Archives for October 2014

这个墨西哥人是谁 (Who is this Mexican person)

Coming into Shanghai, I had a feeling that I would easily stand out not only as a foreigner, but as a Hispanic. However, I did not anticipate the Chinese people’s limited knowledge about Mexicans. Moreover, I never expected to be one of the first Mexicans that the Chinese locals have ever met.

Going around the city of Shanghai wearing my Mexican flag bandana, it seems like people knew of Mexico but not how people from Mexico looked, dressed, or behaved. Some people are so intrigued by my presence that they come up to me and ask ‘我可以跟你拍一张照片吗?’ (Can I take a picture with you?) Others simply talk about me to their friends as they try to figure out who and what I am. Usually, I cannot understand the conversation that takes place about me since my Chinese level is still low and the Shanghai people speak too fast for me to make out all the words.

However, there is one conversation between a mom and her child that I remember where I was able to follow and understand some of what was being said about me. One day, I got on the bus headed towards Jiangwan Stadium which was where we were going to meet up with our professor 邵老师. A few stops along the way, a mother got on with her 5-6 year old son. They situated themselves next to me on the bus. The boy looked up at me with startled eyes and began questioning his mother…’他是美国人吗?’ (Is he American?) The mother responded to him ‘他不像他的美国朋友. 他可能是美国人.'(He does not look like his American friends around him. He could be American.) The boy then asked, ‘他是白色还是黑色? (Is he white or black?). The mother responded, 他的皮肤比白人太黑,也比黑人太白. 他都不是(He is too dark to be white and too light to be black. He is neither.) She then proceeded to explain to him that regardless of my skin color he should not be afraid of me, however, by this time my stop had arrived and so I had to get off the bus and could not listen to the last things she had to say nor the child’s response.

Having understood this conversation, I began to get a better understanding to how the Chinese locals perceived and behaved around me. To some, I am some sort of ‘phenomenon’ that they may never see again so they desire a picture as a sort of memorabilia or proof of my existence. To others, I am a ‘true foreigner’ which makes them uneasy (not in a bad way) since they have no idea who I or what I am (which is understandable), so they do not know how to approach me. Needless to say, these encounters provide me with a perfect opportunity to introduce myself to the locals. Right now, I can only tell them the basics, I am Mexican, I was born in Mexico, I live in the United States and go to school at Davidson College, etc. Hopefully as I continue living in Shanghai and exposing myself to the Chinese language, I will be able to tell them in more detail about Mexicans and Mexican culture.

Life as a Geomancer (Fictional Short Story)

All my life I lived in a small rural town in southern China. My father was the town geomancer, and he was the only one for miles and miles. This meant he was always busy assessing the feng shui of everyone’s house and ancestral grave sites. When I was very young I would sometimes go with him to his clients’ houses to watch him access the feng shui of the house. I remember sitting in the corner watching him explain how and why the family was experiencing one misfortune or another. Most of the time the family’s misfortunes were due to upsetting their ancestors, or some kind of disharmony involving the direction of an ancestor’s grave. Once I got older my father started to teach me how to access the feng shui of various locations. I remember reading through his extensive collection of books, each one adding to my knowledge of feng shui. After a number of years of studying, I began going with my father to meet his clients and even assist him while he looked over his clients’ houses. It wasn’t long before I was going out on my own. As time passed my father grew older and passed away leaving me the new town geomancer. When he passed away he passed down all of his books on feng shui. I treasured those books since I knew how important they were to my father. As each day passed people would come to me with new problems. One day a child was sick with a disease that had no cure, the next day a man would come and explain how his business was doing poorly and no matter what he did he couldn’t increase the number of customers coming to see him, after that would be a women who says her son has yet to find a wife, next came the mother in law who said her son’s wife has yet to bear a child. Each day people would come with new questions that needed answers, and each time I was happy to come and assess the feng shui of their house and/or ancestral gravesite. Life stayed like this for a number of years, and I was quite content with how my business was flourishing.

One day after I had just helped cure another sick child, I was sitting in my house when group of 10 or 15 young Chinese Red Guard soldiers came storming into my town. The leader of the troupe then demanded to know where the town geomancer was. I stepped out of my house to see what all the commotion was about and the leader again asked where the town geomancer was. When I stepped forward, all of the red guards pushed passed me and entered my house. They immediately began tearing apart my living room and taking my father’s feng shui books. I immediately demanded to know what was going on. The leader of the troupe said Chairman Mao was trying to preserve the true Communist ideology by getting rid of the “Four Olds”, old customs, culture, habits, and ideas, essentially it was out with the old and in with the new. Feng shui was, of course, considered old, and had to be removed. The leader then threatened to imprison me as a counter revolutionist if I stood in his way. All I could do was stand and watch in horror as the Red Guard took my feng shui books and then burned them right outside my house. After they left, it was hard to contain my feelings of disgust and sorrow. How could destroying China’s ancient culture be part of the true Communist ideology? How could the Red Guard just invade my house and burn my father’s books? Unable to move I looked around, papers were thrown everywhere, furniture was over turned, and the floor was covered in muddy footprints, my living room was a disaster.  After silent contemplation and calming my feelings of anger, I became determined to oppose this new ideology. No matter what it took I would continue practicing and studying feng shui. With this new found inspiration, I put my house back together and sat down at my desk. I started writing down all of my feng shui knowledge to create my own book. Hopefully this book would be passed down from generation to generation so feng shui could live on, even among all the chaos of the Cultural Revolution.

Life in China

August 27th, 2014 marked a BIG day for me. It was the beginning of a new chapter in my life, a new experience. On this day, 10 Davidson students embarked on the Davidson in Shanghai program, a program that I longed to take part in the moment I became a Wildcat. While I was filled with excitement for the new experiences and opportunities coming my way, I could not help but also feel a bit afraid and nervous about the leap I was taking.

Shanghai is known for being one of the biggest cities in the world. With this being said, I could not help but wonder: how would life be like, would it be too crowded, too noisy, how would I be received by the locals, would I be able to fit in, would I be able to properly communicate with the locals in Chinese given my two years of taking language classes at Davidson?

I have been in Shanghai now for almost two months and I can safely say that I have enjoyed every minute of it! Sure enough, I struggled at first to gather myself and adjust to the new, robust lifestyle. But, little by little I felt like the city was beginning to take me in as one of its own. The constant blaring of horns, whistles, and sirens no longer phased me, andI was beginning to get more comfortable with not only the Chinese communal style of eating–where each person orders a dish meant to be shared with the group–but also with the utensil they use to eat, chopsticks. I no longer felt like a 外国人even though I still looked and dressed like one.

The biggest challenge, however, turned out not to be adapting to the eastern, city-life, but in communicating with the locals. Although I came to China with two years of language experience under my belt, I felt like I was still a novice the moment I tried to bargain for items at the market or order food at restaurants. Not only did I find myself struggling to express myself with the limited vocabulary that I knew, but I also found it difficult to understand what was being said my way since many locals here would be speaking to me in their local dialect, Shanghai-nese, and not in Mandarin. Although some of my Chinese friends have told me that the two languages are similar, to me, having many ways to go before I consider myself to be fluent in Mandarin, both languages sound completely different.

While there is still a language barrier between me and the locals, I will not let it discourage me from continuing to pursue my dream of mastering the Chinese language. Every day, I am thankful to all of those who made my being here a reality. Being in China has definitely improved my language skills (even though I still have a long way to go) since I am constantly being exposed to Mandarin. Although Davidson has taught me well and prepared me for this trip, nothing is better than living in the environment where the language is used 24/7.

NAIL-ing Fengshui

I wish you could be here to see the light as it sparkles off of my newly manicured nails. Before the debut they had surfaces like corduroy, jagged tips, and a pile of overgrown cuticles— a result of years of mistreatment. Now they lay delicately on my nail beds, smoothed by heavy buffing and a clear lacquer finish. But my nails’ ∗fabulous sparkle∗ has made me digress:

A few hours ago, I found myself in a nail salon not far from my apartment complex with Shuyu and Marin. The store is wedged between a string of locally owned businesses. We sat with fingers spread as our masked nail technicians worked quickly. They all looked to be in their twenties. Shuyu, who is fluent in Mandarin, babbled with her technician as I— a Mandarin virgin— struggled to keep up and pick out key words.

Trying to figure out what to write for this blog post, I decided to jump into the conversation. “Sooo, have you all fengshuied your business?” It was quiet until Shuyu translated for me. (Bless her.) All three technicians nodded yes.

“The owner of the business practices fengshui and she hired a fengshui master to look over her business and make some recommendations,” said one.
“Has it helped?” I asked.
“Well, we have had great success the past four years.”

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Her response did not come as a surprise. As we have discussed in class a lot recently, many Chinese practice fengshui, an age-old tradition that places the flow of energy or “Qi” as central to the successes– or failures– in one’s life. A lot of the rules governing fengshui have practicality: don’t have a desk that faces away from a door, don’t live in an oddly designed house, offices designed poorly can affect your performance at work, etc. Other practices, including auspicious compass directions, reading of one’s birth day and year, and magic words make the practice more spiritual. Many Chinese believe that if a business is doing poorly,  it may be the fault of bad fengshui and the pooling of negative energy in an area. To have good business and prevent life misfortune, many Chinese have traditionally paid close attention to the fengshui in their homes and workplaces.

The woman buffing Marin’s nails jumped into our conversation. She wore a cross necklace.
Shuyu translated, “I don’t believe in fengshui.”
“Why not?”
“I am Christian.”
“How long have you been practicing Christianity?”
“Ten years, now.”
“Did you believe in fengshui before you converted?”
“No.”

Although the woman—who I believe is like many young Chinese in Shanghai who belong to a more globalized and outward-thinking generation— did not practice fengshui, she remained impartial as she spoke about a practice deeply engrained in her culture. I was interested to know more. She was talkative and patient with me, but soon two new technicians arrived and they took over for the woman with the cross around her neck.

Marin and Shuyu picked nail colors. The man who worked on my nails sat quietly trimming my overgrown cuticles. “What color do you want?” he asked.  “Um, no color. I just want a clear finish”

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Shuyu (looking pleasant as usual) and the woman with the cross necklace.

 

Stuck at the counter I looked around and noticed a plant placed in the corner and a glass chandelier that scattered light throughout the room. Strategically placed plants and chandeliers (a modern adaptation of the small glass orbs once hung from ceilings) are among many objects that help to dispel negative Qi.

Soon after, Shuyu, Marin, and I all sat with our hands spread flat on the tables as we let our nails dry. Our technicians went outside to get some tea from a drink stand nearby and the woman with the cross came back into the room. She sat down. Again, (the ever-social Shuyu) struck up conversation, talking about cultural differences, then the best place to get pearl milk tea, and then– admittedly with a little prodding on my end– back to fengshui.

“Can you tell me a little more about how this area was fengshuied?”
“Before the current owner bought this business, she spent some time consulting with a fengshui master. The master analyzed her energy and matched its compatibility with the business. The consultant also helped the owner decided whether or not the location of the business would allow it to harness the energy it needed to be successful.”
“Did the fengshui master think that the business would flourish?”
“Well, she did buy it!”

p.s. sorry about the blurry photos; my camera needs an exorcism.

 

The Museum Boom: Power Station of Art

Power Station of Art

Power Station of Art

In the past couple years Shanghai has seen an exponential growth in museums. According to the New York Times in 2011 alone 390 new museums opened. During this building boom museums have only seen small increases in funding and many are struggling to attract visitors. For instance NPR has reported that by noon on an average weekday Power Station of Art, one of the largest government funded museums in Shanghai, has only seen 200 visitors.

Power Station of Art is the first government-backed museum of contemporary art in China. It is housed in a renovated power plant and located right across the river from another major government funded museum, Shanghai Art Palace. There are currently two exhibitions on show, Cartier Time Art and Cai Guo-Qiang: The Ninth Wave. Despite these high profile exhibits the museum is extremely empty for a city of 24 million and you can often find yourself standing alone in the exhibition halls looking at the breathe taking pieces.

The Ninth Wave, Installation, 2014

The Ninth Wave, Installation, 2014

Cai Guo-Qiang is a renowned Chinese artist currently living and working in New York City.When I visited Power Station of Art last week I was blown away by his exhibit the Ninth Wave. The featured piece for which the exhibition is named, The Ninth Wave, is a large-scale installation featuring a fishing boat carrying fabricated animals. The animals all appear to be seasick representing their inability to stop the deterioration of the environment. In addition to several large scale installations the exhibition also includes canvas and gunpowder pieces, porcelain and gunpowder pieces, and videos of his explosive shows. In his work I couldn’t help but see a mix of both conventions of ancient Chinese and contemporary art.

All of Cao Guo-Qing’s works relate in one way or another to nature and man’s interaction with it. Some of the most notable materials Cao uses are ones traditionally found or created in China, such as porcelain and gunpowder. He then takes these traditionally Chinese conventions and stretches them to the limits. In his work Head On he draws connections between man and animal to indicate how we often make the same mistakes that animals do. Cao Guo-Qiang also uses porcelain and gunpowder in new and inventive ways as in his work Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter he replaces his canvas with porcelain and his paint with gunpowder.

Head On, Installation, 2006

Head On, Installation, 2006

These works show a Western influence as Cao creates contemporary art, but also relies heavily on Chinese artistic conventions. The influence of Western contemporary art shows a common theme in the development of the Shanghai art market as artists and collectors move away from Ancient Chinese arts and towards modernity. The museum boom is yet another example of the rapid modernization of the art market– as most feature contemporary art– with few dedicated to the art history of China.  These are aspects I will continue to explore in my research of the development of the Shanghai art market.

 

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