Black Belt, Raging Sea
Joy: Do you remember me? Do you remember all of the dreams we shared? Do you remember June 21st, 1995?
You arrived to the US with $3,000 to your name, two suitcases and your sixteen year old sister. You enrolled her in high-school. Still a virgin, you became a single parent at age seventeen on the flight from Bulgaria. Remember visiting Bruce Lee's grave in Seattle? Remember how at the end of June you could see your breath in the air and you wondered, "Why is it so cold here?" Remember the 4th of July? The helicopters flying low. The American flags blanketing the cheering crowd that would become your new family?
Bogdan: I do, but I don't remember you until later. I remember that the money ran out very fast.
Joy: What happened?
Bogdan: My dad would always tell me, "Son, wherever you go in the world, find a martial arts studio. Start taking classes and you'll make many friends."
By late August the money was all but gone. My father's voice directed me to a martial arts studio nearby. The teacher gave me one swift look and said, "With these long legs you will win lots of competitions." I thanked him for his time and walked away. He couldn't have known about my years of martial arts training before immigrating.
Back in Greece where I had lived for three years before coming to America, I had already won more than a few competitions, drawing twice and losing once. One day, in the middle of a heated sparring match with a young man I stopped my sidekick an inch from his face. In such moments, before hitting the target, the world quits spinning. I imagine it is true for painters too, before their brush delivers the final stroke on a canvas that is far from blank. And for soldiers, before they pull the trigger of no return on a life that is also far from blank. We make our greatest and gravest choices in a split of a breath. On the edge of rising and falling actions. But only heightened awareness gives us control over our choices. You become one with the kick, you deliver the blow, but you also receive the same blow. The discipline of martial arts reveals itself to you in all of its ancient brilliance. For me, it was a turning point where I couldn't justify any more fighting. Though I had won against opponents with higher degree black belts, and would certainly enjoy a very promising future, I shared my choice with my teacher. I stopped competing altogether.
Joy: And instead of competing against others you turned to competing against yourself? Even though you don't remember me clearly, I've known you all of your life. I've witnessed firsthand your competitive nature deliver you unfathomable victories, but it has also proven to be your downfall.
Bogdan: Yes, the greatest victory won so far has been the one of surviving the unknown at age seventeen all on my own. But martial arts gave me unparalleled confidence. Martial arts were the first set of skills which I explored and excelled in. The discipline in showing up proved to me that I can be more than a ghost walking this life. I can craft my own trajectory. But while martial arts gave me an impenetrable armor to press on with, it was my love for making movies that I credit most for showing me the way through the void. That boyhood dream, the imagined wins at the Oscars, kept me focused.
Joy: You haven't made it to the Oscars. Is it that important now?
Bogdan: No. But at seventeen, it served its purpose. Yet the ambition to make it at any cost robbed me of the possibility to experience joy. Everyone I met was somehow supposed to advance me in my career, to help me make it in Hollywood. My mind was poisoned turning me into quite a bitter and arrogant young man.
"Success" sounds like a snake hissing, doesn't it? SSSSSuc-SSSSSeSSSSS - here comes the snake coiling around a point of view that is far too subjective. Caught by the constricting presence of the snake we give up and allow the status quo to choke us into passive submission. But try convincing a seventeen year old immigrant boy of the wisdom in humbled objectivity. Try telling a young stallion, unbridled in his desires, to stand still and observe phantom-reality so he could restructure the molecules of its outcome. As we know, life is far from black and white. Life is full of so many stories so intricately woven that we owe it to one another, and especially to our children, to talk about and fiercely dive into the gray.
Joy: Did you meet your benefactor at the martial arts studio?
Bogdan: I did at the second martial arts studio I visited. He owned a fast food teriyaki restaurant. A kind man who became a friend and taught me a memorable lesson a year later when he saw me in a foul mood. After I explained my ills he advised me, "You know I really care for you, Bogdan. Don't let self-pity overcome you or it will make your life miserable."
When I went in to interview for the job he wrote on a piece of paper the number $1,300 - my salary for a month's work. For a teenager coming from Bulgaria that number was like winning the lottery. Thanks to a father's advice to his children, in less than a couple of months after arriving, I boasted a job. My first paycheck bought me martial arts gear from Chinatown. I worked with Chinese immigrants Ping and Fang who explained to me that chicken tasted a lot like snake. For days after days I pulled out raw chicken from large metal sinks with freezing water, separated them piece by piece to cut the fat off. My hands stunk of chicken and to this day I get sick from the smell and idea of eating chicken. To marinate the beef my boss emptied a bucket of soy sauce and mixed it in with an entire bag of white sugar. I didn't think much of it then, but the day is coming when dumping so much sugar in our diet will be a punishable sin. It took just a few months for my new phantom-reality to settle in. I was getting paid the minimum wage of $5 an hour and worked sixty five hours a week. I barely found time to train or to write screenplays. I did compose poetry which I mailed to my mother. Poetry so disturbing that it left my poor mom back in Bulgaria asking herself, "What is happening to my baby boy?"
Joy: I just realized that in those twenty five years you have never allowed yourself to try writing for a living. Let alone allocate the time to write.
Bogdan: I didn't. And then, you turn forty two and you ask yourself, "What happened?" And unless you crush the question in your honest fist, another twenty five years will go by and you will be sixty seven. Time will bring down its hand, sharp as an axe, closer to your neck, and you will become a bitter old man angry at the world and those you love the most. When in reality, the old man is weighed down by sorrow and regret that he never watered and nourished his dreams properly.
Joy: But you were cast in a foreign sea and asked to make a boat and sail an uncharted course. You can't be so hard on yourself. A year and a half later your tourist visa expired and you became an illegal immigrant at age nineteen.
Bogdan: I became a prisoner of my own obsession to make movies.
Joy: And was there a lighthouse in this raging sea of uncertainty?
Bogdan: Yes, there was. It was waiting for me in the eyes of Ann, my first acting teacher.