NOTE FROM JONAH: Before I begin this tale, for those not from New York or New England — please re-read the headline above in your most sarcastic inner monologue.
In front of me was a perfectly still and prestine alpine lake. There was no trash floating in the water, the sky was clear of pollution and I couldn’t hear a single car honking its horn. This was not your average Chinese landscape.
Then, when the Chinese man in the tight suit said “Jonah Mathew Kessel” I walked forward on a red carpet in front of the amazing landscape. As I walked forward one of the theme songs to Star Wars began to echo across the alpine lake behind me. Trying to keep my composure and not laugh at the choice of music used for my introduction, I gave an unrehearsed speech describing the beauty of Jiuzhaigou National Park, found in Sichuan Province on the Tibetan Plateau.
Behind me was a circa 10 meter red banner that read “World Famous Photographers Focusing On The Fairyland — Jiuzhaigou.”
I introduced myself in Chinese and quickly switched to English in my speech to a large Chinese crowd of nature lovers and photographers. As I spoke in English a translator would repeat after me, giving me time to look around and reflect upon the situation. I gave one of the most generic thank you speeches anyone has ever given and then watched as a flood of cameras and cell phones snapped photos of me shaking hands with the man in the suit.
As hundreds of people took the same picture of me, I looked at the sign again. It read “World Famous Photographers … “. While I didn’t know it when I woke up, this would be the day, someone decided myself and 11 other colleagues were “World Famous.” (Again, if you aren’t from New York or New England, please re-read the last sentence using your sarcastic voice).
It was one of the stranger moments of my three years in China … But let me rewind and help explain how and why I got to this stunning place.
Two Months Earlier
Two months earlier an art gallery called and asked if I would be interested in going to photograph Jiuzhaigou National Park. They said I could stay for as little as three days or longer if I wanted and it would be like a “paid vacation.” For going to the park, saying a one-minute speech, and giving them 20 photographs — they would give me 10,000 RMB ($1500) and cover all of my expenses.
The circumstances were a bit fishy but I decided to give it a go. I agreed to their terms and hung up the phone. Minutes later they called back and asked “By the way, do you know any other foreign photographers in China?”
If you throw a rock at a foreigner in Beijing, you are most likely going to hit either (a) an English teacher or (b) a photographer. Having thrown many rocks at foreigners in Beijing, I happen to know a lot of photographers (and a lot of pissed off English teachers). I asked them why and they told me they needed many foreign photographers to go. I asked how many they were looking for, and the woman replied — about 12 or 15.
And this is when I realized, I had just signed up for my first “white guy job.” If you are unfamiliar with this term — in China, some foreigners get jobs, simply because they are foreign, not really from any merit, skill or ability. Also important to note, “white” in this sense refers to anyone, not from China.
My friend Mitch Moxley is actually writing a book about this right now. His book, tentatively titled “Tall Rice” details some of the funny jobs you can get in China, just by being foreign. Mitch uses these experiences to talk about greater topics from China.
Journalist Mitch Moxley’s TALL RICE: The High and Low Adventures of a Foreigner in China, inspired by the article “Rent a White Guy” in The Atlantic, chronicles Moxley’s outrageous adventures in Beijing, from fake businessman to Chinese propagandist to low-budget music video star, a young man’s search for identity in the most unexpected of places, to Katie Salisbury at Harper Perennial, by Stephanie Sun at Weed Literary (World English).
Based upon some of Mitch’s earlier writings on the topic we can definitely expect a fun read from this one due out in the summer of 2013. Check out some hilarious experts already published by the Atlantic Monthly here:
- Chollywood: Behind the scenes of China’s booming film industry
- Rent a White Guy: Confessions of a fake businessman from Beijing
While I had heard a lot of tales from Mitch and others about jobs like this, I had yet to really take part.
Although this was a bit of a “white guy job” — it was certainly a “white photographer guy job.” I called some friends and got a few signed up to either (a) endure or (b) enjoy the trip with me, pending on how it would go. Amongst photographers who joined me were the immensely talented Chi Yin Sim, Peter Carney, Jeff Lau, Keith Bedford and Jasper James.
While some of our foreign group were indeed photographers, a couple others slipped in — including some architects and some Italians who seemed to be more interested in smoking cigarettes than taking pictures.
The group was carted around for a couple days attending some very stereotypical Chinese events including an enormous banquet featuring traditional song and dance accompanied by a fog machine, bubble machine, snow machine, laser light show and a completely out of place psychedelic backdrop.
Our group was also given front row seats to the 2011 Miss Jiuzhaigou Finals. Hundreds of others crammed in behind us to get a look. But hey — we were now world famous. World famous photographers only sit in the front. The competition was hot, but in the end contestant number 9 took this years crown, although I was really rooting for number 6.
And just to put your mind a rest, in case you were wondering — in a Tibetan beauty pageant, there is no swimsuit contest.
Following these exciting events, we heard countless speeches by low level officials from … well, I’m not exactly sure where they were from.
Back at The Gorgeous Lake
Back at the gorgeous lake I was not the only one who had become “world famous” — the architect, the businessman, the smoking Italians and my five photographer friends were also now “world famous.”
When the ceremony was finished the large crowd dispersed. The group of world famous photographers would then spend three days photographing this amazing spot. Throughout these days, people who had seen the ceremony would continually stop me asking to take my picture or to talk to me. This was a strange juxtoposition.
On one hand, I was photographing an amazing place. There was countless half frozen waterfalls, amazing walking paths surrounded by fields of moving water and clear lakes everywhere.
In a place like this, I think its actually hard to take bad pictures. And while the scenerio was beautiful, on the other hand, I felt a bit foolish being there. Knowing that it wasn’t the quality of my pictures that mattered, but the color of my skin that was important.
A beautiful picture by a Chinese photographer, would not have been wanted. While China is certainly booming in some areas, in other areas there still seems to be so much value put on image — that all logic is forgotten.
While this did bother me, the place itself is simply fantastic. This I suppose, is the dichotomy of the “white photographer guy” job.
For more information and photography from Jiuzhaigou National Park — see last week’s post here.