An Interview with George Ding, screenwriter, satirist and ‘Peking Man’

…The country you live in is like a wife. Sometimes, when you’ve been in one place too long, you start to wonder what else is out there. So you flirt with other countries and realize that, holy shit, they are all crazy or super high-maintenance.

– George Ding, ‘Why I’m Coming Back to China’, published in The Beijinger, 5 Dec 2012

george ding_profile

This is George. He’s not sure where his hands should go, but that’s everyone when asked to pose for a photo.

Have you ever met a CBA writer with an English aristocratic first name (‘George’) and an onomatopoeic surname that could not ring more Chinese (‘Ding’)?

BTW, ‘CBA’ in this case doesn’t mean ‘can’t be arsed’ (as per my usual usage), but ‘Chinese-born American’, although I reckon the CBA I’m about to introduce to you all genuinely CBA if you think of him as a CBA or an ABC or even, eh, a BAC (Bacon And Cheese Sammich). He’s got enough cyber street cred to not care about what ‘type’ he fits into – he’s a writer who says what he thinks, and haters gon’ hate but he’s still gon’ do his thing (“You’re an idiot, go back to folding jeans in retail” is one of the many vitriolic comments he got for a satirical article he wrote back in 2012).

His name is George Ding, and he is a screenwriter, editor and seasoned satirist based in Beijing. After graduating from the University of Southern California with a BA in Film Production and a minor in East Asian Languages and Cultures, George travelled back to his birthplace and has not looked back since. From ruffling feathers on The Beijinger and Weibo to teaching people how to cheat on Chinese taxes in the New York Times, George has made a name for himself in the blogosphere as a cross-cultural maverick.

His writing is always witty, often irreverent and never dry, which is why if you’ve not read this guy’s work, then I’d recommend that you grab yourself a tub of popcorn and plough through his essays like you’re watching re-runs of Seinfeld, because he’s just that hilarious. Oh, and the way he talks about Nabokov and Orwell is amazing. Read on to find out what I mean.

His essays and articles can be found on VICE, the New York Times, Washington Post, Foreign Policy and more. You can find his body of work here: http://www.georgeding.com/writing/

Also of relevance – my 2015 Boxing Day post on why I love Beijing: https://classicjenisms.wordpress.com/2015/12/26/whats-so-great-about-beijing-anyway/ 

A) The personal stuff: from past to present

What is it like to be an ‘American-Chinese’ in Beijing?

American_Born_Chinese

‘American-born Chinese’ by Gene Yuen Lang

I was around 22 or 23 when I went back to Beijing for good. At first, being labelled an ‘American-Chinese’, being told “ni bu shi zhong guo ren” (“你不是中國人”/“you’re not really Chinese”), used to really bother, anger and even depress me. But I was young, and over time, I realised that there are always going to be people who like to put others in a box, so the only thing to do is to get on with life and ignore the idiots.

I did undergo a period of questioning my identity, though. But unless you’ve actually dealt with the experience of being Chinese diaspora, it’d be hard to understand what it truly feels like to be the ‘other’. You get comments like, “Oh, you look Chinese – but you’re from America – you must be ‘ABC’ then”.

Literally, I was in a meeting yesterday, and at one point someone made a comment about me being a ‘foreigner’ just because I didn’t understand one facet of Chinese culture.

 

What about growing up as a ‘Chinese-American’ in the US, then? Did you ever experience any racial ‘profiling’?

Back in the US, I was fortunate in that I never really encountered much racism. In fact, I didn’t even register that I was racially different until I was in middle school, and I don’t think I fully understood the implications of being non-White until I went to college in California.

Some of my friends from Orange County, though, definitely have a big chip on their shoulder because they were victims of an endemic, albeit latent, kind of racism. It’s the whole ‘Oscars so white’ paradox: no one really sets out to have only white people nominated for Academy Awards, but it happens anyway for deeper, systemic reasons.

So, in the US, I’d say that racism exists for Asians, but in a different way, as we’re expected to be this carrier of a ‘model minority’ bastion. Positive discrimination and all that.

beijing_v_fairfax_COLLAGE

Comparing Beijing (where George lives now) and Fairfax, Virginia (where George grew up)

Why did you eventually decide to stay in Beijing?

I really like life in Beijing. It’s such an important city, and living here feels like living in Rome during the height of the Empire. I love having my hand on the pulse and pace of life and people. Had I been in the US, I honestly don’t think I would have received half the opportunities I’ve had so far.

leon craig_beijing_rome_COLLAGE

Spot the resemblance: A modern painting of Beijing city (by Leon Craig) vs. A medieval painting of Charlemagne’s Rome

For starters, the fact that I’m bilingual in Chinese and English is valued here, and as a screenwriter, I’m in a very advantaged position because screenwriting talent is currently in high demand in Beijing.

I mean, I’m hardly the most brilliant screenwriter in the world, but if you want a bilingual, US-trained screenwriter who understands Chinese culture, there’s not a lot of people in the centre of that Venn diagram.

In Hollywood, diversity is a big issue, especially when it comes to employment. Also, literally everyone in China likes American films, which is why a lot of producers here want the structure, dialogue and production of their movies to be ‘Americanised’. But how many American film producers want their films ‘China-fied’?

Bottom line is, Americans are just fine watching American films. So there’s just not a lot of opportunities for someone like me in the US.

hsm_china_poster

As usual, Hollywood wins.

B) The writing stuff: from being a columnist for The Beijinger to being published in the New York Times

george ding_beijinger coverAs a writer, you’re both prolific and diverse – what kinds of writing do you do?

Nowadays, a large part of my writing involves screenwriting, but personally, my preferred genres are the personal essay and humour by way of satire, comedy and fake news (think the Onion).

When I first started writing my column for The Beijinger they gave me two rules: 1) my articles had to be about Beijing, and 2) they had to be funny.

 

What were the editors’ understanding of ‘funny’? Did it differ from your own?

Great question – editors, being humans, have personal tastes and opinions that differ from one another, which is why my articles would often get polarising verdicts from different editors: one editor would absolutely refuse to publish it, while another would run it without changing a word.

 

I suppose that “funny” is culturally subjective, too – how did you manage to work your way round this tricky problem?

This is exactly why I didn’t want my satirical pieces translated into Chinese – that would be a real train wreck. Humour almost never translates well. Back in 2012, I wrote a controversial piece titled ‘Why I’m Coming Back to China’, which caused a storm among both local Beijing readers and expatriates living in Beijing.

The funny thing is, white people reading the piece assumed that I was making fun of white people, but the whole point of that piece was just me caricaturising myself as the biggest loser possible – it really wasn’t about satirising a specific group or race or nationality.

Still, it got translated into Chinese and published on Weibo, which was my worst nightmare because I couldn’t defend what I had essentially not written – a piece of translated satire.

george ding_kai

Catch him if you can…

Is it dangerous to write satire in Beijing?

First, the readership of The Beijinger are mostly foreigners and expats. I know that there is a small contingent of Chinese readers, and they probably have a certain degree of cross-cultural knowledge and English proficiency. It’s heartening to think that when I published ‘Why I’m Coming Back to China’ four years ago, there were locals who understood my piece, and one Weibo user even took it upon himself to defend me by writing a satire in Chinese.

For the longest time, though, no one had ever worried about my well-being as a ‘writer of satire in China’ – that is, until I wrote an op-ed for the New York Times on ‘How to Cheat on Taxes in China’ in September last year. The night before the NYT was going to publish it, they ran my piece through legal. My editor told me that their lawyers were worried about me.

At the end of the day, having thick skin is all it takes to write controversial things.

george ding_being funny 1

George’s column from the April 2012 issue of The Beijinger

Have you ever considered writing for the Onion?

I have, but in retrospect, I don’t think I could make ‘fake news writing’ a 9-5 desk job. I actually used to write for Ministry of Harmony, which is basically the Onion for China. For me, writing satire is more of a lark than an obligation, which is why the Beijinger gig suited me well, since I only had to write 800 words every month.

I also had a teaching job back then.

miniharm

Legit.

What got you into teaching?

When I first came back to Beijing, I handed out my resume to several places, but only one school would have me because – get this – the rest of them either didn’t believe I was a native English speaker or they believed I was a native English speaker but wanted to hire a white person instead.

So yeah, I was really lucky to have landed the teaching job I eventually got. Plus my mom’s a teacher, so I guess it runs in the blood.

 

C) The literary stuff: on falling in love with Lolita (the book) and Animal Farm

George’s favourite works of fiction include Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, George Orwell’s Animal Farm and Homer’s Iliad. He’s also a fan of Jonathan Safran Foer’s short story ‘A Primer for the Punctuation of Heart Disease’. Naturally, being a fellow admirer of Nabokov, Orwell and Safran Foer, I decided to grill George on what it is that he so loves about these works.

lolita_orwell_iliad_COLLAGE

Why is Lolita one of your favourite books of all time (It’s mine too!!!)?

Back when I was a senior in high school, I was a voracious reader. I remember walking around with my copy of Lolita feeling really edgy, and on the cover of it, there was a blurb from Vanity Fair that read: “the only convincing love story of our century”. I pooh-poohed it at first, but after reading the book, I was like, goddamn, so this is why the book has stood the test of time.

lolita_vanity fair quote

One of my favourite films is Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, because it best approximates love as I’ve felt it; Lolita, for me, best approximates desire as I’ve felt it. What really makes the novel a 10 out of 10, though, is its ending, when Humbert Humbert tracks a financially distraught Lolita down, only to find out that the girl he was once so enamoured with has grown into a lackluster woman, but that he still loves her.

The one line that hit me the most is when Lolita, after taking Humbert’s money, scathingly rejects his request for her to go with him and says:

“I think it’s oh utterly grand of you to give us all that dough… but that’s the way things are”.

(P. 318, Penguin edition)

The fact that Nabokov has Lolita use ‘dough’ instead of ‘money’ shows that she’s become this déclassé person in dire straits. To me, it’s the misplaced love and desire of the book that really launches it into the realm of art.

It is, at the heart of it, a complex novel about a man with feelings he doesn’t want. It’s empathetic to know that even the most horrible people can be incredibly fragile within.

lolita_still

Sue Lyon and James Mason in the 1962 film adaptation of ‘Lolita’

What about Orwell’s Animal Farm? Why do you love it?

animal farm_short book

Big wisdom in a small book

Seriously, if I could save just one thing on the Earth, it would be Animal Farm. Every piece of human wisdom is contained in it, because Orwell tells us that the core of humanity is selfishness, hypocrisy and greed. I believe this too.

It’s a book filled with empathy and pathos, but also humour and absurdity. This book is like pure Colombian heroin. Life, in essence, has been distilled into 97 pages.

And Orwell did that for us.

 

You also mention Jonathan Safran Foer’s short story ‘A Primer for the Punctuation of Heart Disease’* as one of your favourite works of fiction. What is it that makes the story so wonderful to you?

I was just blown away by how closely it approximates the way I feel about my parents. Through the lens of humour and absurdity, Safran Foer invents a set of punctuation marks [these include the ‘silent mark’ – □, the ‘corroboration mark’ – 🙂, the ‘pedal point’ – ~, the ‘severed web’ – ✂❄ etc.] Basically, it’s a story about saying the things you really want to say to the people you love, except to hear every one of your words coming out of your mouth in the wrong way.

safran foer_primer_dialogue

A snippet from Safran Foer’s short story

It also hits home the truth that when Asian parents yell at their children and say things like “HOW COULD YOU DO THIS”, what they actually mean is “I CARE ABOUT YOU SO MUCH”. I mean, as someone who fought to go to film school when his parents wanted him to become a doctor or a computer programmer, Safran Foer’s story about familial miscommunication resonates.

[*Jen’s note: It is one of the most poignant, inventive and emotionally raw piece of writing I’ve ever come across. Highly, highly recommended. Especially for anyone who wants to understand, experience and be loved. Otherwise: ¡¡→←::!! (Read the short story to find out what this means)]

[Photo credits: George Ding, jamesposey, Telegraph, Penguin books, touristdestinations, Leon Craig, The Beijinger, Gene Yuen Lang]

 

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