When I left the first round of Mama Mia, I thought it was over and done with. I mean, a television shows is a vacuum of self-centered focus. All the employees involved have been sucked in for so long they don’t even realize they’re living in a vacuum bag anymore. Any doubt of your complete devotion to their televised reality produces lines of curious bewilderment on their foreheads. “Why aren’t you completely prostrate to this experience?” these lines ask.
The whole family attended the first round—Guo Jian, both kids, my mother-in-law. That is, our whole Beijing contingent. There was talk of “the next round,” but no one explained how things worked. At the end, I was quite amused by how many of the contestants said teary goodbyes as though they were sailing away from the “Mama Mia” delusional island forever. I simply had no reason to expect a call back. I was fine with that.
Turns out that the first show features over 100 mothers and is a quick review of their talents. Not every mother’s performance was aired on television. Of those 100, 16 were chosen by the judges. For the record, there were 2 foreigners involved in the whole experience and I was the one they chose.
I got the call two weeks later, exactly 2 weeks before the next taping. Guo Jian was in a rush of touring (the month of May is very busy for live music) and my mother-in-law was dealing with her own business issues that were calling her back to their home province of Shandong. In the end, we managed to make it work with my mother-in-law travelling back to Shandong first with Echo and then having them both join me in Shanghai. I travelled to Shanghai from Beijing with Paz. The negotiation of timing around all this was a bit stressful.
Each time they asked me to participate, they wanted me there 7-10 days before the tapings. The first time, I came five days beforehand and was there too long. This time, I refused to come so early. I am a performer, I said. I can do this. I don’t need that many days of rehearsals. Besides, they were forcing me to use a backing track (karaoke style) of my own music (even though I could play along on guitar), and so it wasn’t as though I had to train a band or even sing a song I wasn’t familiar with.
You see, this is a show about mothers, not professional musicians who are also mothers. Besides one other mother of the 16 chosen, none of the other singers had any stage experience. The only others with stage experience were the acrobats and they needed the time to set up their equipment and verify stage dimensions, etc.
Add to this scenario the very annoying component of *not being paid.* Yes, it is supposed to be our great honour to be featured on this show and any time we must take away from our wage earning professions is, well, our own problem. Besides, they say indirectly, this could lead to your “fame and fortune” –it’s an “investment”!
I do a variety of work besides performing live. It’s in the voice-over recording field, mostly, but also some writing gigs. The latter can come with me, but the voice-over studios are all in Beijing. Declining work so close to my summer of being back in Canada is, well, financially irresponsible. “Mama Mia” was cutting into my income stream and causing me some serious anxiety.
I agreed to four days away. In my opinion, it was still too many days to be away from home. Journeys upset the rhythms of babies, especially, so four days away would mean a full week of adjustment before life would return to normal for them. The “Mama Mia” crew reluctantly agreed. Already, I was garnering myself the reputation of being the difficult foreigner. You can imagine how irritated I was to arrive only to be told that I wouldn’t need to rehearse at all on the first day. I tried to make the most of it and went to the Bund with Paz instead, despite the foggy rain.
Remember the scuffle around my “costume” in the first episode? I say “costume,” because all the outfits are provided and there is no question of discussion or approval on the part of the contestant. It’s all about communicating a message and the show pre-determines what that message is. Talk about disempowering.
This time, having gotten them to agree to my performing my grandmother’s song (yes, I had to campaign!), I suggested a 60’s retro look. I was confident they’d understand what that meant. When I arrived to find they’d organized what looked like a curtain for a long skirt that went up to my ribcage and a white button down long sleeve shirt, I was very disappointed. It looked more like something they’d found in my grandmother’s current closet. The little fake diamonds sewn into the skirt mocked me every time they caught the light.
My “handler,” Xiao Liu, saw how unhappy I was and offered to take me shopping. The next morning, we went to a retro clothing store in downtown Shanghai. Because only my mother-in-law was with me, I had to bring Paz everywhere, so I was trying on dresses while Xiao Liu or the shopkeeper rotated their care of Paz outside the dressing room. It could have been its own reality show entitled “pass-a-baby-while-solving-a-costuming-crisis.”
We found a few dresses that would work and she bought one on her company credit card. When we got back to the main studio, the director wouldn’t approve it. There was only one day left before the taping and I was manipulated into wearing the curtain. I felt tricked.
Interestingly enough, however, someone spilled coffee on the white dress shirt. Had my own clothes not also been casualties in that accident, I’m sure they would have thought it was my doing! They tried to replace this white shirt with another one that had fake jewels sewn into the collar. I actually said, in English, “You’ve got to be kidding!” and I lived up to my diva image by silently leaving the dressing room in protest. By this point, I could see they’d wasted my time shopping only to force me to wear what they had already prepared anyway. It’s the quiet manipulations that push us into corners.
The compromise was a white fitted shirt that was actually the former top of a dress that they cut up. It was better than their dress shirt and actually helped my overflowing breastfeeding chest stay relatively contained.
Then there was a shoe issue. I went to a few shops near the hotel and used my own money to solve this issue. Then there was a bra issue. Again, I went to a shop near the hotel and solved this issue. I was fed up with their incompetence and just wanted things to be resolved. Later, Xiao Liu agreed to get them to reimburse these expenses. (I am still waiting for that.)
Now let’s talk about the hotel. It’s a cheap one. Not a five-star hotel or anything. There’s no refrigerator in the rooms and the rooms were barely big enough to add Echo’s travel crib without it creating an obstacle course. Having to pump breastmilk without a refrigerator was, well, incredibly inconvenient and wasteful. Eventually, we talked the hotel staff into letting us use their staff fridge. Still, going downstairs to get a screaming baby’s food and having to take both babies with her with each milk-retreival mission was enough to push my mother-in-law over the edge and have her insist I take Paz with me to the studio.
I can see her point. Besides, when Echo slept, my MIL and Paz had to hang out in the hotel room bathroom so that they didn’t wake her. It was miserable for her and she was miserable with me as a result. When I returned from studio after that first day of rehearsals, my MIL was tight-jawed and irritable, making me regret agreeing to do this show at all.
And then there was the food. The show offered food vouchers to a single restaurant just down the road from the hotel. They expected the participants to eat three meals a day there. On the first trip, I stomached it. There were exactly two choices that were vegetarian. They weren’t very good in the first place, but it was free. Otherwise, we had to spend money to eat elsewhere.
This is when my MIL proved that she’s an innovator. She went out and bought an electric pot and plugged it into the bathroom outlet. She began to boil eggs, make zhou (congee, or Chinese porridge), and then fished out a bag of Italian pasta she’d brought from home and made Echo her beloved pasta in the hotel room. I was impressed.
When I was stuck at the studio waiting the endless hours between acts (rather than tell us when to arrive, they got us to come all at once and then wait like cattle), I watched everyone else eating the non-vegetarian catered meals. I survived on boiled eggs and plain rice. I had brought along some dried fruits and nuts too that kept me from falling over. They knew I was vegetarian, but no meals arrived for me! The flights back and forth from Shanghai were also suspiciously lacking in pre-booked vegetarian meals. I silently wondered if they weren’t trying to quickly make me “Chinese-style” thin for the television lens.
So, on day #3 and day #4, the days of dress rehearsal and final taping, I had Paz with me all day. He was backstage and on stage. He was in the dressing room. He was at my feet and sleeping (restlessly) in his carseat in a noisy environment. The dressing room was full of hairspray. The corridors were full of cigarette smoke. The backstage was full of dry ice. For a show that was about mothers and babies, it was ironic that there was no place for me to really mother him properly. When he woke up crying from someone’s loud laughter, I felt so terrible. I had to breastfeed him in a corner of the dressing room, having to peel myself out of the clothes that were really not designed for a breastfeeding mother. Then, I had to self-barricade a section so that I could have some privacy away from the curious eyes of the (especially male) crew. I am a foreign woman with comparatively big breasts. You do the math.
On the dress rehearsal night, it was already 11:30pm and I still hadn’t taken the stage. I had been there since 4pm. I was exhausted and starving and Paz was way over tired. They let me skip the line to do my verbal introduction and didn’t even have me perform. Despite having to undress myself several times to feed my son, I had been costumed and fully done up (hair and make-up) for hours. So, when I got back to the hotel, finally, just before 1am, I was livid. I was asking myself what the hell I was doing all this for!
Because they kept seeing Paz, the directors decided that maybe he’d make a good addition to the live show. I mean, he was there during rehearsals and became a bit of a staple by my side. I agreed to bring him up on stage with me for the taping (by then, I was used to it!) but I suggested calling up my daughter, Echo, too. I didn’t want Paz to get all the limelight. They agreed to this.
During the interview portion of the show, the MC was very forward in asking me why my husband wasn’t there. I explained that he was touring with his band, but she then asked me if, by being so capable, I was experiencing a husband that got away with doing nothing. In a way, she’s right about that. He has two capable women in his life (me and his mother) and he is often opportunistically lazy. That being said, I wasn’t sure I wanted to expose that on national television.
She pushed harder. She said that I must be the type of woman who doesn’t mind waiting on her husband and letting him get away with not doing childcare or domestic duties. “You’re more a traditional Chinese wife than most Chinese women are these days,” she said to me, laughing. I, of course, contested these words. I said that I am certainly not traditional and that I feel that men and women need to have equal roles in the household and with childcare. I also said that I was older than my husband and had already had a life of very busy touring, so my focus has shifted to my children without regret.
What I wish I’d said is that these choices are not gender specific; they’re life-timeline specific. I want to be this engaged right now in my life. He’s not at that stage yet. His level of engagement, while not my ideal, is his choice and determines the kind of parent he wants to be. It doesn’t change the kind of parent I want to be, with or without him. Do I wish he were more engaged? Yes. Do I wish he fully shared my views of parenting as more important than anything else right now? Of course I do. But, it didn’t come out like that on the mic. I said this instead:
“I’m waiting for him to grow up.”
My mother-in-law looked horrified. I knew that if they aired me saying those words, I’d have a huge fight with Guo Jian on my hands. Even though it’s a true statement, in many ways, I have no intention of publicly humiliating him. I know I am not as articulate in Chinese as I am in English and, I also know I reacted defensively about being perceived as a traditional mother and homemaker, but still. (As you can see by the third episode, the MC really never did shift her perspective on this.)
After it was over, I appealed to Xiao Liu to have them edit that part out. She understood. Mercifully, they did as requested. The episode aired without that part. While the first episode was about “buttering up” my mother-in-law, I was able to feature my Canadian family in the second episode in line with my original intention.
A week after the taping in Shanghai, they came to Beijing to film us at home. It was an entire day of too many people in the house and a lot of silly requests to do things like tidy up the house and wash the dishes, as though they were trying to portray me in exactly the same light in which the MC had perceived me. The truth is that my MIL is the domestic goddess, not me. Guo Jian was away doing his Taichi all day (twice a week, he’s at the park with the master, training) and so it was just my mother-in-law and I with the kids at home. I washed some fruit for the camera and let them film my MIL telling me how to cook something that I’ll never ever cook on my own, but they were happy with that. I re-wrote the lines they wanted me to read and portrayed myself more accurately, verbally. I was polite and gracious, but not a pushover. When the door shut on them, I breathed a sigh of relief.
There’s a few people I want to thank here:
My brother-in-law, Steve Dohnt, recorded the three generations of mothers (my grandmother, mother and sister) talking for the camera and sent me more than a dozen short videos to choose from. They did this on a weekend that was already incredibly busy with my nephew’s birthday party. I’m very grateful.
Also, there’s a sound engineer in Beijing, Zhang Cheng, who put together my backing tracks. He had to re-mix and create instrumental versions for both the first and second taping of this show. He did it free the first time but I managed to get them to pay him for the second taping. Without those backing tracks, they were unwilling to let me perform my own music. “It would sound too empty,” they said. I sighed. Television doesn’t understand live music. Period. So, I’m very grateful to him.
When I realized I was expected to return in the month of June for the finals, I was a turmoil of emotions. Primarily, I was exhausted. Guo Jian picked us all up at the airport, took one look at my haggard face and refused to support our returning for the final round. From the driver’s seat, he raged about their poor treatment of us and its uselessness as a tool to promote art (I know he’s right about that part) and reminded me that I am a big part of their ratings now—the only foreigner!! His response, while chivalrous, was not the kind of “homecoming hug” I’d hoped for. It just made me sad.
I decided to spend the next several days actively forgetting about “Mama Mia” in a state of recovery. I knew I had the option of not going back. I had that right. There was no contract and no obligation. I would wait a week and then decide. I wrote to my family back home and told them of my dilemma. They urged me to continue but said they’d support me either way. As always, I’m grateful to them for the love they regularly send from afar.
This post first appeared on Ember Swift’s site on June 28, 2014.
Ember Swift is a Canadian songwriter, musician, writer, cyclist, green thumb, cupcake fan and proud mom living in Beijing with her husband, Guo Jian, and their daughter Echo (born January 2012). They are expecting a second child at the end of 2013. Ember writes professionally for several print and online publications (including beijingkids), as well as three blogs through her own site: www.emberswift.com. She is also an internationally touring musician and performs regularly in China with her all-girl local band. She has released 11 independent musical albums over the years but, these days, prefers to be with her family rather than on the road touring. She continues to release her music online and hopes to have completed her memoir project by the end of 2014.
Photos courtesy of Ember Swift