Monday, Mar 27, 2017, 8:36 PM CST – China

Essay

For the Record

One book full of “English idioms” made me say that two fathers meeting at a college orientation “pressed their flesh” together.

At Beijing expat hub The Bookworm, 10 old China hands gathered at an open event to tell stories of their years in the Middle Kingdom. I settled into my easy chair with a glass of house red. Each raconteur narrated tales of mischief or near-misses that are only possible as a foreigner in China – wriggling out of an arrest, supplying white faces to internationalize Chinese trade shows, making fools of themselves on reality TV.

A curly-haired woman took the mic. She talked about how she used to do part-time voice-over work to make money as a student, something I used to do as well (my voice is the one part of my Chinese-American self that remains undeniably alien here). Thankfully that was where our stories diverged, because she went on to say her first voice-over experience involved a middle-aged white male “acting coach” praising her sex sounds as “realistic.”

I got started doing voice-overs because a fellow Chinese language student knew I needed money. He was a blond Colorado boy in the 15th month of his gap year. He took me to the makeshift recording studio, squeezed into the 12th floor of a residential apartment building that was checkered with nail salons, massage parlors and small-time travel agencies. My future boss met us at the door. She was a high-strung 20-something from Henan Province who went by the name Little Zhang. I never knew if the white strands in her hair were streaks of stress or a genetic quirk. She looked at my Chinese face quizzically. “You’ll need to record a test session,” she said.

She handed me a few pages of photocopied teaching-English textbooks and ushered me through the narrow studio door. The recording space was clearly meant to be a closet. Little Zhang and her team had soundproofed it with worn children’s blankets and brightly colored pads that lined the floor and walls, sealing out external noise by duct taping the spongey insides of sofa cushions over the cracks in the door. They had managed to squeeze in an adult-sized plastic chair, a lamp, a music stand and a mic. Heat reverberated off the walls, trapped. After I sat down, Little Zhang handed me a Dixie cup of water, adding, “in the future, you should probably bring your own bottle.” Then she shut the door.

My Seattle-bred vocals must have passed, because shortly after the test session the flow of work rarely slowed. Three days a week, I walked to that northwestern Beijing apartment building and Little Zhang handed me a ream of photocopied English texts. As sweat formed on my forehead, I’d read famous female commencement addresses, trying to inject my mellow alto with the gravitas of Hillary Clinton or Meryl Streep. Most frequently, I’d act out the female roles in travel dialogs, playing countless airline hostesses asking countless traveling businessmen if they were checking one bag or two. The worst were the vocabulary lists. Occasionally I’d need to read and repeat a list of words that all shared the same starting letter or vowel sound. With no content to contemplate, the seconds grew sloth-like and the pages seemed to multiply.

My favorite recording sessions were the oddball textbooks that had clearly been written by someone who didn’t make it past high school English. One book full of “English idioms” made me say that two fathers meeting at a college orientation “pressed their flesh” together, an unfortunate way of describing what I believe to be a handshake. Then there was the textbook of conspiracy theories, for which I read the lines: “Then Fox News host Bill discovered that Soros and ACLU were conspiring to destroy Christmas… Thanks to ‘Glenn Beck Program,’ we eventually catch the truth.” That one made me so gleeful I took a picture of it.

Things went downhill at the studio, though, and Little Zhang could no longer afford her rent. When she took us to the new studio in a “place downstairs,” she surprised the Coloradan and I by first leading us outside, then across the parking lot, then through a door labeled BOMB SHELTER. We descended. At the bottom of the staircase, which would have felt at home in any of the six Saw movies, a narrow, grungy hallway extended beneath a low-slung ceiling that seemed to slump down further in the short time we were there. Cell-like concrete rooms lined the hallway like edges of a zipper, each one packed with one or five inhabitants. Women in dirty slippers lugged pink plastic buckets of water from the communal bathroom back to their plumbing-less hovels. One of those hovels was our new recording space.

As my piles of photocopies fattened and the bomb shelter environment somehow managed to grow drearier, my wages lost their luster. When I went home for Christmas one year, I told Little Zhang I wouldn’t be back.

I never gave too much thought to where my voice would end up. It was just a funny notion that uniform-clad schoolchildren in Anhui Province may be required to listen to my recordings for English class, repeating after me every time their teacher paused the tape.

But the curly-haired speaker at The Bookworm learned what became of her recordings. She revealed her sexual noises ended up in the movie American Dreams in China, a huge film that grossed US$50 million in its first week and was showered with accolades across Asia. I gasped when I heard. Yet another example of how, in China, anything’s possible.

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