Check out the trailer for the TV and DVD series. DVDs available at amazon and our website at travelwithkids.tv
Home » Archives for May 2010
Sunday, May 30, 2010
Friday, May 28, 2010
Tuesday, May 25, 2010
About a year-and-a-half ago, I wrote a letter to my future self. On the top, written in plain script was the word “Expectations” accompanied by the date: January 23, 2009. The content that followed was everything you might expect given the header: a list of all of the things I had hoped to accomplish and experience in my first year in Taigu. Almost inconceivably, that first year is quickly coming to an end, and it is at this juncture that I was given the chance to revisit those goals. Inside an airmail envelop mailed to my current residence came a single sheet of paper, which I would hardly have recognized had it not been indited in my own penmanship. It would appear that I had written it at the tail end of the TESOL Winter Term, a requirement of the Fellowship that had us applying lectures and textbook lessons about how to teach English to actual students in a classroom setting throughout the month of January. And though I still can't precisely place when and where it happened, I'm happy that this little reminder has reached me across the cosmos. Like the kitsch of a childhood time capsule, or the relief of a secretly stowed twenty dollar bill, letters like this provide a rare opportunity to see the past in a new light. Let's see how well those promises have stacked up in the last nine months:
To make a good network of friends who speak Chinese and immerse myself in the culture.: In addition to Chinese friends who have been passed down from Anne and Nick, I've made quite a few on my own (mostly my own students) who I plan to continue to be close with heading into next year. I would certainly maintain that I have immersed myself in the culture.
- To work tirelessly to become as fluent as I can in Chinese. : Though I take twice-weekly lessons and study on my own, Chinese often takes a back seat to other activities. My work ethic could certainly use some ramping up in this department.
To fall into a good and effective teaching regiment when lesson plans come relatively easily and I find good ways to assess my students' learning.: Coming up with weekly lesson plans has gotten a lot easier, and I have been able to assess my students' learning in the degree to which they can comfortably communicate with me in English. To travel and visit at least three other countries / three other Fellows.: I've visited ten Fellows already (not including the other three in Taigu), and have been to exactly three countries (if, unlike most Chinese people, you consider Hong Kong as being separate from China).
- To write approximately 10-15 pages a week
and keep up a blog that I am proud to share with friends and family.: This blog (for which I am proud to share) has remained relatively updated, but non-blog writing has taken quite a hit. I've only written a handful of poems and a couple of non-fiction pieces since last August.
- Find a balance between alone time and making friends. : As with the majority of my life up to this point, I still struggle a lot with this one. When I'm alone, I want nothing more than to be in the company of others, and in their presence, I feel guilty for not working on the things I need to be doing on my own
Try my best to get along with / live with James.: Though, like any two roommates, we still have our ups and downs, one of the unexpected upshots of the Fellowship is that James and I have really grown to become good friends and even better roommates. Become friends with the other Fellows but don't rely on them too much.: I feel very fortunate that Anne and Nick (as well as Dave and Gerald) have become incredibly close friends here. Though at the start, James and I were admittedly a little spoiled by our Senior Fellows, at this point we all have enough going on to keep ourselves busy independently from each other. To work out / exercise as much as I can.: I still exercise at least four times a week, and have been assisted greatly by our recent discovery of an actual weight room, previously only accessible to the school track team, but graciously opened up to us as foreign teachers. To try to inflict as little damage to my lungs as possible.: I haven't smoked a single cigarette despite the heavy prevalence in the culture here and I try not to exercise outdoors when the air is especially bad. Still, I can't help the place where I live. To be more patient and become more comfortable with change / the unknown / spontaneity.: Though I would estimate that most friends wouldn't exactly call me "manic," I have been known to freak out in the presence of the unknown. Living in China, and consequently having to deal with last-minute planning, everyday disappointments, and unexpected changes as simple facts of life, has made me infinitely more patient.
- To learn to cook a good number of Chinese dishes and be able to fend for myself. : This is one that I haven't made any headway on whatsoever, and will certainly be a project I take on more seriously come next year.
- To keep in touch with friends and family back home as best I can. : I can definitely do a better job in this department, despite it also being one of my newly-minted goals for the second semester. I have a stack of letters that need mailed responses and a lot of Skype dates to catch up on.
Pique my curiosity of other cultures.: This has been without a doubt one of the biggest take-aways of this experience so far. Like my study abroad bout in Osaka, living away from home has only increased my appetite to see and experience other places and other cultures around the globe.
Friday, May 21, 2010
Everyone has those friends—the people you grew up with, went to school with, or perhaps even dated—regular people by all accounts, who have somehow gone on to make it big in the very same time it's taken you to lead a decidedly normal existence. I first learned of the phenomenon when news came in two years ago that a couple of old friends from high school started a clothing company selling neck ties and pendants that have become increasingly popular in my fashion-forward hometown. Additionally, two acquaintances at Oberlin, in an attempt to beat out the recession, have begun a self-produced weekly online cooking show that is garnering thousands of views a week. Lena Dunham, a former classmate in one of my creative writing workshops has gone on to write, direct, and star-in a feature-length film called Tiny Furniture that is winning accolades at some big film festivals nationwide, and—according to me—looks to be the Juno of my generation of jobless college graduates. A fellow intern of mine at Popular Mechanics last summer (and indirect subject of a rant on my recent nixing from their website) has settled into her own corner of the internet as an intern at another techie blog site. And even fellow Oberlin grads living in China, Jordan and Maia, are getting a crack at music stardom by playing shows all around Beijing as the duet La Loupe.
Thinking about those people fills me with a certain helpless admiration, of staring longingly from afar at accomplishments that are not mine to savor. It doesn't matter that I'm happy with the decision I made to come to China and enjoy the life that I've made for myself here in Taigu. In fact, when I stop to think about it, there's really nothing that I would want more from life than to be exactly where I am right now. I enjoy my job, have enough free time to pursue other interests, found a great community of people that I never feel bored with, have enough money to lead a lifestyle where I am able to travel and experience new places—all while acquiring valuable life skills that will help me immensely in the real world (independence, responsibility, communication, leadership, etc.). It also helps to know that this is a relatively temporary position—that after the next year I will be returning home to take on the next chapter of my life. But when exciting events are happening elsewhere, when weddings or birthdays are being celebrated by loved ones, or when pictures of friends having fun together surface on the internet, I can't help but wish that I was somewhere else.
All of the benefits withstanding, it's still sometimes hard to feel completely positive about the choice I made to come here. Any glimpse I have at a potential future that I previously didn't consider leaves me feeling that I'm somehow not doing enough or that there is something out there better suited for me. It's not that I myself am yearning to become rich or famous, but rather, simply having the knowledge that others my own age are excelling in one or both of those fields that leaves me feeling ineffectual by comparison. Why can't I have a regular spot on an internet news wire, or be written up by major publications for my achievements, or be given an award as a token of my meritorious contributions to making the world a better, more artistically-inspired place? In spite of all of the fame, though, when I begin to think deeper, I am actually happy that I don't have to face some of the hardships of my more “successful” newfangled icons—the risk of failing as an internet celebrity, stuck writing for yet another website or magazine not suited to my interests, or devoting a lot of time and resources to producing a semi-autobiographical film about my quarter-life crisis. Of course, what I eventually ended up pursuing in Taigu would have shocked my more rational self by comparison too.
Dan's Ex-Wife from Daniel Tam-Claiborne on Vimeo. Before Gerald did any actual shooting for his movie, he wanted to test the capabilities of his new CGI software, and thus needed an actor. This, as well as the next video, were each done in one take, and were a result of a painstaking number of hours of method acting training on my part.
By the time me and Gerald sat down to start writing the script to the sitcom, we realized that we had absolutely no idea what we were doing. Though Gerald had co-written (and directed) a film project in his college days, and I had written the 20-page screenplay to an imagined short film as a creative writing assignment my freshmen year, neither of us had any experience with this form of writing nor knew the best way to approach learning how to do it. Aside from a laughable (pun intended) stint in high school stand-up club, I have never done comedy, nor do I ever really write strictly comedic poetry or non-fiction. But given that I was coming from a writing background, Gerald wanted me on board for creative input and direction, not to mention general companionship, in the script-writing process. The only thing we did have going for us was that we had both watched an obscene number of sitcoms in our youth. Gerald and I, in addition to most of the foreigners here, have wistful memories of the TGIF line-up on ABC, featuring the likes of Family Matters, Boy Meets World, Step by Step, and Hangin' with Mr. Cooper, among others. And though I contribute most of my comedic upbringing to Seinfeld, I confess that I only began watching it in syndicated form well after the series ended.
The likes of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air had already been established as a long-standing joke with my friends back home, owed largely to the Sunday afternoons we spent watching Will Smith's antics on TiVoed reruns of the show in Tahira's apartment. But the recent re-fascination with Family Matters is owed almost entirely to living in Taigu. It all started with one of our Saturday night dance parties back in February. During the party, Gerald sneaked about a half-dozen songs—the theme song to the show included—onto the master playlist on Anne's computer and by the time I played it at the end of the evening, all of us unexpectedly, but almost instinctually, converged in a group hug and broke riotously into song. That rendition was quickly followed up by two encores, and every dance party since, it has been a nightcap staple. Finally, when it was revealed that Dave and Matthias would soon be living together (after Dave and Gerald's old house was slated for renovation), Nick joked about how hilarious it would be to film an Odd Couple-esque sitcom featuring the two mismatched roommates using Gerald's new camera. That suggestion quickly snowballed into our idea for a Family Matters spin-off about our lives in Taigu.
In the Kitchen with DTC from Daniel Tam-Claiborne on Vimeo. This week's specialty: Oreo milkshakes. Additional thanks go to Gata Mane Boy Boi for creative inspiration.
Like most bad ideas that sound good at first, the focus of our sitcom changed dramatically. Instead of focusing strictly on Dave and Matthias, we decided the sitcom would encompass all of the foreigners as well as some of our Chinese friends, and speak more to the comedy in cross-cultural misunderstandings as a result of living in China. We'd have dialogue in both English and Chinese, but the focus would be on our experience as teachers here—in some instances using snippets from actual conversations and jokes to give it a hint of authenticity. Me and Gerald wrote the majority of the script over the course of three weeks, on weekday afternoons in the hour-and-a-half of dead time between when lunch ended and when I had to teach again at 2:00. In the pilot episode, we decided to have the plot center around James' character as he tirelessly attempts to secure a date to the big dance party over the weekend. More drama ensues when the audience discovers that two separate parties `re scheduled for the same night. Along his quest is a fair deal of hi-jinx where we also learn a lot about the other main characters. Sketching out archetypes for all of the characters was a project in itself, but one that paid off in dividends when it came time to write the script.
It would seem that we got most of our bases covered—James, the straight man; Nick, the wise-cracking know-it-all; Dave, the well-meaning, but slightly dense friend; Anne, the girly, yet gutsy female; Gerald, the mysterious, advice-giving neighbor; and me, reviving my 12th-grade role as the hapless playboy. In doing the actual writing, the first shock was in how difficult the entire process was, but relief came in knowing that there was someone else there to bounce ideas off of. Some lines came naturally as holes in the plot gradually got filled, but there were moments where Gerald and I spent twenty minutes trying to decide the punchline to a single joke. It's amazing when you consider how many directions a joke can go—with possible responses ranging from sarcastic, crude, biting, or excessive, to literal, cheesy, misinterpreted, or downright ignored by a character. We tried to employ everything in our combined humor toolbox to make the show as believably witty as possible, without being self-consciously so. It doesn't hurt that we are also employing actual laugh tracks extracted from old sitcom episodes to bolster those sections that inevitably fall flat.
It's Not Jackie Chan sitcom intro from Gerald Lee on Vimeo. The opening scene of our sitcom, complete with authentic turn-and-smile introductions reminiscent of the original Family Matters, masterfully shot and spliced together by Gerald. He captured footage for the first frame through the window of a plane on our return flight from Shenzhen to Taiyuan.
We finished the script on a long weekend trip to Hong Kong—something I admit, knowing fully well that everything about that statement reeks of being smugly pretentious. We went to a bar on Sunday night and didn't leave until we had finished drafting the final scene over a pair of imported beers. It was as close as I'd been to feeling like a laptop-toting Starbucks-sipping young professional, since, well, being back home. All told, what we eventually put together was a 20-page script, enough to field a full-length episode. We finished revising and printing out copies of it the week after we returned and immediately got to work shooting. The initial shooting was slightly haphazard—what Gerald would call “guerrilla”—owing largely to the fact that he was still getting used to the immense amount of equipment he had accrued and had not fully developed a method for how to efficiently shoot each scene. Though most of the scenes were quite straight-forward given the nature of the project, they were made more complicated because of scheduling conflicts and the inability to shoot group scenes together with the whole cast. Continuity issues have also posed a concern in the shift in people's clothing and the general placement of objects in the scene. But barring minor difficulties, the shooting gets easier and more fun every day, and the sitcom is shaping up to be the most interesting project we've taken up since being in Taigu. The final product is still in the works, but I will certainly be posting the video in its entirety as soon as it's completed!
As for my own future fame, I might need to put it on hold for a while. Recently, I've come up with a four-year plan for my next moves after my fellowship ends next July—all of which involve absolutely no chance of stardom. Though I've known for a while that I want to go back to school, I didn't know what kind of grad school program would best fit my interests. Recently, I was introduced to the idea of doing a Master's in International Relations (IR), through a program that former Shansi Fellow Morgan is currently enrolled in at Yale. Researching it on my own, I discovered that you can also complete a three-year joint-degree program in IR and Environmental Science, two subjects that, too my discredit, I have close to no background in whatsoever, but have nonetheless become extremely passionate about since moving to China. Before I came to China, I had narrowed the scope of my potential graduate school study to four fields: poetry, environmental science, journalism, and Asian American studies. But considering how my interests have changed in the time since, I feel that doing a program like this would combine some of my life's biggest goals: to travel the world, be able to speak and write critically about world politics and history, and find solutions to solve the biggest problem facing the globe today.
Aside from the obvious issue of finding a way to pay for it all, the big problem now is that both degrees require a substantial number of prerequisites, and aside from the language requirement, I have completed none of them. Thus, my plan first involves applying to become the Shansi Returned Fellow at Oberlin, which would allow me to take those required course for free, all while working and earning a salary at my beloved alma mater. During that time, I also plan to take the GRE and apply to grad schools with the hope that I can enroll for the fall 2012 semester at Yale or (perhaps more realistically) anyone of a handful of mid-level schools that offer the program. All that being said, I still have my doubts. Every trip I make out to Beijing leaves me feeling that I want to stay in China a little longer. The journalism industry here is in much better shape than in the states, and I'm relatively confident that I can hold down a job doing that—or in the worst case, keep teaching English—in addition to continuing to pursue other interests like writing and becoming fluent in Mandarin. Either that, or this sitcom will become so successful that TV stations county-wide will be clamoring to get us to sign lifelong contracts. Regardless, I'm extremely glad that I still have another year to sort it all out.
Sunday, May 16, 2010
Sometimes it's the simplest, most benign pretenses that can change everything. For me, it all started with a knock at my door. Max, a former student of mine, came over to my house one Saturday afternoon along with a man I had never met before. He looked to be a little older than me, stocky and not particularly handsome, with thick-rimmed glasses and a protruding stomach that practically begged to be rubbed. Max, to his credit, was none of those things—a slim, athletic build, who wore designer dress shirts, kept his hair in a fashionable pompadour, and was unmistakably a hit with the female undergrads. As they shuffled into my house—each putting out their cigarettes in the ashtray on my front porch—I realized that something felt different. As an English major—and a good one at that—Max had spoken with me before on many occasions outside of class. He always had a playful, jocular air about him when we talked or went out to eat together, occasionally transitioning to more controversial subjects when the mood dictated: his desire to leave China, his stance on the Middle East, or his strong dislike for the Communist Party. This time, however, his attitude was all business.
I had known about Max's background in entrepreneurship before I had even met Max himself. He had certainly made a name for himself on campus, at least in the foreign circle, for founding the first and only bar in town. Located in North Yard down a tiny alley catty-corner to some of our most-frequented restaurants, it has been a popular spot for the teachers, and the occasional graduate student, ever since its inception two years ago. Furnished with space-age chairs, silver-sequined wallpaper, and stocked with foreign alcohol purchased at the Walmart in Taiyuan, the admittedly shoe-box sized establishment gets the most mileage out of its limited real estate. In the time since last semester, Max sold the bar—which he had co-owned with a fellow undergraduate—in order to make back some money for his next enterprising venture. Despite his relative youth—he is one year younger than me—Max was the only person I knew in Taigu to have started his own business. That was until I was introduced to the portly fellow who had accompanied him to my house.
By way of introduction, the stouter man—whom I soon learned was named Han—extended a hand and a curt “nice to meet you” in his best English. Max was familiar with Han because of their mutual celebrity as young businessmen in Taigu—Max with his bar and Han with an electronics store that specialized in selling computer parts and accessories on campus. Since the business world in Taigu does not run particularly deep, it didn't take long for them to develop a mutual acquaintanceship. Han, like me, graduated from college last May, and has since transitioned to the working world. In addition to pursuing a full-time job in his hometown of Changzhi, he decided to pair up with a couple of other professionals for a new venture—starting an English-language school specializing in having foreign teachers. The only problem was procuring said teachers. But Han, ever-industrious, remembered his old buddy who was friends with the foreigners at his alma mater, and first tried to employ his guanxi with Max to recruit us for the school.
Once we were all seated in my living room, Han was content to let Max do most of the talking. Having had a limited knowledge of English, the best he could muster was the occasional nod or shrug after a translation from Max, or a follow-up comment or question directed at me in Chinese. As me and James tried to flesh out all of the details, Max and Han made it clear that we were the last group of foreigners they had talked to that day. After having traveled from Dave and Gerald's house to Anne and Nick's and finally on to ours, their bag of swag gradually got depleted, leaving small gifts of
friendship bribery in their wake: crates of expensive packaged milk, cured Pingyao beef (a Shanxi specialty), and a number of plug-in USB microphones—almost certainly holdovers from Han's last entrepreneurial venture. The details of the entire operation were still being worked out, but we were able to gather this much: the school was willing to pay for all of our transportation, lodging, and food for once-weekly weekend stays in Changzhi, in addition to a salary of 1000 yuan—effectively doubling our current monthly pay at SAU. The trade-off, of course, was having to teach four extra classes a week and effectively losing all of our weekends for the rest of the semester.
James and I in front of the old Changzhi city limits. A weekend spent as sole English speakers in a foreign place certainly brought us closer together and made for some interesting bonding experiences.
In a move that can either be chalked up to utter desperation or lucrative brilliance, James and I took them up on their offer, irrespective of the fact that all of the other foreign teachers had conclusively turned them down. Our interest effectively locked ourselves into a spoken-contract as teachers with the Changzhi school as soon as we got the green light that everything was up and running on their end. We both figured that though we would miss out on a good deal of R&R in Taigu, this would be a great opportunity to make a little extra money on the side to save up for unforeseen expenses. As a show of gratitude for our pledge to their endeavor, Han and Max took us out to celebrate at a fancy hot-pot restaurant in town a few weeks later. While there, we were introduced to the two other main players in our cast of characters: the headmistress of the school, a remarkably gorgeous and powerful older woman, and her husband, a cool, level-headed gentleman in his own right. It was then that they requested for us both to come to Changzhi the following weekend, not to work, but so that they could treat us to an all-expenses paid tour of the city where we'd be spending two days out of every week from then on.
We arrived on Friday night after a three-hour bus ride from Taigu, upon which we were immediately swooped up by our three protagonists—Han, the headmistress, and her husband—sans Max, who was taking a national exam that weekend back in Taigu. They arrived in a nearly impossibly garish Italian sports car that they would later use to chauffeur us around town at every available opportunity. Though I'm rarely taken with cars, even I had to admit that this one was nice—automatic-sliding seats, sleek leather interior, and shocks that made even the shoddiest Chinese streets feel smooth. As might be expected from a group of well-to-do professionals trying to entice their new clientele, we got the celebrity treatment. First stop was dinner, where we were treated to a lavish multi-course meal, complete with polite banter, insistent urgings for second helpings, and facts about some of Changzhi's points of interest. Next was the 4-star hotel where we would be staying. In all of my travelings in Asia up until that point, I had yet to stay in nearly as nice a place. James and I took our time admiring the big-screen TV, the real-life shower-head (boasting 5 jet streams), and the two gigantic queen-sized beds, not to mention all the free toiletries we could handle.
The ensemble cast of characters (from left to right): the “fun” friend, the headmistress' husband, the headmistress, and Han.
After we put our bags down, we were whisked off to a club for a continuation of the evening's festivities—just another in a long line of efforts the school's staff was making to whet our appetites for all of the fun opportunities we had waiting for us in Changzhi. Inside, we got our own private booth, and it wasn't long before cases of imported Heineken beer, two bottles of Red Label, and plates brimming with hors d'oeuvres began to fill the table. At the club, we were also introduced to two of Han's buddies, one a quiet, brooding man who had studied abroad in Australia, and the other, a wise-cracking twenty-something who was married with a wife and child at home. The “fun” friend and I hit it off right away, doing a couple of shots together before hitting the dance floor—a whiskey iced tea in one hand and a plate of banana chips in the other. Admittedly, though, the entire club scene did feel more than a bit awkward, first because James and I didn't know anybody our own age there, and second, because it felt like our new bosses were testing us. We felt more like performing monkeys than usual—dancing blithely in our carefully-tailored fun-house, but never truly safe from our bosses' ever-vigilant watch. We left the club, tired and bleary-eyed, and made a beeline back to the hotel for a rest.
The next day was slated for sightseeing. The only thing I knew about Changzhi before I arrived was that according to some tourism survey, it was rated as one of the top ten cities in Northern China—a pretty significant distinction, especially one that sets it out among cities and towns in Shanxi Province. After sleeping off the previous night, we helped ourselves to the hotel's complimentary buffet breakfast and were on our way. Though we hit a fair deal of what might rightfully be called “tourist attractions,” there was nothing especially spectacular to report. Many of the sights were regrettably things I had already been previously subjected to in China—a scenic mountaintop partially-demolished to accommodate an amusement park, crumbling old-style city walls and pagodas, heinously gaudy monuments with little actual substance. But despite the general lack of noteworthy displays, the staff certainly went out of its way to cater to our every need. All the meals were provided at fancy restaurants, we were escorted around in expensive foreign cars, and even the music was carefully selected to put us at ease—they played Lady Gaga on repeat, presumably the only Western music they owned. At one point we went to a store to buy snacks, and it seemed that anything we so much as looked at the wrong way, Han had already ordered a pound of to be bagged and purchased at the front register.
I would be crying too if the shining beacon of Changzhi's most highly-regarded ancient district was ensconced in animal droppings. The statue, nothing more than a glorified hollowed-out steel facade, empties out onto a small observatory overlooking an entire city cast in gray.
But all the while, there seemed to be a less-than-subtle turf war going on between Changzhi and Taigu, and our hosts made it very clear which they thought was better. Taigu was dirty, poor, underdeveloped, backwards—a place where the people and the students alike had few, if any, redeeming qualities. Changzhi, on the other hand, was just the opposite—the environment was cleaner, the food was better, and the people had a higher quality of life. In some ways, what they said was true. Changzhi is a thoroughly modern city by Chinese standards and Taigu is certainly not without its faults. But in many ways, it can't help its own shortcomings, and it's certainly not a fault of the people, many of whom—students included—I respect and admire greatly. It would be a gross understatement to say that our new bosses were trying to impress us with their wealth. While in America I would have hardly batted an eye at their excesses, having lived in Taigu for so long and been rarely exposed to such ostentation, I was definitely sold, and even found myself buying into it a little myself—adopting an air of carefree luxury and entitlement when it came to the money being spent on me and James. Money corrupts as absolutely as power, and, as I would soon learn, everything comes at a price.
At the end of dinner that night we toasted to our future success. Had the story ended there, there would have been little doubt about my future with the Changzhi school. Having just rounded out another thoroughly pampered day, I was excited to return for future weekend trips as a respite from the drudgery of Taigu. But neither I nor James were prepared for what would await us the following morning.