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

All it takes is ‘Hello.’

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

 

Tricks to a flow state

I started this new story at the end of January. I thought I could finish the first draft faster. I was wrong, like always. Today I finally forwarded it to my collaborator. I even finished the two outlines for my classes starting next week.

Fear didn’t get in my way or into my head today, or the last few days. So what have I done differently? How can I make more days as good as today? 

Here is my routine as I recall my last couple of week:

I get up in the morning. I have my first glass of water with honey.  I meditate for ten minutes. I have my breakfast with coffee.  Afterwards, I take a 30-40 minutes walk.  I then change to dry clothes.  I drink my tea and I sit down behind my desk. 

Right before I’m able to check my gmail, I use SelfControl app and set a 1.5 hour for the first offline session. I make sure Do Not Disturb is ON so I can’t see any notifications from anything. 

Then the writing begins. I would only get up from my chair if I need more water or need a quick bathroom break. Otherwise, I’d just sit behind my desk and work. 

This way, I clock in around three, four hours of decent writing time. But my stamina is still on the low end.  To paraphrase what Haruki Murakami said in his What I Talk About When I Talk About Running book, writing is like running. The stamina can be improved through training.  I’m confident that I will get better.  Drip by drip.

Here are my tricks to into a flow state:

  • Place the phone in the other room while you’re working.
  • Check email right before lunch and dinner. Remember to close it.
  • Get offline during writing.

When I’m there, those fuckups can’t haunt me, those liars can’t hurt me, those bureaucrats and hypocrites can’t upset me.

Right here, right now, it’s just me and the characters, the world I’m creating.  

It dawned on me the other day that naysayers look fierce exactly because they’re powerless even though they seem to have the power to reject you.  You see, parasite can’t survive without the living.  Gatekeepers can’t exist without us. The artists.  The pros. 

Because we make things. We change things.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

 

If you ain’t fast, you die.

These days I’m working on a new story. The main character is a first-generation wannabe immigrant. It fascinates me how these people get their footing in a new country – whatever it takes. They’re the antelopes with leopards up their asses.

“If you ain’t fast, you die.” This type of people are locked in the survival mode. They almost always work their whole life and never take a day off and say they enjoy leisure.

I remember hearing this origin story from a Hollywood producer who used to crash at friends’ places when he was a broke upstart. When his offspring works in the same business and in the same office, I can’t smell the kind of drive that made the old man who he is. 

How can you instill that survivor mindset that can only be bred by Mother Nature? Of course, the second generation will still be well-off. But if you want to break out from the shadow of the old man, you either have to be twice as good and hardworking, or you have to find your own drive. 

So here’s the good news for most of us: we can be the first generation of anything.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

Half-and-half

I’m your glass half empty gal, the gal who points out the emperor has no clothes on, and the same gal who demands to talk about the elephant in the room. 

Optimists would say: you have a brilliantly critical mind. But the truth is, it makes me miserable.

More often than not, I dread that one year, or God forbid, two years after I return in the States, I’d have to build my friends and my life from ground up. Just like what I’m (not really) trying to do here in Shanghai to re-enter the lives of my old pals.

Today I’ve got birthday wishes from friends in Shanghai and back in LA without doing any “social media marketing.” I used to think little of birthday wishes. And guilty as charged, I don’t give enough of those. But today being on the receiving end, it warms my heart, especially when I think I’m left alone and cast away.

The idea of drinking from the half-full glass isn’t such a bad idea after all. 

 

Much love from yours truly,
YZ