The Banzai Institute - Houston Branch
Interview with Indra Cheng Mastin for her application to the Banzai Institute
Interviewer: So, Indra, let’s start with the most important question. Why have you applied to the Banzai Institute?
Indra: I can remember, as a child, reading a Buckaroo Banzai comic and thinking that he was the coolest person alive. As I grew up I never really thought much more about him. While I was getting my PhD, I came across several articles published by people at the Banzai Institute and that sort of re-awakened my interest in the work of the Institute. Dr. Gould, my advisor, thinks highly of your work and he told me that I should consider working with you all. I hope that my skills will be of use to the Institute and that through me, the Institute will be of further use to society.
The environment you offer here is ideal for freelance research and, as you all have demonstrated over the years, the ability to think “outside the box” is a key ingredient to successful research. I have spent the last few years working in commercial R&D, and I am tired of being told exactly what I can and cannot work on. I am hoping that if you all accept me, I will be able to pursue my areas of research and be of service to you and the world.
Interviewer: That sounds good, but many people lack the dedication required by the Institute. What makes you think you can handle the conditions here?
Indra: If you look at my background you will see that I am a very disciplined person. My mother started teaching me, at an early age, to be focused. She learned from the master Ling-Jen Wang in Wuhan, China and passed that focus on to me, and my brother. The Spartan living conditions do not concern me. I am comfortable getting up at 3 am. I usually get up at 5:00 now to workout in private.
I also think that the association with other people who have similar desires and dedication (a thing not found most places in the world) will be a great boon and driving factor to be productive in this environment.
Interviewer: OK, Let’s talk for a moment about your childhood, your parents, and your family. What can you tell me about them?
Indra: My full name is Indra Cheng Mastin and I was born on November 11, 1974 in Oklahoma City. I was adopted, 5 days later, by Richard and Yen-Jen Mastin of Chickasha, Oklahoma. My father owned a local grocery store and my mother stayed home and cared for my brother, Todd, and I. She gave private lessons in martial arts at Sooner Gymnastics and Trampoline on 4th street and let us come with her whenever she could.
Todd was adopted when I was 4. His formal name is Todd Xiao Mastin. He is a real nice guy. When he was growing up he could not say Indra, so he called me Cici. For some reason it has stuck through the years, even though he now calls me Indra.
My mother took us to the gym and gave us lessons in martial arts. She wanted to make sure we could defend ourselves. Todd was more interested in playing football and baseball than in learning the discipline required to be good at the martial arts. I loved it, since it was challenging for both the mind and the body. I actual got very good by the time I graduated high school. However, one of the things my mother drilled into us was not to flaunt our skill. “I am not training you to show off or brag, I want you to be safe and be able to take care of yourselves.” She would always tell us. Todd bragged a little, but I was very quiet about it and most people did not really realize I even knew more than the very basics. I still keep it that way, thus my early morning workouts.
I was a varsity cheerleader in high school and began to resent deeply the label of “dumb blonde”. I worked very hard to make straight “A’s” and graduated second in my class. I was elected homecoming queen my senior year.
Interviewer: How did you feel about being second in your class, instead of first?
In some ways I was really upset. I really worked hard and I just missed. I talked to my father about it and he asked me a question which he and mom have asked me often, but for some reason I saw a new significance in it. He asked “Did you do YOUR best?” I understood that while I might should be upset, it was certainly NOT at Peter Branson, but at myself for not taking that extra honors class. The margin between us was only one honors class, as we both had 4.0’s. As a matter of fact, one other person had a 4.0 that year, Phillip Clements.
When he asked me that it was like a slap on the face. I looked back and I realized that the reason I did not win was my trip to China. It cost me one honors semester during the fall of my sophomore year, while Phil was one full year behind on honors classes. I realized that I got something very special from that trip and it was worth missing the number one spot. I helped a lot that both Peter and Phil were nice guys and treated me as an equal. I think if they had be condescending or smug about it I would have been furious, but as it turned out things were OK with it and I probably learned a very good lesson from being second.
Interviewer: Let’s talk a little about the trip to China. You were an exchange student. I did not realize we had any exchange student policy with China.
Indra: I had the opportunity to be an exchange student during the summer and fall terms. I went to the Peoples Republic of China. It was an interesting 6 months. I learned much of the life and culture there. I stayed with an old family friend of my mother’s in Beijing. The first month was difficult, since I stood out like a sore thumb (the blonde hair and I was 5’8” at that time). My mother had carefully prepared me as best she could, so I understood many of the customs and had appropriate clothing. After the first month things settled in and I enjoyed my time there. It is a very different environment.
Interviewer: What were the highlights of your trip? Did you have any particularly good or bad experiences? Was there anyone in particular that you connected with while on your trip?
Indra: I stayed with the Jiang family. They are an affluent, by Chinese standards, family and I did get to travel and sight see with them some. They have 2 girls, about my age. Jiang Cuiping and Jiang Ruzhuo. Cuiping is 2 years older than I was and Ruzhuo is 1 year younger.
Their father, Jiang Dongfang, taught accounting at Peking University in Beijing. I did get to go hear some of the talks at the University by some of the leaders of the democratic movement. I was even invited to dinner with Chai Ling and her husband Feng Congde a few times. They were wonderful people, but I have not spoken to him since I left China. But Chai Ling is now in the United States and I have exchanged a few letters with her.
As to sights, there were so many. I guess the one that made the biggest impact on me were the Forbidden City and maybe the Great Hall of the People. I really like opera, so we went to the Beijing opera several times.
Outside Beijing there is of course the Great Wall. We biked to Huanghua a few times to see the wall away from a lot of tourists. It is a very peaceful setting. We took one vacation just before the start of the Fall school term. We flew into Chengdu and biked around the area. Chengdu is in south central China, near Tibet. We biked up into Tibet and around for about 2 weeks. The area was beautiful, but oooh did my legs hurt during that trip, as did all of ours. We were all in good shape, but still biking 60 miles in a day at 15,000 feet elevation will kill you. But, I’d do it again. The sites of yaks grazing on the mountain sides, the villages were so peaceful. We think of China as such a repressed place, but most of the residents don’t even think about it. They just scratch out a living spending 80% of their waking hours dealing with getting food, repairing clothes, fixing their shelters, etc. and they are happy doing it. Very different than you find in this country.
Interviewer: Sounds like you enjoyed the experience. Did you have any chance to workout with any of the “Masters” in the martial arts while you were there?
Indra: Not exactly, I did practice with the Jiang girls but they are not that good, the practice mainly kept me in shape, versus honing my skills. Toward the end of my visit Feng Congde did set up one session with the instructor from the University. He was not a “Master” but he was good. I think he did not expect anything from a American woman and I surprised him the first time. After he saw that I did know what I was doing we had a good workout. He invited me back a few time, but I had to return to America before we really got in more than a few sessions. I don’t even remember his name, but he did help me even in those few sessions.
Interviewer: Later I’d like to see you workout with some of the women here at the institute…
Indra: Why just the women? I’ll be happy to spar with the men as well!
Interviewer: Sorry, I did not mean to strike a nerve there. Is there something you’d like to tell us about it? I’ll be happy to set you up sparing with anyone here, but why were you so defensive about it?
Indra: (a bit flushed) I’m sorry. I did not mean to jump; I have just been looked down on by men for most of my life. I have always been nice looking, and this has gotten me into trouble more than once. While I was little I liked to daydream during class and never really paid attention. I guess this made me look like a real bimbo. My grades were good, but I was bored and I’m sure I look like I did not care. Everyone thought of me as a typical blonde. With my looks and bored attitude, most people classified me as an “airhead” and a “preppie”. For a few years, this was sort of neat, but it did get old. I DO NOT like being called, or implied, stupid. I kept my grades up, which was not too hard since the stuff they were teaching was so childish.
One of the problems I face, that I have just recently realized is an issue, is that I have always had this innate ability to look good, to know exactly what to wear and how to wear it.
Interviewer: Yes, I can see that, you do look stunning today. But let’s get back to your childhood. You said you did well in school. When did you learn to read, and what did you like reading as a child?
Indra: I learned to read at age 4. My favorite stories were Disney stories. I loved to play dress-up and pretend me and my brother (and/or friends) were characters from the books. Probably my favorite childhood story was Sleeping Beauty. The rush of adrenaline when Maleficent is trying to keep the prince away from the castle was wonderful.
Later, as I grew up, I found science fiction. Bradbury, Asimov, Herbert all fascinated me. For a long while I knew I wanted to be an astronaut and experience space for myself. I always wondered what life might exist out in space and I hoped that, one day, I would be the first person to encounter an alien race. (At least a friendly one, like Vulcans. I’d have loved to be with Zephram Cochrane for first contact.) Yes, I love Star Trek as well. Star Wars was OK, but it was almost more of Science Fantasy than Fiction. I still wonder about extraterrestrial life. I have a feeling that there are aliens out there. Whether we will every encounter them is another question. Orsen Wells War of the Worlds is interesting to listen to and to try to put yourself in the position of listening to and wondering, “is it for real?” Especially with the findings of the Banzai Institute about Yoyodyne.
Science fantasy books were good, but not like fiction. Reading McCaffery, Anthony, Zalazny, et. al. was OK, but did not really hold my attention. Tolkien however did.
It was through reading of Tolkien that I really experienced fantasy worlds. I tried it after some friends invited me to play Dungeons and Dragons. The said it would give me a lot of good background. I loved the books, but not the game. In other fantasy books I had always found the “magic” to by too unbelievable, but in Middle Earth the magic is much more subtle and reasonable. “Magic” is a nonsensical concept and always left a taste of fakeness in my mouth from the other books. Tolkien presented in a simple non-focused way and wove such a good tale around it that it seemed plausible.
Fairy Tales, like Grimm’s or Mother Goose were cute, nonsensical stories just written for fun. When I was little I enjoyed having my mother read them to me. As I grew up I can remember reading Mother Goose stories to my brother. I found Dr. Seuss much more entertaining (not that it was “real” either) and enjoyed reading them to Todd. I can still remember many of the stories; and could probably tell you most of Green Eggs and Ham to this day. To a child, Fairy Stories don’t convince you that dragons are real, children already know that, they convince them that dragons can be killed.
Interviewer: Let’s talk about this “magic” thing. How would you define magic? Remember what Arthur Clark said “Any sufficiently advanced Technology is indistinguishable from magic”.
Indra: Magic is producing something from nothing. While technology can produce things from other things we might not recognize, it does not create them from nothing. When something looks magical, it is worthy of study, to find out what turns into what.
The opposite of “magic” is “mystery”. Magic is something fake, that we really can observe, mystery is something real, that we cannot truly observe. My mother taught me a great respect for mystery in our lives. Being able to accept mystery, that is there are “real” things we cannot observe, in a scientific sense. It is important to remember “Mystery is the true source of all art and science”.
Interviewer: Sounds good to me. Getting back to your life. Is there anything special, high points or low points that you would like to tell me about? Sort of defining moments you might say.
Indra: I can remember my seventh grade science teacher. Mrs. McInnis, she had a true love of science and excited me. I learned that science is wonderful and fun. I learned that a woman could succeed in the sciences. She asked Dr. Julia Phillips, from NASA to come speak to our class. The subject was The Space Shuttle Challenger, STS-51L, disaster. Mrs. McInnis was a firm supported of the space program and her attitude intrigued me. Many people were ready to shut things down due to the accident; she was in favor of continuing and pushing the frontiers continually. Dr. Phillips is a delightful person. I wrote her a letter shortly after her visit and we have been in contact ever since.
The next year I can remember my parents going out to dinner and leaving Todd and me at home. I was 14, he was 9. That night a tornado cut across our yard. We hid in the bathroom and fortunately we were fine, but the memory of it still bothers me to this day. It’s funny, but I can watch news reports about hurricanes and how they form and find it fascinating, but tornados are a different matter. I do not like to watch or talk about them.
Interviewer: What about your college years. You went to The University of Oklahoma, right?
Indra: No, I enrolled at OSU in the fall of 1991. I studied Biology and Chemistry while I was there and held a 3.93 average.
I did have a few important events which occurred. During my sophomore year at Oklahoma, my father was killed in a hit and run incident. He and Todd had stopped to help a stranded motorist. They got out of their car and were walking across the road when a drunk driver hit them both. Dad was killed instantly and Todd was thrown 20 yards. He was pronounced dead at the scene, but when they got his body to the coroner’s office, he sat straight up screaming. They rushed him to the hospital and he stayed there for almost 6 weeks. He did recover and did not have any long term health problems as a result.
Todd refuses to talk about what he experienced during the 2 hours while he was “dead”, but it did make a substantial impact on him. He is more reserved and serious. Whether that is from his experience, or the loss of our father, I don’t know.
My father did have a little life insurance, but not enough to support the family. My mother began teaching martial arts more regularly, but it was not enough to live on, so Todd decided to drop out of school to support them. I would not let that happen, so I looked for work around Oklahoma City. I took a job as a dancer (I would sing at times as well) in night clubs in Oklahoma City. The work was somewhat distasteful (but not as bad as I thought), but it did pay good money. I did get a lot of propositions, but I was not interested. On occasions I had to physically deter them. At first the bouncers kept a close eye on me (and the other girls also) but they learned that I could take care of myself.
One night (actually about 2:00 am) we were getting off work and the bouncers’ job is to make sure we get to our cars safely. On the way out Paula (one of the other dancers) and I were walking together. As we were walking, two men jumped out from behind the parked cars and attacked us. The bouncers were about 200 yards away, and headed out to help. By the time they arrived, one of the men was unconscious with a broken jaw and the other was doubled over in great pain from a very well placed (if you know what I mean) kick. The bouncers cleaned up the mess and looked at me with a little more respect.
One of the outcomes of my father’s death was a gift from a very good family friend. I withdrew from school that term and stayed at home with my mother and brother. Mr. Daniels had known us since we were born and he owned the local flight school. He decided that it would be useful if I learned how to fly a plane so when I did go back to school I could back and forth more easily. I love flying and it has definitely proven useful. When he died two years ago, he left me his private plane, a Cessna Skylane. I currently have it at the local airport. I fly back to see mom about every other month or so. It’s about a 3 hours flight, plus an hour or so of pre-flight, so I can make it home easily in 5 hours.
Interviewer: The time you worked in the night clubs, I’m not trying to pry, but can you talk more about what you did?
Indra: I mainly danced sort of erotic style. Strip tease’s, those type of things. I never fully striped, although I did go topless on many occasions. Sometimes I would help wait tables, just to give the customers a treat. You’d be amazed the kind of tips I made doing that.
Interviewer: (a bit flushed) I’m sure you could make good money that way, but did it ever get in the way of your schooling?
Indra: It certainly cut into my study time, but I only worked 4 nights a week, usually Monday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights for 8 hours. But, as my 3.93 shows, it was not too bad.
I would have some problems with guys coming up to me occasionally and hitting on me since they saw my dance the previous night or whatever. Fortunately the club manager had the foresight to warn me to take a stage name. While at the club I was Gigi, Gigi Morreaux. <french>I already could speak with a passable French accent (although I don’t know more than a dozen French words) so while dancing I was Gigi, from France.</french> I was already used to responding to Cici, although most people at college did not know that name.
A couple of the girls knew my real name was Cici Mastin, but only Paula (who went to school with me at OSU) knew my real name.
Interviewer: What about Todd, how often do you see him?
Todd and his wife, Susan, live out in the bay area. San Francisco that is. I will fly mom out there about once a year for a visit. They are expecting their first baby in June, so we’ll probably go out there for that. I don’t know if I’ll stay long, but mom wants to spend a month or two helping with the new baby. It’s exciting to think I’ll be an aunt.
Interviewer: Back to your reputation for taking care of yourself. I would expect word of it spread across the campus quickly?
Indra: Not really, most people did not know I was a dancer, and word did not spread quickly. I kept a low profile and just did my work. The closest I came to getting a reputation was during my junior year.
In the spring the star quarterback from the football team asked me out. On the way home he had only one thing on his mind and he took me to a park and tried a few moves. I managed to convince him that I was not interested at the time as nicely as I could. He did not like being rejected, so the next weekend, he got 2 friends from the team (they were not quite sober at the time) and decided to have a little party with me. I was very glad it was the spring, since I dislocated his shoulder and broke 3 of his ribs. One of the other two got a minor concussion from being thrown. The other decided it was not worth it and ran. Fortunately they were fine the next season and all the people at school knew was that he and his friends had been messing around.
Interviewer: It seems like you could have pressed charges or something. Weren’t you tempted to?
Indra: No, not really. I figure they got what they deserved and I probably had less trouble from it than it I had pressed charges. Getting the authorities involved is frequently more trouble than it is worth.
Interviewer: Could be. That was your undergraduate degree, how about your advanced degrees. Anything special you want to tell me about those years.
Indra: They were both exciting and depressing. It is amazing how many really talented Jerks there are in the world. The Master’s degree at Stanford was pretty pro forma, not much happened there. However, I almost did not finish my PhD due to a real jerk professor of mine. Great man, wonderful researcher, and the biggest male chauvinist pig I have ever met. He insisted on hitting on me ever chance he got. I reported him many times to the department, but they just acted like I should expect it. I finally had to change schools to Carnegie Mellon. I studied under Dr. Franklin Gould. I was looking at biological response to various external stimuli. He was a brilliant man and a true gentleman.
Interviewer: I think that about does it. Is there anything else you would like to add?
Indra: I just want to thank you for your time. And to remind you that I would really be happy to spar with anyone you care to let me. A good challenge would be refreshing.