The weirdest thing happened to me. Then it got even weirder. Then it turned insane.
I’ve broken this story up into three chapters. It should never have gone this far, but the internet works in mysterious ways. None of this should have happened. It makes no sense at all, but then again, maybe it does.
Long, Long Ago, In January Of 2014
THE STORY BEGINS when I was in the East Village at my favorite bar, EVS. Please, don’t start going there, because it’s my bar and it’s impossible to find a not crowded bar in New York City with a good happy hour. So yeah, don’t go there.
Anyway, it’s like February 2014 and I’m out drinking my $20 happy hour bottle of wine when someone comes into the bar and takes my phone off the table. Honestly, it’s genius. I applaud the person who took my phone. I bet he stole 20 phones that night. It’s the perfect place to steal phones. Bravo. Genius.
Anyway, I call my phone and it goes straight to voicemail: the international sign of death. I knew I was never seeing my phone again.
About a year later…
I’m sitting on my couch with some friends going through my photo stream on my new phone. That’s when I see a ton of pictures I didn’t take, there are about 20 selfies of some dude and an orange tree. Hilarious and scary.
I obviously freak out, show everyone the pictures, and for an hour we all speculate about what is going on with my phone. We come up with a bunch of theories that basically revolve around crossing iCloud photo streams, North Korea hackings, and hauntings. Maybe my phone is possessed.
For a month, this orange man’s pictures keep on showing up on my phone. I start to get used to the daily photo updates, and it becomes fun for me to check my phone and see this guy’s pictures.
Some of the pictures that showed up on my phone included hundreds of pictures of fireworks. There were also tiny little hands…
I don’t really do anything about these mystery photos until I talk to a friend of mine and he asks me if I lost a phone recently. He says that my phone is in China. That’s where most stolen iPhones end up.
Boom. Story solved. My stolen iPhone is in China and this man is still logged into my iCloud.
I go to the Apple Store and sure enough, my old iPhone is online. I delete the phone. The man who has my phone cannot use it anymore.
I’m relieved and happy that I solved the mystery. I thought the story was over.
Then I become famous.
I made a post on BuzzFeed and called it “Who Is This Man And Why Are His Pictures Showing Up On My Phone?” I publish. That’s it.
Within hours, I’m getting tweets from people in China. The story has been translated and put on Weibo, which is like a Chinese Twitter. It’s blowing up. They are helping me find orange tree man.
I become the biggest topic in China.
I am bombarded with tweets that say I am famous there.
Hours later they find the orange tree man.
Meanwhile, I join Weibo. After day 1 I had 50,000 followers. Within a week, I had more than 100,000.
This is where I am introduced to Brother Orange.
Chinese Twitter has given the man who had my phone the name Brother Orange. In Chinese culture, brother is a term of respect. A brother is a really good friend. The orange part comes from the selfies. Chinese Twitter loved them too.
Brother Orange and I exchange messages for weeks. He invites me to visit him, and so I set the date for March 18th. The Chinese Internet has been watching.
He accepts, and I start showing parts of my American life to Weibo.
A bunch of people ask me to teach them English. I start making videos.
I get thousands of comments calling me a “doubi.” It means something similar to Mr. Bean. I embrace it, and eventually it even follows me to China.
I keep talking to Bro Orange on Weibo every day. We actually have fans.
I have to travel through four different airports to get to where I need to be.
Brother Orange’s hometown is called Meizhou, in southern China. Most people have never heard of it, even the chinese. There are 4.5 million people there. That would mean it’s larger than Los Angeles. Go figure. That’s so China.
The flight to Brother Orange’s hometown is long. I have to go to Beijing first, then to Shantou, and finally a 1.5-hour car drive to Meizhou. That’s about 20 hours of travel. A friend of Brother Orange is supposed to pick us up at the airport.
ALSO, I canceled all of our hotel reservations the night before. Brother Orange said he had everything planned. I’m going into this completely blind.
Brother Orange posts this picture while I’m at the airport. WHAT?!
The trip is pretty uneventful until the flight from Beijing to Shantou. I have my first fan interaction on that flight.
This woman comes up to me and surprisingly says, “Matt? OMG.” I smile and say hello, then she returns to her seat.
Mid-flight I’m trying to sleep and she taps me on my arm. She drops off a note. It’s super sweet. She signs it “your Chinese fan.”
The flight is about three hours.
I get off, still with a buzz of excitement over being noticed on the plane. I have no idea about the insanity that’s just ahead of me.
When I make it down the escalator of the airport, camera flashes start going off.
I princess-wave to a crowd of cameras and fans.
I had no idea Brother Orange was going to be at the airport.
It was a mob scene.
Our meeting is so quick and crazy I barely remember any of it. It’s scary being bombarded by cameras! I finally understand what it’s like to be Kim K leaving LAX.
I get rushed into a car with Brother Orange’s face on it. It’s amazing.
I have a total “celeb in a car moment” as photographers swarm it. It’s pure insanity. We take off for the hotel, which is about an hour and a half away.
Bro gives me back my iPhone. I notice a small dent that I made from this one time I dropped it. It’s so weird.
Bro Orange and I start talking through our translators.
First topic of conversation: my phone.
- My phone ended up in Hong Kong, which is where most stolen phones start out. From Hong Kong it went to Shenzhen, the largest secondhand cell phone market in the world
- Brother Orange’s cousin bought my cell phone and gave it to him as a gift. So my phone went New York —> Hong Kong —> Shenzhen —> Meizhou.
- When Brother Orange got the phone, all of my pictures were still on it. The guy who stole my phone didn’t even delete them. There were also pictures of the thief. What a jerk.
- Brother Orange got the phone in August. Weird thing is, his pictures didn’t start showing up on my new phone until late January.
- The pictures I was taking on my new phone were also showing up on Brother Orange’s phone. So weird. He just kept on deleting them. I immediately start thinking about the pictures on my phone. What did he see?!?! Awkward.
We get back to the hotel and it’s straight-up TMZ. There are three cameramen waiting in the lobby. It’s kind of unsettling.
WHAT IS HAPPENING?!
I go to sleep.
Someone knocks on my door early and tells me to pack all my stuff up. We’re only staying in this hotel for one night. This becomes a trend. I have no idea what we’re doing today. This also becomes a trend.
We take some pictures with the hotel staff and then head off to the restaurant Brother Orange owns in Wuhua County, which is a really “small town” of 1.5 million people. That’s the size of Philadelphia. Honestly.
Brother Orange’s restaurant is on a river, and really big. He has literally renamed his restaurant “Brother Orange’s.”
We pull into his restaurant and our car is immediately swarmed by tons of cameras. I brace myself for my big moment and leave the car. Brother Orange greets me and we pose awkwardly for about five minutes until we get shuffled inside for some interviews over tea.
This is again, like the airport, insane.
Over tea, I answer the same questions over and over about what I think about China and the food and blah blah blah. Now I understand why Madonna gets pissed when she gets asked the same question multiple times. It’s all so reductive. I’VE ALREADY ANSWERED THAT FIVE TIMES.
What is the fame doing to me lol?
After about 20 minutes of interviews, we are shuffled outside to plant an orange tree to symbolize our Chinese-American friendship.
The Chinese/America thing would be a big theme throughout this trip. America and China haven’t exactly had the best history, and I think this was a way for both of us to be like, “We’re cool with each other.”
Then it is time for lunch…with 20 cameras in my face.
This is my lunchtime view.
There are probably 15,000 unflattering photos of me eating now. No one looks good when they eat.
Also, you have to realize, this entire time I’m eating food I’m not used to eating because it’s real Chinese food! In the picture below, I’m actually eating raw fish. I probably shouldn’t have eaten raw fish, but whatever. It’s a local dish called Hakka sashimi and it was delicious.
I realize now I need to come up with better adjectives besides “delicious” when doing interviews about food. I probably say “the food is delicious” hundreds of times over the course of the week.
I also meet Brother Orange’s entire family. He has four kids and a very nice wife, cousins, uncles, sisters, and brothers. I immediately and genuinely feel welcomed into the family.
Lunch is over; we take a few selfies in front of the ACTUAL orange tree from his original selfies and jump into the car.
I find out his daughter was the one who took most of the pictures that were showing up on my phone. That explains the tiny hands.
We make a quick stop at a famous soccer player’s house. In case you’re wondering, we’re wearing matching shirts because we thought it’d be cute.
The soccer player’s house is beautiful and airy.
Unfortunately, one of the cameramen slipped and hurt themselves pretty badly trying to get a shot of me. It’s pretty competitive.
After the soccer player’s house, we went to a stone carving place, where I chiseled into a giant stone goat. For some reason they let me do this.
I start to feel like a politician making the local business rounds with my press pool. It’s weird.
I endorse everything.
I also get good at taking selfies.
Finally, we end up at our last stop of the day, a resort with MUD BATHS.
Bro Orange and I take a mud bath with 25 reporters watching us. It’s pretty intimate and very, very weird.
The mud bath is when we really start to bond. Even though we don’t speak the same language, we still talk a lot. He’s always showing me things and teaching me something about where we are.
We also develop a bond over the madness that’s happening around us. As crazy as it sounds, a mutual understanding of the spotlight can quickly bring you close together.
We become a team.
Dinner that night consists of lots of shots and sweet wine. The Chinese do this thing where they only drink when you cheers, and we’re constantly cheers’ing.
Dinner is where I really get to know Bro Orange. Dude loves to eat and he eats everything. He’s always filling my plate like an Italian grandmother on speed.
We drink tea and go to sleep.
We wake up early and pack our stuff
Today, we have a press conference, but first we stop at a cell phone store.
The cell phone store is crazy. I’m bombarded by photographers and fans taking pictures. They give me a cell phone to use for the remainder of my time in China. At one point, I had five phones on me in China. People just kept giving me phones.
Then we go to the press conference.
It is in a hotel. And it is big-time.
The press conference is completely legit. Like Britney Spears in Mexico for the first time legit.
People cheer when I walk in. Cameras start flashing. There are people with “I love Matt” signs.
DO YOU SEE THAT BACKDROP!??!
It’s at that moment I decide to drop my last name. From now on, I’m just “Matt.” Madonna, Beyoncé, Britney, Kesha, and Matt. It just works.
Highlights from the press conference:
- Whenever I speak in Chinese, everyone cheers.
- Whenever I say anything, people cheer.
- My fans are there. One of them is in a wheelchair. She says that she never gets to leave the house but is there today to see me. She asks me to dance, so I do. I awkwardly dance in front of everyone to Katy Perry’s “Roar.”
- I try to wake myself up. How is this really happening?
The press conference is over. We leave for the hotel and our two cars and a bus now has my face on them. cool.
Lunch that day is pretty much the same. I endorse a local liquor by accident. During my trip I would pose with different products, never knowing what was going on. Endorse it all!
I also endorse these babies. I am a full-fledged politician.
We finish lunch and check in to the hotel. I sign autographs. By now, I sign every autograph “You rock, never change.” That’s my signature saying.
We get a tour of the hotel and find these AMAZING engagement photo studio sets. There are a dozen couples in full-on bridal gear getting their pictures taken on a dozen different sets.
It is the coolest thing ever.
Brother Orange and I take pictures on all the sets. We even steal a veil from a super-pissed-off bride. It’s hilarious.
This is when I realize just how cool and funny Bro Orange is. The fact that he can have fun running around taking engagement photos with me is amazing.
The rest of the say we tour the hotel. They dress me up like a traditional Chinese girl and make me smash tea. It’s fun and so is Brother Orange.
I’m realizing the language and cultural barriers aren’t such a big thing anymore. It’s 2015 and this is the world we live in.
Before this photo was taken, we each wrote a wish on a red ribbon and tied it to a tree. We both wished that we would stay friends for life.
I also find out more about my phone that day. The picture below is of Brother Orange’s nephew and us. He’s basically the reason this all happened. I find out that part of the reason why my story resonated so well with the Chinese is that people learned about it during Chinese New Year. Bro Orange’s nephew actually heard about my story spreading on the first night of the lunar moon. This is not an accident. It’s a sign.
I start to believe more and more in the Chinese theory of destiny. It’s big in Chinese culture and another reason why this story became so big. This is more than just a series of crazy, random coincidences that changed our lives — it’s fate.
At dinner that night, fans greet us with giant signs.
I begin to notice all the creepshots being taken of me. It’s so funny. I pose for some of them and the people taking them get embarrassed. I love it.
I also — and I know this sounds crazy — but I start to realize what it means to be famous. At one point, you turn into an object. There is no privacy. There is no off switch. People think it’s OK to shove cameras in your face at all times.
We go out to a Chinese nightclub.
We’re all exhausted.
What a day.
The day begins with a visit to a local Communist leader’s memorial shrine.
I channel my inner Victoria Beckham and do some killer serious poses.
I also meet my oldest fan. He’s 78 and saw me dancing on the news. He dances with me and gives me this jello thing.
Meanwhile, my team is killing it. I just need to give a shout-out to them. My team consisted of two translators (Camby and Qingqing), Abe from BuzzFeed, and Bro Orange. We were always together and grew very close, very quickly.
It’s funny because you see celebrities and their “teams” on TV. They’re always thanking their teams. Well, I finally get it. You really need good people around you to feel comfortable in crazy situations.
That day I became the travel ambassador to a truly beautiful village called Citaslow. It is crazy pretty. I can’t believe I’m the travel ambassador for it. Another surreal moment.
I graciously accept the honor with my best Taylor Swift–surprised face. I’m getting good at this.
We play games at this old school that is now a hostel and a restaurant. It’s adorable. We also go on a bike ride and I almost die. It’s cool.
Me and Bro Orange are becoming really protective of each other. We’re a team, and if one of us doesn’t want to do something, then we don’t do it. You can even see it in the pictures. We’re becoming totally comfortable around each other. Our smiles are becoming less forced and more genuine.
We’re developing feelings for each other. This is — and I hate to say this word — a bromance.
Then we go to inspect an awesome tea farm.
We pick tea for hours. Stare out at the view together. He teaches me Chinese songs and I teach him “Oops!… I Did It Again.”
That night, I get a message from someone on Chinese Twitter who said they traveled five hours by bus to see me and just checked into the same hotel I was in.
That night we did karaoke.
We danced together, did shots together, and ate watermelon together.
American karaoke places need to up their karaoke game.
I sing him “I Want It That Way.” The night ends.
Today was a great day.
We travel to the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen: the Five-Finger Peaks near Meizhou.
I have a moment with the cameramen when they’re running all over the mountain on a cliff. WE ARE LITERALLY ON A CLIFF. “Be careful, guys! Be careful! You can all get your shot. Just don’t fall off the mountain!”
It’s like I am Katy Perry.
After the mountain, we go to a winery. The Chinese call it a winery but it’s really a liquor distillery at the foot of a mountain.
I endorse some wine.
At the winery, I’m treated like a straight-up dignitary. I do things that only dignitaries do. I do Chinese calligraphy and in my (sloppy) handwriting endorse this wine. “Nan Tei Wine. Very Nice!” The room erupts in cheers.
I remind myself that ALL OF THIS IS HAPPENING BECAUSE I LOST MY CELL PHONE.
We take pictures with everyone. Everywhere we go people know who we are. I hear my name being said constantly. Everyone wants to pose with us.
I feel like a politician.
Another funny thing: My signature pose was a thumbs-up or peace sign. It’s funny because everyone I posed with did what I did. It was like when Lady Gaga does her “paws up.” Mine was thumbs-up. I’m lame. I hate myself.
That night, we do karaoke again. We get foot massages together. We’ve really taken our friendship to the next level.
We’re comfortable in silence together. We can be together and just enjoy each other’s company.
We also did Charlie’s Angels poses. I love us.
The day everything changed.
This was our most personal day yet. I don’t have many pictures from it because it was honestly too personal.
The thing is, Brother Orange is a really great guy. He’s a great dad and a great son. He’s had a rough couple of years. I find out that both his parents died in 2012 after he moved back to his hometown to take care of them. Besides that, his investment in a fishing boat went bad. After a flood, the government forced him to take his boat out of the water.
Today, the press was finally leaving us alone and giving us some space. I felt like we finally got to do the things that Bro wanted to do. He wanted to show me his life, and that’s what we were doing.
He let me into super-personal parts of his life. I went to his childhood climbing trees, a local temple, and his parents’ house. We even paid tribute to his ancestors. I have a moment when he asks me how I pay tribute to my ancestors. I don’t have an answer. Americans don’t really do that. It makes me feel bad.
People in China don’t just open themselves up like this. I am now his family and we are brothers.
We visit his cousin’s house. I find out this is the place where all the fireworks pictures were taken.
I really like Bro Orange’s family and friends. I really judge people by their company, and Bro Orange has the best company. Everyone loves him. He has this great energy about him.
We exchange gifts and everyone cries. I CAN’T BELIEVE THIS IS HAPPENING. No one could possibly understand what a crazy experience this all has been except us. We were in this together. A team.
The journey is over.
It was all very draining.
That night was supposed to be our last together. It was truly, honestly sad. We had grown super close in such a short time. It really seemed like it was our destiny to meet.
We, of course, do karaoke again. There are tears.
This was supposed to be good-bye. I was supposed to go to Beijing alone.
We don’t end up going to bed until 3 a.m. We don’t want to leave each other. We have to be up by 7. Oh, and we are all hungover.
We meet for breakfast.
Three hours before our flight, Bro Orange buys a ticket to Beijing. He’s coming with me. It was honestly romantic. I can’t believe it.
It’s still not over.
At the airport, we have a delay. So what do we do? We make a music video to Carly Rae Jepsen’s “I Really Like You.”
It’s instantly iconic. I really do love this man. He gets me.
That night, we get dinner. It’s our most quiet dinner yet. It’s really nice.
Then a funny thing happens, because I’m really dumb. I’d left my cell phone at the restaurant. I realize when we got back to the hotel that I left it there. Bro goes into full big-brother mode and runs to the restaurant with me. Of course this happened. I shouldn’t be allowed to have a phone.
Then we sleep. Big day tomorrow.
It’s both of our first times in Beijing. Technically, Bro Orange was there for a few days to be on a TV show a few weeks earlier, but he didn’t get a chance to tour the city.
I was told it’s a “rite of passage” for Chinese people to visit Beijing and go to Tiananmen Square. Brother Orange had never been, and he was literally glowing.
By now, we had a sign for happy. Whenever we were happy we would tap our hearts and say, “Happy happy happy happy.” It happened a lot now. We also were very touchy-feely. We always had our arms around each other. It was nice.
We run into a tour group from Meizhou, Bro’s hometown.
It is awesome.
One of the goals of this trip was to put Meizhou on the map, and we did it! It was being reported on the biggest Chinese TV station, CCTV News, that Meizhou was now famous. This “little” city of 4.5 million people finally got the recognition it deserves. The Hakka people (the ethnic group that is from Meizhou) were finally getting noticed.
Our last stop of the entire trip is with the people who made all of this possible: Weibo. Without Weibo, we would have never found each other. None of this would have ever happened. The story of our meeting had OVER 70 MILLION VIEWS ON WEIBO. That. Is. Insane.
Weibo is a lot like BuzzFeed in that it has an open office space and there are mostly young people working there.
In China, Weibo isn’t as popular as it once was. There’s an app called WeChat, which is like WhatsApp, that’s becoming increasingly popular. This story proved the power of Weibo. The power of the Chinese internet.
At Weibo, we are treated like total celebs. We are attacked for selfies. It is overwhelming and insane. It is the perfect ending to our crazy trip.
For an hour and a half we answer user-submitted questions in a live chat. It’s basically like a Reddit AMA. There are thousands of questions. The mood in the room is shifting. This is almost over. Naturally we make another music video together while we are here. To a Taylor song, obviously.
Dinner that night is with Weibo. It’s really bizarre to talk with people who have a very similar job to what I do…but in China. One of the things I’ve learned from this experience is how similar our internets are. They have memes and slang. I learned “The Dress” was super viral there. It caused office fights.
The last morning of our trip.
We don’t have a translator for this part.
This is it. The journey is over.
We sit in the back of the car. We both are holding back tears. When’s the next time we’re going to see each other? What will it be like? When is he coming to New York to visit me?
It’s all up in the air.
In that moment, I couldn’t help but think about the boundaries we had broken down. It’s 2015 and cell phones and computers have changed everything. Language boundaries aren’t that real. We had happily chatted with each other using a translation app. There’s an app for everything.
Anything is possible. Thank you, Steve Jobs.
We had one of those storybook good-byes. He waited at the gate and waved until I couldn’t see him anymore. Bye, Bro!
In the past, I would have said this is the end. I know now from what has happened to me that you never know what’s going to happen. Who would have ever thought a stolen iPhone would have led to such an INSANE story and a true cross-cultural friendship? I CAN’T STOP SAYING: THIS IS INSANE.
I know there will be a Chapter 4. I know I will see Bro again. This isn’t it. It’s destiny. I now believe in fate.
Source – Buzzfeed