank you letter, including a P.S. to me that he didn’t like the oatmeal I made every morning. We kept in touch for a few years. Thomas talked of attending graduate school in the United States. We lost contact at some point, and I’ve wondered how his view of this country has changed given all that’s happened.

Given the viral nature of web videos, maybe Thomas will see the new “Wassup” and appreciate the toll the intervening years have taken on American lives. And appreciate the surprise ending. There is hope amid the gloom.

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