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

The job interview

“What do you want?” The HR grilled me. 

I segwayed by asking who else has been interviewing for the job and their portfolios. 

“Just curious. Why did you ask that question?” The Chinese woman switched to her accented English, as if to mock my failed attempt to conceal my purpose of the meeting. 

Truth is, I don’t want or need a full-time job. I can’t do 9-to-5. I’d rather D-I-E…

But why did I take the meeting? Out of curiosity, yes. Out of boredom, yes. Out of self-promotion, hell yes. But most importantly, I want to introduce myself to their creative/development team as a screenwriter. And thus, it made the whole meeting weird.

The HR started to poke holes in my resume:

To be honest, you’ve done a lot of different things, but with scattered focus.

I’d suggest you put in the year you graduated from college and from grad school.

So you are a thirty-something now. I’d suggest you ask yourself what exactly that you want (independent or cooperate, artist or support).

It seems to me that you are on a filmmaker track whereas we’re looking for someone who can focus on the company’s own slate.

And how dedicated would you be if you’re hired?

Would you make personal sacrifice and drop your own projects?

The knot in my stomach tightened when she came back to the “What do you (fucking) want” question over and over again with her Shanghainese passive-aggressiveness. 

FUCK IT. 

“I’m a writer-producer. I want to seek ways to collaborate with your firm if there is an angle there, as writer, or as consultant. I don’t plan to waste your time, but I’m intrigued to learn about your firm for quite a while now.” 

A knowing beat.

“Okay. It does seem to me that you need a lot of control over what you do. We’ll pass your resume to our creative/development team.” 

I thanked her. But whether she’d really pass on my resume, I’d give it a grain of salt, per my own mixed reception in LA. But the animosity in the air seemed to abate a little.

As I recalled this bizarre job interview now, I’m still trying to iron out the knot in my stomach. Honesty is indeed the best policy. To be honest about what you want. And to be honest about your craft. Over and over again, I’ve come to this single conclusion: Be so fucking good so they would be morons to dare to ignore you. 

But of course, I barked at the wrong tree today. It’s an embarrassment when I was forced into the corner to reveal my true purpose. But hey, I also need to thank the HR to force me to face my own demons and desires and come to the other side, undeterred and unscathed. 

One thing I’d say is: Once you go solo, you can’t go back, almost. When the wolf pack smells your independence, you’re excluded from the club. You have to endure suffering and starvation before you can find your own edge, your own turf while the pack boos: Let’s see how truly independent you are. 

“You’re thirty-something, you’d better figure out what you want.”

“You’ve done so many different things, it shows lack of focus.”

“Why didn’t you mark the year you graduated on your resume?”

“Why did you go to grad school a few years after you graduated from college?”

“What’s the gap between this job and the time you graduated?

The HR spoke on behalf of the society, the majority, the people, the firm, the tried-and-true quote-and-unquote wisdom, except for herself, who’s downgraded to a lobotomized social programmed machine. “If you come work for us, you can’t do your own thing. I don’t think you would find time for it.” Probably. But in LA, everybody has side gigs. No, it’s Shanghai. I reminded myself while I sat in this chic space that oozes taste, that was supposed to trigger ideas and creations. 

No, there is no “to be or not to be” in my case. Only that I let my desire of meeting their creative team to muddle my judgement. I couldn’t breathe. She and her belief system tried to choke me. My ego threw me off the bus, undid what I’d tried so hard to gain…

It almost succeeded.

I was judged by a corporate specimen. And she was judged by a wild card, me. I’m the round peg in the square hole. Since the meeting, I realized one thing: there is NO turning back now. I’m an independent thinker. I’m an independent artist. I’m an independent human being. I’m responsible for my own status quo and hence, my future and my fate. And that’s the small price I’m willing to pay to be a free agent of my soul.

The good news are, I landed the coveted teaching gig for the fall semester. They like what they see and the students seem to like me a lot.

Yours truly,
YZ

PS. It was impossible to use VPN for the last couple of days. Glad to be back. Glad to have a voice. Glad to have a life.

The glass

It’s been four five years since I pivoted to screenwriting. At times, words still don’t come easy. Other rarer times, I felt I knew better now.

So I was somewhat resistant when the program manager said in order to land the fall teaching gig, I also had to do the unpaid summer writing workshop with a bunch of newer and Chinese writers. I browsed the syllabus written in English and was completely convinced that I would get nothing out of it. 

Then I sat in for the last writing workshop the institute held for its spring semester students. I couldn’t believe how reminiscent I felt about that environment: eight writers, one instructor, eight scripts to critique, nine minds to mingle. 

Right after the workshop, I texted the program manager: “Sign me up.”

Tomorrow will be my audition lecture before anything else can happen. I’ve obviously over-prepared. But nothing is an overdo if you want it bad.

The other driver for me is my own level of screenwriting. I can be helluva a kickass critic for other people’s work. But when it comes to my own stuff, I grow soft. I know I should do the opposite. But it’s too fucking hard. Just like body trainers have their own trainers. Learning from a legit Hollywood screenwriter this summer would be a great way to update my own software.

These days, I keep coming back to the glass metaphor. Make it empty, so you can add water in it. If you don’t keep refreshing it, the stale water would smell. 

It’s chemistry. It’s life.

Yours truly,
YZ

Crazy monk

In the Dream of Red Chamber, one of the four Chinese classics, a monk passed by Jia Baoyu and told him the fate of him and his friends in a poem. But Jia and his young friends couldn’t care less about the monk. Let alone his words.  They dismissed the monk as crazy. 

When we’re given crucial information before we are ready for it, more often than not, we won’t listen a word of it.  As I write this paper about my film school experience, I began to reread those handouts from my professors. All of a sudden, they make so much sense now with scripts and some level of Hollywood experience. 

But one thing remains true for the whoel time. It’s the attitude of writing every day. Many of my UCLA professors are quote collectors. This one amongst the others is my favorite:

You must write every single day of your life. You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads. May you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.

– Ray Bradbury

Even though I knew I should write every day, I didn’t because I thought my job was more important than my words…

CUT TO a year later.  I had too little credits to consider an artist visa. I then realized that crazy monk was not crazy after all. 

 

Yours truly,
YZ

The power of doing

Today is the second time I teach for six hours plus the four and half hour commute… My dinner was a banana, but I wasn’t at all hungry when I held the bully pulpit. I waited for half an hour in the cold rain for the shuttle bus but I was all warm and fuzzy.

I recognized that feeling. I’m in love. Just like that, I fell into a bliss during and after I taught. Weirdly. Unexpectedly. Surprisingly. Of course, I’m bone tired. Of course, I want to get some time to get my own writing down so I don’t break the chain, according to Jerry Seinfeld.

Given how I paid for my out-of-state tuition and times seven for the currency ratio to the Chinese yuan, I’m practically giving away my UCLA film experience almost for free.

And yet, when my students have a click, an Aha Moment, a laugh, a sniff, those moments make my day. Knowing that I share my knowledge and experience without an agenda, without holding things back, makes me feel better about myself. Teaching is like an elixir that eases off the hard work and the sacrifice it takes to do the job, right. 

If it holds such power, teaching should be valued more right? On paper yes, but it never really is in practice. One either abuses that power or ignores that power. “Students are playing with their cellphone anyway, why the fuck should I care?” As teachers, we repeat it to ourselves. Then, we give permission to ourselves to perform sub par, bit by bit. Before we know it, our students complain about us, behind our backs. “This teacher sucks. She’s a loser. She’s a slob.” 

I bumped into this quote by dancer and choreographer Martha Graham the other day:

It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.  

You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open.

No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.

It gave me goosebumps, because that has evolved to be my mindset when I create art and stuff in general. It has been tattooed into my soul after I’ve grown sick and tired of giving away the power of my OWN narrative. Why do we want to make ourselves feel inferior from those no-response, silence, and rejections anyway?

In Steven Spielberg’s Bridges of Spies, the lawyer guy (played by Tom Hanks) asked the spy (played by Mark Rylance) in jail, “Aren’t you worried?” The spy asks deadpan, “Would it help?

So, I go, “What if we don’t give away that power?”

Remember, we CAN.  We can shrug it off and move the fuck on just so we don’t stop producing work — if we truly value it more than what others think.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

 

Serendipity

I was nursing my Bullet Proof coffee while I waited for my friend at a bistro in the French Concession. I tried to read a book, but a pair behind me was talking louder than I’d like. I couldn’t complain much, because most of the time, bistros in prime areas are in tight quarters.

It was a good book, but I simply couldn’t get in as the conversation became more intrusive. There was something odd about it. One was obviously an American guy. The other was obviously Chinese. But no, it was She. It was not some white dude trying to hit on a Chinese girl or vice versa. It was a Chinese man. Not just some Chinese man, but a man in his 70s.  They talk about deep stuff, from history to ideology. 

“Talk to them.” A voice started in my head.

“No, are you out of your mind?” I rebutted.

“The least they would do, is to ignore you. What’s the big deal?” 

Interesting. I took the bait and turned around… 

The Chinese elderly is actually 79. He started to learn English some four years ago via…

Wait for it… Siri. He set his phone to English and he takes classes here and there. He comes to the French Concession and talks to expats. As you can guess, he is loved and adored by the expats. 

Likewise, they were equally impressed by my ‘intrusion.’  All of us became fast friends within just a few minutes. 

In the cultural context here, you don’t talk to strangers. Strangers are strange and possibly dangerous. You mind your own business and live life accordingly. 

But what if you don’t? What if you try? What’s the loss and what’s the gain?

Truth is, I met two great friends back in LA via serendipity. All it takes is ‘Hello.’

 

Yours truly,
YZ

First day as adjunct

I got up at 4:50 this morning to catch the school bus in DTSH. I got there around 6:15. The shuttle was supposed to drive out by 6:50. I’ve got plenty of time. Wrong. It took me exactly 25 mins to find out exactly where the shuttle should be. One bus after another, I tried to locate the right one by asking the drivers. None of them were what I was looking for. I tried to call the driver, who can’t pick up, of course… By 6:46, I gave up. I panicked. I imagined I got fired even before I got on-site. I couldn’t reach anybody else from the college. It’s too damn early otherwise.  But lo and behold, exactly one minute later, my shuttle arrived…

By the time the school bus arrives at the building I teach. My phone reads 8:10.  I checked with one student and she pointed me the one. I’ve got exactly five minutes to dash up three floors in my medium block heels. And I did it in two. But it was the North Side. My class was on the South Side… Time was lenient on me. I got into the other side. And was still one minute before the class started. But I gotta pee. A class of students already packed the room… 

I began to work my way in… Some helper sent in the adapter for my MacBook. Then the sound didn’t work… I called IT… Then he had to pull out the desks on the first row… Then I realized that I ran out of water but I was too thirsty…  Then I realized that my body started to tremble because I decided to dress for the occasion instead of the weather. I assumed that the AC would be hot enough for my kind of LA winter wear… But no, the AC was not on and the class faces north. The sun doesn’t get a chance to sneak in…  Because of the constant chaos, I didn’t give the class any breaks. By the time the class was over, my hands were stone cold.  As for the evening class, I ran into a similar but lesser technical difficulty. But since I got my shares earlier, I developed a better coping mechanism already. These are hardly complaints, because I can’t remember being upset. I accepted the fact and tried to resolve the issue… (Maybe the meditation is working its magic dissolving my Wrath tendency.)

So what about the classes? What are the college freshmen like nowadays? We are more than a decade apart! That’s wild to think about. 

The first class: meh. The students took the class because they were told to and they have to. And they are from other departments. This is just an elective. A student even texted me that he stayed in another classroom for three hours and just realized that it was the wrong classroom. I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt earlier but I didn’t give him a easy pass earlier. But now come to think of it, the guy’s too much of a smartass in this day and age with smartphones.  And here’s the thing, even though 80% of the class wasn’t listening. They were playing with their phones during the whole time. I still had a good time with those 20%. I focus on them. I don’t waste my time on the 80%. Like a standup comic stepping into a room full of drunkards, I’m there to entertain the few sober patrons and the bartenders. And it’s a great exercise for my ego too. 

The second class: yeah! The students are there to learn because it’s part of their majors (even though China doesn’t have Screenwriting MFA so to speak). I’m getting used to the silent treatment by the Chinese students. But when asked, they engage. And now, my students (wow, how important-sounding it feels…) are starting to speak up. Bit by bit. Step by step. Apart from the screenwriting basics I shared, two things I felt struck a cord with them as I saw they nod almost in unison. a) Don’t do your homework for me. It’s for you. It’s for the benefit of your future. b) Write less. Not more. Chinese teachers are famous to assign homework that begin with “no less than xxx words.” — so that they have no more words to hide behind. 

I could have ended the class earlier but I didn’t. I remember Jiro, the sushi master’s example. So I didn’t cut my own slacks. I’ve prepared this much and I would go the distance. I asked my students not to cut corners. So I would set my own example. 

We finished right on time at 9 PM. The student applauded enthusiastically for my class. I guess I blushed a little. A sense of recognition I didn’t see it coming.  They shared and compared notes in the WeChat group voluntarily.  I confess that I underestimated these young folks enthusiasm for screenwriting. 

I got home way past 11 PM. And I still feel buoyant. I didn’t know that teaching can be therapeutic… 

 

Yours truly,
YZ