Choice

Maybe two months later when I read this blog entry, my future self may have a better idea.

I was born and bred in Shanghai, the most expensive and exciting cosmopolitan city in China. Via my dad’s calculation, its food and beverages are even more expensive that those in LA – although I would defend that Shanghai’s rent is much cheaper than that in LA. 

The Chinese people (other than folks born in Beijing) seem to make Shanghai her goal as “making it.” But I never feel like I belong here. Shanghai is all about money and efficiency. It’s not a place for writers, or artists in general. 

Today, my cab driver told me that he just couldn’t stop but work in Shanghai. He can’t afford to rest because of its high living expense for his family of three. I listened and felt grateful that right now I’m rent-free.

So this evening, I went to downtown Shanghai, at a place where Chinese and expats mingle for a dinner with a friend who runs her own company. This friend came from a family of businessmen and women. It was only natural when she set up her own shop in her early 30s. After several rounds of wine and beer on her part, she tried to reason with me why moving back to the US sounds like an unwise idea. “You’re Chinese. You would never feel like you belong there.” She then gave me a cautionary tale of her friend; she listed her resources that we could exchange to do something big and interesting together; she told me tricks of how to set up my own  studio (aka. gong zuo shi) so I could charge much larger fees when I negotiated with brands and firms, creating an illusion that I ran an army instead of working as a freelancer. 

This was all new to me. The artist side of me resisted and rebelled. But the pragmatic side of me wanted to learn more. After all, who doesn’t want financial freedom and more flexible working hours plus having extra to take care of the parents?

I told my friend that I would like to explore those notions going forward. I promised that I will pop at an event she hosts on Monday so she can start to introduce me to her acquaintances.  I’m not a star sign believer, but I do relate to and adore her Pisces-ness – flexible, creative, and resourceful. 

“God, things we could’ve done.” John Sculley told Steve Jobs when they met again more than a decade later when Jobs was hired back to Apple. Steve replied, “Things we could’ve done.” 

Of course, this moment, this line were all created by Aaron Sorkin who wrote the award-winning script for Danny Boyle to shoot. But to me, it’s also a reminder in moments like this. I don’t want to be another person to confess to my potential ally that why the he’ll we didn’t end up working together when we can?

For the past three years, I closed myself off opportunities that are not film related. I think I need to think different. There must to ways to utilize my talent… on a bigger scale, stage-wise and pay-wise.  

And this morning, a fourth student director came to me to fix her script. I was flattered albeit overwhelmed.  Every day I feel and think more like a screenwriter. But I’m not happy with its power limitation in filmmaking. Or, maybe two months later when I read this blog entry, my future self may have a better idea.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

The big rock

I did tackle the big rock before romancing the other stones.

Overwhelmed by my to-do list this week, I wasn’t at all productive for the last two days. Nor was my sleep. 

I called my friend and mentor and spilled out my concerns.

“I feel like everything is so important that I can’t drop any ball I’m juggling right now.”

“Tell me what you have on your plate.”

“A new short film project. My weekly podcast. The dissertation outline that I’m collaborating with a Chinese screenwriting professor. The beat sheet of the animation project. And notes preparation for the three-hour lecture next Tuesday.”

“Here is a big jar and laying in front of you are the big rocks, the small pebbles and a pile of sand. How do you fill them all in without neglecting any?” 

He knew that I got the answer but kept going for my own benefit, “The big rock is your most important, most urgent task. Right now it is the short film that you need to turn in by end of tomorrow. How about you focus on that for the rest of the day and get it done, so you can have time to finish editing your podcast tomorrow?”

I couldn’t help thinking, “Why does it sound so much less messy when it comes out of my friend’s mouth?”

“You just can’t do everything at the same time.” 

True. ”But what if I am too tired too frazzled that I just watch YouTube?” I tried to hide behind the what-if, which is actually the reality I’m wrestling whenever the pressure gets the better of me.

“Well, then you just have some grow up to do. There are things you don’t like, but you are obligated to do it. Pace yourself and complete the task before those all-nighters compromise your health yet again.”

After the pneumonia-bad cold double whammy, I should know better. 

Several hours after our conversation, I now have a rough first draft of the short film. But I need to take a couple of more revisions first thing tomorrow morning before sending it back to the director. 

But hey, at the end of the day, I did tackle the big rock before romancing the other stones.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

The funding

When the money trickles down to the people at the bottom of the food chain, they get peanuts and jackshit. 

“How did it go?” I asked my soon-to-be writing partner after our new feature project meeting. She also teaches screenwriting at this well-off art school. Over the past week, she has been trying to get funding for her students’ short film projects.

“They gave me a flat-out no.”
“Based on what?”
“a) it’s the end of the year. There is zilch budget left; b) even if they do put in some fund, it has to go through competition so everyone gets a fair shot; c) they might reward the students once their short films won some serious awards.”

And one more thing, in the history of the school, students always fund their own projects. Why do they suddenly need the money now?

I was angry but least surprised. Here is a college that spends money on swans, willows, and moving two ancient buildings from another province to the campus. Now they admit they don’t have any budget?

I believe them. Now, you need to understand how things work here. If there is 100 dollars. The top dog snags 80 dollars as his income, and hands over 20 to his subordinates. The underlings copy their boss. So when the money trickles down to the people at the bottom of the food chain, they get peanuts and jackshit.

Just how driven are these students to get their movies made? I don’t know. Because it now comes down to on how much money their parents would invest/waste and how resourceful the students are.

No wonder when artists here finally get recognized, they thank their family, their loving and understanding parents, their mentors. But they may never mention the schools they graduated from, the system in which they were raised.

Why would we blow your horn when you are here just for yourself?

And to continue the Thanksgiving spirit:

I vow that I would not forget the wonderful people who have helped me along the way.

I vow that I would do so for the younger generations who are talented and dedicated but need the support because the system won’t.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

 

Five Insurances & One Fund

Some are better off with a job. Some are not. Knowing which one you are is the key.

When you negotiate benefit package as you find employment in China, you ask if the benefits include “Five Insurances & one fund,” meaning:

  • The Endowment Insurance;
  • The Maternity Insurance;
  • The Medical Insurance;
  • The Employment Injury Insurance;
  • The Unemployment Insurance;
  • And the Housing fund.

Before I left for the US in 2015, I was well-compensated in my old job at the ad agency. I used my Housing Fund and my Supplementary Provident Fund to elevate my parents burden when we bought the new apartment.

You see, before I was a screenwriter, I functioned on the basis of what kind of benefits I could get down to “I’m not gonna pay for my Uni-ball pens or my 3M scotch tapes and stickers.”

It’s been five weeks since I moved back. I’ve not been looking for another 9-to-6 job that would put me back on the “Five Insurances & one fund” track.

  • I like that my stomach won’t feel tight every Sunday evening.
  • I like that I don’t have to pretend I’m busy when I’ve finished the tasks at hand.
  • I like that I won’t feel guilty when I browse websites that are not work related.
  • I like that I don’t waste time commute, crushed by the rush-hour man- sardines.

Most of all, I love taking an afternoon stroll with dad in the new neighborhood park. I love giving mum fashion and beauty tips. I love the occasional distractions from my cat when he scratches against my door. I love being able to have all three meals with my folks and just hear them bicker and complain about each other.

I love taking control of my time. Knowing that those benefits, insurances, funds, staplers we get “for free” are never free. It’s our time, our experience they are paying.

Some are better off with a job. Some are not. Knowing which one you are is the key.

A decade and six jobs later, I got the answer. True, right now, it seems that I’m sacrificing pay cuts. But in the long run, it would pay off as my own brand grows. But it can never happen if a) I don’t start to nurture it; or b) I stop nurturing it.

And lastly, just how many people around you are doing what they love and get paid to do it?

I’m proud to say that I am.  It’s still at the early stage before the dawn of my hopefully future glory days.  It’s hard right now, just like any new operation, new business.  But it’s worth it. Like a proud new mother seeing her baby wobbling the first steps. You know she would fall, and fail.  You’ve heard about the Terrible Two, the Horrible Teen, But you won’t put her to adoption right here right now because of those obstacles, would you?

Exactly.

Yours truly,
YZ

My 2018’s 20/20

Live one day at a time

I remember dreading whether I could be do screenwriting again when I started working at a high-profile production company. In my sometimes ten-hour workday at the office in Beverly Hills, I was either reading or writing about the stuff I just read. When I ran out of materials, I asked people to send me more stuff to read. 

With the 20/20 I have now, it’s pretty easy to see what drove me then.  Fear.  

Fear of not fitting in.
Fear of getting caught as a fraud.
Fear of losing the job.
Fear of writing.
Fear of sending people my specs.
Fear of having written something that isn’t good. That might never get better.
Fear of getting kicked out of the country and losing everything.

As a result, I didn’t write a word for eight months on end. I was preparing for my small claims lawsuit against a former landlady. I was entertaining my family. My aunt fell sick. There was always a new hedgehog popping its head out for my dirt cheap undivided attention.

I believed my writer’s block was earned. It felt real and got more so by the day, by the hour that I postponed, procrastinated from: merely start. 

By August this year, almost all my worst fears came true. My visa fell through. I was let go. I didn’t have more or better samples to show when I took meetings.  I had to physically uproot and wholesale what I’d built in LA and leave the country within two months.

Tick tock. Tick tock.

It was more than just a hard pill to swallow. It was a cocktail of my bruised ego, my crushed pride, mixed with a triple-shot of wrath soaked in broken promises, trust and hope.

Friends urged me to look at the brighter side of things, greater design of the scheme.

You don’t have to tell the whole truth.  Control your narrative so you won’t be mocked or pitied. Have faith in your ability. 

Easier said than done.

At the time, I couldn’t. I was sulking and moping. I couldn’t seem to hurlde even the first stage of grieving. I was in total denial. 

I think what got me through are basically two things:

  • First, take one step at a time; and live one day at a time.
  • Second, rage and regret steal your energy, not your enemies’.

My psychologist friend Barbara said, “As long as we are human, we have ego.” So yes, if you’re wondering, I still have a chip on my shoulder. I learn to live with it. But I don’t plan to indulge on it further.

I’ll end on this note to whomever it may concern: My future success is the best “Fuck you very much.”

 

Yours truly,
YZ

Do the right thing

Do the right thing so you can do things right.

“Take me to the hospital.” Dad raised his voice from the other room.

My old man cut open his finger while chopping meat two nights ago. He didn’t tell me sooner since I had been out with my LA friend.  “The bleeding stopped after about an hour.”

The scab was peeled off by accident. It start to bleed again. That was the tipping point when he said “I should have gone yesterday…” He added as we got into the cab.

The emergency doctor peeled off the band-aid and tended to his wound, “Because the cut is rather deep. It would get easily infected by just using band-aid. Come over on Saturday to change the wrap.”

“How long would it take to recover?”

“A while.”

I’m glad about my dad’s good call after his bad judgement earlier.

“I sharpened the knife before chopping the meat.” He gave me another crucial piece of information on our way back home.  I winced.

 

I decided to not to work with one of the student directors due to her lack of passion for her foggy story.  I sent her a text message while I was with dad in the hospital. Several hours spent on this potential client for nothing in the end. Time is the sunken cost that I paid. Like my dad’s wounded finger, I have to stop the bleeding before it does me more damage.

It sounds crucial of me. But sometimes, you just have to do the right thing so you can do things right.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

Keep grinding

We’re better off when our plates are full so our minds don’t wander.

I’ve been grinding my teeth a lot lately. I know it because I have trouble moving my jaw without hearing it pop.

Our body usually gives us the red flag before things go awry. I discovered I had TMJ (Temporomandibular joint) pain while I was at UCLA. It wasn’t serious enough to put me into surgery but annoy enough to strip the fun off food. But I like chewing gum and eating in general. I binge and stress eat.

I was taking a producing class at the film school, the instructor invited a friend of his and called him a “grinder.” [No, not Grindr. See dictionary definition here.] “I’ve met and worked with a lot of people in Hollywood. Grinders outlast the rest and get things done. It’s how you succeed in the show biz.” The wise instructor ended on this note.

When I heard this remark, I thought I was a grinder. Not only I grind my teeth, but I would always  follow though on projects and get things done whatever it takes. For a while after I graduated from UCLA, I thought if I could do one thing well, I can find an opening and pivot. Well, the rest is history. I ended up back where I come from, my hometown. It was a hard pill to swallow but necessary for me to see the big picture.

Since I got back recovering from pneumonia, I’ve been doing podcasting, working on short films, rewriting two feature scripts, preparing lectures for the coming weekend and next Tuesday… soon to start a book collaboration, and maybe two other feature assignments. Knock on the wood. And then of course, I will finish my novel before it’s 2019!

That’s a long way of saying we’re better off when our plates are full so our minds don’t wander. But don’t grind on things you don’t enjoy or benefit from, say rocks. You don’t need a dentist to tell you it’s not good for your teeth.

 

Yours truly,
YZ