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 ever happened. It makes absolutely no sense at all. It's truly crazy.
LONG, LONG AGO (January 2014 lol)...
THE STORY BEGINS in early 2014 when I was in the East Village at my favorite bar, EVS. I've said this multiple times so far, but I swear it's on St. Marks and it's not douchey. Also 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 swipes my phone off the table. Honestly, it's genius. I applaud the person who took my phone. I bet you 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 was never seeing that phone again. The phone was gone.
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, most memorably 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 the fuck 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. 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. It's mysterious.
Some of the pictures that showed up on my phone included hundreds of pictures of fireworks (WHO DOES THAT?!)...
...and a truly terrifying picture of a crouching person through a really dirty window.
I don't really do anything about these mystery photos until I talk to a friend of mine and he scares the shit out of me. He asks me if I lost a phone recently. I didn't recently, but over a year ago. 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. It is essentially a brick. The man who has my phone cannot use it anymore.
I'm relieved and happy. I solved the mystery.
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 essentially Chinese Twitter. It's blowing up. They are helping me find orange tree man.
I become the biggest topic in China.
I'm bombarded with tweets saying I'm famous there lol.
Hours later, they find the orange tree guy.
Meanwhile, I join Weibo. After the first day I had over 50,000 followers. Within a week, over 100,000.
That's where I start talking to him. Introducing 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.
Anyway, Brother Orange and I exchange messages for weeks. He invites me to visit him. The Chinese internet is watching. I set a date: March 18.
Brother Orange accepts.
I play around on Weibo.
A bunch of people start asking me to teach them English, so I start making videos.
They start calling me a "doubi." I would get thousands of comments calling me this. It would follow me to China. It basically means like Mr. Bean. I embrace it.
Me and Bro Orange keep talking with each other on Weibo. We exchange messages daily. We now have actual fans who want us to fall in love together. I can't believe this happening.
I have to travel through four different airports (!!!) to get to where I need to be.
Brother Orange's hometown is called Meizhou. It's in southern China. Most people have never heard of it, even in China. 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 as hell. 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 in front of a "WELCOME MATT" sign while I'm at the airport. I freak out. 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. She goes back 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." I die.
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 literal insanity that's just ahead of me.
I walk to baggage claim. I go down the escalator. Camera flashes start going off.
I princess-wave to a crowd of cameras and fans.
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. It's jarring, especially because everyone looks like shit after a flight. FML.
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 insane. We take off for the hotel, which is about an hour and a half away. Everything is crazy.
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.
Me and Bro Orange start talking through our translators.
First topic of conversation: my phone.
1. 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. Here's a crazy video of a secondhand cell phone market in Shenzhen with over 2,000 shops. WHO KNEW?!
2. 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.
3. 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 an asshole.
4. Brother Orange got the phone in August. Weird thing is, his pictures didn't start showing up on my new phone until late January. How that happened? WHO KNOWS. It's very cryptic, tbh.
5. The pictures I was taking on my new phone were also showing up on Brother Orange's phone. So scary. 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 camerapeople waiting in the lobby. It's kind of unsettling.
WHAT THE FUCK IS MY LIFE?!
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.
Brother Orange's restaurant is on a river. It's really big. He has literally renamed his restaurant "Brother Orange's." Holy shit. This is big-time.
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."
It's also so funny when 50 people watch you dig a hole.
Then it's time for lunch. Lunch with Bro and 20 cameras pointed in your face. Again, WHAT IS GOING ON?!
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. 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. Coming up with new words is hard.
I meet Brother Orange's entire family. He has four kids. FOUR KIDS!!! He also has 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 camerapeople slipped and hurt themselves pretty badly trying to get a shot of me. Relax, everyone! You can all get your shot! It's 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. Selfies everywhere.
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 super intimate and very, very weird.
The mud bath is when me and Bro 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 really bring you close together quick.
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 eats everything. I love it. 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.
A new day, a new hotel.
Today, we have a press conference (lol what?!). 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 kept on giving me phones.
Then we go to the press conference.
The press conference is at a hotel. I think this is the press conference but it's just the pre-press conference. Duh.
The real thing 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!??!
Highlights from the press conference:
1. Whenever I speak in Chinese, everyone cheers.
2. Whenever I say anything, people cheer.
3. 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." Another WHAT IS GOING ON moment?!
4. I try to wake myself up. How is this real?
The press conference is over. We leave the hotel and our fleet of two cars and a bus now has my face on it. Cool.
Lunch that day is more of the same. Tons of photographers. They surround our table. I endorse a local liquor by accident. Over the course of the trip, I would pose with different products. I never knew what was going on. I just endorse it all!
I also endorse these babies. I am now a full-fledged politician on the campaign trail.
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. I am so middle school. The Chinese love it.
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. He's hilarious. The fact that he can have fun running around taking engagement photos with me is amazing. That's my kind of guy. He's a total doubi.
So yeah, the rest of day three we tour the hotel. They dress me up as a traditional Chinese girl and make me smash tea. It's fun. Orange Bro is fun. I'm really starting to like this guy.
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. I am so happy.
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 was so big there. This is more than just a series of crazy, random coincidences that changed our lives — it's fate.
At dinner that night, superfans 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've finally made 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. It's weird. I get you, Lady Gaga.
We go out to a Chinese nightclub.
We're all exhausted.
What a day.
I go to sleep.
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 weird jello thing. It's a moment.
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. I love my team!
That day I became the travel ambassador to a truly beautiful village called Citaslow. Like, it's 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. BUT IT IS.
Then we go to inspect a dope-ass tea farm.
We pick tea for hours. Stare out at the view together. He teaches me Chinese songs. 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.
Fame is scary.
That night we did karaoke.
We drank a lot. He sang Chinese songs. I sang American songs. 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 camerapeople when they're running all over the mountain on a literal cliff. WE ARE ON A CLIFF. "Be careful, guys! Be careful! You can all get your shot. Just don't fall off the mountain!"
I am Katy Perry.
Standing in these ridiculously beautiful surroundings looking out on these huge, lush mountains, I realize I love this place. I love this man.
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. Your fave California winery could never.
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 am dying. I can't believe this is happening.
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. Shit got real.
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. 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. Things have been pretty shitty for Bro lately.
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's fucked up and makes me feel bad. Cultural differences, man!
People in China don't just open themselves up like this. I am now his family. 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 someone by their company, and Bro Orange has the best company. Everyone loves him. Everyone wants to be with him. He just has a good energy about him.
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 felt like it was our destiny to meet. This was fate.
We, of course, do karaoke again. There are tears.
We exchange gifts. 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.
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. We are all hungover AF.
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.
This is happening.
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.
We get to Beijing that night and want to take it easy. The past 24 hours have sucked everything out of us. We also only got four hours of sleep the night before. We're dead.
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. I'm an idiot. Bro and I have a good laugh.
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. He's very much country.
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. He was so excited. He's happy. I'm happy.
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 are very close.
We run into a tour group from Meizhou, Bro's hometown.
It is fucking 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. It feels familiar.
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 a crazy trip.
I CAN'T BELIEVE THIS IS HAPPENING.
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. It goes by quickly. 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, obvs.
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. "The Dress" was super viral there. It caused office fights.
It's just crazy.
Me and Bro toast each other. We take the subway home. By now, he's taking dozens of selfies with me. We're anxious and nervous. We spend an extra half hour just sitting around in each other's hotel room. This is going to end.
The last morning of our trip.
We don't have a translator for this part.
This is it. The journey is over. What even happened?
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.
Matt and Brother Orange's story is being made into a documentary. See the trailer above ^.