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August 19, 2009

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Man on a bicycle becomes a star of Chinese TV

THERE are two types of expats in China: those with drivers and those with bicycles," says Steven Weathers, an actor, director and adventurer from the US who has lived in Shanghai for three years.

"And I have a bicycle," he laughs. The comparison highlights the difference between how expats approach the difficult and often frustrating experience of adjusting to a whole new culture. With his bicycle, friends all over China and self-taught Mandarin, Weathers has opted to embrace Chinese culture, quirks and all.

Total immersion, while taking more effort, has yielded great opportunities and hilarious adventures along the way.

For a start, Weathers has starred in more than 40 adverts, three TV serials, and one pop video (S.H.E's number one hit "Zhong Guo Hua"). After his latest appearance on a popular, melodramatic TV serial based in Shanghai called "Dwelling Narrowness," he is being recognized on the street by middle-aged Chinese women who confuse him with his TV character.

"People randomly offer to buy me pizza and tea. At first it was fun but now I go to dinner and all the people look at me, when I look back they look away," he says.

Weathers has also directed and produced his own video series about China called "Foreigner Perspective." Put onto with no other marketing it quickly attracted tens of thousands of hits and the attention of local TV stations. He is now a regular host for International Channel Shanghai.

Weathers first came to China in 1998 with a tour group. He loved it so much the other members of the group said back then he would come here to live. He didn't give it much thought at the time, but seven years later Weathers became tired of the 24/7 grind of corporate America and decided to take a chance on China.

"I wanted a challenge, I'm driven by goals. Though there are challenges in America, like getting new clients, I felt it was pedestrian, like something was missing," he says.

The challenge that China offered, was precisely one which many expats run from, that of understanding a different way of thought.

To pursue this challenge Weathers deliberately avoided the big, international cities at first, settling in Luoyang, Shaanxi Province, for his first year in China. With just two KFCs and six other foreigners, he was forced to learn the language and the culture. When all six of the expats went back for Christmas for a month, Weathers spent Chinese New Year with local friends, visiting 11 families over the period.

"I have learned things you'd never learn in big cities, like when you ganbei, holding your cup slightly lower is a sign of deference and respect for the other person."

Weathers moved to Shanghai in 2006 to teach business and English at Shanghai Normal University, and started a Website, American English Circle, for language and culture exchange.

At the same time he started answering adverts for foreign actors in Chinese commercials and dramas.

Having run an advertising company in the US, he had always wanted to get into the media. In China there were great opportunities for a reliable-looking foreigner in his 30s. Falling into the slightly older, professional-looking category Weathers has played engineers and experts for a range of products ranging from cars to food to household products.

Foreigner perspective

During the summer holidays of 2008, Weathers bought a small camera and started shooting "Foreigner Perspective." It was designed for Chinese to learn English and get an idea of a foreigner's perspective on China. It was also designed to show the real China to foreigners.

In accordance with his adventurous nature, the videos feature Weathers eating dog meat, bargaining at the fabric market and travelling to little known corners of China. Working on a low budget - as low as US$10 per finished minute - Weathers even trained his taxi driver to use the camera while on location in Fuzhou, Fujian Province.

"Mr Ling, the taxi driver was very excited, and he took me to the secret places only local people know. But when I gave him the tape he got embarrassed at his parts, and wanted to cut them out," says Weathers.

During his adventures in China there have been some memorable moments, such as the day he got lost hiking on a mountain in Henan Province and had to hitchhike down a dirt road. He later found himself on the back of a motorcycle-wagon with a Chinese woman and her two-day-old baby.

Then there were the simply ludicrous times such as when he was shooting a commercial and the director handed him a stack of papers to pretend to read as part of the plot. The papers turned out to be the budget for the commercial and Weathers found his agent had charged the client five times the amount he paid Weathers.

"I suspect agents all over the world are crooked," he says. "Many people got a piece of that pie."

There were also fun if exhausting experiences such as shooting film for 22 hours straight as a pirate for a well-known pizza company.

"I had to swing from one boat to another, land on the edge, jump down on the deck, draw my sword and lock blades with the other pirate.

"It was grueling but the end result was pretty cool - it looked like 'Pirates of the Caribbean.'"

Now he hopes to do more hosting for Chinese TV, as well as more directing of his own.

"Nowadays 'personalism' trumps professionalism," he says of the success of his "Foreigners Perspective" videos. "Many expats have thanked me for showing them what price a tailor made suit should be. It's from the heart, it's real experience."

A new project he's working on involves a video series where users can choose their own ending. "Web video can be interactive now, but no one's done it. I hope to see this idea launched."

Even now in Shanghai, most of his friends are local Chinese who don't speak English.

It's a deliberate decision he says, as is travelling all over China from tier-one cities to the poorest countryside villages. It's part of that elusive challenge of really understanding China.

"It will be a lifelong goal, I'll never get there completely."

Meanwhile, the funny and bizarre stories keep accumulating and he has even considered writing a memoir. When asked why he finds so many interesting situations Weathers reflects and says: "I guess I'm the common denominator, I'm adventurous or stupid enough to follow random friends into vehicles going where I don't know."

Steven Weathers

Nationality: US

Age: 36

Profession: TV host and video producer


Self-description:Optimistic, ideas-generator, adventurous.

Favorite place: Japanese Teppenyaki place near my home.

Perfect weekend:

En route to a new part of China - each new place I visit reveals a new facet of Chinese culture. I feel sorry for the foreigners who just stay in Shanghai or Beijing because they miss the other thousands of sides to the diamond.

Strangest sight: Live chickens running around on the Metro. The strangest thing was nobody else thought it was strange.

Motto for life:Life without fear.

How to improve Shanghai:

Wake up all the sleeping drivers and remove their parked cars from the bike lanes. This will allow buses and bikes to move much more quickly and efficiently through the city.

Advice to newcomers:Develop friendships with local Chinese - it's not enough to just learn the language. You need these relationships to be really connected to the place otherwise you will always be an outsider looking in.


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