Monday, October 17, 2005


Sometimes, my life here makes very little sense. My friend Gene commented not too long ago that, on occasion, walking through China is akin to walking to through a Dali painting. After several quite surreal happenings, I could not agree more. Today was definitely one such occasion.

I had almost reached the entrance to my dorm on the way back from lunch today when I heard a man behind me call, "Ding Mei!" (That's my Chinese name, if I haven't mentioned that before.). I turned and saw four men walking out of a black car parked in front of my dorm. I recognized the man who called to me. I was suddenly filled with dread.

Last week I was approached, yet again, by someone doing an advertisement who needed foreigners to act. I've developed a standard operating procedure for these situations, so I followed the protocol. I gave him my Chinese name and email address, and told him to email me with more information. "No, I'm sorry, I don't have a phone. And no, I'm sorry, I won't give out my friend's phone number so you can call him to get ahold of me. And no, my roommate doesn't want me giving out our room number."

I didn't think that this situation was going to be any different than the last several instances. The man told me his company was making a cooking video to advertise a cooking school in Beijing. He told me which one, but I couldn't remember. Anyway, he took a few photos, and took a video of me speaking Chinese. I didn't like speaking Chinese on camera because I know I sound like a moron. I thought that would take me out of the running for sure. His director certainly wouldn't want this particular half-wit American for their ad. Maybe another would be better.

To my dismay, the director did want this half-wit American for the role. So much, apparently, that these people camped outside my dorm waiting for me to come back. This scared the hell out of me for about two seconds. I tried to get out of panic mode quickly as I approached them to talk. I knew that if I ignored them, they could come find me. The desk people will tell pretty much anyone who asks where we live.

So I walked to the car and politely said hello. The man I met before explained to me that the director wanted to hire me for the ad, and that I had to come with the four of them today at 5.30pm to make sure the clothes fit. I had the presence of mind to remember to say, "I'm not going to come unless I can bring my friend with me." They tried to talk me out of it, and so I told them I wouldn't go. Then they relented and said I could.

I went up to my dorm room and instant messaged Donny to tell him what happened. He said he'd come with me, and we could talk to them about exactly what's going on, especially since I never agreed to anything. So, at 5.30pm, we met the man and his crew at the South Gate. Right away, I started questioning the man about what company he is with, and why doesn't he have a name card, and when exactly is the filming, and what school is this for, and what is the payment situation, and what language are the contracts in? I had alot of questions, and I think I scared the guy because his English isn't as good as my questioning were demanding.

The man went into assurance mode, and I heard something relatively genuine in his voice, so I decided that I could go today and then decide what to do. There was another student from the school coming, too. I figured that if need be, the three of us could band together against this skinny crew of filmmakers.

The three of us students got in a taxi with the man, and his crew followed in another. We were stuck in traffic during rush hour, but eventually we arrived somewhere near Xizhimen. We went to a building, and the man seemed lost about where we should be going. The whole time we were walking, I was carrying a key, ready to stab the man at any false move. I know that's paranoid, but I don't care. It's better to be prepared than be caught off guard when it comes to my personal safety or sense thereof. When he didn't seem to know where we were going, I was ready to pounce.

Fortunately for him, he got his wits back about him, and he took us up to the eighth floor. He turned the wrong way to get to the office, but we got rerouted in the right direction after he asked another office worker where room 801 was. I was expecting this place to be kind of dark, dirty, and generally shady feeling. It turns out that I was horribly mistaken.

We walked in, and the place was bright and full of Chinese models. There were fashion photos on the walls, and a photo shoot taking place to my right when I walked in. I looked around and felt really strange. I thought I was just trying on clothes, and so I wore a huge pair of jeans, and a huge t-shirt, along with a huge coat. I was very underdressed for the occasion. I stared at all the people who were staring me. I'm still not sure how I found myself in such a strange situation.

The man came over and broke the haze I was in to tell us that the clothes were not ready yet, and that we would need to wait a few minutes. We said that was fine, and continued to talk about how we didn't understand what was going on. I saw a group of men talking and looking up at Donny every few seconds. I got the feeling that something was about to happen to him.

The man came back over to us and asked Donny where he is from. I watched huge smiles come across the faces of the men when they heard that Donny is a meiguoren (American). "Would you like to try on some clothes, too? We need more actors for this film," the man said to Donny. In typical Donny fashion, he shrugged a little, and hesitantly answered, "Uh, I guess? Um, yeah. Sure." He looked to me in such a way that I can only assume that he was thinking, "I can't believe you've gotten me into yet another one of these things. Oh my god."

We moved to the couch in the middle of the room after that. We had only been sitting for about two minutes when the other student walked by in full chef gear. My jaw dropped and my eyes widened with the knowledge that I, too, was going to have to look that ridiculous. Then I realized that they were taking him to the photo shoot area. Yes, they were, in fact, going to take our pictures, too. Donny and I looked at each other with equally incredulous glances, and didn't say a word.

After the other student had been photographed, some of the office people took Donny away. I sat by myself on the couch, receiving the stares of the people in the office. They were loudly talking about me, and I kept thinking that it was a little odd, because I had been speaking Chinese audibly just a few minutes earlier. Subtlety, people! I called to the man in Chinese and started asking him more questions, hoping that people would catch on to the fact that I could understand what they were saying. Apparently they just didn't care.

In the midst of questioning, two women accompanied an entirely new Donny out of the other room. He had on black shoes, black pants, and a white coat with orange buttons and an orange tie. I believe he had on an apron, too. The look on his face was a blend of terror and sadness that I don't think I've been privy to seeing in most people. It looked a bit like a death march when they took him to have his photo taken. I didn't laugh at him, though, because I knew I was next. I also didn't get up to watch the photo shoot, because I knew he'd lose it if he saw me peek my head around the corner.

It was my turn next. I went back to the room where Donny had been, and the woman there handed me a black dress. "Oh, I think this must be the wrong one," I said. "I'm supposed to be in a cooking video."

"Yes. This is the right one. You can go to the bathroom in the hallway to change."

Uh... why does a cooking video require a black dress? I figured that I would soon find out, so I went and put on the dress, and came back. I had my photos taken, and then the man approached again. "So in this movie, you will play the love interest - ." I stopped him right there.

"What do you mean, 'the love interest?' You said this was a cooking video. What are you talking about?"

"No, no. It is a cooking video. But you go to the student canting with your boyfriend, but you fall in love with the cook. And then - ."

I had heard enough. I had enough of this explanation, and I had enough of this man only being willing to deal with me in English. I started after him in Chinese. I wanted to the pressure to be on him from his officemates in case he had lied to me before, and I wanted to make sure they all knew what was going on.

"Look, I thought you said originally that I would be in this video, pretending to be cooking. That is what you said, isn't it?"

"Yes, but - "

"But what? That isn't what you're saying now. What is this?"

His explanation was insufficient, and in English. He's supposed to be calling me and Donny tomorrow, and meeting us so we can talk about all of this. I don't know what I think about this. The company is obviously legitimate. That was evident from the condition of their office and their office procedures. But still, I don't like this style of business. Donny and I are getting a Chinese friend to help us with this now.

Ah, what a day.


At 1:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dali? Maybe. Kafka? For sure. Keep in mind that things didn't turn out very well for Herr K. in The Trial, and the Surveyor never actually got to the castle in The Castle. My suggestion is to take your "agent" (I.e. big burly guy) and your "personal secretary" (native Mandarin-sprecher who's been around the block a couple of times). After all, you are Ding Mai, star of stage and film from from Chicagoland. They needn't know that the location of the previous stage, nor need they know details about any previous cooking videos you might have starred in. Create your own absurdity to combat theirs. Maybe your next gig will be in a Chinese Coca Cola commercial--it's the surreal thing.

At 12:52 PM, Anonymous Jeni said...

That is so sketchy. Be careful in the freaky fun-land.


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