So in the middle of a very busy week at work, my mom calls.
“The Chinese director Zhou Sun is making a TV series in New York!” she shouts the moment I pick up.
As she excitedly rambles on and on, I can’t help but tune out for a bit… I’m not an asshole but I do act like one with my mom.
Suddenly, I realize she’s asking me a question.
“Are you ready to take down the phone number?”
“Huh? Whose number?” I grumble, toggling anxiously and uselessly through various Windows applications. Adobe. Excel. Outlook. Adobe. Excel.
“The guy in New York! Look, I already called him to give him a heads-up. He’s expecting your call. If you don’t call now, he’ll never remember who you are.”
“Alright alright. I gotta go!” I flip my phone closed in a huff and slink further into my chair. Dammit! What is this new thing that I have to do?
Thing is, my mom is a novelist who works with a major Chinese director to adapt her novels onto screens big and small. So, it’s not 100% odd that she called me about a Chinese director filming his TV show in New York. Just 80%. Later, I will find out that she didn’t even come about this information through her insider-status channels. In fact, a non-showbiz friend of hers had seen the phone number for the “guy in New York” on a Chinese cable channel commercial for god-knows-what.
Might as well get this over with, I grouse to myself, flipping my phone back open and jabbing at the appropriate numbers.
After two rings a male voice shouts at me from the other end.
“Uh, hello? Um, I’m Lin’s daughter…” I stammer back in Chinese.
“Oh! Lin’s daughter! Yes yes. Okay, good. Why don’t you come meet me tomorrow. Yes yes. Do you have white friends? Bring them too! How tall are you? … Ha same as me, you’re tall for a girl! Also tomorrow night, you should come to a big party with me! It’ll be in Flushing. A banquet. Anyway, I’ll introduce you to the director tomorrow, after I meet you first heh heh. Did you know that I once put on a Chinese New Year celebration at Yale? Yes, yes too bad you already graduated. It was phenomenal. You’re a good kid, Ying Ying, I’ll see you tomorrow. Oh, and you can call me Mr. X.”
Yep, that actually happened.
I hang up the phone in a daze and recuperate via a few more clicks of mindless toggling.
The next day, Friday, after work, I take the train down to 23rd street and 6th. Mr. X had told me to meet him at that intersection and would not tell me a street number when I asked for one.
“Just look for the most handsome man in your vicinity,” he had joked (I think).
I get there and give him a call.
“WAI, NIHAO!” he shouts into the phone again. I am getting used to this.
“Uh, it’s Ying.”
“WHERE ARE YOU, YING?” he shouts back. He has the kind of speech pattern that causes him to gurgle his syllables. I picture him talking with a big smile as words overflow and slide out of his mouth like Alphabets cereal.
“I’m at 23rd and 6th,” I answer rather proudly.
“Oh good! I’m on 23rd, between 6th and 5th. I’m in a white van. Come find me!”
I start feeling a little bit like I’m participating in my own kidnap. Won’t mom be shocked, I think slyly, like Tom Sawyer the night he ran away from home.
I find the white van, a huge moby dick of a vehicle, closer to 5th. I go around to the passenger side, a small Chinese woman who looks like the woman that designed the Incredibles’ super hero costumes slides the door open and the driver, Mr. X, shouts me in.
Inside I am introduced to a tired looking man in the passenger side who doesn’t pay any attention to me beyond what bare manners necessitate, the Incredibles woman, who speaks in the exact reedy voice you’d expect her to have, and her friend, an old white man sitting beside her.
“How old do you think she is?” Mr. X says to the other people in the van, pointing at me excitedly.
Before anyone can answer, he bursts into giggles, “Doesn’t she look like a student? Just a student? So young!”
Mr. X starts to drive the five of us slowly around the block.
“What are you doing, my friend?” Ms. Incredibles asks worriedly.
“I have to keep moving, keep moving!” he cries back. Just like a shark, I noted.
“Oh, Mr. X, you need these… ” Ms. Incredibles rummages through her purse and pulls out a small box of Tic Tacs. “You’re an important man now, you need these.”
She dumps a few in his palm as he nods eagerly and self-importantly.
Eventually we end up back at our starting place, and Mr. X tries to park his huge Moby Dick in a tiny tiny space, with Ms. Incredibles murmuring, “Watch it, watch it, oh Mr. X, watch it!” beside me.
The parallel parking job takes an interminably long time, during which we manage to seriously anger an elderly couple in a Lexus, hold up a whole block-ful of Friday rush-hour traffic, and bump unceremoniously into the van in the spot behind us.
“Don’t worry! That’s one of ours!” Mr. X yells from the driver’s seat.
As soon as we’re parked, the impatient man in the passenger seat pops out of the van, followed by Mr. X. I sit in the van with Ms. Incredible and her white friend. We chat. She works at the Met as a tour guide. She’s here to be in a scene in the Chinese director’s TV show. She is old friends with Mr. X and had played his wife on Broadway (?).
Suddenly Mr. X’s chubby face appears through the driver’s side window. “Come out come out, come take a picture with the actors!”
We stumble out of the van obediently. I’m the first one out and I have no idea which of the half dozen Chinese people standing around are the actors until Mr. X shepherds me towards two of them.
Pictures are taken, with as many arrangements of people as you can think of. I’m pretty sure there were some pictures of just Ms. Incredible, Mr. X, and me.
Finally Ms. Incredible and her white friend are led inside a nearby building to shoot a scene. She gives me her card.
“Do you have one?” she asks.
“I forgot,” I answer sheepishly. I really have a hard time being one of those people who always have a fresh business card to give.
“You can’t go home just yet,” Mr. X says to me, anticipating my exit.
“You have to come with me to a party. A banquet. It’s a show. In Flushing,” he says as he removes odds and ends from his van, then adds other stuff back to his van. Everything he did and said was tinged with a kind of fervor.
“You have a part. In a skit. Just a small part. Two lines. It’d really help me out…” he looks at me expectantly.
I sigh. “How long is it?”
“Two minutes, two minutes! You can go as soon as you’re done your part, or you can stay for the whole thing up to you!” he shouts through an armful of white tuxedos in clear dry clean bags that he is stuffing into the back of Moby Dick.
There were of course a million reasons to say no to this venture, including every single case of felony kidnapping in the entire history of the world. On the other hand, a busy but unsatisfying week at work made me want to do something impulsive and rash for the weekend.
Fuck it, I think, I haven’t had an adventure in a while.
“Alright, let’s go,” I announce more to myself than to Mr. X.
We get in the van, pull out of the parking spot, and just as we’re about to cross 5th Avenue, Mr. X spots the director Zhou Sun on the sidewalk.
Mr. X turns to me with an exhilarated expression on his cherubic face.
“There’s the director! There’s the director!”
He stops the van in the middle of the street.
“Get out! Hurry, get out and take a picture!”
I don’t even know why, but I get caught up in the moment too, eyes widening, and tumble out of the van to stand shyly beside the Director.
“Where’s your camera!” Mr. X yells at me with utmost urgency. I feel like I’m in one of those clichéd situations where an overbearing mother is trying to get her homely daughter to put on a tight sweater and make a move on the neighbor’s son.
I obediently scramble back into the van and return with my phone.
The Director, I’ve learned since the confusing conversation with my mom, is the real deal; in fact, two of his most recent movies both starred the acclaimed Chinese actress Gong Li. So anyway, he smiles at me. For the hell of it, I try to look at him With Meaning.
Mr. X is huffing and puffing around us excitedly like a little choo-choo train.
“This is Ying Ying! She looks like a kid but she’s a lawyer! A New York lawyer!” he shouts giddily at the Director.
“You, um, you’re a lawyer?” the Director whispers to me. He seems just as shell-shocked by Mr. X as I am.
I nod sheepishly.
“In New York?”
I nod again. A conspiratorial dynamic has taken shape between the Director and me. It’s like we’re trying to be as quiet as Mr. X is loud.
“Alright alright, how do I do this!” Mr. X shouts, fumbling with my camera phone while the Director and I politely smile in his direction. I rush over and show Mr. X how to take a picture with my phone.
“What kind of camera is this?” Mr. X grumbles, turning my phone over in his hand like it’s a mysterious talisman.
“Here, use mine,” the Director says quietly, pulling out a camera from the bosom of his flannel jacket.
“Stand closer together, closer, closer! C’mon, stand closer!” Mr. X screams happily at us as the Director and I become increasingly uncomfortable.
“Alright Mr. X, just take the picture will you?” the Director laughs. I laugh, or pee my pants, I don’t know which, at this point I was nervous enough to do both. Now that innumerable pictures have been taken of the Director and me, Mr. X re-focusses himself on our next order of business.
“Back in the van! We gotta get to the banquet by 7!” he yells. I smile bye to the Director and scramble back into the van. It is 6.30 PM. On a Friday. We are in midtown Manhattan. Yikes.
On the drive to Flushing, which takes about an hour, Mr. X hangs his phone like a pendant on a rope around his neck and answers each and every one of his calls, involving me as much as possible in every conversation.
Every call goes the same way. First, I am sent to climb to the back of the van to find an item of great import to the caller. Then, about three minutes into each call, Mr. X starts looking around for cops and gets paranoid that he’s going to get a ticket for talking on a cell phone while driving. At the height of his paranoia, he will remove his phone from its rope necklace, toss it at me in the passenger seat, and make me take the rest of the call, but not before yelling into the phone, “Here, speak to a lawyer!,” which greatly confuses not only me but the person on the other side of the call as well.
“Good kid, good kid. I’m gonna give you a job at my new company,” Mr. X promises as he watches me jot down some notes from a caller on the back of a receipt.
Finally, we park and walk towards the banquet hall. I hold a pair of white tuxedo pants for Mr. X as he shrugs into his white tuxedo jacket while we walk.
It occurs to me for the first time that I have no idea how to get home. This is only my second time in Flushing and I have no idea where I am.
“Is there a subway around here?” I ask.
“Subway, hmm, yes, subway…” Mr. X murmurs absent-mindedly.
We finally stop walking as we approach a multi-storied Chinese restaurant. I follow Mr. X up to the second floor, which was the size of a prison canteen and full of round banquet tables covered in thick, pink, tablecloths.
“Wait here,” Mr. X says to me and slips into the men’s bathroom to put on his white tuxedo pants.
I look around. There are Chinese people everywhere. Old ones, young ones. Mixed babies. An old school Italian dude with his Chinese wife, both silver-haired.
There are balloons and banners everywhere. They announce that I am at a Chinese New Year celebration for Chinese folks from Jiangsu Province. As a native Beijinger, I can’t help but feel a little uppity. This feeling of hoity-toity snobbery turns out to be rather short-lived, as you shall see soon enough.
At one end of the huge banquet hall is a slightly raised stage with microphone stands haphazardly arranged, like aloof birthday candles sticking out of a birthday cake. It appears that the Chinese New Year celebration for the people of Jiangsu will include an elaborate talent show. What the hell am I doing here?, I ask myself nervously.
“Come here come here come here!” Mr. X rushes out of the bathroom with renewed energy and pulls me towards a table in the back of the room. Sitting at the table are: two middle-aged women, a younger girl, and most spectacular of all, an older Chinese gentleman with a long ponytail and a colorful beaded vest. He almost looked Native American –when was the last time you saw a Chinese man with a long ponytail and a vest? Yes, exactly.
I am shoved into a seat and introduced thusly: “This child is a lawyer!” I feel slightly freakish as the middle-aged women gasp and look closely at me for eye wrinkles. The younger girl frowns at me suspiciously.
The gentleman in the vest seems to be Mr. X’s favorite too.
“This man here,” Mr. X declares with flourish, “is a teacher, and an award-winning, foremost of foremosts, magician,” Mr. X boasts, gesturing grandly towards the man in the vest, who nods with a smile that is just a little bit grim.
After making sure I’ve settled down in my seat, Mr. X flies away to socialize with people at the other tables, punctuating his loud and excited greetings with flecks of spittle. He seems to be excellent friends with at least three people at each table,
I sit alone at the table, a little bit overwhelmed. Even though the room is already full of people seated at their tables, there is no food being served. I gather that the plan is to feed us after the talent show. I dabble in some small talk with the middle-aged ladies, which quickly turns to a one-sided interrogation: Where did you go to school? How old are you? How long have you know Mr. X?
To which I truthfully respond, “A few hours.”
“Doesn’t he seem kind of sketchy?” the younger girl interjects. She tells me that she is the daughter of a famous Jiangsu opera singer, and that mother and daughter recently moved to New York so that the daughter could take acting lessons here.
“Hey,” the Magician beckons me towards the empty seat beside him, “come here for a second.”
I obediently sit as instructed.
“So, you’re going to be in our skit,” he nods.
I smile nervously. I guess this is the favor Mr. X wanted me to help him with, when he pleaded for me to come to the banquet with him.
“Two very easy lines… hey Bianca, Bianca!” The Magician calls out to the young Chinese actress. “What’s your last line?” he asks her.
“The entire country is doomed.”
“Ok, so after she says that, you run on stage, look around,” here the Magican pretends to look around frantically, “and say –Bianca, what’s his name again? Oh, okay. So then you yell, ‘Peeeeterrrr!'”
I nod easily.
“Then, you jump into his arms and say, ‘Forgive me!'” the Magician continues.
Huh? What’s this about jumping into someone’s arms?, I wonder to myself. I wondered where Mr. X had instructed him to sit; there were no strong young men at our table that looked like potential Peters.
Suddenly Mr. X returns to our table, looking even more flushed than before, with another Chinese girl beside him. He makes a beeline for the Magician and me.
“Let’s go let’s go let’s go! We have to rehearse!” he yells anxiously and motions for us to follow him towards the stage. The Magician and I hurry after him, practically breaking into a trot, as we thread our way to a small closet by the side of the stage.
As we file into the closet at top speed, Mr. X closes the door behind us, accidentally trapping a small sequined girl inside with us. After we release her to her worried mother outside, Mr. X closes the door behind us again and stands facing me, arms outstretched.
“Wrap your legs around him when you jump into his arms,” the award-winning Magician instructs.
Only two hours ago, I was in midtown sitting at a desk reading a multi-pronged legal argument and now I was in Flushing, beyond the reaches of even the far-reaching 7 train, locked in a small closet with two of the most eccentric Chinese men I have ever met, getting straddling instructions.
I look at Mr. X, his legs and arms slightly bowed, beads of sweat on his smiling, eager, plastered-looking face. He’s not a slim guy by any means but he is shorter than me and I worry whether he can support my weight.
“Come child, we don’t have a lot of time,” the Magician says his low, hypnotic-Magician, voice.
I take a deep breath, take three little steps –all the running start the small closet would allow, and dutifully recite my first line of dialogue as I jump towards the ruddy Mr. X.
When the dust has settled, I open my eyes and note that my face is three inches away from Mr. X’s. I try not to look at his pores.
“Bend your knees so that your legs aren’t sticking out, it’ll make it easier on Mr. X,” the Magician coaches. I do as I’m told.
“Yes, yes that’s it! Good kid! Now, at this point, say the second line I taught you.”
I draw a blank.
“I’ve missed you so much?” I guess feebly.
The Magician’s face falls and Mr. X gives me a quizzical look, slightly buckling under my weight.
“No, no, no!” the Magician scolds. “You are suppose to say, ‘Will you ever forgive me?'”
“Will you ever forgive me?” I parrot, eager to get off Mr. X and stand on my own two feet. But instead of letting me go he excitedly creates additional dialogue.
“Will you call the cops on me ever again?” he asks me, contorting his face into a comically pitiful expression.
I am stumped.
“Then you say,” Mr. X changes his voice to a soft falsetto, “No, I’ll never report you to the police again! I miss you so much!”
I obediently repeat these words, trying to commit them to memory and to ignore the fact that I am still basically straddling a strange man in a small closet under the watchful tutelage of a Chinese magician in a vest.
“And then he carries you off the stage, and we’re done,” the Magician concludes.
I finally hop off Mr. X. The men wait for for me to smooth my skirt. On top of feeling weirded out about the absurd situation into which I’ve somehow inserted myself, I was also actually quite nervous about my upcoming performance. There were, after all, several hundred people out there expecting to be entertained.
“So… uh, when I walk on stage and cry ‘Peter!’, am I looking around for him, or have I already seen him?” I ask the men worriedly.
“No no no, it’s not ‘Peter,'” Mr. X chides me impatiently, totally ignoring my question. “It’s ‘Peterrrrrrrrr!'” Mr. X demonstrates, rolling the “r” at the end of the name the way a mainland Chinese person would for the “er” sounds in Chinese.
This correction adds to my stage-fright. The only English line I have, and I have to do it in a Chinese accent.
We shuttle back to our seats around our table, and waiters begin to place one dish after another before us. As we eat, a man goes on stage and identifies himself as the emcee of the talent show. Given that Mr. X had come to this event dressed in a white tuxedo, I had assumed that he was, in fact, the master of ceremonies for the evening. I decide to stop making assumptions for the rest of the night, as they will most likely all turn out to be just as erroneous.
“Do you know when we perform?” I ask Bianca the young Chinese actress.
“Nope, I don’t know anything,” she shrugs.
We watch as the Magician goes up first and pulls out a mechanical pigeon from his hat and lights things on fire. Next is a woman in a white prom dress who sings one song after another much too loudly, and for much too long, while her shy, modestly-dressed, young daughter hangs around by a corner of the stage looking miserable.
Every once in a while Mr. X reappears at our table with a new person by his side, whom he introduces to all of us, and then promptly abandons at our table as he runs away elsewhere. The person who as been so abruptly deposited by our side will either awkwardly makes up an excuse to leave us, or awkwardly sit down for a few minutes first before awkwardly making up an excuse to leave us.
At one point a man in his thirties comes up to Bianca and me. His face is soaking wet as if someone just used it to catch an afternoon’s worth of rain. He also looks… well, crazed.
“Are both you girls actresses for tonight’s show?” he asks excitedly.
Bianca and I nod coolly.
“Great! Great for you girls. What is your name? Where do you go to school? …Oh that’s fantastic!”
The man, who is wearing a white ill-fitted suit, will not leave us alone. He buzzes around us with his wet face, threatening to drip himself on us and/or our belongings at any minute.
Getting restless, I slowly pull a book out of my bag to read, hiding it on my lap. I have been trying to find a monologue and the book, called “Modern American Theatre Monologues for Women,” consists of about 30 monologues for women, as the title clearly indicates.
“Hey, what is that?” one of the two middle-aged women on my right chirps, eagle-eyed.
“Uh… this? It’s just a …book.”
Apparently, such an answer is enough to catch the interest of the woman’s friend beside her as well.
“Oh, what is it about?”
“This? Oh it’s like… ” and having no idea how to say monologue or any of the other necessary words necessary to describe the book accurately, I squirm uncomfortably under their intense gaze, wave my hands in the air, and mutter something about, “Different people, talking.”
“You know,” the more Stepford-looking of the two discloses to me with pride, “I get all my reading suggestions from other people.”
Next thing I know, the book is snatched out of my hands and the women whip out pens and and paper to carefully copy down the title of my monologue book.
“So what is it about?” they ask again.
“Uh… it’s a… lot of stories.”
“Where is the author’s name?” They say, scanning the front and back covers of the book over the tops of their eye-glasses.
“Uh… there are a lot of… authors.”
“Great, I’ll definitely pick it up at the bookstore.”
They pass the book back to me and I shove it back into my bag. Boy are they going to be disappointed when they try to read it!
Finally, after a group of boys finish their Kung Fu demonstration, we are summoned to on stage! We’re up! The three of us giggle to each other, Bianca, me, and a third girl who is a clarinetist at Columbia University.
We are ushered into the small closet where I had been instructed to straddle Mr. X a mere hour ago. We wait quietly while Mr. X and the Magician hurry about the stage, setting it up for our performance.
“How do you know Mr. X?” Bianca and I ask the Clarinetist.
She shrugs uncomfortably. “I called him about an ad for a room for rent and somehow… I’m here.”
Bianca and I nod with understanding.
“He keeps on promising me that he’s going to get me to play a duet with Bill Clinton, ” she continues skeptically.
“He keeps telling me something about a director,” I add.
It dawns on us that Mr. X has a certain modus operandi.
The girls shrug, I shrug. We all look into the mirror in the small closet and titter nervously. Eventually, Bianca, then the Clarinetist are summoned on stage. Since my part isn’t until the very end, I spend the majority of the skit in the small closet off-stage with my ear on the door, waiting for my cue from Bianca. Finally, I hear her say, “The whole country is doomed!”
I take a deep breath and run onto stage, yelling, “Peterrrrrrr!!!” as instructed. The whole time leading up to this moment, I’d been an anxious wreck. But by the time I run onto stage, straddle Mr. X, and tell him that I will never call the cops on him again, I have already resolved to be the clown that my role expected me to be. As Mr. X carries me off stage, I turn myself sideways to face the audience, and with a dumb grin on my face, I wave slowly and exaggeratedly at them. When in Rome, right? The crowd laughs appreciatively, I mug, and Mr. X toddles off stage happy as a clam.
It is only after I get off stage do I realize that, aside from my own lines, I had no idea what our skit had been about.
“Great work!” the Magician greets us backstage. He pats me on the back and gives me his business card, which folds in half and has instructions on the back on how to use it in a playing-card trick.
Bianca, the Clarinetist, and I run to our seats like released felons and throw on our jackets while Wet Face stands nearby, watching us and wringing his hands.
“You girls are done already? Where are you going? You’re leaving already? Will you get home alright? Can we take a picture?”
We more or less ignore Wet Face, grab our bags, and bid Mr. X goodbye in unison. To my surprise, he isn’t surprised to see us flee.
“Ahhhh! You’re going already? Oh, ok ok. Did you have fun girls? That was fun right, you got to have fun, had some great food, made some good friends, right?”
Mr. X turns to the Clarinetist, “Next time I’ll get Bill Clinton to do a duet with you, okay?”
We roll our eyes and laugh good-naturedly. “Byyyyyyeeee Mr. X!”
“Ok ok, bye girls! Bye bye you good girls! Be good!” As I scamper past Mr. X towards the stairwell, he says to me: “Ying Ying, call me tomorrow morning okay? We might need some reporters for Director Zhou Sun’s TV show. Do you have any white friends? Bring them bring them! Black friends too. Call me!!”
Mr. X’s voice sets in the distance like a bright light. Bianca helps me find the 7 train and as I ride it all the way to my apartment in Astoria, I wonder what will happen the next day.
Late that Friday night, Mr. X calls me and tells me that the shoot tomorrow is a go. I am to bring “white people.” As many as possible. We will play reporters in a scene of the Chinese TV series being shot by Director Zhou Sun.
So, I used to do extra work as a teenager to supplement my weekly allowance. I even had an agent who tried to cast me as a Thai prostitute.
“But don’t you want to meet Mark Walberg? Marky Mark?” she begged and begged, then put me on hold for an egregiously long period of time.
“Nah,” I said when she finally came back on the line, “I should probably go on a tour of the college I might attend.”
“Suit yourself,” she said pithily and hung up the phone.
Wishing to distract myself from the odious amount of work that had to be done that weekend, I decide to go.
At 1 PM, I meet Mark, a “white people” friend of mine who also got a kick out of the idea of being in a Chinese TV show, in Koreatown, at the Starbucks around 5th Avenue and 32nd st.
Mr. X, in typical fashion, had given me an intersection and no specific street numbers. We approach a section of the street that has an unusually high number of Asians standing around –which, since we are in Koreatown, was probably a somewhat misguided approach.
After a couple minutes of standing around hoping we were in the right place, a boy gathers us and about ten other people into a semicircle. He introduces himself as “Tiger.”
“Did he say Tiger?” I whisper to Mark.
“Yep,” he nods, rubbing his hands excitedly. We can already feel that madcap will ensue.
Tiger gives us our assignment. The main character will come out of the revolving doors of the fancy high-rise building by which we will gather. He has just donated all of his sizable lottery winnings to a charity. Everyone is mad curious. We, as reporters, will swarm him and pepper him with questions. We will follow him in a ‘razzi swarm as he gets into his limo at the curb, at which point he will be driven away and we will stand in the street with open mouths and unanswered questions and a faint and quickly passing sense of mopery. Pretty cool, right? But here is the most awesome part: Since everything will be dubbed in Chinese in post-production, it doesn’t matter what we actually say.
Well, it was the most awesome part to me. No one else seemed to care one way or another.
Props are passed out. I get a small microphone with a wire coming out of it. I plug the wire into a buttonhole in my cardigan.
“Action!” someone yells in Chinese.
The revolving doors spin forth the main Chinese character and his caucasion lawyer. There is a shy pause among the extras, then madness! No doubt imitating the “hungry press” scenes we’ve seen on TV and in the movies, we all rush up towards them, thrusting microphones and mini tape recorders and cameras at their faces.
A short woman to my left yells, “Why did you give your money away?”
The Chinese actor stops, grins at her, thinks, and answers her in heavily accented English.
My turn. “Excuse me, excuse me, but…”
The Chinese actor and the Caucasian lawyer turn to me, waiting patiently for my question. Everyone is silent and still, waiting for my question. For a second, the artifice of art slides away and it almost feels like this is actually happening for real. We are reporters and the inquiring public wants to know! I clear my throat dramatically.
“What is your favorite colour?” I yell.
Without missing a beat, the well-trained Chinese actor makes up an answer on the spot –I’m not even sure if he said real words, or if he just moved his mouth and made some sounds at me. But nonetheless it seemed very believable.
I’m pretty proud of my ridiculous question until Mark one-ups me, “Mr. Yao, Mr. Yao,” he shouts, “What about the children?”
By now everyone is trying to be a comedian.
“Is it true that you are a homosexual?”
“What is your favorite restaurant?”
“What do you think of New York?”
All asked, of course, in super urgent tones. The actor playing Mr. Yao continues to grin, either shaking his head and murmuring, “No no no…” or nodding and laughing, “Yes, yes yes.” I told you, he’s very good.
It’s fun and we do this scene a few more times with the camera at different places.
During one of the breaks, the Director comes over and stands about two feet from me. Then he does that slow awkward pivot with which anyone who has ever been socially challenged is familiar, and, without ever looking me straight in the eye, begins to address me in such a quiet voice that at first I’m not even sure that he’s talking to me.
“Are you… are you the girl that I met yesterday?” he asks.
“Yes, yes I am!” I can’t believe he remembers and recognizes me! I try to tone down the look of unadulterated happiness on my face.
We nod and smile and Mark thoughtfully turns away to give the Director and I maximum opportunity to continue our shy exchange.
“So… you live here?” he asks.
“In New York? Yeah, yeah I do.”
You know how every once in a while you meet someone who is so down to earth that you can’t stand holding eye contact because you’re not used to how they look at you so steadily? In this simple, studying kind of way? Well, that’s what it was like with the Director.
Eventually I have to look elsewhere or devise something to say to break the down-to-earthiness a little bit.
“Um, how long are you going to be staying in New York?” I ask.
“Oh, we’re leaving on Monday. Have to go to [Chinese that I don’t understand.]”
We nod some more. I’m pretty happy but also just about to kill myself from all the realness.
I remember a thing Mr. X told me on our drive to Flushing the day before, about how a NYU girl he had introduced to the Director had totally inappropriately asked the Director to come give a talk at her school, inappropriate because she had bypassed Mr. X and asked the Director directly.
The Director was too polite to refuse but he was also too busy to go. He felt bad and told Mr. X about the girl’s request. Mr. X was mortified and declared the girl completely immature, waving his arms indignantly above the steering wheel as he relayed the story to me.
So it was with some hesitation that I asked my next question.
“Do you have a card?” I finally blurt out. I feel bad for asking such a cheesy question to such a down-to-earth guy.
“No, I don’t,” the Director says apologetically. He doesn’t even pat his pockets, which suggests that he probably never carries such things around.
“Do you have one?” he asks.
I shake my head no. For some reason, it feels like our mutual not-business-card havingness has upgraded our relationship somewhat –like we just recognized each other as members of a small club.
“I can give you my number…” the Director offers.
Of course, I do not have a pen on me either.
“Mark, Mark!” I turn around and scream at the top of my lungs. Standing half a foot from me, Mark kindly avails himself to me pawing through his jacket pockets for a pen. After we locate a pen on his body, we realize that we don’t have any paper.
I look down and see a used paper plate with a thick smear of ketchup or blood on it. Without thinking, I pick it up to use as paper. Mark and the Director visibly recoil in disgust. Embarrassed, I drop it back onto the ground and sheepishly accept a piece of receipt from Mark’s wallet.
“Okay, I’m ready,” I announce.
The Director opens his mouth to say his number, then interrupts himself and asks me in his shy way, “Do you know my name?”
I nod, touched at his humility. Everyone on set is basically treating him like a god or successfuly warlord, and he’s still able to remain totally unassuming!
I write down the Director’s number, my hand trembling both from the breezy March weather and from barely concealed excitement.
A small and stupid girl interrupts us to ask the Director for his signature. I shoot her a dirty look that she totally misses. After I get the Director’s number, I find Mark and slap him around in sheer drunken exhilaration. It has never been my modus operandi to obtain phone numbers of the male species, but now I know exactly how triumphant it feels to do so.
Because we are all decked in reporter gear and staring at the revolving doors in rabid anticipation, innocent passersby, especially tourists, think we are actually real reporters, and stop to wait with us to see who walks through the revolving doors.
One of the extras, a nerdy guy who said he was an investment banker, tells these mistaken passersby that we are waiting for the vice-president of Taiwan. The gullible pedestrians start telling other curious pedestrians and soon a real mob of non-extras are also standing with us outside the revolving doors, cameras out and ready to snap pictures of the alleged vice-president of Taiwan.
“High five!” the nerdy investment banker shouts to his friend.
Finally, after we shoot our last scene, and it is announced that we’ve shot the last scene, everyone claps and woos a little and disperses. For the whole shoot, Mr. X has been in turns: driving an equipment van around to avoid getting a parking ticket; preventing people from parking where we are shooting; running after a small toddler who for some reason seemed to be part of the crew but had no responsibilities other than to run around and look cute; and coming up to me every once in a while to advise me to “Get in front of the camera more, turn your face to the camera, maximum exposure!”
Mark and I wave bye to a pre-occupied Mr. X and are about to go grab some chow when, somehow, we end up in a Chinese photo barrage. A Chinese Photo Barrage is what happens when a Chinese person whips out his or her camera with unbridled enthusiasm, thereby causing a chain reaction in which every Chinese person in the vicinity of the first person also whips out his/her camera with unbridled enthusiasm. They then boss each other around happily until there is a picture of every combination of people possible.
Because Mark is white, he gets to be in every picture in a CPB. So we end up staying there for at least another five solid minutes, sowing our wild oats into a multitude of online photo albums. Finally, we slip away. And even though we just stood shoulder to shoulder with a bunch of people with our arms intertwined like old friends, we know that we will never see any of those people again.
Good bye, Mr. X, good bye, Director Zhou Sun, good bye!
After a quick meal in Koreatown and parting ways with Mark, I stand on the corner of 32nd Street and Broadway with my hands in my pockets, looking north towards the office where I will spend the rest of the weekend. A sad, grey-carpeted sense of grimness and panic sets in as I think about the work ahead of me. My fingers brush against a folded slip of paper in my pocket, and remembering what’s on it, I am glad to have such a cool little souvenir of my adventures with Mr. X.FILED UNDER: Adventures with Mr. X | Permalink