Work Related

Recently, I watched this Ashton Kutcher interview—bear with me, readers—where he said that “Working at Starbucks or McDonald’s is not ‘below you’—not having a job is ‘below you’.” I actually needed to hear this, since the next day I was waking up at 3am to take some work I swore I’d never resort to. Because I’m a vain, lack-of-work actress with a superiority complex, probably.

So I took a job as an extra on a Hollywood film being shot here in Thailand, where I signed a waver that said I wouldn’t talk about it. And the problem was that years ago, I’d said “No, I’m not going to ever take extra work.” Beggars/Choosers—I haven’t been on a set or a stage since January 13th, and it was starting to physically hurt. A set with lights, cameras, and all the wonderful shiny happy “get things done we have X amount of takes to get through in not a lot of time” was pretty okay by me. When I saw a script at the casting agency, I nearly grabbed it off the table and ran, that’s how excited I was.

What wasn’t on the waver, which I can talk about, was the difference between being a Western expat in Thailand, and being Thai. There were about 200 Thai extras that morning, we all showed up for a 6am call time. There were 5 Westerners. The Westerners got to sit in the shade for two hours, while the Thai extras had to stand in lines facing us. For two hours. While we sat there, comfortably in the shade and were asked if we needed anything.

For breakfast and lunch, the Westerners were given their own table filled with food—for five people—while the Thai extras were given two tables of the same amounts… for 200 people.

Westerners got paid four times more than the Thai extras. We got paid first, after 12 hours of standing around and off and on being on set. Not one of the Thai extras complained… while the Western expats… complained a lot.

The woman I was on set with kept changing her clothes mid-scene, sweater on, sweater off, we’re probably going to get cut from all footage. She started fights with the production staff, she complained loudly that they were taking too long to set up a scene/dismantle everything/shoot it again. I kept nudging her and trying to explain, and she kept rolling her eyes at me and saying how pointless it all was and how it was the stupidest thing she’d ever done, and how the film industry was just so incredibly lame compared to the glamour she associated with it.

There is nothing glamorous about a film set. Not one I’ve ever been on, at least. It’s sweaty and uncomfortable, and you have to run up a flight of stairs ten times, from five different angles, just to make sure the footage is there. It’s even sweatier in SE Asia.

And when I got home, 12 hours later, I sat down at my computer and started going over all of my writing deadlines for the night. My roommate came in, another Westerner married to a Thai woman, and he asked how it went. When I explained the differences between Thai extra treatment and Western extra treatment with some small disgust, he asked “And why didn’t you stand up and say anything about it? Why did you just sit there and allow this to happen?”

Because I’m a horrible human being, I replied with, “…I would have lost the job”.
“That’s the problem with the world, right there.”

The Vanity Post

I’m not big on spending time getting ready. Last night though, I ended up running late for dinner because I couldn’t stop staring at myself in the mirror. Something just seemed horribly wrong with my face.
[Yes, friends– especially Dave and Aaron– I hear your hilarious comments on that one in my head as I’m writing this. I’ve opened it up for you to have a field day. Enjoy.]

As for what was wrong with my face, I’m still not quite sure.
But I have the sneaking suspicion it’s that I’m not Asian.

Someone asked me this morning “what has been the biggest culture shock since you’ve arrived?”
I answered with “oh, the… traffic…”
Nope—not it. That was straight up avoiding honesty.

The “biggest culture shock” snuck in without me noticing.

It started as a small voice, the one in my head that looked at another woman’s boots and went “god… I love those.” It escalated with trips to the mall, looking at all the things I can’t afford, or looking at the gorgeous Chinese women leaving the apartment building with their little dogs, wearing the latest fashion trends.
Over the past two and a half weeks, it’s gone from coveting footwear, to looking in the mirror and thinking “God, I’m a fat, ugly, American heifer.”
[Again, friends, though you’re thousands of miles away, I can still hear you.]

And to give a point of reference (and make myself feel better)—I’m 5’7, and on my bad days, I weigh in at 120 pounds. I usually fit into a size 0 to 2, so by American standards, I’m doing okay. Not here. Here, I’m taller than most men, and the women are so petite I can fit them in my purse.

I started acting when I was five years old. I somehow survived teenage hormones and auditions without developing an eating disorder. I spent my early twenties learning how to tune out the negatives, and *trying* to listen only long enough to find the constructive criticism and move on. It was not easy. Most nights, I’d get home from a five or six hour rehearsal, throw my character shoes in the corner, and head straight to the bar to get very drunk. Because for every compliment you get in the theatre, there are at least ten insults to dull the happiness back down. And it’s all about hanging onto that one good thing, and throwing the rest away.

China, though, is very quickly destroying the last seven years of inner work. It’s just small things here, accumulating—cab drivers who won’t pick me up because I’m a Westerner. The feeling of being invisible when I’m in public, with no eye contact from anyone except the occasional older woman sitting alone in a restaurant, staring at me. In general though, there is no acknowledgement of my existence at all.

I still regret not introducing myself to the American girl that I exchanged small smiles with over oranges one day, as we both got shoved out of the way of the locals getting their produce. I’m used to having a handful of close friends I talk to and see every day. Grab drinks with, have dinner, text ridiculous things to. Send very long bantering emails all day while I’m at work, generally about the ridiculousness that is America… and nerd culture… and ridiculous life events.

One of my roommates warned me about being a Western woman in Shanghai before I left, and I just laughed at him and said “yeah, I’m pretty sure my sense of self can survive.”
Oh, to be so incredibly wrong.

So that is the biggest culture shock, random guy from class who asked me. It isn’t the traffic, the pollution, the lack of graffiti street art—it’s the inside of my head, flipping itself over and realizing how much I miss American diversity. And how I’m going to have to be very careful with monitoring my sense of self over the next few months–because I think I will become absolutely starved for attention.

China: A few observations so far.

If you’d asked me six months ago “what is the ONE country you will never step foot in?”—I would not have hesitated before answering with China. Something about the country terrified me. Maybe it was because one of my favorite writers spent three months over here a couple of years back, and wrote a very swaying argument as to why I should never come. [Lost on Planet China, by Martin Troost] Whether he meant the book to be taken that way or not, I simply decided China was the only no stamp destination for my passport.

Uh-huh… about that.

Shanghai is awesome. I like it a lot. The neighborhood we’re in reminds me of the Mission in San Francisco. Other than the skyscrapers, it’s pretty much the same. You know, if everyone blew cigarette smoke in your face when you walked by, and the amount of near death accidents you got in per hour were well into the double digits. The sky is the same off-color mixture of smog and blocked sunlight, and you can’t go outside without a warm coat.

I kept hearing how crazy the metro was, how everyone jams in and you get stuck, immobilized in a sea of people. In my head, it became a dirty experience, a Brooklyn-during-rush-hour nightmare. In actuality, it isn’t so bad. Everyone is super polite— they just edge out of the way to make room. It’s like a careful game of live action Tetris. I had a much harder time navigating the New York subway than I’ve had with Shanghai. And it’s so clean—good lord, I’m not saying I’d lick the floor of the metro station or anything, because I see how often people spit on it, but everything is so shiny here.

I saw one argument outside the building this morning. I didn’t understand a word that was being said, but it got a bit intense. Turns out, they were arguing because the customer gave the bike messenger a tip, by hiding it in the gloves on his handlebars, and he didn’t feel it was necessary. So the guy was screaming and shoving the money back in the woman’s hands. And she was screaming what I can only assume was “TAKE IT, YOU HAVE TO TAKE IT” in Mandarin. It wasn’t that much money, literally the equivalent of $2.00. The customer ended up losing, and putting the money back in her pocket.

Whenever a brave, younger generation Chinese kid opens a conversation with me, they generally want to know if I teach English, or where I’m from. It doesn’t happen often, and it’s almost shocking when it does. Kind of like “wait, I’m not invisible?? You can SEE me?”

The other day, I said “California” and got back an “Oh… I don’t know where that is.” So I answered with “Hollywood?” “OH!! HOLLYWOOD!!!! Los Angeles!! Movie stars!!” I cringed. I am San Diegan enough to cringe.

Last night, while waiting for Mike so we could go to dinner, I was asked “hello, sorry, what do you do? Do you teach English? I’m looking to hire new English teachers.” “No, I don’t, but my boyfriend does. He already has a job though.”—“Oh, your husband already has a job? Okay, thank you. Goodbye.”

Here, the term boyfriend seems to immediately be translated to “husband.” I’ve picked that one up, too.

So now I’m married and from Los Angeles. Two things no one saw coming. Three, if you count living in China.