Behind The Rainbow (彩虹背后)
Written in July 2004
The story of my lead role in Behind The Rainbow is a tale of being in the right place at the right time. It also pays to be a foreign teacher in China where the fascinations with those who are different often lead to exciting experiences and memories that refuse to fade. The following is a narrative concerning my first experience as an actor. The filming took place in Yangshuo, Guangxi, China, where I was surviving, teaching and being educated in the ways of Chinese life.
Looking around me, all I could see was a sea of black-haired heads staring at me, studying me, fascinated with me as if I was a man from Mars and had just landed in their living room. I sat frozen in my dry, peeling, un-painted wooden chair, surrounded by tables half-broken and baking in the summer sun of southern China. My concentration had been stolen and, consequently, the fear inside began to multiply—fear that I was going to make an idiot of myself, fear of forgetting my lines, fear that people would laugh at me. I felt embarrassed in this position, here in the center of attention. I’d never done stage work, at least, not since I was in the fifth grade. Now, here I was in this foreign land, incapable of understanding all the language around me, or the reason and the interest of these exotic spectators. All I could hear was silence and it sent trembles down my spine and the hair on my arms stood at full attention. Then, I heard it…
…and it was time to perform.
In March of 2004, I was working at Central Reservations for The Winter Park Resort in magnificent Colorado. This was my second job after graduating from Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas. It was also the second time I had lived and worked in Winter Park—the first being in 1998 after chosing to leave Texas A&M University for more, let’s say, adventurous times and educational times. I had waited for years to finish my degree so I could return to my heaven, my haven, Winter Park, to reclaim the peace and tranquility that I sought from the mountains. Needless to say, the weekends spent skiing was exciting, rewarding and exhilarating, but the work set a new record for the most boring job in the world. Day after day, I sat in my cubicle beside my wall of windows overlooking downtown Winter Park and sold ski packages to people who would soon be celebrating bliss thanks to the snow that fell on the mountains outside my window every day. Never would I have thought that after graduating from a tier one liberal arts university I would accept a nearly minimum wage job for the benefits of living in the one of the most beautiful locales in the whole world over, and end up a desk jockey, stressed, pissed off and pressured by his manager to take more calls from pushy Midwestern vacationers. The irony of it all is that I was helping the people with similar circumstances come to my ski town to escape from exactly what I was doing.
Sadly, I rarely got to be out on the mountain myself. Hell, I could have been a thousand miles away, sitting at a desk in Detroit or Lincoln, Nebraska. I had the distinct pleasure of watching the pure white fluff accumulate each hour from my office chair as I answered 80 calls a day. This is not why I am here. The mountain outside of the window stared at me as if questioning my judgment and became more of a boundary to the world than a haven within it. The clock struck 11:59 and I was miles from the escape I thought I’d found.
After a few months of realizing that the weekends of skiing didn’t justify the chair work that was required of me, I decided to break free of the phone ringing-induced headache and broaden my horizons, become a world traveler without boundaries, and I had my sights set on one of the most fascinating locales in the world—China. Why not? Was it not a Chinese proverb that states “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”? Now, that’s my style and that’s a purpose I can live with—I was to be more than a weekend warrior; I would become a permanent journeyman and what better place to begin than the cradle of Asian civilization? Since I was a boy, I was fascinated by Kung Fu movies, and enjoyed marathons with people like my friend, Logan, a boy I had played ball with many years before. There was an ethereal shroud which enveloped China—partly for its closed door policy in the decades prior and partly for its long history dating back to when it served as the cradle of Asian civilization.
China, throughout its history, has passed through every stage a civilization can experience. It has been through turmoil, war, peace, tribalism, feudalism, revolution, socialism, famine, abundance, and had turned out some of the most important inventions known to man to this very day. Now, at the beginning of the 21st Century, it is experiencing modernism and is developing at warp speed. If I wanted to get a taste of this culture before it became just another corporate post in the world of globalism, now was the time. After giving my two-week’s notice at Central Reservations, I was assigned duties as a data entry clerk until time was up. During that time, I had a chance to surf the web and find opportunities that would allow me to live and travel in China for an extended period of time. I didn’t want to touch and go; I was looking to explore the country in a way that would satisfy my appetite for experience and education.
I learned on the web that China, along with many of its Asian neighbors, has a big market for native English speakers. This serves two purposes: One, I will be able to hold down a job and earn money while traveling in my free time, and second, I can, once and for all, learn if teaching is a profession that I can handle. Oh yeah, and how hard can it be to teach your own language? I figured this would free up more time for photography, poetry and journaling so that I can reach out far and wide with the time allotted and find who that person was screaming inside my head every day.
At first, I considered getting the necessary classroom experience in China, exploring the country and then moving on to northern Japan to teach and ski. I wasn’t giving up on my dream to be a kick-ass skier just yet. So, I signed up for a TEFL program in China (Teacher of English as a Foreign Language) where I would learn how to teach grammar, learn to teach English to non-native speakers and get some much needed classroom experience. The Boland School would be my vehicle to learning all I needed to control a classroom and educate these young minds in the tongue titillating English language. All I needed was a thousand dollars and a plane ticket.
So, I returned to Texas to work and earn some money to make this happen. I spent the spring of 2004 working for Wilhite Landscaping where I was kept busy building a barbed wire fence surrounding the owner’s wild East Texas property. After six weeks of battling Copperheads, mosquitoes, poison ivy, blistered hands, fire ants, isolationism and a mercilessly hot and muggy East Texas climate, I had managed to save just enough money to pay for my travel expenses to China. Any excuses not to go? No. Well, the ball is rolling and there is no turning back now.
April 31, 2004
The time had come to make the leap into the unknown. No more second guessing, no more fear. I bid my employer farewell, with many thanks for the learning experience and set my mind to packing. Saying good-bye to the friends and family was next in the order of business and I was almost afraid to go—it didn’t help that I had just finished a book about the Boxer Rebellion. Was I going to get kicked in the head, stabbed, kicked in the head and then stabbed? God, I hope not. But, I did say good-bye and made my way to Fort Worth to spend one last evening sharing a beer (or a dozen) with my sister who would take me to the airport early the next morning. She bid me farewell at some ungodly early morning hour with one last warning,
“Don’t come home with a wife.”
Given my ignorance and monumental mistakes with women in the past, I deserved that and she knew it. I extinguished my final cigarette for the next half day and nervously checked in my luggage which I wouldn’t see again until I was halfway around the world.
So, without knowing a single word of Mandarin, I boarded my United Airlines flight one-way to Shanghai, China. The questions began to attack me with beautiful precision–Was I alone on this journey? What would I find when I arrived? As a small town East Texas country boy, how could I handle the most populated country in the world? How would I feel being a fair-haired, blue-eyed male in a homogenous, dark-featured country? Would I be able to teach? Would I die in China? These are all logical questions and my mind was flooded with endless doubts, anxiety and excitement. At any rate, the plane pointed north and sped away from my home country with no more reason for doubt.
May 1, 2004: Chinese Golden Week
My first day in a city of 14 million left an impression that I’d never forget. Not only is this city 14 times more populated than any city I had ever visited previously, but my stop also coincided with a national holiday, Chinese Golden Week. I was completely unaware of this at the time. Thousands of visitors flooded the city on this day/week including hordes of students and other national workers who have liberty for the week. The entire world seemed to descend on Nanjing Road and I was wide-eyed and walking around in total shock. What had I done?
After a short time in Shanghai, I already began to feel a little more relieved. I had expected anything and I got everything. Shanghai is not a city, it’s a country in and of itself–a bustling, stressful, loud, polluted and explosive country that never sleeps. I’m reminded that there are only 20-plus million people living in the entire country of Australia, and yet there are 14 million here! The energy is like nothing I’d ever felt. After half a day, I’d met all the westerners (“foreigners” as the Chinese so astutely point out) in the Boland program and have, wearied and confused, tasted a bit of what’s to come. Is this going to be a microcosm of my experience in China? Looking in the past, I can say yes. At the time, though, it was as it was and I could do nothing more than walk one foot in front of the other and try not to step on anybody’s toes. I mean this literally and figuratively.
Ironically, my first meal in China wasn’t Chinese food—it was Indian food. Luckily, and with impeccable timing indeed, the restaurant was an all you can eat and all you can drink establishment. The patrons pay over a “measly” 80 RMB (quite expensive I now realize) and the food and drink come without limit. Unfortunately, the food was terrible and was a lesson in bad curry and stiff bread. The drinks, however, set me at ease and helped me breathe in the city, process the stimuli more slowly and exhale with more confidence at each corner turned. I was on my way to assimilation and fully appreciating the stimulation of all senses. In addition, I think those drinks set the tone for my entire tenure in China—a buzzing walkabout with beer swirling in my belly and fear evaporating from my skin.
I was struggling to fully digest everything I saw. In all honesty, I wasn’t sure how long I would last in the Middle Kingdom so I stayed on high alert, doing everything I could to remember it all. I was in a drug induced-like state. The differences among the people, even though aesthetically similar, were obvious. There were pickpockets everywhere, analyzing you and breaking down your moves and waiting for the opportunity to strike. There were beggars holding their small and sometimes deformed babies begging for change and feeling the effects of an economy shifting towards capitalism. There were watch, DVD, wallet and bag hawkers buzzing around us like insects, constantly trying to get us to buy their counterfeit goods. We were fresh meat and they could smell us before we were within sight.
The new rich re-sold their material wealth in a currency that is measured in attention and admiration. They were riding the wave of capitalism that had lately brushed past China but were no different than the wealthy anywhere else in the world. Their clothes were impeccable but it was clear that their thoughts were purchased at the dollar store. The middle class were as they always are, humble and dutifully passing their days with their offspring’s future most dear and happy to be alive another day.
When we finally returned to the hotel from our bad curry nightmare, I didn’t sleep at all. The bed in the hotel was five inches too short, too hard and the horns honking 500 feet below never ceased.
The next day the other foreigners and I departed Shanghai for Jiangsu Province. I hadn’t slept well for two days, three including my flight, and I was still unable to physically handle the stress of all the new information. I quickly fell asleep in the back of the van as it bounced, rocked and rolled on the way to our school—I wasn’t sure what I had missed.
I woke up and realized that we had stopped completely. Through the open window, otherwise known as the the air conditioner, I could smell the river and the air was thick with moisture and meaning. As was common at this point in the journey we were bogged down in a queue waiting to board the ferry that crosses the Yangtze River (Chang Jiang). Turning slowly to look out the open window, we were suddenly recognized as a buss of foreigners by the food vendors selling their products on the street to vehicles in limbo. Before 2 minutes had passed, I was being harassed by a dozen women waving chicken, tofu, black eggs, bread and corn in my face. Chinese vendors can smell the fresh meat of the ‘wealthy’ foreigners through steel-reinforced walls. I closed the window and buried my face in my hat to avoid embarrassing myself with some knuckleheaded faux pas. Five minutes later, I decided to check if they were all gone, but I had erred in my judgment of these people. There they were, still peering through the window and waiting for me to purchase their wild fare. Finally, we were loaded onto the deck of the ferry and splashing our way to Jiangsu Province.
Haimen City, our destination, lies about 120 kilometers from Shanghai and is separated by the Yangtze River, one of the world’s most famous rivers. 100 million people are dependent on the waters of this river as it flows through the Chinese heartland. The water from the river begins fresh and pure in the Himalayan Mountains but quickly changes through the passing of the ‘river washers’ in Sichuan, the factories in Chengdu and the farmers in Hubei—here it is murky and brown and stinks of sewage. Regardless of its appearance, many of the people in this area, like the wealthy Haimen prefect, are dependent on the river and Shanghai for its business and industry. It is as though the waters of the Yangtze River pass through the middle of China, collecting all the currency it can from the areas throughout the country, and dumps its riches in the heart of Shanghai. 14 million people will tell you that it is the place to be. Many millions more would like to join them if only they could. This is the place of plenty in China.
But, Haimen City was where my education to be an educator began. Dong Zhou Middle School was to be my home for the next four weeks and I was immediately appalled at our living situation when I first arrived. It’s not that I had expected Shangri-La, but there were little things that made me nervous. Some of these things I’ll never forget.
“Don’t flush hand paper in toilet,” the sign in the bathroom said.
Great, so what’s one to do with the said “hand paper?”
It turns out, after doing one’s business, you just toss the used paper in the trash next to the toilet, just beside the shower that had no curtain. Therefore, my first order of business the next day was to purchase a shower curtain to keep my used toilet paper from disintegrating from the shower splash and ruining a perfectly good….oh, never mind. It seems to fit.
The rooms were dingy and wet, and seemed to have soaked up all the moisture from the sea air to the east and river air to the south. It was like living in a sponge and the mold all over the rooms proudly displayed the reason for the land of fish and rice. Being from East Texas, I was accustomed to humidity, but this was off the charts. As an added bonus, the rooms were infested with mosquitoes that had obviously gotten busy procreating in the stagnant water that seemed permanent in the bathroom. Ah, things were looking bright after all. This was more like what I expected to find. I wasn’t disappointed, but I was starting to ask questions again.
There wasn’t much free time in the next four weeks due to the amount of studying, exams and teaching practice required of us in the TEFL program. I worked hard assimilating into the culture which took less time than I thought it would and was extremely rewarding. It took some time to get used to the living situation, but it eventually happened and I lived happily and comfortably (relatively speaking) without batting an eye.
The other foreigners and I ate most of our meals together at ‘Sandy’s Place,’ a small restaurant across the street that had its menu translated into English (Chinese on the front side—or was it the back?). This was one of the smartest business decisions that I saw in this small city, especially considering the foreign contingent across the street. Needless to say, the prices were different depending on which language you could read. But, it helped me to learn the Chinese name of what became some of my favorite dishes and the foreigners who rotated in and out of the school every four weeks flooded her restaurant every day for almost every meal. The owner (Sandy) was a super sweet gal with a smile constantly pasted on her face and she made us all feel completely at home.
**UPDATE** After 2004, Dong Zhou Middle School built a brand new building at the entrance of the campus complete with state-of-the-art classrooms, offices and dorm rooms for the visiting foreign teachers. They were immaculately clean, had a great view of the city and high enough for the constant river breeze to blow away the humidity and keep the room dry. We only stayed in these rooms for the four week period during our TEFL training.
As for language acquisition, we were still pretty much on our own. We had formal Chinese lessons once a week for 45 minutes. I learned words like ‘sun,’ ‘moon,’ and ‘eye’ in Chinese. These may be basic words that most people learn from the beginning, but it didn’t help us in the real world. After four weeks, I was more adept at pronunciation and basic sentences, but I still had a tiny vocabulary. Plus, I could really only say things like, “The moon is in the sky.” This is not useful knowledge, but can be fun to try out on random Chinese citizens. I was afraid of being committed to a Chinese mental hospital after such nonsense. Nevertheless, I enjoyed speaking a foreign language like I’d never enjoyed in school. I began to understand why the schools and government of China opened up to have foreigners come and teach at their schools—learning a language in the country where it is spoken is ten times more valuable than in the classroom of one’s native land. If the students can’t go abroad for their language studies, bring the native speakers of that language to them.
The most impressionable memory of that time was actually in the classroom. My first teaching assignment was a 20-minute class to grade seven middle school students. I was sweating profusely before and during the first five minutes of class with the stifling classroom temperature; and, this being the first time I’d stood up in front of people since speech class my freshman year of college, I was just a tad nervous. Keep in mind that these students are used to very strict discipline and lessons managed to the minute detail. Speaking out in class, even to answer a question, is done very orderly or not at all. Horseplay and humor are not a factor in a place where education can mean the difference between being on the bread line and supplying the bread line. So, it’s a sobering thought to realize that I am trying to teach a speaking class to students not accustomed to SPEAKING!
After five minutes, I settled down into that familiar tunnel, similar to when pitching in a baseball game and you forget everything around you and just focus on the task at hand. I was trying to demonstrate and practice the difference between tall, taller and tallest. When it came time to demonstrate ‘tallest,’ I stood on top of the stool at the teacher’s desk and attempted to reach as high as I could. My energy in class is surpassed only by my ignorance of my actions. The stool was made of wood and was probably Mao’s preaching stool back in Hunan—it was old. At the peak of my reach towards the ceiling, the chair came crashing down, the wood being reduced to splinters and I somehow saved myself by landing miraculously on my feet. The students just sat there in silence with shock obvious on all their faces, their mouths wide open. Everyone was motionless for a few seconds. I had just turned my first trick as a TEFL monkey.
June 31, 2004 – Graduation and Beyond
So, four weeks had passed and I had survived my first month in this very foreign country. With a bit of sadness and humility (but not much, I finished first in my class despite destroying a perfectly good stool), it was time to check out of Hotel Dong Zhou MS and move on to my first job in China—on my own. I signed a contract with a school in the southern part of China, a very popular tourist destination called Yangshuo in Guangxi Province. I’m not ashamed to say that I was lured by the luscious green vegetation and the fact that it was only a few hours from Vietnam, a country I also had dreams of visiting. The salary was not competitive; in fact, it was insulting. But hey, this is the opportunity of a lifetime, right?
The man who came to Haimen as a representative of my future school in Yangshuo was a man named Odar Omeida, owner of the Omeida Language College. This tiny little man had a quick tongue and a talent for pitching his school, whatever the lie may entail. The impression he had of himself was ten times his true size. Nonetheless, I was an easy sell. It was a no-brainer as I saw because I completely bought in to the idea of waterfalls, subtropical landscapes, mountains and exotic food. No other student in The Boland School signed as most of them wanted to stay in Jiangsu Province. This included a friend of mine at the school named John, who had arrived in China on the same United Airlines flight (he was also from Texas) and on the same shuttle from the Shanghai airport—one of us was practicing caution and smarts in the job decision—it wasn’t me.
So, I was alone for the first time. We had exactly 15 hours after graduation to find a job and get move out of our dorms because the next class of students was waiting to move in. Talk about a rude awakening! It was literally, get up, good luck and get out! I packed my stuff, headed to the same hotel in Shanghai that I stayed at upon my arrival to China, and waited for my escorts at the airport. After a few drinks to calm my nerves, my escort showed up, loaded my stuff in the car and took me to the airport. No words were exchanged with these strangely bureaucratic-looking men. Now is the time when fear becomes very, very real.
I waited for a short time at the airport, and everything around me was as foreign as could be. The bright spot in the wait involved tobacco and the interior smoking room that was built in the airport terminal (or right next to it). Ah, the joy of not having to walk through security again to go outside to smoke. No, sir. Just enter this little glass-walled room and have a seat and a smoke. Of course, with thirty men chain-smoking in a ten by ten cell, I thought I’d never be able to use my lungs again. But, this IS a tobacco culture.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t understand the lady making announcements about which planes were boarding and certainly missed the message that apparently announced that our plane was to be loaded on the tarmac. I had been sitting there, head down and scribbling madly into my journal when I turned around and saw that everyone was gone from my gate. I went into a panic. I was present at the gate, waiting, and still missed the boarding. Now, here was this strange fellow sitting in an empty gate, all alone and completely lost. Frantically, I started thinking about how to get a hotel room, how to find a school to teach at, how to even survive should I miss the plane. Finally, I walked up to the ticket counter and showed them my ticket. They very quickly jumped to action, leading me the back way through the airport and onto the tarmac where the plane was just about ready to depart.
After I got on the plane, my nerves got worse. The flight was already a late one (thanks to one tardy passenger), with a departure time of after 9:00 p.m. The flight would take over two hours and would arrive in Guilin after 11:00. Would my guy be at the airport waiting for me? Would I even know where to go? I quickly learned to do what I did so many times after that evening: I followed. When the plane landed, I did my best to keep up with the crowd and collected my suitcase in the eerily empty, dimly lit airport. After ten minutes, all the people were gone and I was alone at the airport standing there in silence wondering what to do if my guy didn’t show. The airport seemed to be in the middle of nowhere—I couldn’t see city lights anywhere in the distance and there weren’t any taxis or buses waiting to take arrivals anywhere.
Finally, at a few strokes to midnight, a large-skulled man (seriously, the size of this guy’s head was legendary) named Jackie Wan showed up and took me to the car. We sped away from the airport and into the thick, black countryside. I could see in the distance the mountains that had lured me here. I could just make out the limestone hills, jagged and mysterious and the bamboo trees growing beneath them. In the car, I was offered cigarettes and a beer…constantly. Since I was alone in the back of the car, I accepted them both in hopes that it would calm my nerves. It worked. For the next hour the car cruised in total darkness, the driver chain smoking as he sat motionless and quiet, passing one small country village after another where people stayed up late chowing down on noodles and filling their bellies with the same bitter piss that I swallowed. We must have passed half a dozen of these villages on our way to Yangshuo.
The “towns” were not well lit, but the shops and restaurants on the side of the road looked like old western saloons to me. The festive lights draped around the eateries were low and moody and the people all seemed to be satisfied with their place for the time being. The grub and drink were rewards for a rough day in the rice paddies which surrounded the countryside almost out of sight. The patrons walked around shirtless, displaying their brown skin, shown proudly as though it was a symbol of the hard times they had endured. Their huge smiles and aged eyes watched us with interest as we passed and I was shown in an instant the culture I was about to join. One of the things that struck me was the difference from the Chinese society I had just left on the east coast—it was insanely different. Shanghai, to these folks, must have seemed like a dream, too. At least we had something in common.
When we finally did arrive, late in the evening, I was pushed on to the hotel for my “temporary” place of residence. Jackie Wan shut the door and walked out, leaving me exhausted and nervous about the time ahead of me. I hadn’t felt this since I left America and it is a feeling that I never would experience again—and I miss it a little.
I met with my boss, Odar, the next morning. Jackie Wan was there, too.
“Where is the apartment you promised?” I asked Odar.
“We will have one for you soon. For now, you can stay in the hotel.”
Okay, so they were cleaning my place, I thought. The hotel was small, but much cleaner than my room at Dong Zhou. The TV didn’t work, however, and neither did the air conditioner. This was an omen which didn’t inspire confidence, especially in the Yangshuo summer. The air was hard to bear and I sat in my room fanning myself and reading until I got a call to take a tour of my classroom. I was glad to get out of the room, but the people around me made me nervous with their intense stares and the murmuring under their breath as they refused to re-direct their glares. In Haimen, people were more accustomed to foreign faces and they looked at me in curiosity, but turned away in disinterest after just a short time. Here, they watched every move we made and I could feel myself being studied like an animal being hunted. Just as a note, there are two parts to Yangshuo: West Street, colorful and lively, known for its travelers and backpackers from far and wide, and the town itself, which was completely run down, filthy and without the slightest hint of color. The town was communist, West Street was capitalist. West Street was a club and the town was the kitchen. You get the picture.
Through a path that winds its way through a bamboo forest at the base of the limestone mountains, I walked quickly to keep in step with Jackie Wan. The sounds of frogs and insects dominated everything else around me. It was shady and “cool” down this path and we passed one student after another on our way. It turns out that I will be responsible for teaching students who had lost their last foreign teacher, a girl from Ireland, because her uncle had died and she returned to Ireland for his funeral. They are the full-time students, who pay a large sum of money to study English all day, every day, for months at a time. Most of them hail from the industrial hubs Shenzhen and Guangzhou, a couple of cities where a dual talent for English and Chinese may land them a very lucrative job offer.
They live in shanty little dorm rooms beside the classrooms, six students per ten by eight rooms, at the foot of this mountain that shoots straight up into the sky, living up to its physical description as “dragon’s teeth.” Pictures of sexy pop stars and cool male pop icons are pasted on the whitewashed walls, many of them curled at the corners and just barely hanging on. Occasionally, one of the students proudly displays a bright red poster with Mao’s fat head on it, usually decorated with a dozen or so Maoisms like, “We should be modest and prudent, guard against arrogance and rashness, and serve the Chinese people heart and soul…” Other than that, there are only bunks in the rooms. The only relief from the heat in this area is the shade from the bamboo trees—ironically, they are also to blame for the lack of a breeze if there was one to be broken.
The classrooms were nothing more than rectangular, white rooms (though smoky-colored from the tobacco, pollution and peeling paint from heat and time) with four small windows, two on each side. The windows on the inside part of the classroom face the limestone mountain, which stands sentry only feet away. The purpose of such a window is beyond me as no air can possibly squeeze through. The other windows are without window panes and the bugs from the late afternoon find refuge on the ceiling of the classroom where the lights burn for the students studying late into the evening. The mosquito problem is off the charts. Each classroom has 30 ancient desks, remnants of the Cultural Revolution, and are stenciled with red numbers. The classrooms lack everything else with the exception of a chalk board and chalk that is literally becoming more like chalk paste from the humidity.
The people around the school were not merry and it seemed as though each person was just trying to deal with the heat of the day in preparation for the cooler evening. I use the word “cool” loosely as there was nothing ever cool about the weather in Yangshuo. The evenings were wet and warm and the days sweltering and moist.
What struck me the most was the festive feel of this town. Everyone seems to kick back in the day as if they were on permanent holiday, spitting watermelon seeds and drinking cold beer no matter what time of day. Men walk around with their shirts off and the women strut in their summer skirts and knock off designer sunglasses. Motorcycles, bikes and 3-wheeled carts whiz by as if the wind were nutrition for their ailments in the summer sun. The sun doesn’t make a clean appearance; no, it hides wickedly behind the clouds as though a clean sight of it would burn us where we stand. As a result, we boil in the moisture and there is no doubt that if God had a boiling pot, I’m now right in the middle of it.
Every evening, in the center of town, there is a fiesta of epic proportions. Vendors, whose cuisine includes anything from snails to snake, eels to exotic fruit, busy themselves each late afternoon by re-assembling their getup. They bring out plastic tables and chairs, mobile gas stoves, long, stainless steel tables from which they beautifully displayed their fare and dozens of crates of beer bottles and perspiring beer kegs. They are truly amazing to watch and waste no time quickly installing their gas stoves, plastic tables and chairs and setting out their vegetables, fish and meat in the front. Each vendor has an area equivalent to the tiniest restaurant ever opened, but the small space instantly begs of you to socialize.
People gather in the town square as the sun sets, this being the best place to see and be seen as it is situated in front of the bus station and in the middle of a roundabout where the above mentioned cars collect attention by honking horns and blasting music as they go round and round. Buses, heading off to civilization in another era, depart every few minutes and leave behind the exhaust—the only reminder of the existence of those people who once filled these same streets with me. “They are escaping,” I thought, and I’m not going anywhere.
The food at these joints is not bad, but are quickly thrown together with too much oil, and an overload of salt and MSG which usually tempts you to buy more beer. But, that’s the point in a place like this. By eight in the evening, there are hundreds of people eating together at this massive feast, the genders all mingling and sweating, aware that tomorrow it is time to battle the climate once more. For now, it’s time to swallow the golden nectar of the Gods and enjoy life. I’m starting to like what I see. The only downside to the whole experience, so far, is the lack of companionship. It seems as though I walk around, taking in the sights, the sounds and the smells without speaking a single word. But, this atmosphere was as conducive as any for an aspiring journalist—something I was thankful for.
Fortunately, the pace of life is exactly what I want to experience. People in towns like this throughout China don’t work too hard and they never let their jobs get in the way of good times, friends and family. Slowly and without cause, I meander my way through the wild streets of Yangshuo back to my hotel room—where life seems to vanish. I think I’ll sleep, but what’s the point when it is impossible? It’s too damned hot and I haven’t stopped sweating since I arrived. But, I tried anyway. I must have lost five pounds of water sweating that night lying in bed and I was attacked with a wave of doubt that didn’t have the nerve to tackle my first class that next day.
I visited Odar’s office the next morning with two things on my mind: One, I needed to see a doctor because I had come down with some strange strain of flu (it was June after all). I felt like ass and feared that my prophecies about coming China were coming true—I would die here. Two, get me out of that freakin’ hotel room or I’m leaving on the next train to anywhere. The shower only lasted one day, the electrical appliances had completely given up hope of working and the room was akin to a mental hospital. He never did say anything back concerning the doctor, and that is probably a good thing given that most doctors in China are chain-smoking idiots who ‘dress up’ in a white coat and believe that it gives them the right to extort money from sick and desperate people. No joke. Before you know it, you’ll be choking on second hand smoke and wondering why this man is installing an IV drip in your anus. Oh, the horror.
He finally relented about the living situation and put me up in a much nicer hotel room later that day. Actually, given the quality of most hotel rooms affordable to people like myself, it was in the top 2 in all my experience traveling within China. The air conditioner worked (WOW), as did the shower (IMPRESSIVE), and it only took a day or two before I felt like myself again. I’m convinced my sudden recovery was due, however, to the noodles I ate that evening, which I later found out included horse meat. I had never eaten horse meat before so chalk one up to experience with specific instructions to never do that again. Actually, that was one of the first characters I learned in Chinese so I could recognize it before ordering it avoid devouring Mr. Ed ever again.
Also, the second day in my new hotel room, five of my soon-to-be students showed up with bag after bag of fruit, vegetables and nuts and wished me to get well. That was a show of kindness that moved me tremendously and set the standard for good student behavior. Let that be a lesson to all you who come after! I mean, think about it, before I had formally met them, before I had taught a single class, these kind guys and gals were already showing mercy on me. Bless them all.
My fourth day in Yangshuo finally brought me face to face with a class full of students eager to learn and dependent on me to provide them with stimulation and challenge. Their ages ranged from 19 to 27 and these were my ‘advanced’ students. When a foreign teacher in China refers to students as “advanced,” it generally means that they have memorized enough words to pass any written exam given in China, but that their speaking is still rough, to be polite. I was happy to hear that each student had an English name, evident in the introductions, and they all seemed very comfortable and content with each other. This is a must, as there is no buzz kill stronger in the TEFL classroom than the feeling of shyness or embarrassment. No one talks. And if no one talks, I have to talk and that isn’t the purpose of the game since I don’t need English practice.
The obvious choice for best English in this class went to a guy who called himself ‘Hawk.’ He sat in the middle of the front row and ceaselessly asked and answered questions. But, as I would soon find out, the room was littered with amazing personalities and each had an interesting story to tell. Let’s begin.
The first topic most of the students asked me to discuss was religion. Well, this isn’t the China I had heard about—a country that didn’t recognize any official religion and was pretty much damned by God’s own admission. Really, he told me that. Okay, so I’m not so insane as to believe that I actually know God’s thoughts, but it was through the discussion of religion with these students that I felt the full influence and meaning that comes with teaching. The students were shocked by how many different variations of belief and faith there were in America. I told them it was only because they were communists and didn’t know any better—well, I didn’t say that because I would have been pulled outside by my shirt collar and shot on the spot. But, I was happy to have educated them about something.
By the end of my two sessions, each 45 minutes long, my button-down shirt was soaked in sweat and I had smoked a handful of cigarettes that the students were shoving my way every time we took a break–and, we only took two ten-minute breaks! Oh boy, teaching adults is going to be harmful to my health, I thought. Regardless, we laughed, we learned, we discussed, and by the end of the day, I had two invitations for dinner, badly needed a change of clothes and was left with the realization that I’m quite comedic when placed in front of a crowd. I don’t know what it is, but when I am offered up as a foreign personality in China, the show begins and I perform well. Teaching here is half acting.
I accepted one of the dinner invitations, mostly because the students led with the mention of ‘drinks’ first and agreed to meet two hours after the end of class. I rushed back to my hotel room, still high on the success of the first class, and changed attire. When I met the students at their apartment early in the evening (my guess is that these students must come from wealthy families since they reside in an apartment rather than the dorms like the others), they already had cold beers waiting, caps off, and some cooked veggies to snack on. When I think of beer snacks, I think of nuts and chips, but these guys and gals were serving veggies—good on ya! I can’t say it is normal, but good on ya anyway.
After a few minutes of chatting, chowing and swallowing some damn decent local brew, we made our way to the climbing bar, a hip and ultra-popular drinking establishment that features amongst other things—and get this—climbing walls on both ends of the bar. Now, I’ve seen many a man do many a thing while drinking–but climbing??? You’ve got to be joking. Who wants to see a friend fire back 10 shots of tequila and then watch them attempt to scale a wall? No one! And that’s why there is no such place anywhere else in the world. And, that is exactly why I loved being there at that moment in time. I pity the crazy, drunk, Spider-Man wannabes and I celebrated their stupidity by joining them. Well, my students and I drank, but I didn’t do much climbing.
By the time we were liquored up and knee-deep in good conversation, I had a feeling these students were better at English than they had let on. We talked about everything and there wasn’t a moment in the whole evening where I felt like they didn’t understand me. Awesome. Despite the good company and the time at hand, I still had that annoying question lingering in my head—why am I here in China? It’s a strange moment of clarity when you stop and realize some of the weird places life takes you—and if you can capitalize on that time by projecting your thoughts into the future and looking back at your current situation as a memory, then you start to enjoy it, no matter how inconvenient or uncomfortable the situation is. That is exactly how it happened and it all became so much easier after that.
The next couple of weeks rolled by easily after that night. The students in my class became more like friends and the more time I spent with these surprisingly diverse people, the more I liked being in China. In Haimen, I never spent any real time with the Chinese people. I was still enjoying the company of people from South Africa, Wales, England, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. But, it would have been a mistake if I had cheated my experience here by only getting to know other native English speakers whose lives were somewhat similar to ours in America.
One of my students, whose English name, Brahma, I can only remember because it resembles the breed of cattle commonly raised around our home in East Texas, was a 24 year-old shy loner from southern China. As the days passed, he became more and more vocal and confident in class and I could see that it was transforming him—at least with me. Every time we stopped class for a ten-minute break, he would come outside and sit down with me, almost as if he was alienated from the others in the class. Come to find out, he was, but I didn’t know that at the time. He was awkward and as skinny as a grasshopper, but he had a purpose, like all the others, for congregating at this small town English school.
One day, Brahma invited me to go to lunch, and, although I generally liked to take my time off to be someone other than an English teacher (aka foreigner), I agreed. We had decent lunch at a place around the corner from my hotel room.
This place was great because, up to that point, I had been living off of noodles (from the horse restaurant with elf stools) and I was relieved to get a meal that included a variety of vegetables and any meat of my choice. The restaurant, I later found out, was owned by the parents of one of my students from Jilin Province in northeastern China. It was as easy as pie—walk up and choose three vegetables and a choice of meat and they stir fry it together to give you a healthy and balanced meal. It is served with white rice and, because it rescued me from noodles every meal, represented the beginning of my love affair with white rice.
Back to Brahma… After lunch, he asked me if I wanted to see what he did all day. I agreed and followed him up three floors of an adjacent building, a dilapidated, square, concrete structure that resembles so many of the Soviet era architectural buildings in China. The windows had been knocked out, most of them anyway, and I was a little worried that he was taking me to some S&M club or leading me to a cult. No, wrong again. The place he spends most of his time, I found, is an internet bar where young, chain-smoking males congregate and hunch over desks all day to play first-person shooter games. So, yes, it was a cult. The place was caked in nicotine, as was evident by the browning of the walls, and it smelled like an over-crowded cigar shop that had been built with tobacco leaves. So, what a way to spend your life, I thought; no wonder he is friendless–but at least the mystery of why he sticks close to me has ended. I was probably the one person he felt wouldn’t make any assumptions about him just because of his looks and habits. Though I enjoy playing video games, I don’t enjoy them that much. It was the last time I would go there. I did, however, have to do all of my emailing and online work in an internet café not unlike that one. Every day, I had to sit in tobacco hell to type out emails, sweating on the keyboard and feeling the pressure of being the only white man around.
Two weeks had passed since I’d moved into my hotel room, and though it was nice, I was ready to move into my long term dwelling. It was part of the contract and I felt that Odar was dragging his feet because, well, he’s a con artist and a cheap bastard. I hadn’t even unpacked my bags yet and this was two weeks after arriving. How could I knowing that I would be moving into an apartment someday? Every meal was eaten at a restaurant which, though easy, cheap and convenient, I was getting sick of. I just kept thinking of having my own apartment with a kitchen and a living room and an internet connection (all things in the contract)!
I went to visit him again, and again I got the run around.
“Your apartment isn’t ready yet.”
“Is it a new apartment? What’s taking so long?” I said.
“We don’t have the internet set up,” he fired back. “I will let you know when it is ready.”
So, I returned to my one room and sat on the bed. Other than composing lesson plans, there wasn’t much for me to do once the evening rolled around. Once a week or so I went out with some students for drinking and chatting, but that was something that even my foreign teacher’s salary couldn’t handle too much. At that time, I was being paid 2000 yuan per month, but later found out that 4000 per month was average for someone in my position. Again, mark that mistake to inexperience. So, with a salary comparable to that of a single Chinese English teacher, but no apartment to cook my own food, my money was running out—fast.
With that in mind, I returned to the internet café where Brahma gets his gaming high and got online to write out a letter to Odar. I told him that he had an obligation to provide an apartment and that if he didn’t get his butt in gear, I was leaving on the next train to Shanghai. I also sent an email to the director of the International Education Program at Dong Zhou Middle School, the middle school where I spent my previous month studying in the TEFL program. I asked him if he needed teachers in the fall because despite my “one-year” contract at the Omeida Language College, I wanted to send out some feelers concerning my possible options post-Odar. Odar’s habits for lying and deception were beginning to cause me major concern.
The next day, after Odar read the email, he called me into his office to talk about it.
“We have found you an apartment.” he said.
“Great,” I responded. “When can I move in?”
He had me scheduled to move in the next day, but it was bitter sweet. He had kicked out one of the Chinese English teachers to get me in an apartment ASAP. I knew the guy who just got evicted and I wasn’t real proud of being the reason for his loss. I tried to reject the apartment, but Odar and the teacher (who seemed to have been coached, judging by his grinding teeth), wouldn’t hear of it. So, I finally had an apartment and Odar, knowing that he had a gullible foreign teacher for half the going rate, got to relax—for the time being.
When I got to the sixth floor apartment, I had already passed three things which immediately told me all I needed to know about the place: One, there was a homeless man outside the entrance sleeping. I don’t like to talk of other people’s misfortunes so I will leave that alone. Maybe it was a cool place and maybe he was there for the second thing I saw. The second thing was the alley that led to that entrance—my guess is that it was the dumping ground for all the restaurants in the area, or so it seemed. All around me were vegetable peels, fruit and nut shells, bags of discarded seeds and general food waste. It smelled wonderful and the summer heat and humidity, combined with all this wonderful waste, made for an aromatic pleasure that one cannot duplicate. The flies, maggots and bugs that roamed freely from one waste heaven to the next were fat with happiness and full of lust for all the pleasure available. I could almost hear them singing. I almost threw up and vowed to never have a barbecue out there.
Finally, the stairs that led the way to my Biltmore Estates-like home were made of concrete, were crumbling and resembled the “tofu-buildings” that they speak of in China (no steel reinforcement and porous like, well, tofu). So, before I landed on the sixth floor, I was afraid for my life. That, however, was only the beginning.
When I entered the apartment, there was a Chinese girl and guy making out on the sofa in the living room. Embarrassed, I just walked on through to my designated bedroom. As luck would have it, I get to share my apartment with another Chinese English teacher who was none too happy to have me there since her friend just got kicked out on my behalf. In fact, they didn’t even sit up and say hello, or stop swapping spit long enough for me to get to my room. To the left of the entrance was the kitchen which was about the size of a small closet and was as infested as the alley outside. No joke. There were woks, pots, pans, chopsticks and all kinds of cooking gear strewn out everywhere and I couldn’t tell if it was ever used or not. So, I ruled out the kitchen immediately. Besides, it was a gas stove and I don’t really trust using gas in a country that has no safety regulations whatsoever and rigs its home electrical systems they way we use to do stereos in the 80’s (wires strewn everywhere).
Beside the kitchen was the bathroom, and the recipient of the run-off from the kitchen’s mess. Forget western toilets, I had a hole in the ground, right under the shower head. At least I had a shower. Unfortunately, one has to straddle the toilet hole to bathe. It didn’t make me feel clean, like I had just stepped out of the shower. Oh no, it made me feel like I just did my housekeeping duties of cleaning my “hole” (aka, the toilet). Oh yeah, and there was no hot water. The school hadn’t gotten around to installing one, I guess. Besides, who needs a hot shower when it is 99 degrees outside and almost raining–every day?
So, that leaves my bedroom. Since I didn’t feel comfortable in the living room with the said roommate and her sex toy, a chain-smoking, Chinese Johnny Cash-looking guy, I was reserved to being a prisoner in my box. The room was white, all white and was three-quarters filled by the bed. That seems reasonable, I thought. I’ve got a good bed. And, there was an air conditioner in the room and it worked well. Super. That was the day; the night was much worse because it brought my nightmares to fruition.
I don’t know about most of the readers here, but I never aspired to be an entomologist. I hate bugs. Fascinating as they may be, there is something about an exoskeleton that reminds me of “Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom,” when Indiana puts his hand into that hole to open the trap door. That scene still gives me the willies. As the sun went down, my bedroom was invaded in a like manner by every species of insect known to scientists throughout the world. There were insects with six-inch long antennae. There were insects with six-inch long legs. I swear I even saw insects with six-inch long stingers. There were mosquitoes—oh God, the mosquitoes. The fluorescent light, which was my only luminescence, was a beacon for these monsters. They gathered, they cruised the strip, they socialized as though my room was the locale for their personal bug fiesta. What really bothered me was what happened when they died—they fell onto my sleeping space and rested in peace nicely in the folds of my comfortable bed. Since the light was directly above my bed, there was nothing I could do. Every evening before bed I had to wipe my sheets clean of insect carcasses. Not to mention, my sheets were half wet all day every day because of the humidity. This was a step down from my hotel room and I regretted holding Odar to the contract. I would have been better off had I just let him take his sweet time.
You may be asking how the insects even got inside in the first place. The construction science manual in China must have been written by a four year-old accustomed to building blocks. There are cracks, holes and walls that don’t completely meet together all over every building—the bugs can get in from those. Also, the kitchen has holes for the plumbing pipes to thread from one apartment to the next and those eventually lead outside where the main pump is. The bugs can also get in from those. Finally, the “toilets,” aka, the hole, is nothing more than a drain that makes a “b” line straight to the bowels of the building and since it is just a hole and not a toilet, the way you flush is with a bucket of water. Most people have a massive plastic ladle which they use to dip into another massive bucket of water and thrust the water from the ladle into the toilet. Since this action is only done after one relieves oneself, bugs have plenty of time to crawl up through the hole and into your quarters. Your welcome.
It didn’t really matter what the bed was like because I couldn’t sleep anyway. With a wet bed (not a personal problem, I assure you), thousands of bugs lurching above me itching to crawl into my mouth, and mosquitoes piercing me all night, I couldn’t sleep a wink. So, now I had nowhere to go, no place to focus on work, no place to sleep, no money and no place to cook. Everything went wrong and I was dreaming of the U.S. and doubting the length of my stay in China. What had I just subjected myself to? It didn’t matter. I was there and where could I go?
The next couple of weeks went by without much commotion or excitement as I mentioned. I woke up in the morning, taught my classes, met with the students for lunch at a family-owned restaurant and then retired to my bedroom to write my lesson plans for the next day. The air con worked well and that was a plus. I think I spent too much time in the air conditioned room watching one dollar ripped DVDs on my laptop; I should have spent more time studying Chinese, but teaching oral English has a way of making one want to forget about language skills altogether. As an English speaker, it should be the easiest job in the world, yet the challenges of getting the other students to speak takes a tremendous amount of patience, creativity, excitement and encouragement. After four hours of trying to coax others to speak, I’m pooped. Luckily, the adults were post-grads who knew English would further their career so they made it easy for me. The same didn’t apply for the younger students. That was like pulling teeth—my own teeth.
When the afternoon heat had died down, I would usually go exploring in the mountains or through the local markets, charming places that displayed their harvest on the ground, sprawled out as close to the foot traffic as possible and within range of poorly aimed spit bombs. But, this was life in small town China and I wasn’t surprised to see that people were completely void of any knowledge about cleanliness or contamination-of any kind. There were no government programs or catchy slogans to promote such knowledge.
- You should see the meat market
- Despite all my misgivings about the living situation, the deplorable classroom conditions, the heat, the humidity, the stink, the grime, the lack of hygiene or manners, how many people can say their time away from work is spent wondering through one of China’s most endearing and iconic environments, painted on silk scrolls throughout history, cited by wandering poets, a mysterious and magical place dominated by the shimmering waters of the life-giving Li River? It was one of the most memorable times of my life and it revived my own passion for penning philosophical poems and prose of life, the struggles and celebrations that we all share in our experiences while migrating through the years. I hadn’t found the perfect place, but it was perfect for the time and it re-awakened my interest in life and gave meaning to a consciousness I hadn’t known before.
- The beauty of this time was living without a purpose, at least one measured by people in modern-day societies who grab for more than they need. I will confess that I missed the conveniences, the luxury of a clean home, clean food, and comfort. But, I was learning and learning doesn’t come without some sort of sacrifice. What was I learning, though? I thought about this every day. It is obvious that one learns about another culture and language when living abroad, but in China, where development still hasn’t reached more than a billion people and tens of thousands of cities, towns and villages, one learns that it is possible to live without having everything we are used to having. One learns to not only scale back spending and comfort, because after a short time, one learns to live with less comfort which becomes the norm, but also one learns that with each step towards a simpler life, life becomes more bearable, less hectic and relatively stress-free.
After graduating from university, I spent so much time trying to get into the rat race, into the fast lane of earning and spending, that I was literally tossed into a kind of acceptable insanity that only ends with bouts of regret and doubt about one’s life. Selling computers at Dell represented the true low mark in my life because it was nothing more than an exercise in the idea that this is what you’ll be doing the rest of your life! This is a dizzying exercise that is pursued more and more in attempt to “simplify” with monetary reward. The snake eats its own tail. In modern terms, the more one feels lost and confused about the direction of life the more one works, and thus, spends, in an attempt to seek escape. More does not equal less. Less equals more, at least that is what I found in Yangshuo.
In the U.S., where every corner becomes another boring block of a building boasting a neon corporate logo, we get intimidated by the power of the almighty buck. I confess to having felt the urge to shop, consume and waste as well. But, I was now experiencing the urge to be adventurous and go where few white men had gone before. Though westerners had discovered these parts of the countryside before me, I was intoxicated with the feeling that, at least in some of the corners I hiked to, I was the first and I began to truly recognize the power of courage and discovery. It became an obsession to me to go places where I didn’t feel welcome and wasn’t confident of the outcome of my presence. The great explorers of the past became idols to me and I now understood why, despite the danger, men such as Lewis and Clark and Marco Polo wandered into unfamiliar territory. My own discoveries don’t compare, but the feeling as an individual, especially one who hadn’t attempted such adventures before, was no less gratifying.
I was alone in this place. The towns and villages could have been undiscovered islands in the middle of nowhere given how secluded and removed from the rest of the world we were. The mountains seemed to exist as a natural barrier, a great wall that protects the culture and the people from outside invaders. Most of the time, as one of the only few white faces I saw in my time there, I felt like I was one of the invaders, a spy sent from another country to scope the defenses, and the people viewed me as such. They stared at me as though I was one move from cutting their throat and overthrowing their way of life.
One particular hot June day, when the clouds had finally ceased blanketing the valley, the sun emerged and a great life-giving energy shot into my legs and awakened my spirit of adventure. It was one of the few days I remember seeing blue skies and white clouds above me rather than ash-colored polluted skies of the previous couple of weeks. I began by walking leisurely to the end of the street where I was already drenched in sweat. When I got there, I decided to see how far the avenue would go. I bought a bottle of water and continued on, passing the meat market with all the raw flesh hanging by hooks and lying dry, fly covered and rotting on the tables. Old men, adorning their blue, Mao-era suits sat in their chairs, sweating profusely, waving sandalwood fans inches from their face and smiling—just smiling at me, half mocking in their grin, half demystified as though they just realized that the people far from their own borders walk on two legs, too.
I strolled past crumbling old white buildings, gray with age and barely able to house a population. The road began to rise and people hopped off their bicycles to walk, their children still sitting on the metal seat over the back wheel. Still, they didn’t sweat. I was an outsider.
Beside me, under the awnings of these depressing buildings, men sat playing cards and mahjong, cigarettes half-burned, glued to their lips, a beer standing guard at their feet, sweating as badly as I. The women-folk were kept busy scrubbing laundry on wash boards, awkwardly hunched over in a squatting position, their faces turned towards the earth. The road continued.
After a bottle of water and two miles of walking, I stopped to have a rest. I snapped a photo of an old man riding by, his skin weathered and brown by the mountain sun. This was the iconic photo of Yangshuo at the time—until I walked a little farther.
Five minutes later, I found myself at the end of the pavement. The mountains stared at me now, not people, and there was nothing but the open space of rice paddies ahead. I bought another bottle of water and continued on. It had taken me almost an hour to walk this far, not because of the distance, but because of the scenery and curious culture that I was taking in all around me.
The dirt road was a winding one—and I could see it lead into the pass between two small peaks. The sun was bright now and I was beginning to burn, looking a shade of pink. There was a school situated at the bend of the straight dirt road and the trail into the rice fields. In front of the school was an old wooden shack, collapsing in its place, but surrounded by a beautiful pond green with lotus and lily pads. The school seemed abandoned it was so quiet. Not a student was stirring and people seemed to have just disappeared. It was eerie, but interesting.
As I rounded the corner, prior to entering the rice field, an old man stood on the side of the road holding a rope attached to a water buffalo or cattle of some kind. He watched me cautiously as though I would soon snatch the rope from his hand and take his prized creature. I brought up my camera and snapped a photo. This was my iconic picture of Yangshuo, I thought, until I realized that nearly every scene in this area is more amazing than the previous one. Amazing.
The sun began playing hide-and-seek at this point. Clouds moved in and out of the picture and I couldn’t tell if it was going to rain or not, though it didn’t matter as I was already soaked in sweat. I moved past the school, the rotting house, the pond, the old man and into the fields. After turning a corner around a mountain, a curious house fell immediately in view. Again, there were no people around and the smell in the air became putrid almost to puking point. The home had so many holes with so many different colored liquids seeping out that I could almost predict which hole belonged to which room. The house obviously lacked internal plumbing and the liquid created small streams in the soil at my feet. I stepped over them cautiously and wondered if the country folk had guns like we do in Texas. Was I trespassing? Would I be shot for wondering through this family’s farm? I pressed on, confident that my error in judgment would be viewed as a foreign one and thus not a threat. But, no one emerged. In front of the house, near another small pond that was littered with garbage, old vegetable skins and paper wrappers, I saw a small hen house, then a pig pen, then a corral for a donkey. The smell was nauseating.
I passed all of this and continued into the mountain pass, a small, stony, dirt road that was kept guard on both sides by evergreens. I hadn’t seen evergreens since I had been in China and now I felt more comfortable, as if I was at home wondering through the piney woods of East Texas. I got off the trail from time to time to wander into the forest and sat down in shady areas to have a rest and digest the solitude, quiet and peace that surrounded me. For more than seven weeks, I hadn’t experienced such feelings, a feeling that I was more than accustomed to.
After another 30 or 45 minutes of climbing, I finally had reached the top of this “small” peak. I was rewarded with an aerial view of a small village on the other side of the mountains from Yangshuo. The breeze from the top blew my face and cooled my skin. The sun had come back out, but the pines with their wind dancing kept me cool and comfortable. I wanted to stay there. I wanted to dig a pit and get a camp fire going and just stay there for as long as possible. It could have been the top the world and I had achieved my goal of discovering something that I felt strongly hadn’t been witnessed by a white person before me.
After an hour of sitting at the top, writing and thinking, I decided it was time to get home. I was out of water and getting dehydrated. On my way down, I finally did see a human being. There was a man with his water buffalo beside the pond that I had passed earlier. He didn’t notice me so I snapped a photo. Was he the person who resided in the home at the base? Five minutes later, I passed two more farmers, both middle-aged women, who were ascending the mountain. With them were also water buffaloes and they were heading towards the pond half-way to the peak.
Maybe I was leaving at the right time. Maybe I was trespassing, but then I recalled a basic tenet of communism—state owned property. As a resident in China, I thought maybe I had just as much right to walk this land as them. Perhaps I was trespassing, but they didn’t seem to mind. Maybe they didn’t realize that twenty minutes earlier I had considered raiding their hen house and camping at the top of the ridge, fat on their chicken and eggs.
“I’m Too Ugly to be an Actor!”
Just as the days were getting easier to bear and I was beginning to settle into my home (with a system for dealing with all the bugs, including my roommate and her toy), a surprised shook me of my comfort. I was in class one day, taking a smoke break in the sunlight between sessions, when my liaison, “Jackie Wan,” came to me.
“Odar wants to meet with you,” he informed me.
“Now,” I asked? “I have another class to teach.”
He told me not to worry and whisked me away on his scooter. This was my first time to get to ride a two-wheel vehicle since I had been in China. It felt great. The heat was still unbearable. Now I understood why so many people had these, despite the short distance to locations throughout the town.
When I arrived at Odar’s office, he told me he was taking me to lunch on West Street. Wow, I thought. What the hell did I do right? Maybe I was getting a promotion for being such a dedicated and diligent teacher. Those of us who live and work in Yangshuo can’t afford to go there. At least, I couldn’t on my meager salary.
West Street is made up of four main walking streets that attract shoppers, party goers, thieves, hooligans, artists and merchants and is the reason for the huge foreign contingency (in addition to the climbing, biking, hiking and swimming in the area). The prices are high and the products are good. The food is even better. Every restaurant serves some kind of authentic western cuisine, usually something simple like hamburgers and omelets, but without the Chinese accent, which is a welcomed quality. Beer is the official drink and is on the lips of every diner within eyesight. All the merchants and waitresses speak some English, at least enough to get them by. This is also a major reason why Chinese people like to come and work there; they get to practice their English every day while getting paid a wage, not to mention the beauty and festive nature of the place.
The center of the town with the tents may be the Chinese fiesta, but this is the western one. Walking down West Street, one can run into people from all corners of the globe. It’s common to share a beer or swap stories with people from all walks of life—from adventurers and adrenaline junkies to wealthy Koreans and Japanese on shopping expeditions.
Beer was ten RMB and a burger with fries was 35. With a salary of only 2,500 RMB per month, I couldn’t afford to go there at this time, not if I wanted to save money to travel anyway. I just loved the place anyway. I didn’t go there too often because of the lure of good food and great shopping (mostly interesting and over-priced Chinese doo-dads).
Luckily, Odar had offered me breakfast that day and I quickly chose the Denver omelette. I hadn’t eaten real western food in two months so my attitude towards Odar had quickly changed. Over a good cup of Colombian Coffee, Odar informed me that we were waiting on some people. Oh boy, the coffee soured. Who were they and what did they want?
When the five people arrived at our table, I was nervous about the cameras they had in tow. Odar introduced to them as representatives of the Hunan Television Station. He informed me that the girl was the writer of a new movie they were making. One man was the producer, one was a cameraman and the other two were executives of the station. They were looking for the lead actor in the movie and wanted to take some pictures of me and interview me for the part. The cameraman started taking photos and video of me talking. The girl asked me questions in rapid succession.
“Have you any acting experience?”
“Can you climb mountains?”
“Can you take your shirt off for me?”
Yes, she asked this and explained that they needed someone who was strong for the part. Sure.
A crowd was gathering to see what all the commotion was about. In China, when one person stops to look, everyone stops to look out of curiosity. This chain-reaction can create crowds of hundreds of people in a matter of minutes.
“I don’t feel comfortable doing that here and now,” I told her. “Maybe later.”
I don’t know if that sent the wrong message, but all I meant was that maybe we could do it in a more private place away from the crowd seeing as how I’m skin shy. I felt like that immediately disqualified me for the spot, but I didn’t care. I wasn’t interested in doing the movie anyway, I’m too ugly to be an actor! Acting is for people like Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise—and I’m no Tom Cruise.
Nevertheless, I answered the questions, avoided making eye contact with the crowd and prepared to go back to my class. They thanked me and left. Odar said he would let me know what the decision was and left me alone with my omelette and coffee—the crowd of people still standing there watching me as though I was already a star. They took the video and pictures back to Hunan and looked over the applicants they had for the role. They also narrowed the co-star (the female and the love interest of “Michael” in the show—coincidentally, the name of the character) down to four girls from thousands of applicants.
New West Street, an addition that is adjacent to the original and more exciting West Street, is quiet in the morning (above) but becomes a huge party in the evening with the best beer fish in the world!
I went about the next week as usual. I pondered the idea of getting the part and whether I would accept it or not. My dad wrote me an email that encouraged the idea as one heck of an experience and not to be afraid of the opportunity—even if I turned out to be a bad actor, which was my biggest fear, other than taking off my shirt in front of the camera and crowd of people.
Well, a few days more of waiting and I got called into Odar’s office. I did get the part and Odar seemed more excited than me. I was told my climbing experience during my years residing in Colorado and “acting experience” (which amounted to nothing more than a little stage acting in primary school and high school) had been the reason for them choosing me. They said they had a few hundred foreign applicants. I doubted that.
I still wasn’t sure if I wanted to take the role because I knew I would be a little shy and uncomfortable acting while people on the street stopped and watched what was going on. After a short period of cursing my cowardly thoughts, I decided to do it. After all, if you can’t laugh at yourself, what can you laugh at? They told me that I needed to stop shaving and to grow out my beard. Wonderful, in this heat you want me to have a beard? But, I had agreed and so I put my razor away, a little thankful that I didn’t have to shave with cold water again for a while.
So, I was given a hiatus from teaching. My students learned of my part in the film and decided to throw me a little party that night. We headed to the climbing bar and started drinking. All of my students came, even those who I had never seen with a beer in their hand. It turned out to be one of the more memorable evenings of all my China experiences.
The next day, I was put on a train bound for Hunan Province and their capital city, Changsha, where the Hunan TV station is located. I had never been on a train, especially a long-distance train. The sleeper car wasn’t bad. I was on one of the highest bunks in our cabin (three on each side). My only problem was the faux pas I committed when I climbed up to my bunk with my shoes still on. Apparently, it is customary to remove your shoes before getting on your bunk—something that makes sense but had eluded my thoughts. I quickly fell asleep and ceased my worries.
We arrived at 4:00 in the morning, the sky still wet and heavy with humidity. Though much of Hunan Province is covered in mountains, the city of Changsha is not dry. Changsha is a great city and close to the childhood home of Mao, still a revered leader throughout China, despite his mistakes, murder, philandering, plundering and evil bureaucratic tactics. But, the moment I arrived in Changsha, I loved it. Of course, it didn’t hurt that we were put in a four-star hotel (sharing a room with Odar, unfortunately) which was a real luxury compared to my apartment.
There are amazing tea cafés and restaurants in Changsha. The food is some of the most wonderful I’d had in China. It’s spicy, colorful, tasty, fresh and served by overly attractive olive-skinned men and women—products of the spicy food and mountains, I say. It seems odd that spicy food is preferred in a place with such a hot climate. So, one consumes one’s meal dripping with sweat, unless, of course, you are lucky enough to eat at the finer establishments (thank you, Hunan TV) where there is air conditioning in a closed room and a private table. The one drawback on the city is its weather. It is a lot like Yangshuo, and Guangxi Province altogether. It’s sweltering hot, muggy, nasty…you can’t walk 50 yards outside without being soaked in sweat and as you are walking along the tree-lined streets, you do your best to stay in the shade. It feels tropical, to put it bluntly, yet situated in the heart of China, just north of the sub tropical zone.
For the first two days I was fed some of the finest foods the area has to offer and shown around the city. With the meals, in typical Chinese fashion, one is bombarded with “Ganbei!” or “bottoms up” (literally dry glass)! So, if one is a guest (and I was the only one), s/he is, for better or worse, required to slam the equivalent of five or six bottles of beer at any given meal. This is okay, of course, since the food has set your lips afire! Each time you slam the beer, the waitress fills up your glass and another person is waiting there, looking at you, ready to “Ganbei” with you as well. With all the television execs and other honored guests, we always dined with eight or nine people. The first “Ganbei” was for the whole table. The next 8 are between the guest and each individual person who wishes to welcome you and show you respect by drinking the entire glass of beer. Hey, at least it wasn’t baijiu, the rice wine, which tastes like Bacardi 151 from the devil’s butthole. I only had one experience with that alcohol, thank God, and it was difficult to get out of without alcohol poisoning.
Though these people couldn’t hold their beer very well, they could hold their own with the baijiu. Do NOT get involved in that kind of contest, trust me. I had to hide my thimble-sized glass in the palm of my hand after a dozen shots with one group because I thought they were going to kill me with kindness–the show of respect and hospitality! IT didn’t matter—they had a replacement glass there within the next minute. The glasses may be small, but after a dozen or so shots, there’s no escape. You will be in dream land and your nightmares will be spinning around you.
On the third day, I was picked up from the hotel by a shiny new black Lincoln. We were driven to the TV station where, much to my surprise, I was to meet the other cast members of the show. When we arrived, I was led down a red carpet to the entrance of the station. The execs spent about twenty minutes showing me the building until I was finally led to a large open room that was empty, save the overpriced, Qing Dynasty-era art and sculptures. I was never told I was going to be doing that day other than meeting the other members of the cast. I was quickly shuffled into the dressing room and things got stressful.
In the dressing room, I was seated beside this long-legged, gorgeous woman who was busy getting what I thought was her fifth layer of makeup. I didn’t think much of it. Then, to my surprise, some guy appears and starts putting makeup on me. I objected. So, he huffed and placed the makeup back in the case. He stared at me for a few seconds until he had decided what kind of style my hair was to be. With my beard half grown, the man instantly went to work on making me look like a “mountain climber,” complete with spiked hair and a handful of gel (I’ve seen all kinds of mountain climbers and rarely do they have beards and/or gel-spiked hair).
Now, keep in mind, I am just a humble country boy from East Texas. I think I was wearing some backwoods Winston cigarette t-shirt and crappy old shorts. What are they prepping me for? Why do I need to look like their version of a mountain climber just to meet the other members of the film crew and cast? I said “bye” to the nice looking woman next to me and left the dressing room a few minutes later.
I was taken to a front row seat by the stage to meet the other three “climbers” in the film. All three were Chinese, naturally, and there didn’t seem much to talk about. It was awkward sitting there in this audience, the only white person, dressed in horrible white trash clothes and gelled hair. Now I know what they mean when they say “dress for success.” You never know when something like this will hit you from behind the head—and it is embarrassing.
While meeting the boys, there was a live showing of the four-finalists for the female co-star position (Xiaonan). While I watched these four beautiful girls sing, dance, act and model different outfits, I had fun watching, in front of the stage, with the other three guys (later known to me as Spider, Ant and Beetle). The judges, seated behind us in a booth, were famous actors from Hunan TV, legendary figures that people constantly turned around to listen to when they made their judgment. I was captivated and had a difficult time trying to mark the moment in my mind. The stars of the screen and stage were intimidating as they held the attention of the audience like Mao-esque political figures.
- The girl that was awarded this acting job would also be given a one-year contract with Lux, a well-known and over-expensive brand of shampoo products sold in China. The girl was to be the new spokesperson and model for them so there was a lot at stake. The girl that won was Lin Kai, a journalism student from Shanghai. After she won and the confetti had flown, the four of us (Ant, Beetle, Spider and I) were all pushed onto the stage in front of the cameras to congratulate Lin Kai. The runner-up was a tall, lanky girl from Shandong Province named, Wang Zhe. She is an interesting and comedic girl and I think her personality was so captivating that the company decided to give her a role just to keep her around.
The winners had been announced and the show was over, right? Wrong. Afterwards they rushed the boys on stage, in front of the cameras and I was brought into the forefront since I was the lead character. The hostess, who, it turns out, was the girl I was sitting next to in the makeup room, puts a microphone up to my face and says something really fast in Chinese to me. She just stared at me while I sat there in total shock, on national TV, not knowing what in the hell she just asked me. I could see the cameras from all around me move up and zoom in on my stunned face. The entire studio audience sat, quietly, waiting to see what this ‘ignorant’ foreigner was going to do. Luckily, the character known as Spider (the one wearing the Yellow “Home” shirt with wild hair in the pictures) was a college student and had been studying English for some time. I heard a voice speaking English and quickly turned around. The cameras were still fixed on me, and the audience remained silent and motionless. Spider spoke up again, he said, “Introduce Yourself.” Oh, cool, I thought. So, I grabbed the microphone and introduced myself. “Hey, my name is Michael and I’m from America. I’m working as a teacher at Omeida Language School (Odar got his plug) and I’m happy to be here.”
What the hell was that? I was still reeling from the shock and didn’t know what to say. I’m not a performer you know.
I was a reck afterwards. What a dork! And, I thought, how and the hell did they expect me to manage….knowing nothing about what was expected of me? At any rate, it was over and I didn’t want to show my face.
When I left the stage and entered into the foyer, there were hundreds of screaming teenagers standing there waiting for me. They all came at me wanting photos with me, my autograph, hugs, whatever. Now this, I thought, I can get used to. I only stayed for a few minutes when Odar whisked me away towards the car and we returned to the hotel.
We left Hunan and returned to Yangshuo two days later with the entire cast and crew on the train. This train wasn’t air conditioned so the only breeze of any kind came from the small window in each compartment and a row of windows along the side of the train with the aisle. The crew and cast shared about three compartments so it was one big party that night.
We bought case of beer while on the train and sat up all night during the 8-hour journey, sipping our Suntory beer and each taking turns talking by the window. That night, I really became good friends with Spider (Yang Zhe) and a couple of the members of the crew. Everyone had gathered around us in a semi-circle listening to Yang Zhe and I talking…he had to translate most (from me to them and them to me) but it was a blast. The train ride turned out to be exactly what we all needed to get used to each other and prepare the filming. About the only detail I remember was passing the Chinese country side that evening with a full moon shining down through the window for light. My experience was being illuminated by the one thing that I recognized from my own country and my own people.
We arrived in Guilin at about 5:00 a.m. and caught a couple of vans to Yangshuo. Most of the cast and crew were from Hunan or other areas of China so they had never seen the famous “dragon teeth” mountains in Guangxi Province. It was an almost totally silent bus ride to Yangshuo because everyone was in awe of the country side. When we arrived at the hotel in Yangshuo (a fine establishment that was to become our home for the next week) we all crashed and prepared ourselves for the filming which began the next day.
I was fortunate enough to have my own room as the guy that was to be my translator, Andy, lived only 5 minutes from the hotel, in the same apartment complex as yours truly. Andy was a student of mine in the advanced class. However, not only was he not my best student (though an amazingly nice guy), he was actually one of my worst students in the advanced class. Nevertheless, he was chosen by the principal to be my translator since nobody other than Yang Zhe knew any English. The director knew bits and pieces, like a lot of the cast and crew. I shared their predicament as I didn’t have much Chinese at this point, either. That became the biggest challenge in the course of the filming.
I was awakened at 5:00 the next morning by my phone and some girl on the other side of that phone saying something to me in Chinese. I just said what I always do when I don’t understand, “Xiexie” (thank you) and hung up the phone. Obviously, it was the wake-up call and I was being summoned for my first day of filming.
Day 1 – West Street
Like every day, this day began with breakfast at the hotel. Breakfast, similar to much of this part ofChina, included noodles, sweet bread, peanuts and tofu with warm milk. I didn’t eat much of it because, well, who wants to eat salty noodles first thing in the morning? I ate a lot of sweet bread and didn’t touch my warm, sour milk as I was afraid it might upset my stomach. That thought proved to be right three days later when I first drank a whole glass because, I thought, everyone else is, so why shouldn’t I? It didn’t end well.
This was one of the most memorable days because I have never seen West Street so empty. Our first day of filming took place in the heart ofWest Streetat7:00 a.m. The sun had just found its way over the buildings inWest Street, which remind me of a make-believe western town at Disney World. Some of the locals who owned the shops by the area where we were filming were peaking out as the cameras, sound and director’s station were set up. Since this scene was really in the middle of the movie, there was no time to “get used to” acting. I was already sweating by the time I had set up for the first scene.
Unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures of this scene or set-up since I neglected to bring my camera on any shoots until the third day. I was a little nervous and Lin Kai and I were just getting to know each other’s names still…yet, we were asked to do a scene where we were falling in love. We were close, and were leaning to kiss when I realized how difficult acting really is….I’m supposed to have the look and actions of someone in love, yet I hardly know this person. Hell, we haven’t even shared more than two or three words together since neither of us can really say much in the others’ language. It was complicated, but entertaining, I’m sure.
Plus, I’m trying to get used to what shots the director is aiming for based on where the cameras are. This one thing took me three days to learn….it makes it easier when one can get accurate and reliable translations, which I wasn’t. That made the process a little more difficult!!
Andy was an incredible gentleman who treated me like a star when I wasn’t in the shot (holding my sweaty towel, carrying around my clothes, getting me water, etc.), but it was during the shooting that I needed him the most. That’s when I’d find him in the corner joking or flirting with someone and I was lost at the instructions by the director. Thousands of times, literally, I heard the “FAN YI!” being screamed (“Translator”). That was usually the director trying to find Andy as he was as impatient as I while we tried to work out the shot. The next thing you’d see is Andy sprinting from his seat over to Director San and myself.
I don’t recall a whole lot about the first day of filming as we sped from one place to another, quickly getting a shot and moving on. I do remember us wrapping up that shot just as the crowds were beginning to make their way to West Street. As expected, the local merchants were opening their shops for business and the beggars and street merchants (usually poor farmers looking for extra subsistence by selling flutes, beads, etc.). As expected, the crowds slowly grew until both sides of the scene were filling up with dozens of onlookers. What was funny was that the first scene was filmed by an alley which served as the back of so many old people’s homes; they just kept creeping out of the alley like cockroaches. We would get the perfect and you’d hear “CUT!” and some menacing Chinese screamed from Director San’s mouth. Some local would be poking his/her head out from the ally into the shot. It was frustrating, but hilarious as well.
One old lady, while in the middle of filming a scene, tried to get past me while I had Lin Kai pinned against the alley wall. The backpack I was wearing was so large that the lady couldn’t make her way past me to the opening of the street, so the scene was filmed with her stuck, struggling trying to get past me! The crew was in fits of laughter and the poor old woman just smiled and walked on, after she finally got past the out-of-place foreigner and his fat backpack.
From there, we moved on to the Mei You Café, a local hot spot for foreign travelers. The number of people watching from this point was ridiculous. With the transient crowds, we never had less than 200 people watching as we filmed—and it isn’t hard to guess who everyone was watching. Cue the sweat. Some of these onlookers were foreigners, some were local merchants. The eyes came from everywhere, the street, the windows aboveWest Street, the shops, and especially the alleys. At any rate, while I sat there cooking in the afternoon sun, in front of all of those people, my shyness seemed to disappear. I knew I was out of luck…there was no escape the eyes watching. We shot there for at least 5 hours in the heat of the day. We went over scenes again and again before Director San was finally happy. There were several scenes to be shot there so it took almost the entire day. We did take a break to eat lunch at the hotel, but that was the last time we actually went to the hotel to eat. We later continued with the scenes at Mei You Café and then had dinner. The crowd hadn’t dispersed.
Lunch and dinner usually consisted of a tremendous amount of food. We were fed beer fish (a local delicacy that I can’t even begin to describe….by far, it was the favorite), rice, vegetables, shredded pork and peppers, shredded beef and peppers, fried shrimp, cold tea, tofu….it was amazing. This was given to us day in and day out, twice a day. The only difference between lunch and dinner was the beer. The cost of feeding the cast and crew must have exceeded the budget of the movie alone—I mean, it wasn’t the greatest quality movie.
After dinner, we filmed a shot in this narrow alley by the hotel. It was dark by then, but not cool by any measure. The number of people watching here I can’t even guesstimate as it went back from the middle of the alley all the way to the main street. The lights were blinding, but we all did the scenes pretty well. That was the first time I actually enjoyed acting and I finally felt like I was getting the hang of it, and who my character was. The biggest challenge here was the people that just kept walking through the middle of the set as if nothing was going on. You’d have people walk through a crowd of people into the middle of the set, stop and look around, then Director San would shout something…and they’d finally move on. This happened dozens of times every time we were inWest Streetshooting. Foreigners did it, locals did it, and worst of all were the children, I hate to say. It wasn’t their fault as they didn’t know what was going on, but their parents just kept laughing at it. We were going to be there an extra 3 to 5 minutes every time it happened (because we would have to set up again) so it wasn’t funny to us….as we were already exhausted.
We were there for a couple of hours before going to the climbing bar where we filmed until 3:00 that morning. While filming, I looked around and could see the members of the cast/crew and extras who weren’t in the picture asleep in various places around the bar and on the balcony of the bar where the benches make comfortable make-shift beds. It was easy to see a lot of people getting impatient, but Director San just persisted. Most of the crew had to be woken up when we finally wrapped for the evening.
Day 2 – Climbing
The second day of filming was a nasty one. We took a couple of buses with all of the equipment, cast and crew outside of town to the place where we were to film the rock climbing scenes. Given that my character, Michael, was an “expert” mountain climber who had recently given it up, I was anxious about the climbing. It wasn’t that I thought I couldn’t do it; hell, I’d climbed much worse in Colorado. The problem was my safety. China has, let’s just call it a callous view of life. It’s expendable. It’s cheap and abundant. In my time in China, I never witnessed folks get all hyped up or upset about death. Yes, it is a part of life. But, with the exception to a death to those close to them, people seem to be relatively out of touch with grief and sensitivity to others’ suffering.
We arrived at the scene that had already been scouted out and set up. After that, I basically sat around for a couple of hours, ate lunch and watched the crew nap on old watermelon rinds while the director gathered all of the shots they needed for “Spider,” “Ant,” and “Beetle” on the mountain. When it was my turn, I knew this was the moment where I either earned or lost the respect of everyone. I grew nervous and also felt ridiculous playing the role of a mountain climber wearing old tennis shoes and a sleeveless shirt that read, “To Err is Human, To forgive is Divine.” Oh man, did I look like a wannabe a**hole. For the remainder of the film, I wore my own clothes, my own cheap, ugly, practical clothes. There was no wardrobe other than the before mentioned sleeveless shirt that we bought while at an Army-Navy store in Changsha. That, my friends, is shoddy planning. The other part of my costume that was so handsomely chosen for me was the straw hat and sunglasses that they had recoinnoitered for free in the town—a marketing gift from the town of Yangshuo. It was ALMOST as ridiculous as the shirt.
Nevertheless, being that it was six years since I had even attempted to scale a rock wall, I was a little nervous. To make matters worse, one of the cast members, “Ant” (played by Lee), was an experienced climber. He climbed the expert portion of the wall with some struggle, but nevertheless, he was able to accomplish his task with a little help from the guy belaying him from below. The other guys were put on the beginner wall and, of course, struggled very little.
Now, it was my turn. They put me on the wall which included a six foot overhang (see above picture) that one had to climb over before emerging on the top of it and scaling the rest of the wall expertly. Yeah, I had never done anything like that. And, at my current weight of 190 pounds, I didn’t see it happening.
The first couple of meters was okay, but the overhang was my nemesis and I started panicking that wasn’t going to be able to do it. What would happen to my role? Would they replace me? Would they laugh at me? There is absolutely no way an amateur climber, could climb that overhang. In the process of trying, and finally accomplishing the task of getting over the overhang, thanks to even more help from the dude belaying me, I had ripped my hands to pieces. Literally, the skin on my hands and fingers had peeled like fruit skin and was bunched up at the knuckle.
I can’t even describe how nice it feels to have the first two layers of skin on four fingers and palms ripped and still having to grasp the rock and pull up 190 lbs. of overweight, foreign flesh. Then, to make matters worse, I was asked to collect loose rocks and put them on a ledge where my next “hold” was to be. I had to tear my hand away from the ledge (the act of losing my grip and falling from the mountain) with the loose rocks beneath my fingers.
Wow, the combination of sweat, dirt, and loose, sharp rocks slipping beneath a grip of naked skin, not intended exposure to air, was not pleasant. I was in intense pain. My hands were shaking uncontrollably and I couldn’t even squeeze my hands into a fist because of the swelling that had already begun. Luckily, after two hours or so, I managed to finish my part and get my fingers taped up. Unfortunately, I was not finished.
We moved on to the next spot where I was to do more climbing, but I was relieved because this face was more to my ability level. It went straight up, had good, solid holds and, most important, no overhangs.
I managed to do this part fairly well and enjoyed it. It was not unlike the face of the mountain I learned to climb on. I spent only 10 minutes climbing before I was half-way up (my fingers aching every time I had to pull) and they told me to stop. But, it was at this point that I had to hold my position for 5 minutes, at least, while they set up the camera and explained what I was to do to the translator and then have it relayed to me. I was exhausted, mentally and physically and was ready to just let go. Andy couldn’t translate fast enough, or accurate enough, so I was stuck holding myself in position for a long time. Finally, I was told to act like I was barely out of reach of a hold, CUT.
Then, I had to act like I had fallen from the mountain. This was actually quite enjoyable. I was to just let go and act like I had fallen. What made me nervous was that I was pretty high up on the face and Director San kept saying in his broken English (he was learning, like everyone else, to use his Chinglish instead of relying on Andy who kept translating incorrectly…poor guy) “Michael, safety is most important.” They wanted me to fake missing the hold and just fall….a free fall….all the way down. It was okay…until the very end.
The guy belaying me was the guy who ran the climbing school there. He spoke zero English and weighed all of 125 pounds at most. As I fell and it was time for him to take the weight so I wouldn’t hit the ground and break every bone in my body, he actually came off the ground about 5 feet. Luckily, Lee (Ant) and Yang Zhe (Spider) had his belt and pulled at him so that my crash to the ground only sent me to the ground where I bounced my butt a bit. It was the end of climbing, though, and I was happy to have done it. I wanted to climb some more!!
That night, I was surprised to find Director San knocking at my door. He said, in his much improving English (which he said was the first time he was able to use in years), “Fans downstairs want to meet you.” So, I went downstairs and found six giggly girls standing there with their notepads open ready for me to sign. Lin Kai had already done her part in signing and was on her way up and had a big smile pasted on her face. Apparently, she said later, the girls were very shy about meeting the first foreigner they had seen on Hunan TV. I doubt that. I had seen many foreigners on Chinese TV; I don’t know if it was Hunan TV, but I see them all them time in those variety shows, singing Chinese songs or acting like total tools. Sometimes, I actually felt sorry for them because it seemed more like people were laughing at them rather than actually watching their performance. I wondered if the same would happen to me.
I tried to speak to them with my terrible Chinese, but all I ever got was more giggling and staring eyes. I signed their notebooks for them and turned around to leave. The girls then, in what sounded like a chant all whispered, “Thank You, Michael.” I was left wondering, though, what it would have been like had I not quit college baseball and had gone pro. Would this be a common sight? Nuts.
- Each time we left the hotel to start filming another scene, the staring increased. We started getting people, mostly locals, stopping and watching us, whispering and pointing as we made our way to the vans which were to take us to our next location. Then, every night since the second night, four nights to be exact, I had interviews set up with different television stations around China. The first, and most exciting, was Extreme Entertainment which is a show like Entertainment Tonight inChina.
A guy who spoke basic, but good English was waiting for Lin Kai, Wang Zhe, and myself in the lobby of the hotel. He took us to a local bar and had us do a television interview which lasted about 15 minutes. It was a pretty basic interview until he started asking me about girlfriends, what kind of girls I liked, etc. Then, he asked me which of the two cast-members I preferred. I like them both, I said, being as impartial as I could. The next night was the interview with Guilin television (a local TV station), followed by CCTV (strangely enough, a competitor with Hunan TV) and some other small-market stations. Sometimes the interviews were done at the hotel, but a couple of times, the crew of the TV stations wanted to get me on the set. So, I’d finish a scene, at which time I’d be pulled over to the side and do a 5 or 10 minute spot with a reporter that spoke zero English.
The third day started like the second except we were taken by van to a random spot on the side of the road down by the Li River. The country side was beautiful and wide open. The day was warm and muggy, and I wasn’t too excited to get out of the air-conditioned van. This is where “Xiaonan” and “Michael” were to film the scenes on the tandem bike. What made this task particularly tricky was this enormous backpack that I had to wear filled with clothes. Apparently, in our director’s mind, mountain climbers all wear enormous camping backpacks everywhere they go. I guess that, along with his idea for the beard, the Marine t-shirt, the old tennis shoes and the spiked hair, creates the typical mountain climber. Strange people.
After a few minutes of trying to make the ride work, we finally had to switch, due to the backpack’s large size that kept Xiaonan from seeing or doing anything. So, Xiaonan had to take the captain’s seat in the front. If you’ve ever ridden a tandem, then you know the front person does all the steering and 70% of the pedaling. Try and imagine a girl of 100 lbs. trying to steer and pedal a 6’2” man who weighs 190 lbs. It took us a while to get going and finally get the scene shot. It was so hot that day that, once again, I was pouring sweat within 10 minutes of filming.
As usual, Andy and I fought the heat by trading places in the air-conditioned SUV owned by Hunan TV. Xiaonan went to the other van with the director. All the executives sat in the van monitoring and giving directions by radio. They didn’t dare get out and sweat out their demons. Besides, their attire wasn’t appropriate—they were dressed in your typical Chinese businessman attire—black pants, black shoes, black belt, black sport coat and black silk shirt with a black briefcase. Okay, some of them had a white shirt to at least try to balance the outfit, but they all looked like members of the Triad to me.
Between that and fanning ourselves with the scripts, we managed to stay alive. I really feel bad for the stylist, however, as she not only had to continually apply makeup, but she had to hold the towel when Andy wasn’t around, and washing my sweat-soaked clothes every evening.
So, Xiaonan and I cruised down the highway on our tandem bike while the van drove beside us with its door ajar and the camera rolling. There were two cameras: The first one was beside the van and got a side shot, and the second was in the back of the van and took the straight on shot. We were required to keep up with the van that had to have been going 15 miles per hour down the road. Director San was barely audible as he shouted his instructions from within the van, “Smile…Michael, you are very happy…you are in LOVE!!” “Xiaonan, start your lines, turn around and look at Michael!” All of this was in Chinese, of course, but I can happily say that I started to pick up a lot from his instructions, nonverbal cues and, of course, the action of Lin Kai.”
The scene here didn’t take very long as it was just a brief little bit of the movie. A lot of the scenes from here on out were like this as the next couple of days we did a lot of filming of our “falling in love.” It was enjoyable going to all of these strange and exotic locations for free and just pretending to be someone. What I learned is that the director, the special effects, the camera angles, etc. all combine to make the actors look good—or bad in my case. If you just stick a camera in someone’s face and tell them some lines, they have to be really good to be convincing. Sometimes the acting was acceptable, but the camera angle wasn’t. Or, the right mood and effect had been established, but the director wasn’t happy with the lighting.
Afterwards, we headed back to the face of the mountain to brush up on some mountain climbing shots and some shots of Ant (Lee) and myself hiking in the field, etc. For the mountain climbing shots, classes of girls from another local language school were brought in with their teachers as extras. This was a lot of fun, but it was tedious as the camera had to be positioned in several different complicated spots. So, we spent a lot of time sitting around and waiting for the 20 second shot to be finished. Several other little scenes were also shot including the training scene, the fall of Ant from the rock yaddi yadda. It was a pretty uneventful day until the end. This scene did involve me yelling in Chinese something along the lines of, “Do you think this is a game?” Yeah, well, acting is very difficult when done in a language you don’t speak and you have only a few minutes to memorize and practice yelling out. I’m pretty sure I failed to be convincing in that scene, along with others.
The last scene to be shot for the day was the “rain scene.” Thus, at the end of the day, as we made our way back towards the town, we stopped for the short scene. A rather large water truck was brought in for Xiaonan’s walk down the road in the “rain”. This thing slowly chugged along spraying this poor girl with water that came from God knows where. She was given an umbrella to walk under, but little help it actually provided as the cars that drove down the road beside her kept cruising through the puddles which splashed her continuously. It was nice though and she did an excellent job of just going with it and kept laughing and splashing around as if it was planned. I was really starting to respect her for her talent for acting (one of the pre-requisites of her Lux deal) and improvisation. As the truck continued to spray Xiaonan down along the road, I noticed that it was coming close to me so it was my turn.
For my portion, I was stand in the rain without an umbrella, starting at the mountain above while Xiaonan came behind me with the umbrella. It seems a little cheesy on paper and was, in all truth, very much so. But, there was this great take of us just looking at each other, finally beginning to fall in love and shake some of the bitterness that existed between she and I in the film that stems from her “bothering” me to help her friends while I only desired to live my lonely and sad life in isolation. The whole scene was so good, it started Director San’s trademark yell (which everyone later adopted) of “Wonderful!!” We were given an ovation at the end of the scene, the only time that happened, and they didn’t even need to take another shot of it. They loved it. I guess it makes sense then that the scene never made the cut—right? Nevertheless, the fact that we only had to do the scene one time gave us a lot of free time.
At dinner that night we were told we had the rest of the night off because of our last scene. We were toasted that night by the whole room and the cast and crew of some 30 people. I didn’t really understand it, nor did I understand what was going on, but I was happy that all those tired faces were starting to perk up for the first time in three days. We celebrated that night by going out to West Street and having a few beers. Later, we were sat in the dining room and allowed to watch the previous couple of days’ filming. The actors, director, producer, and some of the hotel staff all sat around for three hours watching the shots we had gathered. It was absolutely hilarious watching some of it; it was like watching outtakes after a funny comedy as a scene was being done and you’d hear, “CUT,” no, no, no, and then the actors’ reactions. Those nights became the anchor of fun and the winding down of each long and laborious day.
By the fourth day, everything was becoming easier and more enjoyable as we were all getting to know one another. In addition, Lin Kai and I were starting to relax with one another and actually do the more tedious scenes with more emotion and believability. This entire day was devoted to two spots in the country side. The first one was a place by the river, a little bridge that was surrounded by beautiful, green mountains and a part of the Li River. All around were bamboo trees that had grown to such enormous size that they bent over at the top as if someone leaning over and stretching their back. They were amazing to look at and I actually began to appreciate the landscape now.
As we were filming, we watched these people in the river below us digging out stones from the bottom so they could turn around and sell them in the market to people for decorative purposes. A lot of merchants would smooth the rocks and paint local scenes on these rocks as souvenirs for the tourists in the area. So, while we did our work, there were three or four people in their underwear picking through the river bottom looking for their stones.
It took us about four hours to finish all of the shooting there, most of which I spent on the bus teaching English to Andy. This was probably the best thing Andy got out of the translation deal. He had a private English teacher and plenty of practice for the better part of the day. We had a lot of fun together on this day looking over Moon Hill and some of the other more popular tourist attractions that people flock to see. Not only did I get to see all of this, but I worked around it for a week at no cost to me. It truly was worth it and I felt so appreciative of this opportunity because of moments like this. I really began to not only celebrate my decision to go through with the movie, but I had nothing but great admiration and appreciation to those responsible for choosing me and allowing me to work with Hunan TV.
At the end of the day, for the last scene, Xiaonan and I had to trek through a part of the country side to a spot down the river. Director San wanted to get a shot of us playing and splashing in the river from the bridge. The sun was setting behind us and there we were, in the middle of a shallow part of the river having a water fight. To stay with the strange image of the American mountain climber, I was still wearing that damned backpack full of clothes. Nothing annoyed me more than that thing and I had thoughts of burning it when the filming was completed.
While we were doing this, there were four kids sitting off to the side of the river in a homemade shallow pool. It was pretty cool, actually, as they had carved a niche out of the river and allowed the water to come in and out with a bamboo pipeline. The kids and the adults sprawled out in the shallow pool behind their homes. The kids shot each other with these bamboo water guns that they had made. The trek through the country side was absolutely fascinating, as is any walk through that part of the country. The homes and farms were unbelievable; it was like taking a walk back in time, before electricity, phones, natural gas or any modern conveniences. It wasn’t a short day, but most of the shooting took place here as part of our “falling in love” section of the movie.
The old house where we filmed on day 5 was over 350 years old and was traditional in every manner conceivable. It was a dizzying place with rooms connecting here and there and then disappearing into nowhere. I don’t remember much of it as I was lost most of the time. That house had a great effect on all of those around that day as the tenant of the house was this elderly man of, what must have been, 90 years. He did his best to sleep while we worked. In his room was a basic bed made of boards and a pillow that was nothing more than bamboo reeds rolled up and fit snugly under the crook of his neck. I was told to wait in his bedroom while the crew got set up. I watched him as he attempted to sleep, but like clockwork he would wake up every 10 minutes or so and fan himself for about 15 seconds before falling back into his slumber. He did this for at least 5 hours.
The rest of the crew seemed to fall into a spell, sleeping on benches, in the entrances of the house, on the patio, generally wherever they could lay their head. It was strange to me watching these folks fall asleep so easily in someone else’s home, but I chalked that up to another common effect stemming from state property. I’m not so stupid as to believe that state property means no personal property, but it does kind of seem odd and very difficult to imagine such scenes in America.
The house itself was mostly constructed of brick, bamboo, mortar and concrete flooring. It was actually a pretty large house with five or six rooms (that I was allowed to see) with a large courtyard in the middle that served as his “garden” where his plants grew and his herbs hung to dry. It was so unbelievably hot and muggy in that courtyard where we filmed for most of the morning. Like most days, there was an overcast sky that wouldn’t allow for any moisture to escape; instead, it laid itself unwelcomingly at our feet. The sun is so intense down there that it burns a hole only where the sun itself is, so that the concentration of the light and heat are allowed to escape the sky with no chance of a break for those below. That, coupled with the fact that the courtyard wasn’t designed to allow the breeze in made for a long morning.
There was one dark room that had a ceiling fan powered by some rudimentary electrical setup that I thought was going to send the place in flames at any moment. I was thankful for that ingenuity, but it worried me too. The rest of the house was without power. This room was haven for those who weren’t filming (the crew, unfortunately, wasn’t allowed in there was it was reserved for the cast that was there; Wang Zher, Lin Kai and myself). It was almost completely dark and had some interesting decorations on the walls. One door was locked off and had an incense burner at the doorstep. I didn’t ask what it was, nor did I wonder in that direction.
Above the doorway to that room was a drawing of the old man when he was probably 60 years old. Beside that, on the large wall, was an enormous poster of Chairman Mao with the sun rising in the background of a red poster. There was little to ponder on its meaning. I must have stared at that and the drawing of the old man for several minutes when I was called to start filming. As I hurriedly left the room, I did a sort of half-jump from the door step which had a slab of wood about four inches off the ground at its entrance—a design meant to keep evil spirits out and foreigners in apparently. The doorway itself wasn’t more than six feet tall so I couldn’t fit through it even if I just stood there. Running at the entrance, I did my little half-jump over the step and then, “WHAM!” My head snapped back and everything went dark. Stunned and dizzy, I fell down and try to regain my senses. It took a second, but I finally realized that as I jumped over the step, my head slammed into the top of the doorway where there was an evil-go-away board protruding down also.
This was another scene that hadn’t yet been translated by Andy so I was in the process of learning what to do while they were setting up. Lucky for me, it also included a few more Chinese lines so I was also in the process of memorizing some Chinese while listening to instructions and hearing the translation of the scene. Most of the time this was the case. I either had to memorize some Chinese in two or three minutes, or the director was changing the script which made me memorize more. They kept laughing at how horrendous my Chinese was, but I didn’t have the heart to tell them how horrendous their abilities were in English—and I hadn’t studied Chinese in school for 12 years either. That, and I was the only native English speaker to judge them on theirs so I just held it all in. It did provide moments of hilarity and camaraderie so who is pointing fingers?
By the time the scenes at the old house were being completed, half the people from the little village nearby were inside the old house watching the filming. The two little girls in the picture below were the spies that got word out of what was happening.
The last scene at the old house that day required me to ride a bike up to the house, from the road in front, got off my bike with haste and run inside the house. So, I decided, with my experience, to do a little showing off of my proud bike skills. I thought, finally, this is something I can do. So, as I rode the bike around the neighborhood, I went flying into the front yard of the house and slammed on the brakes of the bike to see what kind of response I would get. What I didn’t realize is that Chinese bikes have their front and back brakes in reverse. The right side of the handlebar doesn’t house the brake lever for the back brakes, but the front. I went flying over the handlebars and, luckily, because I have been in this scenario before, did a four-point roll on the ground below without harm. I hadn’t hurt anything but my pride. What a fool!!
The Li River Bridge was one of the most fantastic scenic spots I had seen in my time in Yangshuo. The skies opened up, the sun was bright, and the humidity had burned off in what proved to be the most remarkable day in my entire time there. Never before had it been so sunny, and I don’t think it was like that again while I was there.
Families were swimming in the open waters of the river that day, splashing and laughing, allowing their tanned skin to soak up the incredible sunlight. I was surprised to see so many people open under the sun as the people in China often think of dark skin as a negative. So, it was a surprise, but I never witnessed people out at the bridge like this again. I was jealous as my white skin was, to me, an embarrassment. It just goes to show you another cultural difference between the west and the east.
While Lin Kai was busy filming her portion of the scenes here, I was happy to walk around, joking with members of the cast and crew and soaking in the sunlight. I was lucky to be here for two reasons: One, it was absolutely beautiful which is evident by the picture of Wang Wei, the documentarian and outtake extraordinaire. Two, I didn’t have much to do here. In fact, the only thing I did was cross the bridge a couple of times with Xiaonan, once on the tandem bike, which, again, we struggled with because my backpack was too large to allow me to be in front. We had to do three takes of this before I was let go to take pictures and relax until it was time to go. I really was sad that we didn’t get to spend more than 2 hours at this location because I couldn’t think of a more beautiful place to be on the one day it was clear and sunny. We wrapped up our scene here with a mouthful of ice cream and moved on to the balcony where we had quite a bit of work to do and little daylight left. Sadly, the sky began to close up somewhere between our journey from the Li River to the balcony at the house where we were filming. It was all of a 20-minute bus ride. That’s how fast it turned sunny, and that’s how quickly it turned cloudy again. Woe is us.
At the balcony, there was a rather important scene where I am finally told the story of Xiaonan and her mother and all of the reasons for her own strange actions regarding our newly formed relationship. At any rate, the crowd’s continued to gather as this small village was interrupted in its usual daily activities by three large vans transporting equipment, actors, actresses, a crew and one foreigner. The residents came together on rooftops and on the ground below to catch a view of this strange activity. I had never been on a movie set before myself, so I know it must have been pretty strange for them as well. The curiosity wasn’t so unwelcome—this is par for the course.
I remember one thing really well—my bathroom stop. The house we filmed on was a four-story building that probably housed ten people and had only the most basic facilities. However, there wasn’t a bathroom on the inside. One had to walk from the house, down a narrow grass and dirt road to a make-shift outdoor port-a-potty. Basically, it was a low, squat building that had no walls and a grass roof. Because of all the onlookers, it wasn’t possible to relieve oneself without having fifty pairs of eyes staring down at you. So, I did the next best thing, I went for a walk between the houses in the neighborhood. While walking with Andy, I encountered another squat building of similar small structure and just assumed it was another bathroom. So, I walked inside with my upper body almost bent at a 90 degree angle with my lower body and went to the bathroom in this little concrete trench which flowed outside the structure into the grass. No big deal. It turns out, this was a place where the pigs are kept and allowed to feed, poop, etc. At least I was in the right place to go to the bathroom–well, sort of.
This entire day was spent at an outdoors store onWest Street, filming some of the first scenes of the movie. It really wasn’t very interesting. Mostly, it was a lot of standing around and then filming, and the whole process repeated over again. We were stuck indoors and were pretty exhausted by this time.
However, the night was completely different. We were to film a scene at the second Mei You Café, which is also where “Xiaonan” and “Michael” were to have a defining moment. The atmosphere was great, there was live music and within all of this were the two people in love knowing that the time had come to depart. The scene was phenomenal. The rest of the cast (Spider, Ant, Beetle and The Boss’ Wife) were to get up and go dance on the floor after several “Cheers!” Lin Kai and I were to stay put and have our, “I’m only here for one more day…I have to go, etc.” talk.
I can’t say what happened during this scene, but everything came together into one wonderful scene where the two of us connected in front of all the people that had gathered inside the Mei You Café. The audience included a television reporter who had done an interview just ten minutes before. At any rate, after the scene was over, and I’m not exaggerating, the whole place was silent; Xiaonan was left in tears (she was incredible) and Director San was speechless, which is unheard of. Andy stood up and said, “Michael, did you really fall in love with her?” I actually felt like an actor at that point, and Lin Kai and I remained in character for at least the next 10 minutes as the crew packed up. We just sat there, sipping beer and looking at each other in awe of what had happened. I’ll never forget that scene nor the feeling of a nailing something so accurately. As elementary as it sounds, I fell in love with the job at that point—and almost the girl.
This was supposed to be our last day filming, but we still had another shot on West Street before wrapping things up. As we headed out to a watermelon farm south of Yangshuo, I couldn’t help but to look back at how fast the whole week had flown by. I was really upset about the days coming to an end as I had had the most amazing experience with everyone. I wish I could tell every story and communicate every measurement of happiness I had experienced while doing this project, but it just isn’t possible. Even Lin Kai, who had never warmed up to me began smiling and using her limited English to engage me. It felt natural and free and my only wish at this point was that I could have the opportunity to do it again.
The unforgettable watermelon scene took place in the middle of a, well, you guessed it, a watermelon field. There was this little stand where the local farmer would stash his watermelons as he picked them and that is where Xiaonan and I were to do a little filming. It was the only shade provided on this sweltering day. The sun had once again peaked its head out from behind the clouds, but just a tad, and the heat was tremendous. Within 20 minutes, my entire shirt was drenched and we were to be there for another two hours. At any rate, it went without a hitch. I had some more Chinese lines, including my best, corky interpretation of Chinese Gung Fu on the watermelon. It was actually kind of fun being out there while Lin Kai hid in the shade, terrified her skin was going to get dark. She’s a star now—I’m not judging.
We headed back to the van for lunch where a 13-year old boy gave me a slice of his watermelon, staring at me with awe. I suppose he had never seen a foreigner before (I’ve seen that look before) and especially a bearded, blond-haired one. I thanked him and headed to the bus to change shirts before we finished lunch and waited for the film crew to film a scene with Xiaonan’s mother and husband in the field. Afterwards, we headed into town where I was allowed to rest in the afternoon while some of the other actors went to another location to shoot some other scene.
Later that day, we were taken to a place on the Li River where we were to board an impressive bamboo raft, equipped with Chinese tea, watermelon and nuts, to sing along with this ethnic minority girl who sings a folk song in Chinese while standing at the front of the barge that’s floating down the river. Director San, the film crew and Xiaonan and I were the only ones on the boat. The clouds began rolling in as the girl sang in her high tone this song that I can barely remember. I do remember the fact that I had to sing along with her (again, memorizing Chinese in all of five minutes) and Xiaonan. Then, to my embarrassment, I had to scream, at the top of my lungs “WO MEI YOU LEI!” which translated to “I don’t have a wife.” Now, the first time I was a little quiet and shy. Director San said, “I think you can do better.” So, the second time, I tried again. Remember, I’ve never claimed to be a singer, much less one in Chinese with its tones and whatnot. It took four takes before they all finally laughed their asses off at me and I heard Director San’s trademark, “Wonderful!” This time, I didn’t hear the “let’s do it again” after the “WONDERFUL” so I was happy that we were headed back to shore, my face bright red and my ego quickly sinking in the water beneath us. As soon as we arrived on shore, it began to rain and was the most dramatic rain storm I had seen since being there. I’m sure being on the river in that beautiful place provided the basis for that opinion.
Finally, we headed over to an open pasture where a very old looking hot air balloon was being set up. This was the final scene in which Xiaonan and I finally lift off, in love after my proposal and drift into the unkown. Because of the rain, it was quite miserable standing in this huge field boarding the air balloon in five inches of water. I was soaked, my shoes were wasted and Xiaonan was hidden under the umbrella most of the time. We got the first couple of scenes out of the way which I thought were mediocre at best and then prepared for the rest.
The rest of the scene involved Lin Kai and the crew hiking up the mountain to a distance where I could barely make them out in the trees and shrubs that had thickly grown up and down the face of the mountain. I was just amazed that they managed to get Lin Kai to walk up a mountain, through weeds and hordes of bugs. I got to go up in the balloon, maybe 500 feet, where I was to shout “Xiaonan” and wave my hands obsessively at her in the distance. She had to return the deed while one camera filmed from the balloon and the other filmed from behind her. The balloon then came down and the crew and “Xiaonan” hiked back to the base.
The rain finally stopped and the skies started to clear, a little. As they all arrived back to the base, I noticed that several people started packing up the things and heading back to the vans. The other cast members were all asleep on the van at this time and the mugginess of the afternoon was beginning to sap us of our energy. After about an hour of standing around, I was told to get back on the hot air balloon. I had no idea what was going on and what scene we were doing. In fact, I had told Andy to take my camera and snap pictures freely of us riding in the balloon, my driving the balloon (YEAH!), etc. At this point, I couldn’t find him. Finally, Lin Kai boarded with me, along with one cameraman and the pilot. Andy was standing right beside me, camera in hand, and hadn’t told me a thing about what was going on.
As the balloon started to rise, I thought we were going to do one of the scenes over again (where we just hovered in the balloon maybe 100 meters off the ground). I was surprised to find that the balloon kept rising, steadily, until we had surpassed the the length of the rope previously anchored in the ground to keep the balloon from going too high. We went up and up and rose above the mountains after only a short time. The landscape was astonishing; the view of all of those creepy, green mountains was in view for miles and miles. I saw the varying colors of rice fields, corn fields, cow pastures, and the like. The most amazing feature was how the river snaked between the mountains and around the valleys below. At that height, the temperature had dropped probably 20 degrees, the air was dry and the sun was shining on us like blessed saints. It was incredible. All of this to view and Andy was standing there, without saying a word to me about what was going on, holding my camera! It was the most incredible photo opportunity of my life and my camera was in my translator’s hand!!! I was so upset. It didn’t last too long as I was busy taking in what I knew would be a once-in-a-lifetime view.
The cameraman who went with us was going from side to side with a huge smile on his face. This is a guy who seemed to me as dry a person as I’d ever known. I’d never seen him smile; hell, I’d never seen him show any emotion except frustration and impatience. Now, here he was, smiling, and, had he had a tail, he would have been wagging it with unrelenting excitement.
We floated a couple of miles going up and down through the country side, dropping in on some trees, some farmers, and some cows before rising again above the river. Words could never describe it. We finally landed in the middle of a pasture somewhere where we were picked up and taken back to the hotel. Needless to say, everyone was absolutely jealous. I wanted to see the film, as did everyone else, but the cameraman wouldn’t let it go. I’m serious. He put that footage away and wouldn’t let anyone near it.
That night, we went to a place where there is supposed to be an incredible show at night on the Li River. Supposedly, all the lights are shut off, with the exception to the lights people are actually wearing while they perform on these bamboo rafts. From what I hear, they play this ancient folk music with a brilliant light show. Unfortunately, the water level was too high from the rain so the performances were cancelled for that night. However, a friend of mine, and a former teacher at Dong Zhou Middle School had come to town and was staying with me for a couple of days while he traveled the Yangshuo area. He wanted to come with us to the “Impressions” show and I asked Director San. He gave the okay nod and we sat there, in total silence, in the dark, wondering what we were going to get out of that time investment. It was a short scene, but worth Dan’s time; he got to be in the scene and it made the cut on the movie which showed a couple of weeks later. The sitting around and endless waiting may be the most difficult task of making a film. But, I guess it depends on the location—we just happened to be in one of the most exotic places in the world.
So, I came to the fourteenth minute in my fifteen minutes of fame. That morning, the final one of filming, we did some scenes on New West Street, in front of the Mei You Café. It was nice doing scenes over there because the people were much kinder on that side of town.
Director San once again brought in the girls from the foreign language school down the road to fill in as extras. We filmed for a couple of hours before we wrapped everything up and headed back to the hotel. Basically, these scenes involved “Xiaonan” screaming “Michael!” a lot, and me screaming “Xiaonan!” a couple of dozen times. The whole of the town knew the group was down by the café filming again and so a nice little crowd had gathered to watch. The most challenging aspect of the whole experience was performing some of these really cheesy parts in front of crowds of people, many of them western folks. This was as much a humbling experience as it was enjoyable. Regardless, after a couple of takes, we packed it in and got ready to split.
After we finished the filming and there was a huge applause for the entire cast and crew by the people standing around watching. It had been one amazing experience which truly changed how I felt about being there and not just because I was in a movie. I got to communicate, associate and work with some really nice people and they treated me better than Odar had. Since I was also treated so well in Haimen (Dong Zhou Middle School), I figured that this Odar guy was one bad apple.
Lunch that last day was an interesting experience. When the Hunan crew first welcomed me aboard, there was alcohol, to be sure, and lots of it. It was drinking to loosen each other up, get comfortable, get to know one another and dote on each other—all very uniquely Chinese ways of doing business and welcoming folks. I don’t have a problem with that. The final lunch and meal together was….about the same, but with folks that I’d grown to love. The food was even better than before as we were provided with local delicacies and other forms of formal foods served all over China. In addition, the staff brought out two cases of beer and one bottle of baiju, that devilish rice wine. The executives, Director San, producers, etc, all went wild with the baiju, toasting one another again and again and raising their voices another decibel after each shot.
The pattern went something like this: Shouts ring out like, you did an amazing job, you are the best, etc. The other guy stands up and says to him, “I couldn’t do it without you,” or “No, no, you are the best and this all due to you,” etc. Then, the party of people, or two people, ganbei their drink and fill it up again to repeat the whole process. In less than ten minutes, and I’m not kidding here, there was a room of tearful, drunk souls toasting each other with shots and shouting praise.
I went over to Director San’s table to toast him, not knowing that he was already wasted on rice wine, and he stood up and gave me a hug…crying and spilling his emotions as I’d never seen before. In addition, he told me, that he was very sad to see me go and if he ever needed another foreigner for a part, he would come and find me.
I got a little emotional too, but was so relieved to be done and happy about the experience that I just kept celebrating. I looked over, though and saw the entire cast was hugging and crying and drinking to one another. We started taking pictures and kept slowly picking at our beer fish and pork and egg quiche dishes. I have never been drunk so fast in my life, but every time I turned around, there was a guy from the Yangshuo Chamber of Commerce, or the local government, or a member of the cast, or crew who was wanting to make a toast.
After a talk with Director San (occasionally translated by Andy), I walked over to Wang Wei (documentary guy), whom I had a quiet but meaningful relationship of hand gestures, nonverbal communication and Chinglish conversations with, and gave him a hug. He wrapped his arms around me and started balling. I almost started laughing because it was hard to grasp the idea that so many of these people are deeply touched by kindness and knowing a foreigner who goes against the stereotype of bullish and rude such as they hear all the time. He hugged me for about 30 seconds before pulling away to reveal a blood-red face. I was moved, speechless and couldn’t do anything more than go back to the table to shake my head and smile. Oh, I drank some more beer, yes, and I picked at what was left of the food, but I was stopped in my timeline of life, enjoying this moment, the time that will reverberate within for as long as I live. The room slowly began to thin out as people headed to their chambers for a much-needed nap.
I formed some incredible friendships there, during that time. Most of the people whom I call my friends now are people I haven’t shared more than a dozen complete spoken sentences with.
I think that’s one of the little facts that I have a hard time explaining to people…how does one come close to another human being without the ever-powerful spoken word? I can’t answer that, but it happens, and it is every bit as real as the ones we are all familiar with. Sometimes, Lee (pictured below) and I would go to his computer where he had a program that would translate from English to Chinese and vice versa. We would sit there for hours, drinking beer and talking through the computer. How wonderful is that?
What an experience….what a terrific way to end it all. I went up to my room and passed out, thinking I would sleep for an hour or so. It was2:00. I didn’t wake up until8:00that evening.
I walked out of my room to find that half the rooms were empty. I walked outside to make sure they hadn’t already left. The vans were packed and the people were slowly making their way to leave. We all traded emails, phone numbers, etc., while promising each other that we’d stay in touch and never forget. We said our good-byes and off they went. As the van drove off I turned to walk back to my hotel room to gather my things. I heard the van stop, and I heard Lin Kai’s voice, “Michael, I’ll miss you!” and she blew me a kiss and drove off. That was probably the only time she spoke to me (or me to her) during the entire ordeal off camera. It is strange the connections you make without being able to talk, but equally amazing how much a single comment can convey a feeling.
After the van disappeared in the distance, I packed up my things in the hotel and made the lonely walk back to my filthy apartment as if nothing had ever happened.
If you are interested in seeing the film, you can view it here. Just scroll down to about 3/4 of the way to the bottom and you’ll see several options for viewing.
A review of the movie can be found here on Hunan TV’s website. If you are using Google Chrome, you can have the site translated. If not, here is an image:
Here are some still shots from the movie: