Ema Stoian has come to see snow as an omen on her journey to China.
Six years ago, as she was mailing out her application for a master’s program at Beijing Film Academy, the first snow of the season fell on Bucharest, Romania’s capital, where she was living.
Stoian, a Christian, asked God, “Do you trust me enough to offer me such a present?”
Stoian grew up in Bârlad, a small city in eastern Romania. She was the daughter of an Orthodox priest and a chemistry teacher. As a child, she strived to impress her parents with her academic results and got into the habit of choosing the most difficult path.
She studied directing in college, and by her sophomore year she was working as an assistant director of live shows on a national TV station and had assisted in the production of a feature-length movie.
But the global financial crisis shook the Eastern European country, and Romania’s economy dipped by 7.2 percent in 2009. Stoian’s colleagues were losing their jobs, and prospects were looking bleak.
“So what do you do in a recession?” Stoian says. “I decided I was going to leave the country. I wanted to give Romania enough time to get back on its feet. And while I was going to be away, I would manage to fill my gaps, read, watch the movies I hadn’t watched. I knew I was done with TV, so I said, OK, I’ll give myself an opportunity to make movies.”
Thousands of youth fled Romania around that time, discouraged by the lack of prospects and lured by better jobs in the EU, which the country had recently joined. But Stoian didn’t want to go to Europe. She already spoke Italian, French, Spanish and English, and wanted something more challenging. She sought a country with abundant opportunities and an affordable cost of living.
She remembered one of the professors in her master’s program in communications had told students to start looking toward China. So despite her hesitations, she applied for a scholarship offered through a bilateral agreement between Romania and China. She was accepted to the school that was her first choice: Beijing Film Academy.
The Ugly Duckling
Stoian arrived in Beijing in the fall of 2010 and spent two years studying Chinese. She also took a part-time job at an English-language kindergarten and started setting up the China chapter of the Romanian Students Studying Abroad League, an organization that has branches across the world. Stoian has led the Chinese chapter for five years.
After she passed the language exam and was preparing for BFA’s admission exam, the school announced it wasn’t going to make the film directing emphasis available to international students that year. Stoian was rattled. She contacted her embassy and asked to speak to the university president but ended up in a hopeless fight with the secretary. She sent countless letters until the school agreed to reopen the section to international students.
It was the season’s first snow in December 2011 when Stoian received a phone call telling her to meet with Professor Wang Rui, who had agreed to become her coordinator. That same day, her mother called to tell her one of her Romanian mentors had died.
Stoian was the only foreigner in her class of eight students. All her work was done in Mandarin. Her colleagues and professors were caring and helpful, but they also made her feel like the ugly duckling – misplaced, and incapable of having the same experience and understanding of Chinese culture and cinema as her Chinese colleagues.
“The big duck was the professor, who was beautiful and perfect, with the other perfect ducklings lined behind him,” Stoian says. “And I was the big, ugly duckling who had nothing to do with the rest. They would tell me, ‘You are not like us.’ ‘Yes, I’m like you! I’m just like you, and I feel like you and think like you, and it’s exactly like you say, and I resonate with this in the same way.’ But they said no, no, and they just looked at me.”
Stoian was constantly reminded she couldn’t fully understand Chinese culture, and was encouraged to make movies about what she knew. She says the same kind of rigidity applies to Chinese as well: A Beijing director can only make a movie about Beijing, not a place like Xinjiang, and vice versa.
Her capstone movie was a short film called Together (Zai Yiqi), about a Romanian student in China who misses the plane that was supposed to take her home on New Year’s Eve. The movie was among a select few to receive financing from the school and was shortlisted at the Berlin International Film Festival.
Stoian says it’s taken her two years to discover China’s essence, described as beauty, philosophy and love for quality and tradition. She has decided to pursue her Ph. D in Beijing as well, where she’ll study the portrayal of Westerners in Chinese movies.
She often misses Romania, but her adjustment periods to China are now quicker and more comfortable. She feels welcome here, like the time when a 3-year-old boy at the kindergarten where she teaches, came to her after an absence.
“Where have you been?” he asked her. “I’ve missed you.” The boy’s name was Snow.