Living in Los Angeles can offer opportunities other places do not. In my late 20's I traveled to Hawaii thanks to an appearance on the Newlywed Game. Many years later I found myself, my husband and two of my kids in a paradise known as Fiji thanks to another fun little gameshow. This time, it was something different.
My six-year-old son, Zak, is an actor. He really has that little something that casting people love. He has booked a few things and has a nice college fund started. Recently, he had an audition for a commercial that was shooting in Taiwan. It was a longshot, but hey, sometimes you get the job.
Well, he did. So while we were there, I made travel logs for my husband and the rest of my family and friends exactly to hopefully share what it was like to take a 6-year-old to Taiwan to work. It just isn't something that happens every day.
Travel Log #1: Although our flight was delayed, leaving home was rather simple. Zak was very concerned about the plane crashing, getting hit by missiles, and wished that deflector shields were real. He squeezed my hand very tight on take-off, and was smiling and laughing before we even left the coastline. (He has flown before, but doesn't remember) We met the other actor in his commercial right away as he was sitting right behind us. He read a newspaper, didn't have electronic devices, and would be our "fellow American" for the next week. We had three large economy seats to share for the two of us and I was relieved he could lie down to sleep. He enjoyed his touch screen TV, and would draw when he got bored. It was a pleasant, 14 hour jaunt across the Pacific.
We were met by production assistants and taken to a very nice hotel in Taipei. After settling in and trying to sleep a bit, we video chatted with Daddy and we explored the street our hotel was on, and made a trip to 7-11 (there is one on EVERY block). He has a wardrobe fitting this afternoon and we will finalize the script. We get the rest of the evening to relax and he is having a blast.
Travel Log #2: A strange thing we have noticed in Taipei is there are no children walking around. We are told that is because they are in school. We see almost no children, except that of a lady driving a scooter with an infant strapped to her chest! We are still wondering where the smaller children are?
After getting most of his school work done in the hotel room and bouncing off the walls, we went out exploring again. As far as adventures in eating, I will not be able to report much. He being so young and me having Celiac Disease and on a nutritional cleansing plan, there isn't much adventure. We have been instructed to NOT eat any street food. We purchased jugs of water from 7-11. We found a McDonald's a few blocks away, and his eyes lit up in hopes for some adventurous eating there. You can imagine my fear, as if American nugget meat isn't a big enough mystery? There was a honey ginger sauce served with nuggets that he was very, very fond of and said, "They should get this in Los Angeles!" We looked in some shops. Some things are crazy cheap here, and others the same price as home. Just depends on the random nature of the item. I'm using an app on my phone to double check what I'm spending, and people here are so nice. No one has tried to overcharge us for anything, and no one has given us wrong change, etc. The people of Taiwan are incredibly kind, and are not looking at us like we are dumb, rich Americans they can take advantage of. They speak to us with curiosity and kindness. Zak is a celebrity on this block already, just because he has blue eyes and says "Ni Hau" to anyone who will listen. We have learned how to say, "Hi", "Thank You", "Good Night" and "I am happy" in Mandarin. The sweetest old man gleamed at us and told me over and over again, in his broken English, how lucky I am. I kept telling him how I understood, and that I agreed.
We were finally picked up for the wardrobe fitting. We arrived to a gaggle of darling, young women fussing over him and changing his clothes 72 times and taking photos. As I watched them slip shirts on and off him, I noticed he was falling asleep standing up! Poor kid, the jet lag finally hit him like a ton of bricks. He barely survived. He got a little teary and they all knew it was jet lag but everyone pressed on gently and we got the fitting done. I had no idea he would be having about 20 wardrobe changes? This seemed strange for one commercial. They ordered him some pizza, and thankfully they ordered Hawaiian. Zak was grumpy, sad, and wanted to go to bed. When the pizza arrived and he smelled the pineapple...gazinga! He ate a piece and suddenly had that second wind. Sadly, they have the worst of American cuisine here...along with McDonald's and 7-11, they have Starbucks and usual pizza delivery places. I was sad about that, until my kid needed a slice of Hawaiian.
He kept it together long enough for me to go over a final script review with the writer so we were all on the same page. (The commercial will be in English, with Chinese subtitles). He is too tired to try the night market. Zak fell asleep at 7:30pm Taiwan time, and here we are at 5:30am on Friday morning ready for another exciting day. We will check out of our Taipei hotel at 1pm and go to see the sights! There is a building called the 101, think Empire State Building but taller, that we'd like to see, and a Memorial Building Zak would like to see. Then we head to Taichung which is mid-Taiwan. That is where we will be filming.
Travel Log #3: We got picked up by our driver for some sightseeing. When I say driver, you think town car. Well, it is more like a production van, but it is air conditioned and we aren't complaining. Pong took us to the famous Taipei 101 building. It is that building you see on New Year's Eve exploding fireworks off of it. We didn't have time to go to the top (same deal as the Empire State Building). We cruised around the outside to see the sculptures, and inside was a 4 story mall that made Rodeo Drive look like a 99 cent store. We then zipped over to the Chiang Kai-Shek memorial. This was something Zakary insisted on seeing. Before the trip, I had him watch Taiwan tourism videos. This memorial, an ice cream shop called King Mango and 7-11 were on his list. The memorial was breathtaking and very, very worth our time. We only wished we had more time. We were super grateful to get to see it.
We, along with Zak's fellow actor, climbed back in our van and we picked up Maggie, our talent coordinator. She is amazing. We got on the road for a 2-3 hour drive to Taichung. The drive started out well, and our driver insisted on stopping every hour or so. I realized it was because he wanted to smoke more than we needed to stop for the restroom. We stopped at two rest stops along the way that were hilarious. There was live music at each one, loads of squatty toilet stalls, and a little mini food-court in each one. The food looks pretty gross everywhere. We are sticking to what we know. Zak slept most of the drive, and then woke up just in time for what he claimed was like the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland. We felt like a NYC cab driver was dodging one million scooters. Scooters are everywhere in Taiwan. You aren't even safe on the sidewalk from scooters. I was kind of stressing out that our driver was going 100 mph on the highway, and trying to ignore the crazy drivers everywhere. Once we hit rush hour traffic and Taichung City, I was really getting tense. Taichung is like Beverly Hills turned into an Asian city with 7-11's. We dropped our stuff in our huge 5th floor room, and set back out to get some dinner. We were too tired to try to figure too much out, so we went to 7-11, found a chicken sandwich and some milk, and he was happy. I was ultimately grateful that I have my nutritional shakes and blender with me. I've yet to find anything except breakfast food that I can eat here. Zak fell asleep sweetly, mid chicken sandwich.
It's way too early to go to breakfast, Zak's call time isn't until 1pm and we are in our room trying to kill a few hours. It seems I can get a few things on Amazon Prime here, so he's watching the original Jurassic Park. We are finding a huge challenge in that there are not parks and slides and things for kids to do in Taiwan. Maggie told us kids go to school all day, and then have to go to enrichment class right after school every day. They don't get to play. It made me a little sad but I think there will be a few background kids on set for the commercial so hopefully he can play with someone besides me. We brought board games, cards, stuff to draw and more but mom could use a minute! We shall see what our adventure brings us today!
Travel Log #4: If you dislike the gushing stage mom side of me, you may not want to read this part. I'm blown away by yesterday's events. Pong showed up with better, but not perfect sounding brakes at 2pm. He adores Zakary, so I trust the car is fine. We went on a 15 minute ride, to a park! I couldn't believe my eyes. It was full of kids on a Saturday play day. His first shot had to do with walking with his dad to buy balloons from a vendor in a busy park. They used background players from Taiwan that were mostly Europeans. My first worry was that we are in hot and humid weather. Zak's first outfit is jeans, a long-sleeve polo shirt, a hoodie, a backpack, and was wearing a microphone pack. There was also no script for this part, so when they put the microphone on him, I smiled, and asked what he would be doing. They explained they would tell him, and he improvised beautifully. He started to fade after the 6th or 7th take from the wet heat. Knowing he could go play on the play structure for about 15 minutes once they wrapped that scene kept him in focus. At moments, I envisioned a little Ron Howard. He was taking the direction well, offering ideas and interacting in a way I'd not seen before. An audience of pre-teen girls formed. They asked to take pictures with Zak in between takes. He obliged, they would giggle, and Zak would practice his three Mandarin phrases with them. As the crew packed it up to get ready for next location...for the first time in 5 days my monkey boy was able to run, climb, jump, monkey bar and try to interact with other kids. The best thing said on the park was by a 4-5-year-old boy from Taiwan. He looked me straight in the eye and asked, "How did he get so...so...Caucasian?"
On our way to location number two, we stop for a quick ice cream to cool him off. He licked his favorite cone in the car as we drove to a little house on a cul-de-sac. I immediately notice both inside and in the front yard, the house is swarming with mosquitos. I had already sprayed him at the park but all of a sudden we were all scrambling to get covered in mosquito repellent. He's not allergic, but giant, unforgiving welts appear. He was spared any bites, thank goodness. I, and many of the crew that were wearing sleeveless shirts, were not so lucky.
Immediately, they turned a/c's on in bedrooms upstairs and created a small holding room for us, wardrobe and make-up and another for the fancy client people. Some assistants arrived with these tennis racket things that have bug zappers in them. Zak was fascinated and this was the toy of the hour that kept him light and happy in between shots. He had to do several non-verbal shots in different outfits letting balloons go into the sky, then they say that he's doing his big phone call scene. I was startled as I thought it would be the next day. Suddenly, Zak is in a dressed living room, getting direction for a scene that was long, and I learn they are going to shoot it in one full shot each time. My eyes are popping out of their sockets as I'm really not sure he's capable. I was in awe that in such primitive conditions, the director had a vision and a very artistic view. It looked like a film they were making, not a commercial. It was then I learned that they call this kind of commercial a "mini-movie." They put the person he's talking to on the phone in another house, actually on the phone! The tension mounted in me, the entire crew, and all eyes were on Zakary ready to make a sad, dramatic phone call. I held my breath as soon as I heard "action." Then, my body felt like it was melting butter as I watched this sad, little boy looking for his mommy. When he hung up the phone, the house erupted in applause. You could feel the tension lift, and that any reservations about the tired American kid were gone. He nailed it. He did it two more times, each ending in same applause (which was so sweet) and then they did one pick up shot. Client came running down, looked at the directors monitor, they spoke some Chinese and then crew started packing up. The camera man came over to me and said, in very broken English, "Uhhh, uhhh, he is very, very amazing." They got a huge scene in 3.5 shots and you could see the relief on everyone's face. We gave Zak the bug zapper, they set up one more quick shot with another balloon and then we were in the van and on our way back to hotel. Without anyone saying many words...I could sense the happiness. When Maggie got in the car, I looked at her and she had an ear-to-ear grin and just said, "They are very happy."
Zak fell asleep at 8:00pm on the 15 min drive to hotel, and all was right with the universe. I was right behind him. It's that relief you feel when the hurry-up-and-wait is over. We each got a good night's sleep although still up at 5:00am so I suppose we will never really adjust before we have to go home. Today is shoot day #2. It's a short day that now that they know Zak gets it, I'm sure everyone is confident it will go smoothly, as the hardest part of it all is over.
Travel Log #5: Wow, what a day. We were picked up at 10am for the 2nd and last shoot day. Production was running a little behind and I noticed we had a 15 minute window to say, stop at Starbucks? I've had the same green tea and little cups of bland, black coffee here. I had to see what happened in one here. I was able to get Zak a grande blended vanilla like home, and it took an uncomfortably long time for our assistant to explain that I wanted a venti iced tea shaken, and to throw a shot of espresso in it. Our barista Eva kept looking at me and speaking Mandarin to assistant Jessica who would translate and I kept smiling and shaking my head that yes, indeed, this is what I want. The fare for both drinks was about $6.00 US. I was taken with the concept of reasonably priced Starbucks. Then she hands us our drinks. Their "grande" is the same as tall (or small) at home, and a venti isn't even as big as a grande (medium) at home. Once again, I feel a reminder we have issues with supersizing everything in the U.S. and that both of us were completely satisfied with what we got.
We arrived to a building that was like a community center. They dressed a police station, and the other character in this little mini-movie commercial is being shot talking to Zak's character on the phone. I'm once again blown away that Zak is now being the "support" for a 55 year-old actor, placed in another room and doing a scene off camera for the guy. It was awesome. After tech delays...they finish the scene in a few takes, and we are on the move, around the corner back to the mosquito house. Thankfully, it was early and we weren't seeing any flying friends yet.
Zak is immediately set up with his microphone pack and we shoot his scene and then they start rushing around setting up things we didn't see in the script. He then shot a bunch more things of making little cards and the crew would zip so fast to a new shot or location indoor or out and wardrobe would quick change Zak. I've never seen such efficient camera, grip and boom people. They would almost run. Zak would get everything in one take or two, and a sudden chorus of Mandarin and scrambling would happen. After what seemed like a million shots, the big "moment" of the piece was getting set up. It involved several officers, a motorcade of motorcycles and a police car, and was the tough shot. It went as smoothly as everything else, and I'm really curious to see how it comes out.
Zak says good-bye to the crew and the entire creative agency and takes photos and passes out his business card to them. The lady that spoke English well from the agency asked, "Zak, do you like Taiwan?" He replied, "Yes! I do. It is pretty cool." She said, "Oh good, because we will be having you back." She smiled and shook my hand American style, and said, "Can't wait to see you both again." They gave him a little gift of an Avengers toy that he's so taken with he's playing with it as I write this.
Zak and I wait in the air conditioned van with no bugs while they all pack up. We are then on a traffic filled adventure back to Taipei and the sky opened up and a monsoon rain started coming down. How this production got so lucky to avoid this was a miracle. We checked back into our same hotel in Taipei and crashed. I think I have a good plan for our last day in Taipei. We are leaving tonight, but have some time to play today and you know I'm going to treat this kid to something after the most amazing two and a half days of work.
Travel Log #6, Last Day: We woke up thinking we were going to take the MRT to the Taipei Zoo. This plan was immediately changed in that one, rain was coming down pretty hard and two, several exhibits were closed the first Monday of each month. Thanks to one of the guys on set the day before, I learned of a place called "Flip Out." It's an indoor trampoline place, and as soon as I whispered the word trampoline...Zak had forgotten about the zoo. We didn't have a driver until airport pick up time, so I knew I'd have to figure things out tourist style.
I had the front desk translate the two addresses we wanted to hit so I could just hand to a cab driver. Cabs are easy to come by in Taipei, many of them nice Prius or similar, and hopefully you get a non-smoker. Cab fare was super cheap and their cab system was regulated. He dropped us off 15 minutes away, the fare was less than 5 dollars, and he gestured a couple of turn left and go down gestures while speaking Mandarin the whole time. I smiled, grabbed Zak's had, and down an alley we walked. It was a busy alley bustling with businesses and people opening up their cafes and such, but it felt a little weird. I was holding my breath and imagined this is what people have in their mind... a mother wandering Taiwan with her little blonde son on some kind of shady street and it turns into a movie of the week. But it wasn't shady and people would smile and nod and one even pointed the direction as she suspected where we were going. We found the sign for Flip Out, and took an escalator down to a strange underground situation below a grocery store. It was like a portal to another world. Within a few minutes, Zak and I were jumping and flying and as he said, "LITERALLY bouncing off the walls!" We had one hour of crazy fun jump time. We had the whole place to ourselves because it was a school day. I thought he might be disappointed to not have other kids to jump with but a couple staff members would come in and save me and jump with him. It was crazy fun. They had a little cafe, so he got a hot dog and some water and we were ready to move on. The place in general was a little ratchet, bathrooms less than sanitary and some little repairs needing attention. None of it stopped us from having a blast.
I handed a new cab driver another address translated in Chinese and we were dropped off at the Main Bus Station in Taipei. Down escalators we go again to our second underground wonderland! It is here we were finally able to find some souvenirs and toys. They aren't swarming with Taiwan t-shirts etc, but we managed to find what we were looking for at a price we could afford. The first day in Taipei, in a sidewalk shop, Zak had spotted a large stuffed Minion, (Bob) that he said he desperately wanted. Not only did we find many souvenir treasures at the Bus Station, but Bob was sitting on a high shelf in one store for 8 dollars US. Zak was beaming. You would have thought I had just bought him a pony.
One last cab ride back to hotel, 3 for 3 on nice cabbies and fair prices and nothing scary. We then sat in the lobby of our hotel waiting for our driver. When he arrived, fellow actor Kit, and Maggie our angel got in as well. Maggie was going back to Hong Kong. Without a doubt, the best part of the Taipei airport is their free massage chairs. Once our flight took off, Zak said gleefully, "Mom that was so much fun." My heart swelled as it seemed he really understood the gravity of everything involved. He was delighted to find Inside Out on the plane tv monitor, watched it and crashed. He slept through the night on the plane in some hilarious positions. My favorite being knees on the floor, upper body and arms and head laying on the seat. I so wished I could have done the same.
Customs was awesome. Zak made a passport for Bob, on the plane. When we arrived, not only did the immigration officer stamp our paperwork, but she was kind enough to have a conversation with Zak about Bob, check his passport and give him a stamp.
It was an extraordinary experience that we will never forget. It was like traveling to a foreign country with a unicorn. People couldn't believe what they were looking at and he seemed to ooze sparkle and rainbows and positive energy to everyone he met. I'm tired, but not in a bad way. I am feeling grateful for it all.
If you would like to see the mini-movie: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CNGZyGi9Vz8