Recently I was in Shanghai as part of the China 2.0 tour. Though much of the tour revolved around visiting local Web companies, the organizers did provide us with some high-class networking opportunities.
During one such event, at Shanghai’s newest hotspot M1NT, an enthusiastic stranger came up to me and slipped a USB flash drive into my palm and then disappeared. I was two whiskeys into the night, and so pocketed the drive and forgot about it.
However, after returning home and emptying out my pockets I came across the drive and noticed it was emblazoned with a logo for “Foreigner Perspective”. Curious, I popped it into my computer.
The drive contained a collection of short videos hosted by the stranger, now identified as Steven Weathers, that took the viewer to and through various situations in China: a trip to the electronics market, buying freshwater pearls, getting a custom suit tailored, etc.
As a blog and site for expats in China, I thought it might be interesting to have a bit of a Q&A with Steven and get his thoughts on being a laowai, producing the Foreigner Perspective, and working in the entertainment industry here in China.
Lost Laowai: Though it’s the question us laowai have been asked more than any other, it needs to be done – what brought you to China?
Steven Weathers: My first trip to China was a 2-week tour in 1998, back in the day when Beijing was just mass urbanized countryside and Xi’an a village that had seen few foreigners. I had a great trip, and the other members of the tour collectively prophesied that I would move to China one day. I laughed at them and said, “No way! I have a company, a house, a girlfriend, and commitments! I like China, but why in the world would I ever move here?” And … ten years later … here I am in China, loving life, just as they had predicted. That’s the short version. I’ll share the longer version over coffee sometime — which includes all the boring details like the logistics of transworld uprooting.
LLW: Tell me about your Web video series Foreigner Perspective. How did it begin? What topics are covered? Who is it targeted towards?
Steven: In the summer of 2008 I began a web video series called “Foreigner Perspective“. It’s an exclusive culture/language video for a web site I created called “American English Circle“. At that site, I have a community for Chinese people learning English. You may have heard that in China there are anywhere from 300 to 500 million people actively engaged in learning English — that’s more than the population of America. So my site is a small player in the language field in China, but I still get about 15,000 unique visitors a month who participate in the site’s online community. I also visit with the members when I travel throughout China to give them a chance to practice English in person.
But back to the video series — “Foreigner Perspective” — it’s a way to provide the users a look at China and America through a foreigner’s eyes. That perspective is important for Chinese people, mainly because it’s not something they can discover on their own unless they have close friends who are foreigners. There are no courses or books on it, and it’s difficult for them to read English web sites and blogs about foreigners in China (whose audiences are usually foreigners, rather than Chinese nationals). So the video appeals to a very tight niche. So far, I’ve received great response from both Chinese and Western viewers, even though my intended audience is Chinese.
LLW: In watching the Foreigner Perspective videos, you seem to be a pretty well hooked in guy – friends in the pearl market, electronic market, a good inexpensive tailor, etc. As a foreigner living in China, good relationships like this can mean the difference between a bargain and being ripped off. What do you think the key is to creating these types of relationships?
Steven: As far as relationships go with market owners, I have a way of price-lining. That is, spending a lot of time gathering prices from different vendors, in order to get an idea of what the actual cost should be (usually 1/3 or 1/4 of the first quoted price). Both Alice in the pearl market and Duke in the electronics market quoted me the lowest prices straight up, so I knew that they were not out to gouge me.
Of course, speaking Chinese on my part helps. I have taught the market owners that it’s in their interest to take care of local foreigners who speak Chinese and can return with friends to buy more — rather than the weekend tourists from cruise ship who are here today and gone tomorrow. Before I featured Alice, Duke, and Fatty on “Foreigner Perspective,” I had referred a lot of people to them. They knew that if they kept prices low, the people would follow.
Regarding Fatty in the clothing market, I was introduced to him by a Shanghai local, so it was instant GuanXi for me. The topic of GuanXi is so elusive to us foreigners, but at the end of the day, I think it boils down to trust whether in China or USA. China traditionally tests the trust-factor by drinking together (since you would never drink with an enemy), and America traditionally tests the trust-factor with a signed contract.
Of course, both systems can leave you high and dry. Some Chinese friends have told me that people with which they’ve had years of GuanXi and friendship have stabbed them in the back, and buisnesspeople in America well know that a contract can be as easily broken as it is written. Of course, the flip side is true too, and I’ve had many Chinese people help me out of GuanXi (whether instant or gained over time) and I know many people in America who would help at a moments notice, contract or not.
So what’s the secret? I try to live by the ancient Chinese and Bibilcal proverb of “cast your bread on the waters and one day it will return to you.”
LLW: Recently on Lost Laowai we talked about the idea of the “Angry Expat“, or foreigners who seem to have a very hard time integrating into their lives here in China and become overly critical of the country/it’s people because of it. You seem much the opposite, someone who is very comfortable exploring China’s many facets. What advice would you offer to the “Angry Expats” out there?
Steven: Ahh, the “Angry Expat” — I have to confess that I am not without sin. In my three years in China, I have had plenty of moments where I crossed the line. For instance, I fought with a woman at the Great Wall Tea Room at Badaling (which sounds much nicer than it actually was — these are the days before the Olympic renovations) who tried to charge my mother 150 RMB for a small cup of instant jasmine tea. My mother was fumbling for the money (not realizing she was being gouged) and I exploded. The woman matched my fury and we exchanged a heated rant while my parents watched dumbfounded. I remember the woman physically hitting me. In the end, I won and we only paid 15 RMB (still too much for a cup of instant tea), and the woman laughed at us as we left (so, maybe she won). But I digress.
Back to your question, what advice do I have for the Angry Expat? I would say that the four stages of culture shock are really true: euphoria, depression, anger, acceptance. Every person is different, so some may move through these phases in 3 months, while another over a period of 1 or 3 years. Or, like my experience, I find myself going through the phases in different facets of life (professionally, relationally, philiophically, etc.). So while on one level (professionally) I may be in the acceptance stage and something that would have set me off 2 years ago doesn’t now, but then I’ll be suprised by my anger at a friend who lies to me to save face (relationally). For moments like those, I analyze my anger to see if it is valid. I believe anger is all about expectations not being met, and sometimes our unmet expectations validate our anger (for instance, expecting a cup of instant jasmine tea to be 10 RMB) and sometimes they don’t (expecting my Chinese friend to tell me the truth when it would cause a loss of face).
LLW: You’ve also done some work on Chinese TV, correct? Can you tell me about the experience? Is it something you’d like to get more involved in?
Steven: Since in Shanghai, I have had a number of opportunites to work with the China media industry. I’ve been in two movies, three TV shows, and over 30 TV commercials. I’ve even been in one music video with Taiwanese band S.H.E., so you can see me in every KTV club throughout China. I am currently acting in a TV drama series to be released next year — I play the love interest of the female lead in 15 episodes.
Do I like the work? I would say I have a great love and hatred for this industry, but it is certainly an industry with which I would like to stay involved. It reminds me of what Hollywood must have been in the early 1900s before the unions — and suprisingly what Hollywood is becoming now, post 2007 writers’ strike.
For instance, everything is so non-standardized here and cut-throat for the lowest bidder. I know of some foreigner production companies that didn’t get the job for a TV commercial because they were 100 RMB more than another company bidding (of course, aforementioned GuanXi plays a part in this industry, too). How do I get the work? I have 18 independent agents, and now production companies and directors call me directly (the best way, because I know an agent isn’t keeping 90% when they’re telling me they’re keeping 35%). For instance, I was on set one day, and the director gave me a stack of papers to pretend to read while they filmed me. The papers happened to be the budget for the TV commercial. I saw how much I was being billed to the client – I confronted my agent later.
One day I will write all about my experiences on-set. It will make for a hilarious read that Oprah will question if it’s all true. I will be able to say, “Absolutely!”
LLW: Currently where can people find Foreigner Perspective, and where do you hope to take the series in the future?
Steven: I upload Foreigner Perspective to YouTube and on my FaceBook page (add me, Steven Weathers, China Network). I also annouced new uploads on Twitter (sdweathers). I’m currently editing some great travel features on Fuzhou and Qingdao. I went to the International Beer Festival in October and the Tsingdao brewery — both will make awsome features once completed.
I also fimed a few features while home in America last summer, inclduing a feature on the Shriner’s Hospital for Children in my hometown — it’s a hospital that provides free healthcare to children birth to 18. Healthcare in the US is a mess, but places like this should be applauded. And Chinese people have no clue places like this exist, they only hear that rich people in America can afford healthcare. While that’s not untrue, there are hundreds of places througout America that offer free healtcare, like Shriners hospitals and charity clinics.
The future of “Foreigner Perspective”? I don’t know now, but I’m currently working with a local TV station in Shanghai to create something similar to Samantha Brown’s educational travel features, so stay tuned!