Back to the basics

Since the instructor asked us not to blog or tweet about his lectures, I will not out of respect for the man.

But a word on our assignments – recollection on our memories. They are more difficult than I orginally imagined. We use words to achieve a lot of things. But the thing that we forget most is to make people feel.

I always try to lay the bricks first, and then I get lost in the layers and block my own feelings. It’s hard to pepper all my emotions out onto the paper. But isn’t that the point for the writers?

Yours truly,
YZ

Back to school

After the final talk with the department head, I walked out with my head still spinning.

“So… did I get the job?” I turned to the program manager sheepishly.

“YES. YES! Do you know how relieved I am? The lack of an ideal candidate (who knows the Hollywood structure and is also fluent with the Chinese culture) had been the bane of my existence of the better part of this year.”

We haven’t yet signed the agreement, but I think it’s now safe to say that I landed the gig. The whole process is exactly like how I teach my students’ about the hero’s journey

A victory is fraud unless it’s earned. 

I earned it this time, for real. A LONG SIGH. 

In the drizzle, I lugged my suitcase and headed for the dorm they arranged for me. There I found my new roommate. The girl didn’t know there’d be someone else coming for the summer. After a moment of awkwardness, we started chatting, coordinating and cleaning. What would be a better way to start to know each other by getting manicure together. After a quick dinner, she headed back to the dorm and I headed down to the gym. My duvet is still en route to the campus. I woke up a couple of times while I was asleep, having to wrap myself in warmer clothes to battle against the night chill. 

My mushy thoughts wandered back to the time when I arrived at my college dorm with my family, meeting my three other roommates who secretly thought I was adopted because I spoke mandarin back to my family’s Shanghai dialect. And the time I arrived in Liverpool as an exchange student, shivering on my first night, sleeping on the carpet floor because the bed went missing. 

After only snoozing the alarm for once, I forced myself up. I don’t want to piss of my still asleep roommate at 5:45. Eating my breakfast in the lounge, a voice whispered in my ears: “Grow where you’re planted.”  So I am. 

Yours truly,
YZ

No worries

It’s a catchy phrase I learned years ago when I was an exchange student in the U.K. But I never really thought about what it meant literally until probably now. 

Truth is, according to my own Big Five Traits, I’m relatively high in neuroticism, which means I’m more prone to have mood swings. Even though I look like I move fast, I also worry a lot. 

There is a study on the older people at the end of their lives, what they wish they could have done differently. Almost all said that they wish they could worry less and do more. (Nike didn’t choose its Just Do It slogan for nothing.) After all, most of our worries never really came true.

I’ve been worrying if I’d land my new teaching gig. The audition lecture went well, I was told. But there were more to do before the final evaluation: a syllabus proposal and a meeting with the big boss. It feels like none of the things I do now I can get a hall pass and get fucking paid already.

“Do your best and let it go.” 
“No worries, mate.” 

A voice whispered in my ears. But I still worry. At least, I’m aware that I am.

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

What’s your endgame

In a brilliant episode of Barry, the equally fun and dark HBO show, Detective Moss asked Barry, “So what’s your endgame?” Barry, hitman-by-night-and-wannabe-actor-by-day replied, “Well, I guess I want to be a stage actor. Do plays and stuff.”

So what’s your endgame?

My ego repeated the question.

I would like to be an unstarved artist.

My self answered.

At my stage in the game, the next question becomes this:

Which bit comes first?
The artist bit? Or the unstarving bit?

I know there’re folks keeping the day job so that they can create art at night. I have tried that before and I know I can’t do that again.

So here I am, a starving artist. Saying it out loud hung my ego, my vanity, my pride dry.

Here is the truth: knowing my endgame makes the choice, the truth easier to spill, makes the other voices far less effective. And it certainly makes me more productive.

And here is the inconvenient truth: When we choose the artist route, there are certain standards we have to bend. In most cases, it means to lower the income bar to make way for the artistic bar.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

PS. If you haven’t seen A Thousand Clown (1965), it’s worth checking. It’s about an uncompromising artist’s way taking on the world.

Communication

I was going to have three calls today. One with the feature project director. The other two with the short film directors. 

The first one went extremely well. I was elated how this pro from the Big League liked my voice and nuances in the script. 

The second director was caught up in production. So we rescheduled till tomorrow. 

The third, boy oh boy, the third one got my head spinning like crazy. The director bumped into every possible pet peeves I had, the ones I didn’t know I had or the ones I thought had departed me…

Maybe I was being greedy. Because I didn’t need this extra short for my credit list when I was slaving away three short films, one feature while trying to build up the structure for my first Chinese animation feature plus a few other things.

Through the communication with the third director today, I learned a few things about communication and miscommunication.

Phone manners: Never answered the phone while you are in the loo when you tell the other side that you are ready while actually you’re not. Lock yourself inside the room when you know your call would meow and distract your conversation. The director blatantly did both. I rolled my eyes so openly. Thank the Lord it was not FaceTime.

Everyone needs to be acknowledged. This person never once said: “Thank you so much to turn it around within the 12 hour window.” Maybe she’s just another spoiled rich brat from China that need some spanking. I heard myself thinking.

Especially for screenplay projects, written words should be everyone’s best friend. I found myself trying to convince the director my vision from our previous conversation. It became her words against mine. When she said, “oh, my characters won’t do that. You can find it in the file I sent earlier.” “No, you didn’t.” I called her out loud. “Oh, now the male character has changed so much blah blah blah and the female character…” That part of our convo was a mistake, if not a disaster like Trump v. Pelosi & Schumer. I should ask her to send me more background stuff in bullet points before I started. Maybe she is young; maybe she’s inherited the worst part of the director title before earning it.

As a rule, I try to speak Chinese unless I can’t come up with the English word. I know how pretentious it could sound to the others in certain scenarios. We are both Chinese. So what the fuck? The director’s cringe-worthy English pronunciation got on my nerves if you want to know the truth. I’m not a pronunciation Nazi, but having so little awareness of how poor her English is by contaminating her mother tongue is what gets me. I found myself speaking English unnecessarily frequent with her as a way to beg her to stop.

And earlier I should sense the red flags. Like when I told her my price. She tried to bargain for a few rounds when I already told her that was what I charged for her three other classmates. Or, the part where she tried to give me RMB instead of USD and calling it thoughtful because I’m in China. I would have appreciated her street-smart in a whole different setting. Right then, I was not impressed to say the least.

When I asked her at the end of our call to send me her notes in bullet points, she never did. I recalled earlier when she came to me that she was worried about not being able to make it in time to the hands of her producer. Now she’s stalling?  Or maybe, we are just not the right fit. It happens. 

When my mentor asked me to not to internalize other people’s urgency but to go with my pace, I said I don’t have many choices right now because I want to get back to LA before I get bogged down by the Shanghai way of thinking (translation: What’s in it for me? How much can I milk out of it?)

I know better now after the bumpy voice call with the wannabe director. I took the rest of the day off; took a stroll with dad in the park; caught up the latest Colbert I’ve missed for the last few days; lit my scented candle and took a warm bath. I felt calmer. 

On the flip side though, I can’t help but think about those general meetings which I never heard back from. Is it because I was having too huge an ego for my petite stature? 

Hell, I can’t please everyone. All I can do is to listen better; make sure who does what by when in writing especially when I spar with another person whose personality doesn’t fit mine, which I’m sure may happen quite often.

And yes, I will need to breathe more and chill out. 

 

Yours truly,
YZ