Friday, December 26, 2008

Merry Christmas

To all our readers, dear friends and family, we wish you a joyful and merry Christmas.

A little bummed about not being able to spend it with our families in California, we settled for the happiest place on earth:

I'd been to Disneyland Hong Kong a few years back as part of a family reunion, but M had never been. We figured Christmas was as good a time as any to go. Unfortunately for us, so did several thousand other people.

I'm sure M will have plenty to write about this wonderful place, but in the meantime, for your viewing pleasure:


Not my gumdrop buttons!

And to all a goodnight!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008


and it feels so good. (Bet you didn't see that one coming)

I made it to Hong Kong safe and sound, thus ending our international posting schedule.

While going from Beijing to Hong Kong is always a jarring experience price-wise, it's also an extremely comforting one, especially since we have family to stay with. Yesterday, we bummed around a bit and then went out to dinner with my aunt. Halfway through a gleeful dinner of noodles and xiaolongbao, she announced it was her anniversary. We're glad we stuck around to celebrate it with her, since my uncle went to the states a couple days before her. After dinner, we went through a couple malls doing some last-minute Christmas shopping, then met up with Justin (randomly bumping into his friends on the way) at this crazy arcade because Justin's friend wanted to use up 3 months of change. My eyes got all big when we walked in, this place was legit, I'm definitely going back.

It was a rough week and a half without M. We really are pretty weak sauce. Is it possible for a married couple to be too attached? Too dependent? Hmm...

I joked with M that I felt kind of like a domesticated animal released back into the wild. Lacking basic survival skills, I resorted to foraging for food, namely Mcdonalds and Subway.

Friday, December 19, 2008

La Vida Loca

While M's been down south, I've been trying to keep myself busy. So, when my friend Judy asked me and our friend Zeke to help accompany her at a singing competition, I jumped at the chance. She had already placed in the audition, so this was a finals competition.

Here were the songs she picked:

SeeqPod - Playable Search

Typical to China, Judy had only been given a week's notice about the event, so we didn't think it'd be too big of a deal. Little did we know.

Monday night, we show up to the venue at Peking University and the place is abuzz with craziness. Apparently, one of our favorite brands of ramen noodles was sponsoring the event, so there were stacks of ramen everywhere. People were giving out free hand-clappers, thunder-sticks, glow bracelets, at the door, setting up bubble and smoke machines, dv-cams, and projector screens. While we were soundchecking, friends were making signs for each of the participants:

It turns out this was the Beijing area university finals for a Idol style competition, the winner would perform in the city-wide competition in the spring. The stakes were high for the 11 other karaoke star compatriots we would be facing off against. Zeke and I surveyed the competition, quickly becoming confused. Some of our competitors were androgynous. We spent several minutes debating ("Totally a guy..." "No, wait" "But...").

Eventually, the event started and we were ushered backstage. The night started off with a bang: a foreign student hip-hop crew doing an evolution of dance style routine (as a guest act, not in the competition). While I'm sure some of the jokes were lost on our native Chinese audience (Will and Carlton's dance, anybody?), it certainly got the crowd riled up.

One of the contestants was a hip hop crew + rapper team, replete with full choreography. Another group was an a capella group who did a medley of Jay Chou's Jian Dan Ai, which sounded kind of like these guys from UM, although instead of Where is the Love?, they medleyed Jay with Truly, Madly, Deeply by Savage Garden. I used to sing those two songs together, so if anyone asks, you can tell them you heard it here first...

One of the most epic performances was Livin' La Vida Loca by one of the aforementioned ambiguities. Shortly before the performance, Zeke and I had confirmed that she was indeed, well, a she. As she began, these two scantily clad dancers walked out from either side of the stage. Halfway through the song, the dancers shimmied up to the singer and ripped away her white shirt to reveal another a black shirt with tears in it (I think it was cued to that part about waking up in New York City). Pretty exciting stuff. I'm just glad she didn't do a different Ricky Martin song, infamized by one of my floormates in college: She Bangs.

After we performed our first song, we got some feedback from a panel of pseudo-famous people. It was surprisingly fun, actually, the whole Idol/reality TV feel. Then they narrowed the competition and we performed our second song. Unfortunately, here's where we lost to one of the girls who sounds like a guy. She eventually went on to win the competition, though, so it's kind of like we got second place :).

Most of the contestants at the end were the guys who sang like girls or the girls who sang like guys. Judy says it might be because Chinese people think that's really impressive. Hmmm...well that's cool, I guess. Too bad they haven't discovered this guy, Nick Pitera, yet:

(Oh, I just read that Nick works for Pixar now...Berkeley crew, you guys should find this guy and be his friend! So hot.)

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

So what ARE you doing in China?

I get asked this question a lot, so I figured I may as well start a series here to talk about my research and work in Beijing. So, technically I'm still a UM student, who is here on a research fellowship for the completion of my thesis. Once I'm done here, I will be done with my program. As part of my research, I'm basically interning for China's first and arguably most well-known* independent documentary director Wu Wenguang. His breakout film was an independent documentary called "Bumming in Beijing," or <<流浪北京>>。(*When I say well-known, I mean in international academic and independent art circles, not in China. In everyday China, he's about as famous as...well, me. Which is not much.)

Basically, he came to Ann Arbor about a year ago to screen some of his films, and that's how I was offered the opportunity to come intern at his independent arts space, Caochangdi Workstation (CCD). I do a lot of translation work for them, mostly film subtitles for their Villager Documentary Project, and in return, I get to hang around and use their archives, and basically get to know how things work so that I can write my Masters thesis about this space and the Villager Project.

Some of you already know this, but the Villager Documentary Project is Wu's latest and biggest project, and it basically features four villagers who were given digital video cameras three years ago, and told to film their villages (the project actually began with 10 villagers, but most of them have fallen off the map). Each of these villagers has now completed one short film and two feature length documentaries, and are on their way to producing a third. Each year, they gather footage of their village life on their DV cams, and then come to Beijing to edit their films at CCD. You can already guess what issues might arise from a project like this: everything from fascination about the footage they capture, to questions about the quality of their films, and even deeper to what an opportunity like this might do for their roles in society. More on this later.

I know this is all very complicated. Don't worry, no pop quizzes anytime soon. Anyway, I'll update about my work little by little, but that's the general introduction to what I'm doing here.

On a more recent note, I just spent the weekend in Shenzhen for a contemporary arts festival that invited CCD to screen documentaries and perform at the OCAT Art Museum and Contemporary Art Terminal. Shenzhen is one of China's special economic zones, and pretty much any of you blog readers probably has a much closer relationship to the city than you realize: unless you're an avid American Apparel shopper, your underwear, shoes, bags, Apple computers, you name it, were probably all produced there. Between Olympics policies and the financial crisis, many of Shenzhen's factories are closing down, leaving throngs of Chinese migrant workers unemployed.

Meanwhile, it appears the city is trying to build a hip, yuppie indie art culture into its industrial infrastructure. The bourgie "Overseas Chinese Town" (OCT for short) is now overrun with posh hotels, art museums, lofts, and of course the obligatory Starbucks. Throw in some amazingly cheap Southern Chinese cuisine (crab and garlic noodles, anyone?), not to mention some gaudy theme parks--you know, for irony's sake--and you have the hipster traveler's dream come true.

We spent two full days and one extra night screening and discussing the villagers' films, as well as a film by Wu himself, and another three films by young documentary filmmakers also supported by CCD. It's been hard for me sometimes, because at this point in the Villager Project, we're beginning to see the growing tension between the villagers' rural identities and their newfound posts as documentary directors. What must it feel like to be wrenched from your familiar (if difficult) life, and plopped into the already complicated Chinese independent art scene, drooled over by international artists and academics, and made to feel like somehow Change is in your hands? Who are they, Obama?

So, seeing as how this is my Masters thesis, I'm still processing through the myriad tumbling thoughts in my head, and I'll spare you the mess in there. This can get the ball rolling, and the next time I start spewing about this stuff, you'll at least know the basics.

For now, I will leave you with a couple pictures.

Here's Wu himself treating us to McDonald's. It was pretty sweet to document China's premier independent documentary filmmaker patronizing this familiar global establishment. Muahaha:
From Beijing Dou

And here are a couple of the villagers, starting with Wang Wei, from Shandong Province:
From Beijing Dou

and my favorite, Shao Yuzhen, who lives in Shunyi, near Beijing:
From Beijing Dou

She's invited us to her home to visit sometime during the Spring Festival vacation. Will definitely post about that!

Anyway, just some brief comments about how I spend my time here. More to come in the "What ARE we doing in China" series. Maybe Josh will tell you all about his dream to start a massage parlor slash Chinese school.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

So cold

It's freezing here! We were forewarned that Beijing would be cold, and this isn't even the worst of it. Our friend Tim says it gets as cold as 5 degrees fahrenheit during the day in January. Yikes!

We thought the puffy jackets that got us through a Michigan winter would hold up, but if it gets any colder, I'll have to add more layers. I've been perpetually wearing my long underwear bottoms too, but I still feel cold...maybe I'll do what I did in Mongolia and wear long underwear, sweats, and pants. That way if I come across any stray horses I can ride them without fear of chafing.

Also of note, M and I found an awesome Korean restaurant. Monday, our friend Nate took us there; we ate ourselves silly for cheap. Then yesterday, we took Justin there and ate ourselves even sillier. Oh, and last week we found a decent Pho/Vietnamese restaurant. I've been telling M that Beijing feels so much more livable now. Heh, we sure love to eat.

Tomorrow M leaves for a film festival in Shenzhen, and then she'll stay in Hong Kong with my aunt and uncle for a week before we fly to Taiwan from there. This'll be the longest we've been apart since we got married! :(. So sad.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Bait and Switch

Every other Friday I have a private tutoring session with a 10 year old boy named Tom, after Tom and Jerry. He's a blast, and, just like his namesake, he really enjoys meowing. Since M had the day off, she came along for kicks.

The session was mostly uneventful. M sat at the table with me so she could draw pictures of random vocabulary from his English textbook to help him understand the words: piranhas, porcupines, turkeys, cacti, ice know, essential words for a ten year old.

After the session, we were talking with his mom for a few minutes when she offered us some snacks. Conveniently stored in a metal Danish Butter Cookie tin. I bet some of your parents totally did that growing up. Inside she had some tamarind candies, some kind of strange haw-jerky/brick, and an unopened bag of caramels.

They looked kind of like these bad boys:

I used to love these guys when I was growing up. Total teeth killers.

I eyed the caramels, but decided against making a move for them, opting instead for one tamarind candy. Somehow, Tom's mom started telling us how her husband had brought them back from some business trip to Thailand but she doesn't really know what they are. Hmm...She offers them to us, but we politely refuse, she insists, and hands the bag to Tom to open. As she passes the bag, I get a glimpse at the tag:

Durian Toffee

For those of you who have never had the experience that is Durian, a bunch of us in Berkeley realized it tastes a lot like: cream...onion...egg (in that order. For full effect, please march in place in between flavors).

Alarms went off in my head. Abort! Abort!

It was too late. Tom comes running back with scissors and eagerly cuts open the bag. All of us hesitate, staring awkwardly at the open bag. I gingerly pick one up, the crisp wrapper crackling in my hands as I remove it.

Imagine that you took a toffee candy, hid it inside a durian fruit, and buried the fruit underground for two weeks.

The only real saving grace was that I could lean over and breath my durian breath on M for the rest of the night. Good times.

This, by the way, is what a durian looks like:

Uncracked, it looks like some kind of medieval torture device. Inside, it looks like alien baby after-birth.