The letter of acceptance from the Beijing Film Academy dropped through the letter box at 2.30pm on the 31st December, so I had every reason to go out dancing that night with Maria, Luis and family, who are Dominicans and lovers of lots of meat, and Fefita la Grande, the great dame of Dominican accordion and populist music. On a gigantic screen filling an entire wall they danced and drank Dominican rum with loud Fefita and ribbons and bowed children and us, silhouettes against the lacy curtains.
Morning crept in and the men, rapturously drunk, swept snow from the doorstep and all the way up to Henri Bourassa in their party tuxedos and party hats. Another snowstorm came at 4am as we crawled back in the cab - snow ploughs frenzied with relief. Finally! Something ‘real’ to get their ploughs into. Sirens blared and winter accidents occurred; a fire choked itself to flames in a home on the corner while a mad biker struggled, drunk from a party, yes biked, biking through snow fields… wheels deep in snow and cars swerving into each other, gently, like they were playing a young child’s car game.
Will I miss the Montreal snow here in China?
I will miss our snow in China.
Now in China, nostalgia and Montreal winter haunt me, momentarily. I smell snow from my Chinese winter window and want to make snow angels fall face-deep into the fresh fall; but the moment is fleeting; nostalgia often is and as the Montreal night would turn in and St Urbain becoming bleak a hunger deep would call for Huangdao with its winter fish dried on poles, fished directly from the Yellow Sea and smoked part by pollution and sea air.
Fish clusters here are like snow there, adorning lines propped between trees. The streets smell fish, sweet as the fish dries, to be replenished always by a steady stream of more.
It did snow, two days ago, minus 6, like the icing on a child’s birthday cake, filigree and fluttered, and stayed one day, no more.
A local cook, having just hung the latest catch to dry.
I walk to school each day, 7 kilometress along the seashore. The beach becomes emptied of tourists. I no longer see the dancing Monkey man. The summer sun has gone, sunk to autumn and now winter.
On the way I often meet the dog brigade, Captaine Nihao and her gang, a rag-tag medley of strays. They live everywhere and nowhere in particular. Sometimes in one of the many deserted palatial homes that dot the east end of the beach. The other day I saw him walking slowly up to the entrance of the Hilton Hotel with the mob in tow. Yesterday he had made his bed in the straw by the cabbage patch.
Last week, fixated on knowing what they do and where they go, I followed them with my camera. They run the entire beach, stop, fight, chatter, bark, then run, lie, sleep. I finally managed to discover their base camps. One must be the summer camp by the Hilton Hotel and Roma Café, and now winter is here they have the cabbage patch where they cuddle under clumps of dry cabbage leaves for warmth.
I have decided to add CapitainE as one of my subjects for my film on Jinshatan beach, as messy a dog never has been seen - but what a scream!
From CaptitianE’s mob I move towards The Beijing Film Academy’s second campus that stands alone, a huge building with a desolate view of the beach that I particularly like as it feels haunted, and great for nostalgic walks. A few hundred meters to the left is the fishing village where Wei the fisherman lives.
It always feels surreal as I walk up the long, long path to the front door where groups of students experiment with sound, or framing, and practice Dolly shots and I am still partly in Montreal, waking up, drinking coffee and about to prepare for the massage clinic, or maybe go down the Main for a gossip with old friends Penny and Remi.
I really am only here in China temporarily; it is just a moment in time, an extended holiday.
As I walk up the stairs some of my students say, hao laoshi, hello teacher, I know I am not coming home. I have a class to teach - it becomes reality.
MY WAR AGAINST THE CELL PHONES
The students use cell phones. In fact, everyone uses cell phones. Constantly. Email is a bygone, they look at me, these kids, with quizzed faces – “Ahhhh!” answer you by an Email? No Laoshi!
Everything happens instantly on the Chinese version of Facebook - WeChat. Groups are formed; exclusive, inclusive, friendly, mocking, you name it, you’ll find it, to an extent. So the cell phone becomes an extension of hands, fingers, minds, body, gossip, a life-line.
Everyone in China has a cell phone. Everyone.
Everyone uses WeChat.
Including me. Now.
At first I found it totally offensive, rude and intolerable that in school the students are nose deep on a phone. Pens and paper are mostly nonexistent and I have to scramble to get photocopies done. But I have gotten used to it now. Lulu, the drama teacher, takes the phones and puts them in a box, gives them back at the end of class. I tried this, with utter failure as I do not have Lulu’s tact and cunning.
My students did not bring pens to my first class so we had five pens between twenty-five students. They are used to taking notes by taking cell pictures and then creating a group – let’s take notes for English Class Group - I was appalled and very vocal about it.
I went home the first night to rethink my strategy, as teaching in a Chinese film school was NOT going to be what I expected. These are clever, artistic, tactile, and easily bored students. They are not academics, these are artists, some already brilliant. Obsessive, uncontrolled and sometimes quite wonderful in their rebellion - which will be another subject – enough to fill a book.
I brainstormed even more and put them into small groups knowing that there would be at least one pen per group for the scriptwriting; yet to limit pen usage and paper the emphasis would be hands on. All my students are all from the cinematography department and they don’t care a fig for pens and paper; they want to touch cameras and lights!
So I brought in cameras, took them down to the studio, let them play around with lights, got them to talk, to SHOUT, to dare and dream in English as much as possible. The result: next week one month from the end of the year we are going to shoot 4, 5 minute films, all in English from A-Z.
MAGIC GIRL: A comedy about WeChat romance and transgenderism.
CLOSE-UP: A tragic romance – where the photographer falls for the actress, but she goes off with the monstrous director.
MAHJIANG: A COMEDY. Three men play and one cheats and wins the lot.
THE BIG SNORE! Should have been a romance, but ended up as a comedy, a wife and husband argue over who snores the most.
So, after these two months I am also a fully-fledged WeChat user, a connoisseur of the dog culture, and a lover of hanging dried fish. And my Chinese is now upped a notch and I am onto lesson 5, Week 4, a bit behind, but getting there.
Before I leave you, if you shake your phone when connected to WeChat and someone in China is shaking at the same time you can start a shaking friendship, or even a romance. I imagine on the slopes of Inner Mongolia, with herds of goats, or in a café, a young girl or boy, or grandfather/mother are cell shaking with you or me. I just tried it, and I got someone shaking at the same time as me, 1,230 kilometres from my house. I have yet to see his or her face.
Zài Jiàn (Goodbye for now)