Choice

Maybe two months later when I read this blog entry, my future self may have a better idea.

I was born and bred in Shanghai, the most expensive and exciting cosmopolitan city in China. Via my dad’s calculation, its food and beverages are even more expensive that those in LA – although I would defend that Shanghai’s rent is much cheaper than that in LA. 

The Chinese people (other than folks born in Beijing) seem to make Shanghai her goal as “making it.” But I never feel like I belong here. Shanghai is all about money and efficiency. It’s not a place for writers, or artists in general. 

Today, my cab driver told me that he just couldn’t stop but work in Shanghai. He can’t afford to rest because of its high living expense for his family of three. I listened and felt grateful that right now I’m rent-free.

So this evening, I went to downtown Shanghai, at a place where Chinese and expats mingle for a dinner with a friend who runs her own company. This friend came from a family of businessmen and women. It was only natural when she set up her own shop in her early 30s. After several rounds of wine and beer on her part, she tried to reason with me why moving back to the US sounds like an unwise idea. “You’re Chinese. You would never feel like you belong there.” She then gave me a cautionary tale of her friend; she listed her resources that we could exchange to do something big and interesting together; she told me tricks of how to set up my own  studio (aka. gong zuo shi) so I could charge much larger fees when I negotiated with brands and firms, creating an illusion that I ran an army instead of working as a freelancer. 

This was all new to me. The artist side of me resisted and rebelled. But the pragmatic side of me wanted to learn more. After all, who doesn’t want financial freedom and more flexible working hours plus having extra to take care of the parents?

I told my friend that I would like to explore those notions going forward. I promised that I will pop at an event she hosts on Monday so she can start to introduce me to her acquaintances.  I’m not a star sign believer, but I do relate to and adore her Pisces-ness – flexible, creative, and resourceful. 

“God, things we could’ve done.” John Sculley told Steve Jobs when they met again more than a decade later when Jobs was hired back to Apple. Steve replied, “Things we could’ve done.” 

Of course, this moment, this line were all created by Aaron Sorkin who wrote the award-winning script for Danny Boyle to shoot. But to me, it’s also a reminder in moments like this. I don’t want to be another person to confess to my potential ally that why the he’ll we didn’t end up working together when we can?

For the past three years, I closed myself off opportunities that are not film related. I think I need to think different. There must to ways to utilize my talent… on a bigger scale, stage-wise and pay-wise.  

And this morning, a fourth student director came to me to fix her script. I was flattered albeit overwhelmed.  Every day I feel and think more like a screenwriter. But I’m not happy with its power limitation in filmmaking. Or, maybe two months later when I read this blog entry, my future self may have a better idea.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

Learning by doing

These collaborations make a skeleton key out of that tool.  

I woke up this morning noticing a bunch of new messages at strange Beijing hours, plus a new contact invite. 

Another student director contacted me to fix his thesis short.

After collaborating with two student directors there, their program chair and the other screenwriting professor who’s no feminazi seem to approve of my craft.

This third director is someone I’ve been dying to work with.

Before switching to filmmaking, he had been working in advertising for the most part of his adult life.  Having looted every “big deal” advertising award on the face of the earth, the guy decided to switch industry. 

Just like that, he quit his ECD (Executive Creative Director) job in a 4A agency in Shanghai. He applied and attained his special talent visa (EB1-A) within a month. Then he simply immigrated his family to the US, his wife and their three-year-old daughter. 

I love his personal story as well as the short film he pitched me. Just like that, I landed my third short film project within a month. 

By end of December, I would be able to see him and the first student director in person in Shanghai. Without fearing that I may become cocky or expensive (cocky no; but expensive, for sure), they confessed just how hard it was to find decent writers (let alone good) and they want to keep working with me in the future. Without even seeing his story in my words, the guy said he trusts me and believes that I would do a good job. 

If I had 20% chance to get myself back in the US within a year and half, now that number can at least beat Trump’s latest approval rate. 

But most of all, I love discovering the differences of people’s creative minds. I used to roll my eyes when a director started to describe how he would frame a scene, and how much in love he was with the color, the tone, the mood… “Dude, those are fine, but they don’t help me to move the story forward!!” Now I relish their visual talent which I haven’t yet developed.  

I finally began to appreicate when Prof. Howard Suber told us that film is a collaborative business. Because when the right people meet their right match, things just start to click and work. UCLA helped me make my tool. But these collaborations make a skeleton key out of that tool.  

 

Yours truly,
YZ

Reinforced reality

Whoever we think we are, whatever we think we can or cannot do, we are reinforcing that notion about ourselves.

Two updates buoyed me today. 

  • First, the short film I wrote for this other student director got great reviews from the student’s chair and screenwriting professor, saying that it was lovely and cinematic.
  • Second, the feature director read my rewrite and said, “Great work.” 

Both would require some level of follow-up and touch-up, but I think I can finally conclude that I’m a legit working screenwriter now since I played with the notion roughly four years ago…

Yesterday I was still in the dark of what was going to unfold with these two projects.  I was scared to be exposed as a fraud, that I was sub par of what the feature director was looking for; that the student’s revered department chair and her seasoned screenwriting professor would frown at my speedy but shoddy script. 

But fear no more. I got the right amount of validation I needed. They didn’t come in the shapes of plaques or trophies or human figurines. But those intangible words measure up my “pipe dream” as a screenwriter. 

Just now, I calculated my writing earnings since the sudden halt of my California dreamin’. At this rate, I think I can move back to LA and survive and maybe even thrive. 

My current challenge is:
How shall I take on interesting writing assignments to make a living as a writer while still keep producing my own work, shaping my creative voice and style?

As you may have noticed, I still haven’t shipped my latest episode. It took more time than I am willing to allot to edit each episode. It would mean that I would have to postpone yet another catchup meeting with my old Shanghai friends. It would mean that I need to budget my time and use it with caution. Or it could mean that I need to find an assistant with I have some extra bucks.

Through a podcast friend’s referral, I applied for this Google Podcasts creator program a few weeks ago. Apart from the friends I made through Seth Godin’s podcast summer fellowship, I think this program that markets itself with the keywords like diversity and minority (I am both a woman and Asian – the rare occasion I hit the jackpot) may help my show to get to the next level. 

When I was fretting about the possible disasters of my projects for the last couple of days, my friend pointed out, “Dread or not, you have no control over what others think about your work. But what you can do is a) work as hard as you can; b) get enough work so you won’t cuss about the lost opportunities, the water under bridge.”

Whoever we think we are, whatever we think we can or cannot do, we are reinforcing that notion about ourselves. Just think about it, it goes both ways; it can be either empowering or utterly demoralizing.  And the choice is all ours.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

PS. My own case in point would be: read (almost) any of my blog posts in the summer and you will get an utterly different vibe. It was my reality then. It was my rock bottom.

 

Harvard Material

In China, it’s widely believed that if you go to one of those schools, your future is all set. But I never believe a word of it.

I was raised to believe that there was such a thing called “Harvard Material.” (Aka. Tsinghua/Beida Material for its Chinese counterpart.)

Kids who are labeled as such breeze through their school years who are more often than not early readers.

From my own and my beloved parents’ recollection, I was none of those above.

I sucked at math – as a Chinese. I watched TV throughout the summer/winter vacations and dashed for the last few days to finish my vacation homework. 

I hated myself. I vowed that this was the last time, that I would never repeat the same mistake ever again. And if I did, I was no better than a dog. 

Spoiler alert: I did for many, many years. 

Then things changed. I changed. I suddenly felt the stake was much higher than I had imagined. My working class folks would never give me the kind of leg up or back door or financial cushion that some parents were able to provide their kids. 

I began grinding. But I didn’t end up in any of these schools that need you to be their material first. I went to an average school. But my hope didn’t end. 

In China, it’s widely believed that if you go to one of those schools, your future is all set. But I never believe a word of it.

By now, I’m confident that most of those former material students are now stuck in lame jobs, their dreams buried in moss.

But then, there are folks who are real Harvard Material. Like Barack Obama, as I’ve just learned through Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming. 

Before he was in the Senate, Barack read some six or seven books at the same time, reads two to three newspapers from cover to cover, while keeps a senior teaching position at University of Chicago plus getting an advance to finish a book about his unique background, while raising a family with Michelle. 

I was dumbfounded by the extend of things he was able to get done. I was no less impressed with Michelle. A mother of two young daughters, she held a full time job while rallying for her husband when he decided to run for president… Of course it was a joint effort. But just how they were able to function at their best under pressure is truly something worthy of study. 

I, on the other hand, start to feel the weight of the pressure when I have a number to things to tackle while my mum takes care of my laundry and my dad is the best chef anyone can ask for. 

This evening on time, I sent another student director the first draft of the short script she briefed me two days ago.  The reason I took the gig was because I really liked the simplicity of the story and I didn’t want her to entrust anybody else to write it. But it meant that when I took on the assignment, I would very likely have to delay the shipping date of my podcast. 

By early this morning, I stopped kidding myself that I could actually do both at the same time without composing both. But tomorrow, I will ship the podcast. I envy people like Obama who are not only gifted, but grind day in and day out. When they do succeed, people and the mass media conclude that they are in fact Harvard Material as if that was the basis of every success under the sun.

I beg to differ. To show the world, again, that there’re other decent materials like yours truly, who can and will get there, even though she didn’t go down the obvious path, even though she can’t process information like an Intel chip. 

If I can be anything, I want to be another example of the people who are too late to be Harvard Material, who don’t fit into the pattern of the Success Matrix, who is both woman and Asian… who has a hope, and an undying dream to be something more than her reality through storytelling.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

The big rock

I did tackle the big rock before romancing the other stones.

Overwhelmed by my to-do list this week, I wasn’t at all productive for the last two days. Nor was my sleep. 

I called my friend and mentor and spilled out my concerns.

“I feel like everything is so important that I can’t drop any ball I’m juggling right now.”

“Tell me what you have on your plate.”

“A new short film project. My weekly podcast. The dissertation outline that I’m collaborating with a Chinese screenwriting professor. The beat sheet of the animation project. And notes preparation for the three-hour lecture next Tuesday.”

“Here is a big jar and laying in front of you are the big rocks, the small pebbles and a pile of sand. How do you fill them all in without neglecting any?” 

He knew that I got the answer but kept going for my own benefit, “The big rock is your most important, most urgent task. Right now it is the short film that you need to turn in by end of tomorrow. How about you focus on that for the rest of the day and get it done, so you can have time to finish editing your podcast tomorrow?”

I couldn’t help thinking, “Why does it sound so much less messy when it comes out of my friend’s mouth?”

“You just can’t do everything at the same time.” 

True. ”But what if I am too tired too frazzled that I just watch YouTube?” I tried to hide behind the what-if, which is actually the reality I’m wrestling whenever the pressure gets the better of me.

“Well, then you just have some grow up to do. There are things you don’t like, but you are obligated to do it. Pace yourself and complete the task before those all-nighters compromise your health yet again.”

After the pneumonia-bad cold double whammy, I should know better. 

Several hours after our conversation, I now have a rough first draft of the short film. But I need to take a couple of more revisions first thing tomorrow morning before sending it back to the director. 

But hey, at the end of the day, I did tackle the big rock before romancing the other stones.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

Leap of faith

Even when I fall, I know they will catch me.

I had insomnia last night. It’s been this way for a few weeks now. I would force myself to bed around or a little before midnight and tossed and turned till probably past one-thirty or like yesterday two-thirty. 

I plugged in my iPhone and kept listening to Michelle Obama’s new book Becoming. By now, Michelle had left her high-pay law firm job and became an assistant at the Chicago City Hall. Her salary got cut from 120K to 60K. 

Michelle described in detail how she realized her two Ivy League degrees (Princeton B.A. and Harvard Law J.D.) didn’t bring her happiness or fulfillment. And worst of all, she realized that she didn’t even want to be a lawyer to begin with.

She was faced with an age-old economy challenge: sunk cost.

  • Do I keep on staying to pay off my staggering student loan and maximizing the ROI of these expensive degrees and the years of hard-work?
  • Or do I stop the bleed right now and pivot even it means I may suffer financially and lose face in front of my friends and relatives?

 

I faced an eerily similar challenge four years ago. I was the youngest department head leading my own team at a prestigious ad agency. I remember walking past its building as a fresh college graduate fantasizing what it would be like to work there… Three year later, my dream came true fast and furious. I was earning good yuan, helping my family with the mortgage, helping myself with a wardrobe of designer clothes, never giving a thought about dining at fancy restaurants because now I had my own expense account… Most of all, I enjoy the look of my peers when I told them about the firm I worked for and the title I held there. In short, I understand why men buy Porsche. This job was my Porsche.

And yet, slowly, I felt hollow and shallow… I was dying inside.

The inciting event for Michelle Obama (then Michelle Robinson) to change was the sudden deaths of her father of 52 years old and her college roommate Suzanne of 26 years old; plus her ideal boyfriend Barack Obama’s constant questions about her being, her status quo. 

Though much less traumatic, my hinge moment was the call from my firm asking me to visit Sichuan two months after the earthquake. Apart from giving out relief goods, I saw kids using fly and maggot -infested ditches and holes the way we use toilet. My heart broke when I saw they couldn’t take naps lying down because their little beds were in crumbles.

I then flew back to my perfect cosmopolitan life in Shanghai with a mission. I launched a fundraise to buy safe table, chairs and mats for these kids. I was asking for 200,000 RMB, roughly 36,000 USD. The campaign took two months of my free time. But I did it.

I celebrated by calling my dad after the meeting. “Dad, guess what. You are wrong.”

“Tell me more.”

“The kids will have safe equipment within a month.”

He was proud and elated, but he simply replied, “Good.”

I then added, “Dad, I just realized that I can do anything if I put my mind to it.”

“Now don’t get cocky.”

But he knew what I meant.

When I quit my ad agency job to apply for film school, he and mum didn’t stand in the way. 

When I decided to come back to Shanghai to prepare for my artist visa, they welcomed me back with open arms. 

I don’t recall they ever say “We told you so” or “Have you considered something less risky?”

My parents saw something in me when I pulled off my first stunt. That is, getting hired by Wimbledon Tennis and finding a friend of a friend who let me stay at their place in Southfields, London for free, and snagged an interview by Shanghai Sports Channel when I was merely an exchange student to Liverpool John Moores University as a junior in college.

You see, everyone has moments of truth and dare. But more often than not, it became moments of shame and chicken-out. But honestly, how would you know if you never give yourself a chance?

Now, here is another new realization: four years ago after I submitted my application to UCLA Film School, I then asked myself just how realistic and practical this pivot was.

I became so scared that I developed stomach cramps. My fear grew even more severe when I landed LA. Facing a group of already-professional writers, I cringed at my writing, at my stories, at myself. I turned into my own enemy. It was a single-looping tune of “You will never ever belong. Period.”

And yet, right now, less than two months after I got back in Shanghai, I’m already stacking my writer portfolio. If I count the hatched and soon-to-be hatched eggs in my basket, I have four short film credits, two feature credits, several honors as visiting professor and lecture. And counting. 

I add “And counting” because I know Snowball Effect conceptually and practically. Once your stuff is out there, you will get more momentum. More momentum means more opportunity.  Sure, I’ve had and still have people doubt my worth and my value. But unlike my Old Self, I now focus on the lovely people who gave me their leap of faith when I was at the point of ‘0 to 1.’

And since I had let my ambition cloud my judgement and common sense before, I know that this time, I need to listen to my heart to produce good work, which will turn into good karma. 

And because of the lovely people whom I handpick to surround and buttress me, I can keep having my faith, for the next big leap… 

Even when I fall, I know they will catch me. 

 

Yours truly,
YZ

My jogging buddy

When I lived in LA, I went to Trader Joe’s by myself. I went to the gym by myself. I sometimes went to the movies by myself. I ate mostly by myself.

As I did my daily 5,000-step laps with dad this evening, I realized that he has become my jogging buddy. 

When the rain had became drizzles, we strolled the quiet end of the neighborhood. Our conversation varied from what I’d watched to what I’d written. He listened and sometimes gave me his observations. 

And before I knew it, he’d announced: that’s the fifth lap now. 

Okay. I’d say.

And we slowed down a little as we sauntered back, carefully avoiding the occasional dog poops of the dog owners who have enough money to own labradors but not enough ethics to clean up their dogs’ residues.

The only downside for me is, now I need to find some other chunks of time to listen to podcasts and audiobooks. Because my dad would be the first one to ditch me, also known as the lesser consistent of the two.

 

Yours truly,
YZ