"So what is this? A meet-and-greet?" I asked my brother yesterday as we walked past shoppers with purses worth more than my car.
"I think so. I couldn't get the details to download to the app, so I don't know for sure, but I think he's just taking pictures with people."
"And.... remind me who this guy is again?"
"Jason Chen. He's a well-known singer on YouTube. I love his stuff. He totally inspired me to make YouTube videos."
It turns out, it was NOT just a meet-and-greet.
The setting? South Coast Plaza -- the wealthiest mall in the United States, bringing in more revenue annually than any other mall across the country. The kind of place where a single shoe comes with its own display wall and payment plan.
And naturally, two sweaty runners wearing medals and race bibs over Walmart-brand tech clothes blended right in.
Not so much.
The target destination of this supposed meet and greet was apparently the indoor carousel plaza at 3 o'clock. It was 2:57.
I had never heard of Jason Chen, but being a stellarly supportive sister, I was happy to play paparazzi for my brother as he met one of his idols right after we finished running a 10K. James was only in town for the weekend, so why not make the most out of his trip?
"So, after you get a picture with him, wanna go grab a bite--"
We stopped dead in our tracks. Next to the mall's carousel was a timid teenage girl standing on a stage and singing into a microphone, intently watched by a crowd of dark-haired audience members.
In front of the stage was a table and three seated judges facing the stage. The girl finished her song.
"You need to get more practice," one judge said to the terrified teenager.
"That's him!" James pointed.
I looked around. Nearly everyone in the vicinity was Asian. I looked at the stage backdrop and recognized Chinese characters printed all over it.
When I say "recognized," I mean I could tell the printed letters were not from an American alphabet, which makes them Chinese.
"What is this?" I asked. "Some kind of Chinese Idol?"
That's exactly what it was.
My brother, who is fluent in Mandarin after serving a 2-year Chinese mission for the LDS Church, also happens to have some ridiculously amazing pipes.
I smirked and picked up an application from the check-in table and showed it to my brother. "Any interest?"
A short Asian lady with purple hair streaks, a hip pink netted outfit and blingy spider jewelry rushed over to us.
"We're not taking anymore applicants."
"Really?" I asked. "Cuz this white guy speaks fluent Mandarin."
Her eyes lit up, and within T-minus no seconds, James and pink spider lady were exchanging enthusiastic Mandarin as a microphone was placed in his hands and he was thrust on stage.
Still wearing his race medal and sweaty clothes, James charmed the judges with a Chinese introduction and then belted out an impromptu and frankly impressive-even-for-a-non-relative a capella rendition of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."
Jason Chen was impressed, and even pulled out his own personal camera to capture the moment.
|My brother -- randomly thrown into the Chinese TV singing competition, "2015 Top Idol" after winning a Los Angeles 10K.|
The crowd and judges loved James, and I was soon chasing him around as he was whisked to photo shoots and Mandarin media interviews.
|Interviewed by ETTV - a Chinese TV station that does not come on my Time Warner Cable channel list.|
After another round of singing where James literally had to learn some Chinese lyrics in four minutes (thank you, Google), six semi-finalists were chosen to move on to another competition round in LA on August 1st.
James was one of them.
I spent this whole entire time cheering and laughing my head off.
|James with the 6 semi-finalists, and the 3 judges (in the middle).|
It turns out that this was one of four audition cities in the US for a show that airs on a Chinese television station called ETTV. We had coincidentally and accidentally arrived at the tail end of the audition (which apparently began at 2pm), and my brother just happened to speak Mandarin and just happened to be a talented singer. Apparently the competition ends in mid-August and the winner gets $10,000. The next round is August 1st, which means James gets to come back to California and visit me again!
And would you believe -- this is NOT the FIRST time something like this has happened?
When James was studying abroad in China a couple years ago, he was walking through a mall and came across a singing audition, so he walked in. A few hours later he ended up on the Chinese version of "The Voice." He was eventually cut at the fifth round weeks later when he didn't know enough Chinese songs.
|James on "The Voice of China" in 2013.|
Another time, my family was on a cruise ship in Hawaii, when James disappeared for a couple hours. He eventually came back to our room with a trophy in his hand, and said he stumbled upon the ship's singing competition while he was looking for a quiet place to read, so he entered and won. We all just laughed.
When it came to yesterday's coincidental what-the-heck-fest, James was just super stoked to meet one of his heroes, Jason Chen. He was all the more excited when Jason leaned over to him and said "I hope you win."
|My brother James (right) with one of his YouTube heroes, Jason Cheng.|
I shook Jason's hand, but since I'm not an ABC (American Born Chinese), nor a random white runner who served a church mission in the Chinese-speaking part of Australia, he was like any other dude I might meet at an Orange County mall.
Though since yesterday, James has been Chrome-casting Jason music videos on my living room TV, so I clearly know who he is now, whether or not I wanted to. And I'll even admit, the guy's got some skill.
Oh, and that 10K James and I ran in the morning? James won that, too. 1st place, overall.
|Approaching the finish line in first place, overall.|
Not a bad day.
I got 2nd place overall in women's (random uncomfortable "me" insert). It helped that only 31 women ran the 10K.
|My brother and me after the Summer Fun 10K in Van Nuys, CA.|
And of course, his trip to California wouldn't be complete without a stop by the Santa Monica Pier, complete with a crab omelette breakfast at Bubba Gump's, and burning $8 each for a ride on the so-pathetic-it's-awesome roller coaster.
Amidst all the fun, the random "Top Idol" singing competition continues to be the laugh of the weekend.
After James sang and we exchanged phone numbers with some of the enthusiastic TV crew, we walked back through the ritzy mall, passing people with more plastic in their faces than in their houses.
"What the heck just happened?" I asked.
"I have no idea."
"So you coming back on August 1st?"
"I guess so."
"Cool. Wanna get some pizza?"
So we did.