JISHOU, HUNAN — I closed the old year in good spirits, but started the new year irritated at needing to suddenly change my plans for Jan. 1, 2009. By the end of the first day of the New Year, however, the irritation was gone. I was exhausted, but ebullient and quite content.
New Year’s Eve I spent with some of my former Oral English students. Kasurly (that’s her English name) met me to go shopping at the supermarket that afternoon. We have become cooking buddies, so we made dinner for ourselves while we awaited her seven roommates to come watch a big concert on my TV.
Around 9 or so, my Ukrainian neighbors invited me up for another dinner they were making with one of my present students, Jen. So I left the gaggle of freshmen to watch their TV program, and hung out with the girls upstairs. Denis, the husband of a Ukrainian voice teacher, came up later, and we all shared his brandy. Then the concert girls came up to toast the New Year before they had to scurry back to their dorm after curfew.
Originally, my plans for New Year’s Day were to spend the afternoon making dumplings at the home of Fu Xiao, one of my students, but on Dec. 30, I had received a call from my liaison officer, David Luo, that forced me to postpone that date.
David told me that Hunan Economic TV (HNETV) wanted a Westerner — ideally one who spoke Chinese — to appear in a program about Fenghuang, a tourist attraction not far from here. They were going to shoot it on New Year’s Day. They had called the university, and David then called me to press me into duty.
I agreed with some reluctance, since my last TV excursion to Dehang was fun, but in some ways a little annoying. We three Americans were basically props for that program, which aired Christmas Day here on Xiangxi County TV. So I was dreading a similar experience in Fenghuang.
My interpreter for the Dehang gig had been my friend Shelldy (庞肖狄 Pang XiaoDi), who is always great company, so I asked her if she wanted to join me in Fenghuang. Thankfully, she had no exams that day, and agreed cheerfully. My irritation was already beginning to wane.
When I had asked David if Shelldy could go, he said it was not a problem, but HNETV had asked for a faculty translator. As it turned out, that faculty member could not go, so it was just me and Shelldy who joined the HNETV crew at 10 am.
Unbeknownest to either of us until that morning, the star of the program was YoYo, a beautiful model/actress/TV host well known here in Hunan. Shelldy was ecstatic, and after working with YoYo for the better part of a day, I’ve become a YoYo fan, too.
On the drive down to Fenghuang, the directors gave Shelldy a summary of the program. YoYo was to be a tourist visiting the ancient town, but in some scenes she would also portray a native Miao (see photo right). I was her co-star (yes, you read that right!): when she was a tourist, I was a local ex-pat; when she was a native, I was a tourist. We would shoot three scenes together. In one, YoYo would speak English dialogue. In another, we would both speak Chinese.
So, I would not be a prop at all, but an active participant. In addition, the crew was courteous and friendly, and treated me and Shelldy as colleagues. I was already in high spirits before we arrived in Fenghuang.
We were met in Fenghuang by the director of the city’s tourism office, who had arranged two sumptuous meals for us during the day’s shoot. Before lunch, the crew shot YoYo (born 蒋宏杰 Jiǎng HóngJié in Hengyang, Hunan) playing the tourist, walking the shopping street in the old town and staring at a tour map. In between takes, passers-by would stop to ask YoYo to pose with them for photos.
Before that day, I knew nothing about YoYo. After the day was over, she had impressed me with her professionalism, calm demeanor and friendly, patient manner with her numerous fans. Of course, her telling me across a table that I had wonderful blue eyes, a warm heart and a handsome face may have colored my opinion!
After lunch, we shot a scene in a famous silver shop, with me playing the tourist and Yoyo playing a Miao shopkeeper. The dialogue was in English, which she can speak fairly well, and basically consisted of me complimenting her as a beautiful girl, taking her photo, and then proceeding to buy a lot of silver jewelry for my daughter.
Later scenes included YoYo as a young Miao woman washing clothes on the banks of the Tuojiang River, and me playing the part of a photo-happy tourist, and the two of us exchanging Chinese dialogue in a local bar. (That’s where she complimented me, as we waited for the crew to sort out the scene.)
After two big meals, and a lot of standing out in the freezing cold, we finally left for home around 11 pm. Shelldy was now locked out of her dormitory, so the TV crew put her up in their hotel in Jishou. They delivered me directly to my doorstep around 12:30 am.
I have no idea whether I will get paid for this gig, and I frankly don’t care. I got to spend the day with a good friend, meet new people (and a local media star!), and be an actor. By far, it was the best January 1 I have had in years.