Chinese + Creativity

Two weeks ago, I went to a prestigious institute to sit in for its last screenwriting workshop. The program associate and I had a little chat.

“Have you thought about writing stories yourself?” I asked her.
“Me? Oh, no, no, no, no, no. It’s not my thing.” 

I pause for a bit. “You know, years ago, I felt I wasn’t the creative bunch either.” 

I forgot how the conversation ended. But her initial response was etched in my brain. 

Is creativity nothing but a snooty bitch? It shines light on the White community, obviously. Now, it expands to the Black community, fucking at last. 

And so… what about the Asians, the Yes Race? 

“Your Crazy Rich Asians did great!” Some may battle me with this fact. 

Sure, but one film doesn’t mean that day has come. An Asian actor acquaintance posted on his social, “I aim to be an Oscar winner.” My OS was like, bruh, if Asian writers don’t write Asian stories, you’d be supporting til the day you die.” Are Chinese too grounded for creative juice? Truth is, we only have enough room for one kind of God. That is, the God of Money on the fifth day of the Chinese New Year. It’s our euphemism to tell Muse to fuck off. 

I watched a few more episodes of Atlanta today after my date recommended to me. The Barbarshop episode in Season 2 was so over the top real, surreal, hilarious, and frustrating that I almost died from laughing. Stefani Robinson (now 26) was the writer for this episode and the only female writer on the show. She is so enviously young and full of live, who landed a staff writer gig at 23 after working at a talent agency right off college. And because of Atlanta, FX is now working with Robinson on her own show. Attagirl.

Never in my life will I be able to manufacture the moment that got me on Atlanta. I was just quite literally at the right place at the right time for that opportunity. The reason I was able to grasp it and to keep it going was because I was prepared. I wrote all the time. I was constantly thinking about ideas. My biggest advice is to constantly be writing, constantly be reading, and then on top of that, to be honest about what you love.

Stefani Robinson, via VICE

Some people are just meant to shine. I hear you think. True. 

You see, growing up in China, you’re told to do things that pay bills. First couple of years when I decided to pivot to screenwriting from the lucrative advertising world, my left brain was still anxious about how the fuck I could live as a writer rather than how on earth I could write a killer script. That worry developed into a nasty habit. Even right now, I’m still dealing with the jitters, the shallow breathing. It’s like after years of intoxication, your system revolts when suddenly there’s no booze in the blood. 

As I get the chance to teach the Chinese kids about screenwriting, about creative thinking, I want to make sure they don’t piss off their Muses. But most importantly, they find their voice. Not the voice in their heads. But the kind of voice that shuts the world. So everyone would listen.

My auditioning lecture at this prestigious institute is on Wednesday. Wish me luck.

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

Attitude issue

Starting late and feeling grumpy when I began preparing for the Tuesday classes, I finally gathered the momentum and raced to the finishline.

Deep down, I hate it that I’m wasting a full day from my own writing. Then as I dived in, I learned so much, from structure to the actual delivery.  However, there is only so much time. I wish I could be more generous to my students. And yet, I have to set boundary to avoid burnout or overwork…

Last week, some students told me how they wish I were their teacher all along. Some teachers use the same deck for different classes to kill time and possibly murdered more than a few students’ future before the big launch.

That I will never do.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

 

The day after

My bones are aching. My mind is unfocused. My throat is sore. My neck is stiff…

No, I didn’t run a marathon yesterday. I taught for six hours plus the four-hour commute.

Today I didn’t do much. Although I disliked it, I had to obey the signals from my body. Maybe I just lack training. Maybe my body isn’t used to standing for long hours. Maybe my tongue is shocked to cope with the long period of talking.  Or maybe it’s just that nothing in the face of the earth is ever easy. “Step in my shoes and walk a mile.” I did and now I’m band-aiding the blisters…

I grew a new understanding of something I haven’t done before, a new sense of appreciation for the teachers out there.

 

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

 

Dear public school teachers

Are all probably starving to death if they play by the book, and stick with the system.

So, I’m still preparing the notes for the Tuesday classes.  Again, I underestimated how much time it’s taking me… Before I agreed to teach, I already knew the pay was going to be petty and pityful. It’s basically is a joke. And the joke turns into a tragedy after the 20% tax. And I thought California’s tax was high. Boy was I wrong.

Anyway, since I’m not doing it for the money, here are my main goals:

  • To hone my skill as a presenter;
  • To refresh and enhance my screenwriting know-how;
  • To talk to more strangers and see what happens;
  • To get a repitorior of materials to reuse elsewhere;
  • To study the younger generation up close;
  • To collect new story materials.

I confess that the joy I get from this teaching gig isn’t terribly high. I have to guard my own writing time ruthlessly so I don’t lose focus.

A a writer, perspective is crucial in creating compelling characters. Right now I’m growing a new perspective as a teacher, and how she actually and really feels about her job, especially as an adjunct professor… A lot of times it’s not that the teacher doesn’t want to teach. She wants to give you all she’s got, she does, but she can’t splurge her time when she has to take on the second, or even the third job to pay bills.

First things first. A man’s gotta eat, you know.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

PS. 20%?!  Socialism my ass.