The Chinese Experience: Initial impressions in 1985
My Chinese Experience began in May of 1985. I was selected to be a part of a sixteen-artist group to study Chinese Landscape painting for two months. This was an internship program sponsored by the University of Minnesota: Duluth. Cheng Khee Chee, Duluth artist, workshop instructor and campus librarian, was our group leader. We were students of all ages and different artistic backgrounds, from west coast to east coast and in between. His wife, Bee, and two of their children,were part of our entourage. We were anxious and excited to embark on our Chinese Experience over a two-month period. An experience and an adventure it was!
Leaving from San Francisco, we spent a night in Narita, Japan. Flying from there the next day, we landed in Shanghai.We were travel weary and anticipating culture shock. I believe we all wanted to represent the United States as good ambassadors. What we were not prepared for, after we were processed, was the throngs of Chinese faces all pressed against the glass. Being stared at in huge numbers, we first entered the country and made our way through the airport. We really could not have anticipated their intense curiosity in seeing this small group of caucasians. I know no one verbalized it, but there must have been a gut-felt appreciation for the glass barrier that separated “us” from “them”.
Momentarily, we were to lose that barrier. Rarely do westerners ever feel that loss of personal space. Over the next two months, we would, individually, have moments of panic whenever encountering crowds unaccustomed to seeing us.
Boarding a bus, it took about three hours to arrive in Hangzhou. There we would be housed in dorms and attend classes at the Zhejiang Fine Art Academy, near the scenic West Lake. I remember that bus ride well. I think we were all glued to the windows, watching fascinating scenery that looked like the pictures I had seen in grade school social studies books. Fields of rice, water buffalo and workers performing tasks with little or no mechanization. Some farmers were riding “tractors” that looked like makeshift lawnmowers. Sometimes oncoming traffic would be a truck with loads of hay so wide that it scraped our windows. I feared the windows would be broken out. At times,It seemed we had been transported five hundred years back in time. I was thrilled. I was expecting that my Chinese experience was to be just what I had wanted it to be.
When arriving on the outskirts of Hangzhou, I felt just the opposite. There were boring looking concrete buildings being put up all around the city. Bamboo scaffolding was everywhere. The look was anything but the Chinese aesthetic that I was expecting. Not realizing that the time zone warp we were experiencing added to that sense of disappointment. I did not want this to be my Chinese Experience for the next two months!
In the next blog, I will describe the classes we took: Tai Chi, Chinese calligraphy and landscape painting. Learning from professors who only spoke Chinese.,I will relate some of the some of the cultural shocks we experienced. Encounters, mostly funny in retrospect, some somewhat scary.