Worry Dreamers #1 — Cai Shaotian 蔡少天
On November 11, 2017, I finally met Shaotian, the first wonderful human featured in my research / documentary series that focuses on the lives of Chinese art students studying in the US.
Shaotian and I met on social media in the summer of 2017.
A friend added me to a WeChat group of over 300 Chinese students who study theater abroad. Shaotian is the founder/admin of the group, so he introduced himself to me. I told him about this project that I am working on and we immediately scheduled a time to have a phone call and talk about this idea more formally.
One of the first impressions Shaotian gave me was that this guy is super 靠谱, which in English means reliable and accountable. It was pleasant to chat with him and make plans. Soon after the online introduction, we talked on the phone. We spoke in Chinese. I told him about my initial ideas of interviewing Chinese art students and filming their lives. He was very nice and open. I learned that he started off as a geography student at UC Berkeley and then transferred into the theater program. Right now he was a grad acting student at the New School in New York City, pursuing his dream. I was intrigued by his unique personal story and couldn’t wait to learn more. He was interested in my idea too and agreed to help me with my project.
Fast forward to the fall of 2017, when I finally bought my bus ticket to travel to New York and visit Shaotian in person. The three-day weekend had a packed schedule. As a first-time documentary filmmaker, I was nervous about whether I would be able to capture this interesting individual within three day. I know that trust takes time to develop, yet trust is necessary in the relationship between a storyteller and the human that the story is about.
In the afternoon of November 11th, I met Shaotian for the first time to watch the Tempest, a Columbia MFA thesis piece at the Flexible Performance Space in Lenfest Center for the Arts, which is a new building for Columbia University School of the Arts. A few minutes after I arrived, I saw Shaotian holding a big bag of flowers coming through the big glass door. I recognized his face and approached him. He embraced me with a warm smile and solid handshake. He prepared those flowers for his friends who worked on this show. We picked up tickets and went into the theater together.
Living and studying in Pittsburgh, I wasn’t used to meeting Chinese art students like me. Therefore, I was pleasantly surprised when I saw a bunch of Shaotian’s friends after the show who are also international students who study art or theater. He gave his flowers to several of them. They chatted about the performance and gave each other critiques.
The sky is getting dark. In the rest of the day, Shaotian had a Neutral American Speech lesson with his professor, and then he would perform in Spring Awakening, an MFA show at the New School.
We got in an Uber. For the first time since we met in person, Shaotian wasn’t surrounded by a group of his friends. We finally got to chat about each other’s life and theater.
As someone who studies more of the design/technology side of theater, I was naturally curious about Shaotian’s life as an actor — and honestly, everything else. Without going into too much detail (because I want to let him speak for himself in the videos), I had some preconceived notions about the hardships of being a Chinese actor in America. I kept the camera rolling during the thirty minute Uber ride, and he gave me his honestly opinions and feelings about being an actor.
After we arrived at the New School, he had an one-hour lesson. After that, he started to prepare for his show. I found it a very interesting interpretation of Spring Awaking from a queer man perspective. After the show, the director and the cast were welcomed and congratulated by family and friends. Shaotian was there too, of courses, warmly greeted by people including several other Chinese acting students in New York City. I asked Shaotian how many Chinese acting students are there in total, because just from following him around today I saw so many. He said around 40 to 50. The circle is tiny, everyone kind of knows each other. Because New York is so stressful, people somehow get closer and more united.
After the show, we were both in a good mood. Shaotian suggested going to this Chinese barbeque place, or 撸串. At this point, my camera batteries have been exhausted. We have evolved into full-scale hang-out. Maybe it is an amateur problem, but I realized that some of the most personal, fascinating, and thought-provoking conversations happened off camera. Our conversations steered away from big theme of Chinese student artists, and turned more heart-to-heart. We arrived in this small, loud, messy Chinese restaurant in Flushing, where every one was Chinese and spoke Chinese. For a sudden I felt I was in Beijing again. With the food and drinks and noices, we talked about everything. Shaotian is a true Beijinger like I do. We realized we had the same taste in Chinese food. We talked about our common interests in the art form that is Japanese anime. We talked about our entrepreneurial ideas and interdisciplinary interests. I learned about Shaotian’s experience as a student journalist in high school. We even thought about collaborting on projects together in the future. It was honestly a wild conversation. A very inspirational one too. A Chinese student artist is a pretty unique and prominent identity of its own. But I shall not overshadow the fact that Shaotian is also a simple Beijing guy that many of us can connect with. An actor who dreams to be a star. A human with a great sense of humor. A young man with many worries and big dreams.
I can spend weeks just filming Shaotian’s pursuit in acting, but what I wish the most right now is to learn about the human being that he is. I am grateful that this project has inspired me to make a new friend. This three-day New York trip will not be the only time he is featured in my film. I can imagine us working together for much longer.