Chinese + Creativity

Two weeks ago, I went to a prestigious institute to sit in for its last screenwriting workshop. The program associate and I had a little chat.

“Have you thought about writing stories yourself?” I asked her.
“Me? Oh, no, no, no, no, no. It’s not my thing.” 

I pause for a bit. “You know, years ago, I felt I wasn’t the creative bunch either.” 

I forgot how the conversation ended. But her initial response was etched in my brain. 

Is creativity nothing but a snooty bitch? It shines light on the White community, obviously. Now, it expands to the Black community, fucking at last. 

And so… what about the Asians, the Yes Race? 

“Your Crazy Rich Asians did great!” Some may battle me with this fact. 

Sure, but one film doesn’t mean that day has come. An Asian actor acquaintance posted on his social, “I aim to be an Oscar winner.” My OS was like, bruh, if Asian writers don’t write Asian stories, you’d be supporting til the day you die.” Are Chinese too grounded for creative juice? Truth is, we only have enough room for one kind of God. That is, the God of Money on the fifth day of the Chinese New Year. It’s our euphemism to tell Muse to fuck off. 

I watched a few more episodes of Atlanta today after my date recommended to me. The Barbarshop episode in Season 2 was so over the top real, surreal, hilarious, and frustrating that I almost died from laughing. Stefani Robinson (now 26) was the writer for this episode and the only female writer on the show. She is so enviously young and full of live, who landed a staff writer gig at 23 after working at a talent agency right off college. And because of Atlanta, FX is now working with Robinson on her own show. Attagirl.

Never in my life will I be able to manufacture the moment that got me on Atlanta. I was just quite literally at the right place at the right time for that opportunity. The reason I was able to grasp it and to keep it going was because I was prepared. I wrote all the time. I was constantly thinking about ideas. My biggest advice is to constantly be writing, constantly be reading, and then on top of that, to be honest about what you love.

Stefani Robinson, via VICE

Some people are just meant to shine. I hear you think. True. 

You see, growing up in China, you’re told to do things that pay bills. First couple of years when I decided to pivot to screenwriting from the lucrative advertising world, my left brain was still anxious about how the fuck I could live as a writer rather than how on earth I could write a killer script. That worry developed into a nasty habit. Even right now, I’m still dealing with the jitters, the shallow breathing. It’s like after years of intoxication, your system revolts when suddenly there’s no booze in the blood. 

As I get the chance to teach the Chinese kids about screenwriting, about creative thinking, I want to make sure they don’t piss off their Muses. But most importantly, they find their voice. Not the voice in their heads. But the kind of voice that shuts the world. So everyone would listen.

My auditioning lecture at this prestigious institute is on Wednesday. Wish me luck.

Yours truly,
YZ

The spell

Ever since I was little, I was told that I was short and dark. Short is fine, but what you don’t want to be in China is a dark girl.

Here’s the thing, Chinese women have to be Size 00 skinny, as pale as ghosts in Japanese films, having eyes as big as Anne Hathaway’s, wearing a chin as chiseled as a Swiss knife, and at least five foot five to be a pretty candidate… Worse yet, nobody was my ally. My mum shrugged it off. My dad simply asked me to study hard. So I accepted those words to be my truth.

As young as ten years old, I cast myself aside as the Fugly Girl. So I had no other choice but to be smart. I don’t even recall anybody say I was pretty. I got uncomfortable when people called me that. I thought they were teasing me. I had glasses since third grade. I wore baggy clothes to hide my body in puberty. I slept on my stomach and prayed for a flat chest. I even got a crew cut just to keep out the boy problem – as if there was any. I denied my femininity flat out when it was to sprout off the ground. I stampeded on it hoping it would never see the sun. You see, people give us the bullets, but we pull the trigger.

Years later, I fell in love.
He said, you was beautiful.
I flinched, no, no, no. I was not. You like me because I’m smart.
Yeah, but you’re beautiful.
I looked at him in disbelief.
He kept on going, listen to me, you’re beautiful. You’re beautiful. Don’t let anybody else talk you into anything different. 

In the bathroom, I wiped tears away from my eyes. In the mirror, I saw her standing right in front of me. For the first time in a long time, I noticed her symmetrical face, her exquisite eyes, her refined nose… And her gentle soul. 

That day, I unlearned my habit to look away before a mirror.
That day, I learned it’s okay to appreciate her beauty without turning into a narcissist.
But most importantly, that day, I fell in love. With her.
I promised her that I would love her regardless of her relationship status, her bank statement, her level of success… because “I’d love you til the end of the Universe.” 

During our domestication, our parents and siblings gave their opinions about us without even thinking. We believed these opinions and we lived in fear over these opinions, like not being good at swimming, or sports, or writing. Someone gives an opinion and says, “Look, this girl is ugly!” The girl listens, believes she is ugly, and grows up with the idea that she is ugly. It doesn’t matter how beautiful she is; as long as she has that agreement, she will believe that she is ugly. That is the spell she is under. 

Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz

Oftentimes when we are in the thick of it, we can’t see past our own hands in the fog of the falsehood. We might need someone else to break the spell for us. Because of him, I got lucky.

I hope you get lucky too someday if not already. But if you don’t yet, it’s okay. Just ask yourself: What is my spell? And follow the yellow brick road.

Yours truly,
YZ

Chinese women + dating

When I came back to China, I thought of only one thing: how to get back to LA a’sap. For six months I rang myself in just for writing and teaching, I felt like a nun. I was a nun. Every once in a while, I missed apps like Tinder. Then I thought it must be blocked in China. Only a month ago, I found it wasn’t — much to my surprise.

So the hunting began. Sometimes I’d schedule two dates back to back. After I had seen enough men, I felt I was ready to share my findings with my single girlfriends. 

Much to my surprise, most of them weren’t taking any advantage of online dating even though all were complaining about their singleness. And most of these Western-educated financially-independent women associate Tinder with ONS (aka. One Night Stand). They didn’t have to tell me. I got the hostile vibe by studying the change in their facial expression when I mentioned I had been using Tinder and Bumble, both of which I offloaded from my phone a few weeks ago.  I think these dating apps are nice tools to discover new interesting people. That is, if you have the awareness to offload the apps once you have connected with enough candidates to be turned into potential dates. As a writer, I try to cut off unnecessary time-sucking addictive apps. Tinder and Bumble can be powerfully addictive.

And yet, you can still use the dating apps for good. It just depends on how you use it. Like many of my female friends, women tend to equate Tinder with ONS. I find the assumption too black-and-white. Truth is, if ONS happens, it means YOU let it happen. Otherwise, it’d be fucking date rape. And only if you do it and decide not to pursue any further. Hence, one NIGHT. When men and I talked about the ‘taboo’ around Tinder and ONS, their replies were unsurprisingly the same, “In the end, it’s up to the woman (to green light or not).” *Gurls, know your power.

A date even added, “I call out to all my mates’ bullshits. ‘She slept with me on our first date.’ ‘But you also slept with her on your first date. It’s NOT a one-way street, man.’ Being a man doesn’t get you the hall pass even though we live in the double standard society.” By the look on my date’s face, I felt his sincerity and I found it refreshing.  *So gurls, stop shaming yourself. Embrace your femininity. And gents, brag it when you bag a strong woman for who she is, not for how you bagged her for what you assume she is.  

Good looks is rarely enough to get me to swipe right (*But it does get me to pause. I’m only human. Can we agree on it?). The job title and education won’t be the deciding factor to a meetup. For me, a sense of humor is key. Appreciation in strong women gets a meeting. Understanding the creative process is cherry on top. 

At a friend’s insistence, I showed her a date’s photo. She stared at me in horror. “Did you somehow go blind? He’s fat, short and ugly.” I realized that the same convo must be happening when guys are discussing their female dates. Such is how we become commodities when the products are free. 

“I find him sweet, gentle and has a sense of humor.” I heard myself defending my date. My friend shook her head, “Dump him, quick. Or just don’t get serious.” Knowing that all the men that passed my screening are non-Chinese, she added, “You know, them foreigners can be fun to hang out with, but they don’t have any savings. Let alone real estate. They are not marriage material.” I did a double take at her while she continued, “I have a friend who’s seen foreigners come and go here in Shanghai. She said that their quality is decreasing over the years. Every once in a while she met someone she wants to date, then the man turns out to be out of her league…”

Wow. Wow. Wow. Zing. Zing. Zing.

I had been away from China for three years. Three years later, Chinese women still prioritize marriage-worthiness over personality compatibility even in the earliest stage of dating. When we turn ourselves into the ultimate utilitarians, what joy can we get out of life apart from pure business transactions?

Then, using my friend’s friend as an example:
Gurl, if you still don’t realize the name of the game, how will you find out what kind of people suit you — the unique you? And just how on earth would you become better at dating by strategizing sans doing?

When men ask me what I want out of this, I’d say, “I want to make new friends to have balance from my solitary writing life.  And if it leads to something, I’d be open to give it a try.” (Rule of thumb: don’t give chance to those who say they are just looking for “something casual.” Style can be casual. Human connection is for real, bruh. If men rule out that possibility from the get-go, then it’s on me if I ever try to persuade them otherwise. Just walk away. He’s not worth your time, darling.)

And here, for the majority of the Chinese single women:
Don’t wait till some White Knight checking all the boxes to begin dating.  Nobody wants to be with a salivating Pavlov’s Dog except for the sake of science.

Just be yourself. But it’s gonna be hard if you don’t know who you are yet. 

Yours truly,
YZ

On screenwriting, so far

I started working on this comedy pilot spec (which means it’s my own story, not an assignment from producer or director) about two months ago. But I started to have ideas about it around a year ago. And yet, I wasn’t in the best headspace to birth it then.

Fortunately, a year later, the storyline and the ‘Why’ of telling this story now became more salient for me. It was time to start working.

From early March to late May, I probably deleted more than 100 pages for this 30-page script. The set pieces were shifted more than a few times on my notebook, in my head, on my whiteboard. Teaching screenwriting is one thing, but writing it is a whole other story:

  • You have to be nimble and lenient with your first draft (aka. vomit draft).
  • You need to write more than it is required on the pages. Don’t think. Just type.
  • You have to feel the heat when your character gets angry.
  • You must fight back tears as your heroine breaks down crying.
  • If you cheat or cut corners or just fucking can’t sit through a difficult scene, it shows. And you know it.
  • Don’t be glamorous with your words if you can be essential.
  • The list goes on… (I will keep blogging about #screenwriting as I learn and teach it on the go.)

What’s fascinating to me about screenwriting is that it’s both left-brain and right-brain. You want to touch your audience with the emotions you’ve created. At the same time, you don’t want them to poke holes and find you ill-logic. In a word, you have to be somewhat a schizophrenic.

When you are done with your first draft, put it away for at two weeks. So when the open-heart surgery begins, you won’t quiver. Just start cutting.

At this stage of my own script, it’s ready for an initial read. I just sent it to a dear friend for a review. With that, I will know whether it’s ready to cast a wider net. Or, if it’s ready for submission.

And lastly, writers write. It’s our job. So treat it like one.
Tomorrow, I will start a new project. It’ll be a TV series in Chinese.

To quote Gertrude Stein, “To write is to write is to write is to write is to write is to write is to write is to write.”

Yours truly,
YZ

Quotes

I probably need to find a better to collect quotes. It’s everywhere in my laptop, on my notebooks, scattered amongt the loose paper… Maybe uploading them here could be a good solution.

So here you go. Enjoy!

#love

Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and a fortunate accident. Your mother and I had it, we had roots that grew towards each other underground, and when all the pretty blossom had fallen from our branches we found that we were one tree and not two.
Louis de Bernières, Corelli’s Mandolin

Never love anybody who treats you like you’re ordinary.
Oscar Wilde

Hearts are wild creatures. That’s why our ribs are cages.
Unknown

Imagine meeting someone who wanted to learn your past not to punish you, but to understand how you needed to be loved.
Unknown

#kickass

The strongest form of birth control has always been my personality.
Carly Aquilino

I don’t see myself casting a white dude as the lead in my movie. Not that I don’t like white dudes—but I’ve seen that movie.
— Jordan Peele

Put confidence with any outfit, that’s style.
Jessimae Peluso

#art

There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost.
— Martha Graham

My soul is not contained within the limits of my body. My body is contained within the limitlessness of my soul.
— Jim Carrey

Trust what comes from intuition; doubt what comes from my brain. 
— Sandra Cisneros

The thing I keep telling everyone is, “The only way we can screw this up is to not be bold enough.”
— Conan O’Brien

Yours truly,
YZ

Change

No cell phones. No chitchat. No napping.

Such used to be the norm. Now it has become the outlier amongst the college students. At least with the bunch that I work with.

My orginal theory was I just focus on those who would listen. But those who didn’t chipped away my patience. It became harder for me to focus as I kept reminding myself not to snap.

I asked my students to shut off the phone and exchange it with the person who sat next to them.

Suddenly I see more faces than I had in weeks. I felt more energy directing towards me. I felt the vibration in the air. I felt a sense of hope, a desire to improve with them.

When I was talking about how to apply storytelling to everyday life, I used myself as an example. A few years ago, I went to a quake-stricken area in Sichuan after a massive earthquake with the donation (out-dated books the firm wanted to purge from its inventory) from the firm I was with at the time. It should’ve been a light duty. But I couldn’t help but notice and feel that the things we city kids take for granted was a luxury for them. I would never forget going to the loo after seeing a couple of six-year-olds exiting the restroom area. I stepped inside and immediately wanted to vomit. There were all kinds of ecosystem there and none of which I’d want to be part of. I finished my business and got the fuck out. But wait, the pit must be wider for those kids… Wait, those moist wooden desks with rusty nails sticking out can cause nasty safety hazzards… Wait, they don’t even have beds to nap on?! Wait, the donations they’d recieved could only cover the cost of rebuilding those buildings?

24 hours later, I was back in Shanghai, back to my normal hazzard-free life. Those problems should’ve been swept under the rug. But I was haunted by the fact anyone can be born in there. Some of us were just lucky enough to be born in big cities like Shanghai to enjoy better healthcare, better education, better food, better cultural events… Better everything. But we aren’t happy. We are never content. We just won’t settle for less…

Things I used to enjoy didn’t feel right anymore. Like clueless shopping. Like getting the latest iPhone. For what and so what?

Long story short, I launched a pro bono project for the kids and raised 200,000 RMB for those who might be as bright as us but far less fortunate. My Sichuan project manager thanked me for raising the money. I thanked her to carry it through. It felt like Cloud Nine that day and I’d been since chasing that feeling…

It wasn’t an easy story to tell. I was struck with emotion. I was surprised by how years later it still felt raw. Of course my students noticed the tears welled up in my eyes. But fortunately, it wasn’t the first time I cried in a class. I did that at my evening class earlier when I showed the climax scene of Thelma and Louise. And it helps that I’ve got thick skin.

For homework, I asked my students to write down their dreams and their fears on a piece of paper without signing their names. I would collect them next week. All of these has nothing to do with this elective class I teach. It doesn’t matter, becaue it has everything to do with their imminent future, the purpose of their existence. And that’s what really matters.

“Be a better person” is the KPI I set for myself as an adjunct professor. It is the change I want to see in them.

If not now, maybe later. Maybe. May it be.

Yours truly,
YZ

Expectation

I bit my lips and started typing on my phone: “No napping or using cell phones in my class from now on.”

Sent. I then sheepishly waited in the group chat for my students to react, to respond about these new rules. 

The thing is, it’s already 11 weeks into the semester. I’m no longer the new sheriff in town. So making a sudden announcement like that was awkward as a teacher. 

“Would it undermine my image? Would they think less of me?” 

But more importantly, what do I want to achieve?

That one is easy. Respect is what I want to teach them. 

But isn’t it too late? It’s not a main course after all (my AM class is elective but also mandatory if they want to graduate), why so serious?

No, no, no, no, no. 

They’d never have a chance if they don’t learn to focus, fight off social media distractions and addictions, and learn to respect people when they are talking. Such is not a golden ticket to success. But I want my students to at least have good manners, to begin with. Like when someone is talking, you don’t automatically take out your fucking phone. 

Yes, this is the battle I’ve chosen. And I will fight it to the end. After all, my job is not to look good and be nice, but to teach my students things they can pack with them for life.

Before I started teaching, a fellow professor told me that I didn’t need to sweat much with this class. Just a bunch of people wanting the credits more than they want to learn. 

The college is the real culprit here. Since it doesn’t know what to do with the extra unassigned credits, it created this class to check its bureaucratic boxes. 

So when I had my first few classes, 90% of the students were playing with their phones. Not only was I pissed, I was frustrated with how to teach those who don’t want to be taught? I asked the same teacher, who told me to ignore it, “Just do your job and get on with life. You can’t change them.”

So I accepted the status quo.

Then a conversation with my psychologist friend Barbara made me realize just how untrue that notion was. “Teach them respect by showing them how they should treat you. And vice versa.”

After I slept on it, I decided to ignore my ego and go with my guts. We’re already here, why don’t we make it better, and bring some changes? 

It’s an elective class, but I expect no less from you. That’s my message. 

Not the toxic passive aggressive “You don’t give a fuck about me, so I don’t give a fuck about you.” BS which we deign to do as socialized animals who dress nicely, speak properly, and tread lightly so nobody would complain or report you.

But guess what, my job as a teacher is not to make people happy, but to make them see, make them feel, make them grow, even it means discomfort or pain. 

I hope I could say “You’d thank me later,” but I know I won’t be able to know it. But that’s fine—as long as I have a clear conscience to bring back home.

Yours truly,
YZ