Interview with Pitt to You Mentees and Ambassadors

By Qinnuo (Emma) Li, Asian Studies Center International Associate

With the new cohort of Chinese international students arriving to the University of Pittsburgh for the 2019-2020 academic year, the Pitt to You program is currently in its second phase. Pitt to You, which connects student ambassadors who serve as mentors to international Chinese students, fosters cultural exchange and adjustment for those transitioning to college abroad.

In September, ambassadors and their mentees had a reunion at the William Pitt Union (WPU). Since the mentees have been at Pitt, their ambassadors have introduced them to the campus lifestyle, introduced them to friends, and shown them around Pittsburgh. During the reunion, our international associate, Emma, and Pitt to You program coordinator, Bliss, conducted a few brief interviews between ambassadors and their mentees to learn about both sides’ experiences. The following interviews have been edited for clarity.

Kai Lin Lee, a pre-med junior majoring in anthropology and political science and minoring in history, Kevin, a freshmen majoring in urban studies, and Fredrick, a freshman, are part of this year’s Pitt to You cohort. Kai Lin Lee is Kevin and Fredrick’s ambassador.

What did you enjoy the most about your trip to China?

Kai Lin: It was so incredible to meet so many new students that would soon be attending Pitt. Traveling aboard was incredible, too. Getting to visit the Great Wall of China, the Forbidden City, and other historical sites was amazing.

What was the biggest challenge in China?

Kai Lin: The biggest challenge was definitely not having great connection to cellular data and internet. If we weren’t paying attention to the signs around us, we easily got lost. I also tried to sharpen my Chinese reading skills during the trip, which was challenging yet rewarding.

What did you find most helpful about the Pitt to You program in China?

Fredrick: The Pitt to You program allowed me to preview the campus and school life. I was also able to develop some basic understanding about how college works in the United States, which allowed me to stay ahead during the school year. Guidance and help from upperclassmen, especially as a freshman, was useful, too.

Kevin: For me, being able to meet these mentors and faculty members before we arrived at Pitt helped a lot. It allowed us to familiarize ourselves with the college environment and neighborhood.

What is your biggest challenge at Pitt so far?

Fredrick: There are so many activities that you can participate in on campus! It’s very difficult to make a choice of what clubs to join and how exactly to immerse myself.

Kevin: For me, it’s difficult to find where the elevators are in each building. At Pitt, they’re always hidden behind some huge pillar, so I often unknowingly pass by them.

As part of the Pitt to You program, what are you most looking forward to this semester?

Kevin: I think more activities, especially ones that allow me to hangout with friends and explore the city more.

Fredrick: Yeah, I agree. Our mentor introduced us to a lot in the city and the school, but personally, I don’t have enough free time to explore these areas in-depth. It would be great if we could get together sometime in the future.

Kai Lin: Yeah, following those ideas, I am super excited to take you guys to interesting places, like art museums and a shooting range. Whenever you guys want to know more about the city – even small local attractions – we can check them out!

Eryn McCormick, a senior majoring in industrial engineering and minoring in economics, David Wu, a freshman, and Zhen Wu, a freshman majoring in computer science are part of the current Pitt to You cohort. Eryn McCormick is David and Zhen’s ambassador.

What did you enjoy the most about your trip to China?

Eryn: I really enjoyed immersing myself within a new culture, learning about China’s architecture, and learning about its history. It was great to see the Forbidden City. However, my favorite days were whenever I was able to hang out with my mentees, get to know them, and explore all these sites with them, as well. I also really enjoyed the food – I liked the soup dumplings a lot!

What was the biggest challenge in China?

Eryn: The biggest challenge was trying to adjust to the food and the public transportation system, which was a little tough. Overall, there’s little nuances and trying to figure them out was the toughest situation I went through.

What did you find most helpful about the Pitt to You program in China?

David: The most helpful thing is probably getting to know some freshmen and upperclassmen in advance, befriending them, and staying in contact with them. Through this, they were able to give us suggestions on how to adjust to the school before we arrived and helped us feel more comfortable.

Zhen: Yeah, I had the same idea – getting to know more people and make more friends helped a lot. It allowed me to feel more familiar with the school, the city, and culture here.

What is your biggest challenge at Pitt so far?

David: My biggest challenge is arriving to class on time, especially for those held in different buildings because some are very far from each other. I am not used to it yet – you know, running a mile in 10 minutes in 10 AM in the morning [laughs].

Zhen: What’s difficult part for me is finding the right directions to go to classes every day. I’ll often have to use Google Map.

As part of the Pitt to You program, what are you most looking forward to this semester?

Zhen: I think I’m most looking forward to exploring the school and the city more. By familiarizing myself with the area, especially the campus and its resources, I can find out what I like academically and find the right track for myself.

David: I’m most excited about attending more events with my group and hanging out with them more.

Eryn: I am looking forward to not only continuing getting to know my mentees but everyone else in the program, as well. There are some cool events coming up, such as the annual Light Up Night in downtown. That would be very cool to show them.

I was an RA last year, and I missed having the opportunity to program events for people. I am looking forward to constructing events for me and my mentees to do. I am thinking of hosting a little dinner at my house in a couple of weeks to let them relax and hang out and talk to them about how things are going.

An Interview with Kirsten Strayer: Screenshot: Asia Programming Coordinator

The following interview is between Kirsten Strayer, Asian Studies Center staff member and programming coordinator for Screenshot: Asia, and Communications & Media intern, Jenn Nguyen. Strayer is thrilled about the recent launch and expansion of Screenshot: Asia, the Asian Studies Center and Film & Media Studies partnership to deliver Asian-American and American cinema to Pittsburgh. To learn more about Screenshot: Asia, spread the word, or donate, please visit engage.pitt.edu/screenshotasia.

How did you start working at the Asian Studies Center?

I helped run Silk Screen, an Asian and Asian-American film festival, in 2018. Subsequently, the organization folded. Lynn Kawaratani, one of the staffers at the Asian Studies Center, was an advisory board member for Silk Screen, and a few people at Pitt, including herself, were really invested in the idea of preserving Asian and Asian-American film in Pittsburgh. We were in conversation off and on with the Film and Media Studies Program until, finally, the Asian Studies Center was able to gather the materials to put on our own Asian and Asian-American film series at Pitt with them.

What do you specialize in at Pitt and at the Asian Studies Center?

At the Asian Studies Center, I specialize in programming all of the media, film, and film associated and media associated partnerships. It’s a bunch of everything – I write grants to help with the launch of the Screenshot: Asia festival, manage all of the films that come in during the year and work with Lynn and other faculty members to choose some films, and oversee all of the nuts and bolts stuff for the festival.

My technical specialty is global cinema. I have a PhD in film, and I’ve published on a bunch of different global moments in different places to invoke answers to questions about circulation. For example, I researched and wrote about how film circulated in the 70’s throughout Latin America, global Bollywood, and the contemporary film movement in the post-20th and 21st centuries.

What region do you think produces the best films?

I mean, I think they’re all so different. I’m very attached to Latin America and Mexico, obviously, because I wrote my dissertation on that region. I think film scholars are coming to terms with the idea of how there have been networks in Latin America, Africa, and Asia since the beginning of film, so if I had to choose, I’d say my favorite region for film is the southern half of the world. If I had to choose one specific region, I’d say Latin America, for sure.

You talked a little bit about Silk Screen. Can you explain exactly what the program was, and how that led you to create Screenshot: Asia?

            Silk Screen was an organization dedicated to promoting Asian art and culture in Pittsburgh and was around for about 12 years until its closing. When I was there, I learned a lot about both contemporary Asian film and what was going on in the Asian film industry and the nuts and bolts of running a film festival, which is really hard and a huge time commitment. I really wanted to bring those skills to Pitt in hopes of launching an even bigger project.

For Screenshot: Asia, are you partnering with a professor in the Film and Media Studies Program or moreso with the department as a whole?

We have an executive committee, which consists of Seung-hwan Shin, Kun Qian, Charles Exley, and Neepa Majumdar. They’re basically the people that work most extensively on Asian film, but the director of the Film and Media Studies Program who is currently on sabbatical, Randall Halle, is most engaged with the series. We’ve worked with Halle a lot. He’s most excited about having a constant art and film presence in Pittsburgh and transforming the city into a place that has entertaining movies always being streamed, especially on the weekends.

The question is, “How do we take all of these celebrations – the Polish film festival, projects at Carnegie Mellon University, and the Pittsburgh Shorts film festival – and create a more coherent understanding of the arts?” Halle has a big vision for arts programming in Pittsburgh, and the Asian Studies Center tightly works with him to turn his vision into a tangible product.

What are your current favorite Asian and Asian-American films?

It’s really hard to choose one favorite. For Asian films, I love In the Mood for Love (2000) and 2046 (2004), which are both from Hong Kong. In The Mood for Love is so beautiful. I love the main actor, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, and how gorgeous and immense the film is. In general, I like every genre of film.

I love a lot of Asian classics, too, which includes anything by Japanese film directors Akira Kurosawa and Yasuijro Ozu. I love Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well (1960), in particular, which is based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Kurosawa is the master of black-and-white film. You have to remember, Asia is so big, which means Asian film encompasses such a variety of countries and genres. I’m a fan of Iranian film, too. Some of the best projects are from Iran. It’s as if the whole world is in Asia, in certain ways.

As for Asian-American films, I love H.P. Mendoza’s Bitter Melon (2018), which was aired at Silk Screen last year. It’s a hilarious yet dark comedy about a Filipino family in San Francisco. The movie is one of the smartest takes on the contemporary Asian-American experience that I’ve seen. I’d love to screen it again for the Pitt community.

An Interview with Amy Cheng: Los Angeles-based Film Production Assistant & Pitt Film Alumna

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The following is an email conversation between Chinese-American film editor and Pitt alumna Amy Cheng and Asian Studies Center Global Ambassador Anthony Gavazzi. To raise awareness about Screenshot: Asia, Pitt’s new Asian and Asian-American film series, and its fundraising campaign, ASC interns are interviewing Pitt film alumni of Asian-American backgrounds to learn about the university’s impact on their careers. For more, visit engage.pitt.edu/screenshotasia.

Tell me a little bit about yourself.

I graduated from Pitt in April 2018. I grew up just north of Pittsburgh and went to Pitt to study science. I was a biology major on the premed track for two years, but two weeks before my junior year, I completely changed my schedule and switched to a film and media major. I knew from the beginning that I had an urge to explore film and express my creative energy somehow, but it took me two years to realize that I wanted to pursue something film-related professionally.

I moved to Los Angeles in the fall of 2018 without a job to begin a career in the industry, specifically in post-production. I was an intern for the American Cinema Editors Internship in 2018, which has provided me with a valuable network of professionals in Los Angeles so far. A year later, I still think it is the best decision I’ve ever made. The program brought me many unexpected encounters, industry knowledge, valuable work and life experiences, spontaneous adventures, and the desire to make a living with something I genuinely enjoy!

What was it like being Chinese-American in Pittsburgh and at the University?

Growing up, our family had a circle of Chinese family friends. I went to Chinese language school every Sunday, and my parents spoke Chinese to my brothers and me. Over the years, I lost touch with the language and grew further away from the culture. I found out that I did not relate to the Asian kids I grew up with and unconsciously developed a contempt for my own culture. I desperately wanted to assimilate with the white majority of my school, but I eventually began to feel like I couldn’t relate to the kids I wanted to be like either. There was always an uncertainty about where I belonged throughout my childhood, and I didn’t understand at the time that this dissonance was associated with my racial identity.

At Pitt, I joined the Chinese American Students Association (CASA) and Asian Students Alliance (ASA) to regain a familiarity with Asian culture, but both didn’t really give me the peace of mind that I had hoped for. Now, because I am no longer passively existing in Pittsburgh, I am slowly gaining the ability to see myself as Asian-American, respect the cultural roots that have been laid for me, and actively understand the potential impact that I can exert through my hyphenated identity.

Did any Pitt classes, professors, or students help you explore or think about Asian and Asian-American identity?

There was one experience at Pitt that made me think about my Asian-American identity. I made a last-minute decision to go on a study abroad program senior year, the Pitt in London Film Program. The people I met in London often asked me where I was from, which I would respond confidently, “America!” They would then always follow up with, “But where are you originally from?” as if my first answer was not acceptable.

It was there that I had truly felt two separate identities. I was American, but I was also Chinese. Until then, I had thought of myself as just one singular identity: Chinese-American. I never bothered to separate the two because there was never a context in which I needed to. It made me wonder: Why couldn’t I just exist as me? I’m still navigating what it means to be American and Asian, what it means to both, and what I can do to uncover the Chinese heritage lost over all these years.

How did your time at Pitt lead you to your current career?

I don’t view my first two undergraduate years studying science as wasted time. If anything, those experiences led me to discover that I was drawn towards film, media, and digital arts. A professor I worked for during my first summer in the research lab actually encouraged me to explore film classes and said that she didn’t think molecular research was something that I actually wanted to do. Being young and naive, I brushed it off and tried to prove her wrong even though she was right.

Pitt’s film department provided me with ample opportunities to learn film theory and access the tools necessary to get hands-on experience with set equipment. Carl Kurlander, one of the professors, was also instrumental in helping connect me to Pitt alum working in the industry. He’s a great resource to obtain insight on how the industry operates and connect Pitt students to those now working in the field.

How do you feel about Pitt launching an Asian-American and Asian film festival? 

I’m really glad to see Pitt expanding its film courses and opportunities for students to get more production experience. This film festival will be a great way for the University to showcase Asian voices and stories since they are generally underrepresented in popular media and at Pitt. It’s important to tell these stories to bring attention to the nuances of Eastern culture and to validate the shared experiences of minority groups. I hope the festival can be a space to celebrate local Asian filmmakers, bring awareness to the importance of cultural identity, and provide opportunities for students from all backgrounds to participate in every facet of the festival process.

What projects have you been working on lately?

When I first got to L.A., I didn’t know anyone here or anything about the city. Through networking events and cold e-mailing, I managed to get my first job in the industry as a post-production assistant on a Fox Searchlight feature film, Antlers. The project ended this summer, but I am extremely blessed I had the opportunity to work alongside talented editors and studio assistant editors, as well as learn the intricate post-process for Hollywood films.

After that, I worked temporarily at Blumhouse Productions, a horror production company, as a post-production assistant. Now, I’m freelancing on the side and working on becoming an assistant editor and eventually an editor for television and film projects.

Club Profile: Pitt Fresh Entertainment by Student Artists (FRESA)

By Grace Dong, Asian Studies Center Events Coordinator

Pitt Fresh Entertainment by Student Artists, often referred to as FRESA, is a student-run organization at the University of Pittsburgh that celebrates various Asian pop cultures through music and dance. From teaching dance choreography and filming dance covers, to editing videos and hosting showcases, the executive board and club members manage and run every aspect of the club.

This is my second year in FRESA, and I cannot express how much I changed after joining. Before college, I was already interested in K-pop, but I never imagined myself covering their dances. Auditioning, learning routines, cleaning up messy sections of choreography, filming, and editing, each step required to produce a polished dance cover, is memorable and remarkable. As a K-pop fangirl, dancing idols’ songs definitely makes me feel closer to them.

At the end of every semester, FRESA hosts a showcase for members to perform their dances in front of an audience. This is always my favorite part. Not only do families and friends come to the showcase, but I am also able to watch other members’ performances. We work and prepare for the whole semester for each showcase, and it is a new experience every time I go. I used to be a very shy person, and I refused to perform in front of people. At showcases, I learned to step out of my comfort zone and be open in front of a crowd.

I became more confident after two years in FRESA. I used to be a very shy person, and I refused to perform in front of people. At showcases, I learned to step out of my comfort zone and be open in front of the crowd. Cheering for one another brings us closer together, and I always make a lot of new friends. This club is more than an extracurricular club – it has also revealed to me a new version of myself and introduced me to life-long friends.

University of Pittsburgh Homecoming

By Weiping Xiao, Asian Studies Center Chinese Social Media Intern

Last week, the University of Pittsburgh held a series of Homecoming events, which hosted hundreds of students, alumni, faculty, and staff in attendance. Everyone was filled with passion and enthusiasm.

On Saturday, October 26th, I went to the biggest Homecoming event ¾ the Pitt football game. Since moving to Pittsburgh, I have not watched a football game because of my busy schedule. I was excited that I was able to carve out time to see the homecoming game. For a $10 student ticket and free transportation from campus, it was worth it, too.

It was a raining on Saturday, which dampened the atmosphere. However, I was looking forward to watching the game in action. For this event, our rival was the University of Miami, a very competitive member in our division. My friend and I took a bus from campus to Heinz Field and arrived at 11:30 PM to find seats. The game started with a music performance from the University of Pittsburgh marching band. Hundreds of band members spared no efforts to give the audience a fantastic performance. Afterwards, the game started.

During the game, Pitt’s football players found it difficult to make a touchdown and made a lot of mistakes, which gave the rival a bunch of opportunities to control the game. The game ended with a win by the University of Miami.

I really like the sports culture in the United States. It was exciting to see how enthusiastic students were and watch them continuously chant, although the team ultimately lost. I am looking forward to visiting Heinz Field again for future games and immersing myself more in Pitt’s sports culture.

Korean Language Social Hour

By Xinyu Zhang, Asian Studies Center Confucius Institute Intern

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On Friday, October 11th, the Asian Studies Center (ASC) held a Korean Language Social Hour with the English Language Institute (ELI) in 4130 Posvar Hall. There were a lot of Korean international students and American attendees interested in learning Korean and participating in the planned activities.

At first, students were shy and were not open to socializing with one another. During the event, however, the hosts organized a bingo game and an information gap activity. These games allowed students to warm up and talk to one another. They enjoyed pizza and snacks while chatting with one another in Korean or English and learned a lot about how to speak conversational Korean. The Korean international students in attendance were able to practice their English speaking skills, too.

An Interview with Jon Hill: Fox Sports Video Producer, Emmy Award Winner, and Pitt Alum

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The following is a transcribed phone conversation between Thai-American film producer Jon Hill and Asian Studies Center Ambassador Anthony Gavazzi. To raise awareness about Screenshot: Asia, Pitt’s new Asian film festival, and its fundraising campaign, the ASC ambassadors are interviewing Pitt’s film alum of Asian-American backgrounds to learn about Pitt’s impact on their careers. For more, visit engage.pitt.edu/screenshotasia.

Tell me about yourself.

When I was a kid, I bounced around a lot. I was born in Virginia, then moved to Los Angeles, then Colorado, then back to Virginia, and then to Philadelphia when I was 4 or 5, and grew up in Philadelphia. I used to make films with my buddies for school reports. Instead of writing papers, I’d con my teachers into letting me make videos. I always wanted to move to L.A. because my family used to live there, and my dad always talked about how much he missed it. It kind of made sense – I loved films and loved L.A.

How did you end up at Pitt, and how did your time here prepare you for your career?

I was looking into schools, and my friend from high school went to Pitt. I went out to Pitt with him one summer and had the greatest time visiting, so I checked it out as a prospective student and loved it.

When I was at Pitt, I met John Paul Horstmann, who was basically the original trailblazer. He created the TV Station UPTV, which was called the Creation Station at the time, and then graduated immediately after, so I took over with Sam Cotler. I started a TV show with my dorm mates called Lothrop What What, kind of like a sketch comedy variety show, and it was one of the few shows that aired at the time. I used a video camera that my brother got me, and – you have to remember – this was back in 2002. There was no cell phones, YouTube, editing software. Digital editing with a computer was just starting.

But yeah, the show went really well, and we had a little cult following. It landed me onto Homecoming court. I’d say we had a really good time, and that’s kind of the genesis of my time at Pitt. Within the next year, we grew the TV station from about 10 of us to 100 members. I would definitely say the bulk of my experience in becoming a filmmaker came through UPTV and spending as much time as I was able to in the studio. My friend, Nate Cornett, and I also worked with Carl Kurlander on a mini-documentary about the Gene Kelly Awards, which aired on WQED, a local television station. I wouldn’t be here without Pitt.

What have you been working on since you’ve been in Los Angeles?

I’ve freelanced a ton and did everything, including shooting feature films with Nate Cornett, indie films, pilots, and documentaries. I’ve been at Fox Sports for the last four years.

Can you tell me a little bit about what you do there?

I’m a video producer at Fox Sports Digital, mostly directing stuff on our FS1 properties. I worked on the World Cup. I went to the Super Bowl last year, and I’m going to the Super Bowl again this year. I’ve been to the past three NBA All-Star Games. We actually won an Emmy last year, too.

Going back to your time at Pitt, did you explore your Thai-American identity at all, either at the University or in the city?

I don’t think I really went there to explore my Thai-American identity because I’ve always known my identity. My mom’s from Thailand, and I love Thailand. I’ve been there about seven times, and I just got married there last November. There isn’t a large Thai community in Pittsburgh at all. When I was young, I was just really focused on just making films and partying – I’m not ashamed to admit that. But looking back, I probably would’ve gone to more of the Asian Student Alliance (ASA) events and done some networking.

Did you have any professors that inspired you or helped you explore your identity?

Oh, yeah. One of my favorite professors was Keiko McDonald. She actually passed away a couple years after I graduated, but I took a samurai class and a Japanese literature and film class with her. She had such a big heart. She was hilarious, and she would make the class downright erupt with laughter. I really miss her. She was kind of my guiding light for Asian cinema at Pitt. I actually have a photo for your blog post of me with a fish that I caught, which is a tribute to her because she would always show us a photo of a fish she caught.

Do you think it’s appropriate for Pitt to have an Asian Film Festival?

Yes, and you should have as many festivals as you can. Also, Asian cinema’s huge. Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Hong Kong films are all big, and then if you throw in Bollywood, that’s huge. It’s bigger than Hollywood. Plus, you can also get a lot of Asian shows on Netflix. My wife’s Korean, and we watch a ton of Korean shows on there. Right now, we’re seeing the rise of shows like Terrace House, a Japanese show. I think back in my day people were like, “Oh, I’ll never watch a film with subtitles,” but luckily, I think that’s going away. Then, obviously, we have movies like Crazy Rich Asians, and you’ve got my buddies Randall Park and Ali Wong on Always Be My Maybe.

I’ve heard a lot about that movie. I need to check that out soon.

Yeah, that movie’s incredible. That’s one you’ve got to watch. Crazy Rich Asians was great, but it was very aspirational. What I loved about Always Be My Maybe is that it was like a slice of real life. A film like that – that doesn’t overemphasize the fact that the characters are Asian – shows that we’re just regular people that live next door.

What do you think about Asian and Asian-American representation in media?

I think it’s good for both our community and every other community. First of all, there really weren’t many Asian people for me to watch and look up to when I was a kid. My mom and I used to watch Martin Yan on Yan Can Cook, and I also had Bruce Lee, who was just badass. Now you’ve got a lot of people who are 2nd generation Asian-Americans. It’s important for Asian kids to look up to these people and think, “Oh, I can make it.” That’s why the film festival’s such a great idea, too. Seeing small filmmakers is very inspiring. Anyone can watch a great movie from Korea, but at the end of the day, a college student’s going to think, “Okay. I’m not going to be able to make that.” When you watch a smaller film and think, “Okay, I can make that,” it’s even more inspiring.

What advice do you have for Pitt film studies students?

I would just say, look, it’s really simple: make a plan and just work towards that. Whatever you wanna do, if you make a plan, the universe will get out of the way for you. If you ask any successful person how they made it, they’ll say they wanted something and took little steps towards that goal. If you wanna be a filmmaker, just start making films. First, you make a film, and it’s usually terrible. Then, you make another film that’s a little less terrible, and you work your way up. There’s no magic to it.

Thanks for your time, Jon.  I really appreciate it.

Thanks for having me, Anthony. Also, I have a short film that I think you guys would like. It’s a video I did with my mom and my buddy, Brett. It’s cute, and I think it’ll be appropriate for the Asian Studies Center.

[Embedded video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0S5-2bVT0do&t=10s ]