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

Price v. Worth

Until you’re red hot in demand, there is always a gap between what you’re worth and what you get paid. You’ll have to remind them to reimburse your next six bucks and convince yourself that it does nothing to your dignity and it doesn’t mean they don’t respect your service, and you. 

The lecture I gave yesterday was a blast.

But something bothered me.

When a ‘friend’ approached me asking if I knew any UCLA professor who could do a lecture on storytelling for some Chinese students (aged 14 to 16).  I volunteered, “What about me? I’ve TA-ed screenwriting at UCLA, giving a 10-week lecture series for the undergrads. I work at a Hollywood producer’s production company. Just a while ago, some Shanghai newspaper interviewed me about my Hollywood journey.”

Oftentimes I listed those things to make up for my lack of real writing credits. She agreed and added that they would pay for my service.

So I started working on the keynote deck. I mentioned in passing to my Chinese writer friend about this gig. She said, “Have you talked about how much exactly they would pay you?” I shrugged. “Then you need to ask her now. Better get it cleared now than later.”

My friend was right.
I was afraid to lose the gig if I seemed too ‘greedy.’

There the haggling began. It was unpleasant. She gave me a bunch of reasons just so she could avoid bringing it up to her boss.

In the end, she replied:

“$$$ is the max we can offer. Otherwise, we will have to ask the colleague of ours who graduated from Harvard to do it instead.”

I was pissed. If you just want to pay chicken shit, why bother asking in the first place? Because your staff, Harvard or not, can do it for free.

The word ‘Harvard’ got on my nerves, too.
As if you spend four years in Harvard, you come out invincible and incredible.
As if you get a free pass for life.
As if you understand any subject and can solve every problem on the face of the Earth.

What troubled me most was the woman held a Ph.D in Education. That’s what they taught you at USC? That’s what education means to you? Harvard or nothing?

Then and there, I decided to deliver a kick-ass keynote to show them why I was worth $$$$ for the two-hour lecture.

I think I made my point yesterday when the big boss approached me, giving me his card, asking, “You’re really good at giving lectures. How long have you been doing this? Let’s grab dinner soon!” He then gave me the envelop that contained my fee.

$$$. No more, no less.

I left and went on about my own business. The woman didn’t contact me for our unfinished business. By 5pm, I texted her regarding my Lyft ride in the morning—stuff we’d confirmed during the haggling phase. Tucking away my ego, I sent her the screenshot of the receipt. She PayPaled me back $6.17. The lecture boosted my self-worth. But this act chipped some bits away. I felt like a beggar. But every cent counts for my current situation—unemployed foreign student. And she knew it.

Maybe that’s the experience being a freelancer. Until you’re red hot in demand, there is always a gap between what you’re worth and what you get paid. You’ll have to remind them to reimburse your next six bucks and convince yourself that it does nothing to your dignity and it doesn’t mean they don’t respect your service, and you.

This is what I’ve learned and what I’ve internalized:
I just have to keep at it till I can call my own shots.
And I will outlast ’em all.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

PS. Imagine if I did recommend my screenwriting professor to them. What damage would that do to my relationship with my professor?