"I like American Movies...I learned a lot of English watching them. My dream is to make a movie someday." Xi'an, China
He is such a good guy, it was hard for me believe he had a "serious" look. Alas, he pulled it off.
I was standing in the auditorium at the Xi'an Conservatory of Music waiting to get a few test shots before the days performances started when someone from behind me said "hi". I turned around to see this guy reaching out to shake my hand. In very good English, he continued with "I guess we're going to be working together for the next 5 days". I shook his hand and introduced myself. I asked him what his name was. Through the heavy accent, I couldn't understand what he said. So, I asked if he'd repeat his name. His reply still makes me chuckle a little. He said "it's Vito, like an Italian guy". I realized I had heard him perfectly, I just couldn't connect the name "Vito" with a Chinese photographer. I think I was stumped on some unconscious level or something. Ok, cool to meet you Vito.
I asked him who he was shooting for. It turns out, Vito is one of the staff photographers at the Xi'an Conservatory of Music, and is also studying opera. I've never met a photographer that is also an opera singer, another first from Xi'an. His English was impressive. I asked him how he learned so much English and where he practiced it. It turns out, Vito also likes to dance and learned to dance Tango from an American couple living in Xi'an. Now it all makes sense. I'm talking to a cool Chinese dude that sings opera, is a really good photographer (he showed me some of his work while we were waiting for the second part of the performance to begin), who also likes to Tango. Sure, that sounds common, right?
The first thing I noticed was how down to earth and genuine this guy was. After a long evening the night before, I was running a bit late to one of the performances I wanted to photograph. I walked in to see Vito sitting next to a pretty girl with his camera in hand. As with every encounter with him, he asked how I was doing, if I needed anything, if I got enough rest, and if I was enjoying Xi'an. I mentioned I was a little wiped out from a few too many Chinese beers at the restaurant with some of the visiting musicians the night before and was going to shoot for a bit and go find some food. Basically, that was code for "dude, I'm tired, hungry, and hung over. I'm going to do what needs to happen here, then go find some food, water, and maybe some more air to breathe until my headache goes away". We had a laugh and he said, "you need to eat first". He asked the girl to hand him his bag, reached inside, and grabbed some "bread" as they called it. It was similar to a pastry. Quite good actually. "Here, I brought this today and I'm not hurting as bad as you are, so you need to take this." Haha...hurting was right! He was spot on with that assessment. It turns out the girl he was sitting next to was his girlfriend. We all smiled and acknowledged that they saved me from myself.
Vito was always looking out for me.
I offered to take them to lunch after the shoot. We agreed to meet later in the day. I always liked going to the restaurants with someone that knew what we were ordering. If there wasn't anyone who could translate, I was just pointing at pictures and hoping it made sense. We arrived at the restaurant and did what anyone else with a hangover would do. We ordered food and beer.
During lunch, between laughs and bites of really good Chinese food, I learned more about my new friends. Vito learned most of his English watching American Films, his favorite being the Godfather. I think he knew more about these old movies than I did! Vito's girlfriend was hilarious and sweet. We spent some time trying to teach each other words in the others language. Chinese is some difficult sh...tuff, to learn man.
COS: "How long have you been doing the photography thing?"
Vito: "I started in...hmmm...it was October. October of 2014."
COS: "What? You've only been doing this for a year and a half? Man, you're really good. I thought you'd been at this for much longer."
Vito: "I have a great mentor, and I like visual things. I want to make a movie someday. That's my dream. I think, maybe direct a movie, in America."
COS: "I'd say you have some talent man. The photo's of yours that I've seen are great. You have a really good eye. Do you have any plans to visit the US?"
Vito: "I want to see America, but it's very difficult for Chinese to go to America. It's really difficult as a student because it's so expensive for us. We have to have a lot money in our bank to get a Visa."
COS: "How much money is a lot?"
Vito: "Im not exactly sure, but I think it's around 200,000 ¥."
COS: "Whoa...that's a lot. I had no idea."
Vito: "Ya, it's pretty hard to save that amount of money even if you have a really good job."
I pulled out the old iPhone and used the calculator app to do the conversion...that's about $33,000 US. Which, doesn't seem as bad to us, but the average monthly salary in Xi'an is around 3,000.00 ¥. With a little basic math, that's 5 years of the average salary. Holy crap. That's a lot for them.
After lunch, I went to ask for the bill. Ya, that didn't work either. Vito already told the server to give him the check when I stepped out to make a call. I told him I wanted to take he and his girlfriend to lunch because they were so helpful and saved the day with the hangover cure. I told him thank you, but that I really wanted to take them to lunch, not the other way around. He said, "You're in China. When you're in China, we consider you a guest and it's our honor to show you our home and culture. And, you can't buy us lunch. You're the guest!"
Yet another example of the hospitality I experienced. My view of China was certainly overhauled after this trip. It's amazing to me that we all have an idea in our mind of how a place, a job, a person, or anything for that matter will "be" having never experienced it. We rely on the stories in our minds. I've learned to combine the stories with experience and an open mind, and I'm usually pleasantly surprised, to say the least.
Vito continued to help me find my way around the various buildings and events as viola festival continued. We had a few discussions on camera settings, composition, light, and some other photog nerd stuff and became new friends. I hope someday he can see America. I hope he keeps trying to achieve his dream. His kindness and selflessness make me hope that and more for him in return.