I got a credit card bill notice stating that a large sum of money was spent in a Shanghai hospital. It had to be my parents, I concluded. Only they have access to that card.
But the hospital?
It was 8 o’clock in the morning in Shanghai. What could go wrong? What was going on? And most important, who was in the hospital?
My heart was pounding. My thoughts were racing. My body was quivering. I began praying, please, please, please…
I tried to call their cells. No one picked up. I called one of my aunties. No answer. I then texted a friend in Shanghai giving her both of my parents’ numbers.
“Could you check on them for me? Please?”
I waited. No reply. I then tried calling another auntie, my Mum’s eldest sister. She picked up. Thank God. And thank Chairman Mao for not implementing the One-Child Policy.
— Talk to me!
*I demanded. My voice was shaking.
— Oh, it must be your dad.
— My dad?!
*Last year in January when I was still in Shanghai, it was Mum who was hospitalized.
— What happened?
— Just a minor surgery.
— A surgery?! What kind of surgery? Be specific!
— Oh, he’s been having this condition for well over two years now.
— Two years? Why don’t I even know?!
My tears poured out. I felt I had failed as a daughter.
I want to be filial. But me in Los Angeles, and them back in Shanghai, how filial can I be when all I do is to call them once a week at random and strange hours?
My savings are now dried up and I haven’t been employed since last August. I now practically live on my parents’ meagre savings while they haven’t seen much of the world yet. And they are pushing into their sixties. The clock is ticking.
I want it so bad to give them back, give them the best. To thank them for their nurturing, for their teaching, for their selflessness, for their understanding, for their encouragement and for their support. I want to become rich and famous — Not because I want them for myself. But I can stop worrying about money, stop missing my parents in the darkness of the night. So they can start to enjoy their life and worry less about me and my expat life in the U.S.
This has become part of the source of my drive — To give them a better life. I don’t really care what people think about me, how I dress. But I care how people view my work. Because that’s what defines me now, that’s what will bring something tangible and meaningful to me.
But what about love?
Love is only so transient. Another cousin of mine is getting married this June. I am going to miss her wedding. She is one year older than I am. I am 28, and I haven’t yet had a boyfriend till today. Pretty pathetic, right? I feel that no matter how sincere, friendly, gorgeous, put-together, versatile I am, no one is ever going to get serious about getting into a relationship with me. I’ve met four guys since I arrived. None were serious players. I think next time, I might just cut to the chase and ask, “Are you serious, or are you just fucking around? Because if you belong to the latter, please just fuck off.” I just can’t afford to waste another ounce of my energy on chicken shit like this.
My parents won’t say it, but I know what they are thinking. They want me to find someone who deserves me. They want me to start a family so my significant other can take some burdens off my shoulder. And unlike my rebellious younger self, I want to be their trophy daughter. I want to exceed my parents’ wildest expectations of me — even though all they ever want for me is myhappiness.
All I want for them is their happiness, and to join with me here in the U.S.
If God’s design for me is to live alone, work alone, and die alone. So be it. I will then gear all the energy to work till the last breath I take. I will work my damnedest so I can show my parents the world they’ve missed out while supporting my life here. That’s the least I can do.
— A wish from a child who’s far, far away from home.
“Like a virgin” should be Brooklyn’s real title, or logline.
I am an expat myself, a single young Chinese woman living on her own in the US of A. So yes, I am more than curious about this immigrant story.
Is it NOT an immigrant struggle story?
In general, the movie title carries the most weight. And this one is called — Brooklyn. So, duh.
To begin with, we never knew why she left Ireland. “There is nothing left for me here.” Our heroine Eilis stated sadly but with a tinge of determination. I am not familiar with the Irish history back in the 1950s. But darling, would you mind giving us some more background information rather than her working in a banal grocery shop under a demanding spinster owner?
16 minutes into the story (please bear with a screenwriting student’s kink to time the structure and the pacing), our Eilis finally, finally landed America without getting evicted on the Ellis Island.
I then thought —
Okay, now it’s going to be how much she struggled to adjust into her life in America in the 1950s, right?
But uh-huh. Lo and behold, I waited and waited.
Was there ever an exterior struggle?
Eilis’s mother had her old-time golfing club friend Father Flood in Brooklyn arranged everything for Eilis.
Father Flood became Eilis’s sponsor, so Eilis didn’t need to worry about her visa, her accommodation. *What’s better than having someone look after you without having to doubt the man want something more? He’s a priest, he preaches. Eilis is safe. No sugar daddy problem, ever.
Eilis’s bunkmate on the ship, Georgina taught her how to dress like a tart to pass the immigration screening.
Eilis landed a decent job of her caliber at Bartocci’s, Brooklyn’s fancy department store skipping all sorts of screening and interview. *A Chinese would say, that’s some strong Guanxi there.
Eilis with her distinct Irish accent, made no friends at the fancy department store. The tease by the restaurant service guy was too subtle to get into the skin. Or it was me too thick-skinned?
The poor American co-worker at Bartocci’s made such an effort throwing herself with Eilis by striking a one-way conversation — “What did you see, Dorothy? I saw ‘The Quiet Man’, Eilis. They filmed it in Ireland. Oh, I’m from Ireland. I know you are. That’s why I thought you might be interested.” And then, “Thank you” was all Eilis could muster. My jaw almost dropped. Well, if your mother tongue is not English like me, I would not mind you just utter a simple harmless “Thank you.” But dude, you do speak English even though with an accent. How could you survive when you don’t even make an effort making new friends at work when the person seemed nice and approachable?
Father Flood paid for her first term tuition at the Brooklyn College to study accounting so she could climb up the career ladder, being the ambitious expat career woman in the 1950s. Father Flood, what an Angel you are.
Then enters sweet Tony, the jolly good Italian plumber boy at the Irish Ball who digs Irish girl. He fell for Eilis, even though she didn’t even talk normal. When Tony asked to walk her home, Eilis replied, “I’m going to say yes, then I’m going to tell you why.” Maybe she was too uptight a girl being brought up in a uptight family in remote Ireland? It didn’t matter. They fell in love. They never bickered. Tony’s family loved Eilis.
How convenient! La vie est belle!
I then thought to myself, so Brooklyn has to be a feel-good movie about a boy and a girl fell in love and lived happily ever after?
Then Eilis’s sister died in Ireland, the reason of which puzzles me still. Eilis had to go back. Tony, being the sweet and thoughtful down-to-earth boyfriend he had always been, asked Eilis to marry him after Eilis clunky encouragement, “If you ask me again today, I might say I love you too.”
What kind of human being talks like that?
Anyway, they did get married at the City Hall.
But, let’s not skip the chapter that Eilis invited Tony for a sleepover at her place the night before they married.
Eilis, being the rational girl the whole time, what about your promise to Mrs. Kehoe and her trust in you being the good girl?
The two of them on the single bed, it squeaked. I cringed.
Then Eilis took us back to Ireland. Enters the dashing well-to-do rugby player who conveniently fell for her and her newfound confidence and style. They went to the beach. Eilis put on exactly the same bathing suit when Tony, now her husband, invited her to Coney Island. If she was self-conscious then, now she was sophisticated.
You go back home for your sister’s death and to console your heartbroken mother. But you didn’t forget to pack your green flirty swimwear?
I smell trouble, Plumber Boy.
Being the girl with an American accountant certification, she landed a part-time job at Davis’s — her late sister Rose’s job.
At that point, I finally realized she was to play with two guys’ hearts. She wrote back to Tony only once and became touchy-feely with this nice Irish fella.
The second time she was home, she was rude and arrogant. She was pretentious even. It made her agony over leaving her hometown later at the knowledge of her sister Rose’s death hypocritic and very much underdeveloped.
Then came the just-in-time warning of the vicious shop owner. Feeling insulted, Eilis made up her mind and bought a ticket back to America before her reputation in Ireland was ruined, because “people talk.”
Eilis mustered her Irish courage —
I’d forgotten what this town is like. What were you planning to do, Miss Kelly? Keep me away from Jim? Stop me from going back to America? Perhaps you didn’t even know. Perhaps it was enough for you to know that you could ruin me.
My name is Eilis Fiorello.
Oh, now you are suddenly a Mrs. Fiorello. How convenient.
Miss Kelly, the Irish shop owner, is the only villain-ish character in the movie. Who did what? She merely tries to warm the young girl against the danger of bigamy, and to remind her that she was married already back in America. I thought that was quite admirable of Miss Kelly.
I feel truly sad for the Irish block. All he got was an explanatory letter that the audience didn’t even know what Eilis actually said. But of course, we need not to know. Years of self-explanatory cliche movie montages are enough to fill in the blank.
I feel so much sadder for her Italian husband, Tony. When Eilis leaned against the Bronx brick wall waiting for him after work in her floral Sunday dress with a shade of dusk on her gorgeous and now sophisticated Irish complexion, who could resist? Not this lovesick Irish-loving pasta-eating sweet plumber.
Well, you don’t have a clue about your Irish wife, do you?
Even if you do, whatcha gonna do ‘bout it?
Some side notes:
On Dolores: I just feel sorry for the nerdy girl Eilis boarded with. During her first meeting with Tony, our adorable innocent Eilis told him that she thought Dolores was “awful. If I leave with you, I’m sure she’d understand. You’d be rescuing me.” I actually am quite fond of Dolores’s brutal honesty. Nobody danced with her. She was beyond bored. She didn’t even try to sabotage others’ dates. Being in the same ballroom with her, I thought Eilis was going to help her to find a dancing partner. But no, she teased her with the Italiano, and begged him to walk her home so she didn’t have to be with the poor nerdy gal.
Shame on you, Eilis.
The icy supervisor at Bartocci’s, Miss Fortini, suddenly grew fond of Eilis. It seemed laughable and unconvincing. Her quote below —
Eilis! You’re like a different person! Where did that miserable little mouse go?
How did you do it? Maybe I can pass some advice on to the next poor girl who feels that way.
I’m not passing that on. I’d rather have them homesick than heartbroken. Does he talk about baseball all the time? Or his mother? Then keep him. There isn’t another Italian man like him in New York.
All those dialogues, seem way too on the nose. I respect her the way she was, before she was nice. She didn’t need to be nice or likable. Being strict as supervisor at a high-end mall was her job. Why else would I hire her were I the store manager?
It’s hard to get a movie made, but such a beige movie made me moan the loss of the two hours of my life which I’d rather jerk off.
As I finish typing this review, I realized Nick Hornby was the screenwriter, the guy who adapted Lynn Barber’s AnEducation, which I adored.
Sorry dude, no love from me this time. But wait, I really am not sorry, apart from the fact that I saw the film.
It came from my writing instructor’s voice critique on my screenplay. All-positive notes.
Listening to her showering praise on me was surreal. To me, that moment was like winning an Oscar for Best Screenplay.
My Winter Quarter began as a thriller-drama. I pitched four teachers and was on none of their roosters.
Before anybody gave me an explanation and a solution, my thoughts took me to the darkest alley I’d ever known. You know, that you don’t belong, that you’re a foreigner… kind of self-debasing crap.
Then the nurturing instructor let me in. Sitting for the first time alongside the second and third-year screenwriters in the writing workshops, I bled the most. Sometimes six of my ten or twelve pages were tossed out of the window, or sank without a trace. I worried, not just as small as whether my humor came through on the page writing a comedy about Chinese girls in Liverpool. I worried if I had what I took. As if she saw me through, she always said after another brutal session —
Be patient with yourself.
So I tried.
She got back on Sunday with the voice critique I mentioned at the beginning of this note— it was the most marvelous note I ever received. “YZ, I have zero note for you to change. This is a strong first draft. And you know I will say it if I spot a problem… You have a strong voice as a writer. It is what the industry is looking for, not the mechanics.” As a China-born screenwriter at the English writing session with the native speakers, I felt relieved.
“I see your joy as a writer.”
There she said it. It got me hard. I bawled and quivered at my writer’s desk. Outside, the Californian sun fluttered through the curtained window. I thought it would have been more fitting if I were in England — like my characters. The English drizzle would serve best as I sobbed. But another thought, the sun is better for compare and contrast.
Knowing when to let go is my latest learning as I finished the first feature-length script at the film school. Tweaking here and there, losing sleep and gaining weight, had been the theme of my life for the past two weeks as I wrote and rewrote. But at some point, I had to let it go, and let it be. I had to let other people see my Frankenstein. I had to bear the critiques which may sound harsh, professionally and personally. The two-quarters writing workshops have significantly thickened and toughened my skins. I learn to take the punches with enough seriousness and with a grain of salt.
Giving notes can be surprisingly rewarding.
Knowing that my notes were helpful always gives me immense pleasure. We are competitors for the department showcase. But I am here for the long haul to partner with writers and join the writing community. Because everyone’s story is unique, and it certainly is not a zero-sum game for writers as it is for salesmen, writers should celebrate each other’s work and success. When my cohort said my notes were one of a kind that made him think in a way nobody pointed out before, I was proud. That comment came from my more experienced former English teacher All-American cohort. How cool is that?
Which draft is going to be “The Final Draft”?
My answer is, the draft before the deadline, not that I’ve been procrastinating. On the contrary, I’ve been procrastinating so much less. I did script exchange with three fellow cohorts — giving notes to each other’s script as we arrive at the crop season. With their notes, I made changes till the last second.
As I hit sent and slept on it, I received and read the new round of critiques based on this “Final Draft”. It was from one of the three cohorts. He’s very adamant about structure and pacing, especially when mine is a comedy. His notes gave me a lot more to think about rather than just getting content with and stop becoming better. I much appreciate people who can push me to become better. This particular cohort is one of them. Right away, I sent my feature writing instructor about the issues. I won’t stop tweaking it till I find a good solution for my story.
As I sent my baby away and await feedback, I want to shout at the top of my lungs that I love my script. I love the world I created. I love my characters. I even envy them having the friendships I crave.
Last Monday, I bumped into my original N0.1 choice writing instructor. He said I was on the very top of his list, but he assumed somebody else removed me from his list. He wasn’t happy about it. He even suggested that I only pitched him next winter — the only time he taught in LA. Now I think I can have a good laugh about “my darkest episode” at the film school with a light heart.
After these first two brutal quarters, I feel so much less anxious, and so much more at ease. Sure I will keep struggling with my stories, but the past failures and struggles lent me a new light seeing things — sort of like I have an older self time-travels to me and pat me on the back during my struggles and said, “Trust me, it will be just fine.” It could be a darn cliche line in any other context. But now — I simply know better.
Because I am better. And I will become even better. I won’t stop trying. I just won’t.
We proceed without fear of failure or hope of success.
I have classmates who take two writing classes (Feature — 100 pages; Spec — 30–60 pages), directing and producing and TA for four days a week. When I expressed my admiration, the girl, who’s a second-year student, said that she felt like she’s been here for 20 years. And yes, she would graduate this Spring.
As an afterthought, she said —
Well, good that you finished your script. I haven’t finished mine yet.
I would love to be a multi-tasker, but would I want it at the cost of not finishing my scripts? No. This is what I am here for — to start with.
I made it very clear to myself that these first two quarters (if not the first year) are going to be about writing. Some of my classmates already have a leg up due to their previous involvement in the film business or writing scripts or novels. I don’t.
If I compared myself to them, I would never be happy — being a happy writing writer is almost a mission impossible.
Look, that person’s work is already out there. See, that person just landed a big gig.
For me, I have to stay low and just focus on my craft — for now. Because I don’t want to go to those networking events telling everybody I write screenplays, but when they ask what I “have written,” I can only give them my perfect first act, which is what, 30 pages. No. I want to have some works ready before I approach people. Or I can’t even fake the confidence which has no ground.
When it comes to writing, it’s never going to “Fake it till you make it,” but this —
Yesterday, I got my 90+ page feature script submitted.
It was my first attempt to submit a full length script within 10 weeks at the program. (*Last quarter it was a 30-page First Act.)
I began to get the knack of the neck-breaking pace of the program. And to my surprise, I enjoyed it — looking back now. I can shout at the top of my lungs —
“I did it. My script may be shit, but I survived.”
What did we cover in the 10-week writing workshop?
The first week was the pitch week. We shopped for instructors in hope of getting picked by one.
The second week we came up with a treatment. (A treatment is a 2-page double-spaced story flow.)
The third was the beat sheet (aka. Step Outline)that covers the three acts.
From the fourth week and on, we attended workshops that critique 6–10 pages of 10 screenwriters.
I feel so much more confident after this whole nerve-wrecking quarter. I like “The show must go on” mentality. It is never finished, it can always improve.
Right after the submission, I began the “script exchange” with two of my screenwriting cohorts — Two guys. I have a better rapport with the guys in the program. In the artistic arena, I need reason to balance feeling. A nice girl in the program cried the other day, saying she was afraid of the future. I don’t know what just happened to her. And I don’t want to judge. But from her explanation, she was overwhelmed. I joked that I am the foreigner (native-born Chinese) writing in my second language. I am the definition of “Underdog.” How much worse can that be? I hoped that cheered her up.
I also realized why I prefer hanging out with the lads more. They are more focused on the work itself. They are more thick-skinned.
Writing needs that mentality. Focus on how to get better rather than how am I ever gonna be as good.
In a way, I now feel better about being a foreigner — not as an excuse, but leaving no room for excuses. I can do nothing but hone my craft. There is no “but.” I already start late and practise less than the native students. And I don’t intend to compare. It will damage my morale. But this is what I am invested in — Practise more, it will be show in the result. Whether I will win some awards? It’s not my current-stage concern.
At the beginning of this quarter, I thought I might be overwhelmed by the size of the task. So I took three classes instead of four. I could have done more.
For the Spring Quarter, I might take 2–3 writing classes (feature-90+pages, comedy spec-30 pages, sketch comedy), and then another class. Or just three writing classes.
Does it ever occur to you that you are hmm, insensitive?
I mean, you gave me detailed information about whether the message is delivered, whether the person who got my message click and read it. Creepiest of all creeps, if me and the textee happen to be online at the same time with the expertise of your Master Sir iPhone, OBE, I can see the Ellipsis “…” when the person on the other end is typing.
Too much information. Way too much.
The only status I need —
Delivery failed. Try again. Por Favor.
Don’t you think it’s violating me and the textee’s privacies? Sure, I am thankful that you take my well-being into consideration regarding how many people with zilch texting etiquette never respond my texts even though the status says — “Read.”, “PS. More Than A Week Ago.”
But you know what, in the texting world, I’d rather have a grain of salt than you spying and reporting on the me and textee’s whereabouts and our kinks on texting.
You disgust me.
I miss the good old days when I can just sit back and relax. If there is a letter at the doorstep, cheerios. If not, I carry on with my life without worrying about my Signal, WIFI or China’s Internet Firewall to intercept my carefully crafted message.
I know you are doing fine. Your Insta, Twitter and Facebook have billions of followers. But if you ever want a change, an overhaul. You might want to check WeChat.
Yes, ye hear me — WeChat, your Chinese pal. She is the most thoughtful person I’ve known, at least on the outside. (*Leave me alone on the Watergate stuff.)
Yes, she went to the dark side once — like you. But you know what she did? She listens. Now you won’t see those Gossip-Girl statuses on the textees. Ever.
Truth is, most of the time, I have a complicated relationship with me phone already. I don’t what to see me phone when I write. When I spot him somewhere, I feel like he’s trying to lure me, that bastard. Then after a tug of war, I give in. I turn off the Flight Mode (Yes, I tell my friends that most of the time I am up in the air like George Clooney), his sidekick, yes, you iMessage (this letter’s addressee), shove all those messages in my face. My clumsy thumbsy clicks on those texts make them all “Read.” Shit. Now, I would be a jerk if I don’t reply.
[A hour later…]
Finally replied all those iMessages. I now can restore my clear conscience. No, of course it didn’t take that long. I am not that popular as Mister Trump. I just decided to hang around with me phone for a while. What? An hour has passed? Shit.
Dear iMessage, you see? That’s an hour of my life that you and I can’t get back — just because you thoughtless ego-maniac master Sir iPhone, OBE puts that status as your feature highlight.
Yes, I know I can switch it off in the Settings — not to imply that I am a geek of some sort. But why don’t you just tell your Sir OBE to make “No Status” as Default?
Shame on you. And I rest my case.
The Simplicity quote above is from Leonardo da Vinci. But Steve loved it and made it his mission making Apple products. Don’t ever forget that, Buster.
A sage professor asks us to face the worse-case scenario as film students — What if you didn’t “make it”? What would you do then?
It is impossible to live without failing at something unless you’ve lived so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all.
It is one of my favorite quotes, from J.K. Rowling.
True, I ended up quitting making films and leaving the film industry altogether.
Everyone in the program set his mind trying to “make it” at the very beginning. It became quite black and white that if you didn’t, you lost the only reason you were here. But in truth, “it’s not the end of the world,” a sage told us at a class. Understanding that is a huge revelation.
Would I choose not to study film if I knew I was not going to “make it” as a filmmaker? I still would. My chapter at UCLA taught me things which I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.
I thought I was brave ‘enough’ landing in LA knowing nobody. Not nearly. You should see my face when our writings got read at the first group gathering. I felt stark naked. I could not breathe. I must be dying. I didn’t. My writing even got a few laughs. For the next three years, I had attended hundreds of writing workshops. I remember my humiliation seeing everybody else got minor notes while mine was major. The instructor killed more than half of my ten pages. It was hard not to compare yourself with the others. But then I substituted “Why on earth?” to “Why?” Now I could then hear my real problems. Over time, I got better.
I learned that the worst pain is not seeing your best work get rejected, but having your work rejected and knowing you could have scored better. But you were too much a coward to submit your best art. In your wonderland, you know you had room for improvement. You say to yourself, “Wait till I give my 100%.” But then I asked the what-if — What if I did give my best shot? Would I have a better shot? I knew what I had to do — Do my damnedest. The feedback I then received was a more precise understanding of my “status quo.” That in turn propelled me to become better. With that mindset, I grew muscles.
So you must accept your imperfect self to make better art every day. I admit my work sucks, but I am going to do my best to improve. A screenwriting instructor once told me after a brutal session, “Be patient with yourself.” Overnight success stories that media loves make us forget the real trajectory of learning new things. It takes time.
One of the definitions of the word “Courage*” is —
The ability to do something that frightens one.
I go where my fear is. Writing English screenplays at UCLA as the only Chinese is on my “Top Five Scariest Things I’ve done” list. Even if you do fail by society’s definition of failure, they can’t take away your experiences nor the things you’ve learned.
Dumbledore once said to Harry —
It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.
Would you beat yourself up if you dream doesn’t come true? Would you add another chip on your shoulder? Or would you keep living to find something else to do with your life?
Chasing dreams is courageous. To admit the dream you hold dearly to isn’t the one for you takes more courage. Do you cut off from friends and family and live in denial? Or admit it’s time to move on? Granted, this is not a hero line in a movie. But in real life, it is for me.
So, you did lose. I see where you are heading. You see, life is not a zero-sum game. We set our minds to follow our original plan. It’s marvelous if success follows suit. It’s also important to know it’s okay if it doesn’t. You’ve got to be a big enough person to see through your own reality distortion field. Accept that with grace and live on. I did.
Even though I was no longer in the film industry, I became a much stronger storyteller. I felt so much more connected with my words and thoughts. I knew I had many ideas. And I could execute them on the page. Before film school, it was a mere fantasy. Now all these became my new skills. It helped as I consulted brands on storytelling. Or writing columns for bilingual magazines. A publisher in China learned about my experiences at UCLA and signed me a book contract. My book sold well. Reading notes from the young film students made me the happiest of men. It triggered more writing projects. I am still a writer after all. Now, does it sound intriguing to see your own life stories influencing other human beings and not the fiction version?
I once read a book called “Dying to Be Me.” It is about the author Anita Moorjani’s surreal healing journey through the Near Death Experience. When she was “up there,” she described the indescribable landscape — her tapestry of life interweaving with each other making it the most radiant color she had ever seen. Most of us are social beings at the mercy of others’ opinions. But how do you define a fulfilled and happy life? Money? Fame? Car? House? Or this — having a fulfilled lifelong relationship, seeing your work produce meaningful changes in other people’s life? It all depends on your definition towards a good life. Earthly things don’t carry on beyond this realm of life. What we hold dear to is not that precious after all.
I began this note with a quote from J.K. Rowling. I will end with another —
I would like to be remembered as someone who did the best she could with the talent she had.
And I will add this — On her own terms, in her own way.
Fan: Which Hogwarts house would you be in? J.K. Rowling: Gryffindor, I hope. I value courage beyond almost anything.