An American aspires to build a cultural bridge across the Pacific through art
By Li Nan  ·  2022-03-09  ·   Source: NO.10 MARCH 10, 2022

James Holt realized both his own and his grandmother's long-cherished visions the day he got his visa stamp to come to China seven years ago.

Holt's grandma, Kay Engel, was a medic who wanted to go to China to help injured soldiers and civilians during World War II, but she was sent to Italy instead. "My grandma's favorite food is Chinese, so she cooked Chinese food as much as she could to pretend that she was there," Holt told Beijing Review.

She taught her grandchildren how to use chopsticks to eat her Chinese dishes. "She made us click our chopsticks 100 times in a row when we were little. It would make the food taste even better," Holt said. He is the first in his family to have set foot on Chinese soil—on August 16, 2014.

Holt copied some of his grandmother's recipes before embarking on his journey. "She posted her recipes on Facebook, waiting for 'likes'," Holt said.

But when he arrived in Beijing, Holt was surprised by the number of foreign restaurants in the city. Nonetheless, he made a deal with himself: "I'm not eating any foreign food for the first two years."

James Holt stars in his play Always and Forever: My Book and I in Beijing on February 22 (YIN KANG)

Drama matters

Like most foreigners from English-speaking countries, Holt's first job in China was teaching English in training centers and middle school. Since November 2021, he has been a teacher at New Channel, a Beijing-based language training institute. "I teach them theater," he said.

Holt was very shy as a kid. In the first grade, he was invited to "star" in Romeo and Juliet. He declined. But his teacher insisted on giving him the biggest part. "He gave me the power to empower myself," Holt explained. He wanted to pass on that same feeling his elementary school teacher did. So he studied theater and education at Evergreen State College, the U.S., and then ventured out to Asia; first the Republic of Korea, then China.

"Teaching theater and public speaking in China is wonderful," he said. Training aside, he and his colleagues also adapt Chinese stories, like The Monkey King, into English screenplays for students. "Children really want to be as dramatic as possible instead of just reciting the words," he said.

But teaching is not all it's cracked up to be. "The biggest challenge is to get the introverted kids—or adults—to speak up," Holt added. Making the shyest kid the director is one of his methods to build them up. And the change within them becomes palpable: Students who'd barely utter a word before end up being the loudest person in the room. "I love to see that turnaround," Holt said.

His future plan is to get as many children as possible to feel more empowered, and "have theater be a little bridge" between China and other countries.

Art makes for a universal conversation starter. Although there are disagreements and frictions in economic and trade areas between China and the U.S., people from both countries can get along through art. "I think it's a really powerful thing that we can all share," he said.

Life in Beijing

Holt didn't leave China when the coronavirus first struck. "China's COVID-19 measures have been wonderful. Most people here are wearing masks; everybody's really looking out for one another," he said. "I'm just blessed to be here."

For him, not wearing a mask during a pandemic doesn't make any sense. "Wearing a mask just seems like a pretty basic thing to do to help yourself and others by reducing the risk of infection," Holt said.

During the pandemic, Holt first taught online for a period of time and tried to create better theater curriculums. "I think the pandemic really helped people refocus on what's important to them. That's kind of the silver lining," he said.

He further wrote a script and staged his original comedy Always and Forever: My Book and I on February 22. It's about life in Beijing during COVID-19 and how, in the end, everyone came out stronger. "I hope it can reach people and help them deal with loneliness during pandemic times," Holt said.

Over 100 people came to see his comedy at a bar in east downtown Beijing. Musab Abdikadir from Somalia was one of them. "It's about quarantining, an experience we've all shared. The way they perform, the book, Holt himself, and his inner voice, were fantastic. I laughed at the beginning and almost cried at the end," the 25-year-old told Beijing Review. He is an international student majoring in ethnology at Beijing's Minzu University.

Holt's life has been back on track ever since China gained control over the pandemic. "Now we're really just looking around, looking at each other, just trying to make something beautiful," he said. He also joined a Beijing writer collective. "We have a storytelling night and a poetry night. Everyone can attend and just read what they've jotted down," he said. Men and women, Chinese and foreign; they all gather every week to create some art and try to help each other, he added.

Putting down roots

When Holt moved to China, his family was concerned about Beijing's air quality. Today, they can feel at ease because every year since Holt's arrival, the air has improved.

Beijing stepped up its fight against air pollution in 1998. Many factories were either shut down or relocated outside the capital to improve its ecological environment. The efforts have paid off. Beijing witnessed 288 days of good air quality last year, up 112 days from 2013, the year before Holt came to the city. "This is the bluest-sky winter I've seen in seven years. That means the environment is getting better. I would like to live here forever," he said.

The cheap and swift public transportation is another reason for him to stay. "The subway system in Beijing is amazing. For over 20 million people, it's a very fluent city," he said. When he was living in Seattle, a city with rolling hills and cars zooming about, he had to spend much more money on transportation.

Convenient online shopping services and food delivery also add to the appeal. "You can get anything anytime. If you're really sick, too sick to walk down the street, you can just get your medication delivered. That's really handy," he said.

Now, Holt has a new dream: to obtain a Chinese green card. "Instead of applying for a new residence permit every year, I would love to get a permanent residence. That's my dream," he said.

(Print Edition Title: Living the Dream) 

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon

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