“The t.v…. They said ‘Do you have time tomorrow or today’…”
“They wanna give u a try…”
“SOS SOS… tomorrow or today?? Can u come for trial???”
I was on my way out of a rough class when those messages flooded into my WeChat inbox. Sweat was pouring out of my pores like a sauna on fire, and my clothes had blotches of wet marks, and my stomach was rumbling as I walked toward the buffet with oodles of lotus root and spicy melon stir fry.
“I can today. What time?” I replied and then set my phone down to load my styrofoam taobao box up with edamame, tofu, and garlic bolts. I paid my ten kuai, grabbed some rice, and then found a bench to picnic alone. As I started to dig into my meal, my phone vibrated.
“Now… Get to xibeihu。 武汉广电 ASAP.”
I wasn’t much interested in going and botching my way through a Chinese interview for a Wuhan TV show at that moment. It seemed like a waste of time, but my friend Eli was persistent in convincing me to “have a try”, and I’m quite bad at turning down an opportunity.
I shoved my food down as fast as my chopstick would let me, and then grabbed the first taxi to Wuhan TV and Broadcasting Center.
When I got to the station, a monstrous skyscraper that stood out even among the sea of skyscrapers, I was stopped by a guard who barked something at me in Chinese. I told him I was waiting, and then I cowered beneath his pedestal as I waited for Eli.
The lobby of the building was big enough to hold at least two of my parents’ four bedroom two story houses. The television screens that were posted on both sides of the lobby were about the size of a three car garage.
Eli came down about twenty minutes later, rescued me from the guard, and ran me upstairs to make up and hair.
“Is that what you’re wearing?” He asked as they sat me down in front of a woman with a tool box of beauty products.
“I told you I was teaching! I smell bad too. Sorry.” I replied. Eli and one of the stylists started talking about what they could put me in. I kept hearing the words “a little bit fat”.
“You need sleeves,” Eli said in between Chinese. “There’s a girl from the Ukraine who is a little bit fatter than you. You might be able to wear her jacket.”
“Alright,” I shrugged.
Eli left and then the lady started poking at my face with a q-tip.
“逼” She said, coming in for my eyelid.
“什么？What?” I replied. Here we go. My lack of Chinese skills were going to get me kicked out before I even had a chance to audition.
“逼合，” She said again, this time waving her hands up down.
“Oh, oh, oh— 不好意思。 My bad.” I closed my eyes.
About an hour later and many more unanswerable questions later, I left makeup with my hair in the shape of a helmet and my makeup caked on. I was shuffled into the screening room where Eli was getting ready to start filming.
“你会不会读中文吗?” A man in a pink shirt asked me.
“你会不会看中文？” He asked again.
“Oh! 我不会。I can’t.” I replied. He let out a big sigh at my answer and turned to look for Eli for assistance in translating. I stood in shame and waited.
“You can’t read Chinese characters?” Eli turned and asked.
“Nope. I can read PinYin.”
“Alright. They’re going to take you upstairs to the twelfth floor for an interview,” he said as he started to walk back to his spot in front of the camera.
“In Chinese?” I asked.
“Ya, it’ll be no problem. It’s for fun, remember?” He waved me off as a young girl came up behind me and took hold of my elbow.
“This way,” she said.
When we got to the twelfth floor, there was a group of people standing in front of a stack of television screens. They smiled, and six people scrambled to find a chair as I approached.
“谢谢。。 谢谢。Thank you,” I mumbled over and over as I rolled up next to the man who was reclined in his wheely chair. He motioned at the television, and started to speak to me in Chinese. I looked around at the faces watching me, leaning in and expectant for my response.
There was a pause and my opportunity to answer the producer had arrived.
I raised my eyebrows, nodded, and said “Mmm.”
About six people echoed my nod, ooo’ed and a small chorus of “他听得懂。。 She understands” began.
“We are going to watch,” said the girl who led me up here. Eli and his cohost came on the screen and I watched as he clapped his hands and smiled, and nodded. Every once in a while the producer would turn to me, say something in slow Chinese, and I’d nod and “mmm”.
Nodding and mmm’ing.
“So you can speak Chinese?” A woman named Lisa asked after the show was over. She started to lead me to another side of the building for my question and answer session.
“我会受一点点。 I can speak a little.” I replied.
“But you can read a little too right?” She pointed at a chair for me to sit down in.
“No… I can’t recognize very many characters,” I said.
“Oh…” Her eyes widened, lips pursed, and her “oh” faded off into thought. “Here. Have a try.”
She passed me a script that was eight pages long and completely written in Chinese characters.
“Uhh.. Alright. Well… is this one… ‘de’?” I pointed to a character.
“Nope.” She started to laugh.
“Oh! This one! It’s ‘yi’!” I pointed at the horizontal line like a kid who had just found the only correct answer in a sea of red marks.
“Yes! Good job!”
“And this one— it’s ‘gao’! And ‘xing’ and ‘xia’!”
“Yes. Yes. And no. Not bad.”
I shrugged. “Sorry. I thought Eli told you that I don’t know how to read characters, and I only speak a little.”
“It doesn’t matter, I like you,” Lisa said. “You don’t speak well, and you can’t read, but I think you will have a try— Amber! Amber! 来来来！Come.” She waved down a girl and said something to her in Chinese. “Translate for me,” Lisa said. They started talking about me, pausing every so often to teach me a word or two in Chinese, and looking at me as if I understood their conversation. I bobbed my head as if I agreed with them, and grinned through the confusion.
“Do you understand us?” Lisa asked after a few moments.
“We think you do. Good facial expressions. Good. You need to pretend the Handsome Man host— pretend you understand too.”
“Alright, no problem.”
“I think.. You are so happy. I can see you are a happy girl. Our show it needs that. You are positive and beautiful, and you smile. Good face expressions. I think we can maybe… try?” She nodded to herself. “It’s very… um… 怎么说 how do you say…Admired?”
“She admires you,” Amber corrected her.
“Yes… I admire you. Because you come here and you don’t know Chinese, but you are still so nice and happy! I think it will be good to have you be on our show.”
“Well thanks! That’s very nice of you. I can try! It will be fun.”
“That’s good. That’s very good. Do you learn Chinese?” She asked.
“Yes, I’m trying. I just got a Chinese tutor.”
“Good. Good. And we can teach you. And you can teach us English!”
“Yeah, this will help a lot with learning the language.” I held up the script.
“Yes, yes. I think this will be good,” Lisa said.
“Me too! Fun,” I agreed.
Lisa and Amber looked at each other, looked back at me, and gave each other another, final nod for the day.