I’m flying over the Laptev Sea which, according to my flight map, is somewhere between Russia and a big sheet of nameless ice. This, apparently, is how one gets to China from Newark Airport. I’m going to China because I have always tried to follow whatever it was that I found most interesting and, at the moment, I find China very interesting. The people. The culture. The dumplings. (Especially the dumplings.) I don’t even mind the long flights, which have become a sort of 14 hour holiday for me in which I write, catch up on movies (today I watched Boyhood which is amazing) and allow my mind to drift aimlessly between the diminishing ozone and the Laptev Sea.
Once I arrive in China, I will attend a variety of meetings where business cards will be exchanged at the start of the meeting (not the end) and will be passed with two hands (not one). When Sharon Thomas, our Head of Production, and I first started coming to China a few years ago, it all seemed too easy. We would meet someone and they’d throw around big numbers and big plans. But one quickly learns that what is said at a first meeting in China often has little connection with what happens afterwards. Sometimes you will leave a meeting here thinking you have totally hit it out of the park only to find you never hear from that particular Chinese company again. Other times, you will feel quite certain you’ve tanked the meeting only to discover that they actually loved you and want to work with you. China is unpredictable in this way, which I find completely unnerving but always interesting.
Little Airplane now has clients in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou and we’ve recently hired a Resident Producer on the ground here to help us. I’ve learned that the key to doing real business in China is to be patient during the long incubation period required to build trust with any Chinese company. This period can last several months or, in some cases, several years, and will likely include many long dinners, some sightseeing, an office tea ceremony or two, and Skype calls at odd hours during which everyone will have their cameras turned off. (Before I learned this, I would often shave and wear a pressed shirt only to discover that I was the only one on Skype with my camera turned on. Now, I often Skype at midnight in my pajamas.)
Every time I come to China I learn something new and unusual. For example, this week, on my morning run in Beijing along my favorite fetid river, I noticed a series of small piles of ashes. Sometimes the piles were surrounded by circles of earth that gave them a sort of X-Files type spookiness. So, I asked a number of my Chinese colleagues what these ashes were, and I received a variety of answers ranging from “cooking fires” to “mischievous local teenagers,” none of which sounded quite right to me.
The actual answer, it turns out, was far more interesting, and it came from my friend Chenchen who was visiting from the northern city of Harbin. She explained that the ashes along the riverbank are from the burning of Mingbi, which is a type of ornate, colorful fake money. Many Chinese apparently believe that their departed relatives will need hard cash after they die to help them curry favor in heaven or, in other cases, to bribe those who dole out the various punishments of hell. So, their family buys Mingbi and burns it by a river (or a crossroads where “ghosts are always on the move”) so that it will reach their family members in the form of smoke. There, the family can use the currency to make life–or, in this case, death–a bit more comfortable. Although this practice is less common than it once was, many Chinese are very superstitious, so Mingbi can be readily purchased on street corners in China.
And speaking of smoke, another thing I learned on this trip is that the U.S. Consulate in Beijing has an app (or an “A.P.P.” as the Chinese like to refer to them) that allows you to monitor the air quality in Beijing on an hourly basis. The app gives you a number which summarizes “the concentration of particulates (PM 2.5) as an indicator of overall air quality.” The app’s information page goes on to say that “PM 2.5 particulates are of concern since they are small enough to get into the lungs and even the bloodstream.” Yikes. The app provides a number called the AQI, or “Air Quotient Index,” and it is displayed over landscape photos that are, for lack of a better word, ironic. Here is today’s paradoxically beatific image from my iPhone 6.
By way of comparison, in New Zealand, the air quality on this same index is between 5 to 10. Anything over 100 is considered not worth breathing and, on the worst day this year, I was told, the AQI in Beijing hit a terrifying 869. Gulp. (Or, rather, don’t gulp.) Needless to say, this app was an almost endless source of stress for me all week. There is, apparently, another app that provides a weekly pollution forecast so you can better plan which days to wear your industrial gas mask, just as you might use a weather forecast to know which day to tote your umbrella.
One of the most interesting conversations I had this week was with Little Airplane’s Resident Producer in Beijing, Stefanie Zhang, and it had to do with creativity in China. I asked Stefanie why piracy is so common and acceptable in China and also why so many excellent Chinese animation studios still struggle when it comes to creating their own original intellectual property. Here’s what she said:
“The Chinese practice what I call, ‘Takelism.’ It means that you take something and you use it right away and you don’t tell the people who own it. Because of our unique history, people in China got used to sharing everything. All their secrets, all their life, all their mind. So, they don’t really see a problem with taking people’s IP. They don’t judge it. It’s in everybody, in the society.”
“I think due to a lot of historical reasons, people here are trained to, you know, to obey, to follow, so there are a lot of followers. We are great followers and great doers. But for those people who have creative minds, they have to struggle. They need real courage to say, ‘I have an idea that is my own.’ Because what is missing in China are mentors who really believe in these people and encourage them to create. For example, I have a child, so I have been looking around at all the schools. The schools here never encourage independence. The schools ask you to be united, to be part of a team, but they never encourage the differences or the creativity. It’s not good to be different. If you want to have your hair like very funny, you’re not encouraged. You have to eat like them, talk like them, drink like them, and even think like them. It is the opposite of a creative environment for children. How can you expect these kids to grow up and create shows?”
Here’s another perspective on creativity from an exec at one of the larger independent animation studios in Beijing:
“At my previous company we were required to animate one 11:00 episode per day. In a single year we finished 365 episodes. I got two days off that year: Chinese New Year and the day after. Historically, Chinese studios were paid by the government based on their number of minutes. So, the more minutes your studio animated, the more money your company made. That’s the history that the Chinese industry must now work to overcome, a history that emphasizes volume production over any real respect for story and character.”
And now I am on my 14 hour United Airlines flight home. My butt fell asleep without me about five hours ago. I was in China for about a week this time and, were it not for the Thanksgiving holiday, I would have happily stayed longer. Despite the poor air quality, the incredibly crowded subways, and the difficulty of vaulting the deep cultural divide, I absolutely love China. I find the Chinese people to be gentle and soulful and deeply intelligent. They are eager to meet the West on an equal footing, both as business partners and as friends. After spending the past 25 years making children’s television shows for all the usual suspects, I must say I find China to be quite refreshing and, just as importantly, interesting.