Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

Let Me Paint You a Picture

If you went to paint or sketch in a park almost anywhere in the world, no one would come up to you or bother you or, let alone, look over your shoulder to see what you were doing. You would be left more or less to yourself. This is almost anywhere except in China, except when you are identifiably white.

Let me paint you a few pictures.

Picture 1:

The day is cool and overcast. It’s a national holiday, celebrating the creation of the People’s Republic of China. So, school’s out. As a teacher, in spite of the fact that I’ll have to make it up later, I’m off work. Though, being that it’s China, seemingly everyone is still working or not working as they usually do. People are everywhere, shops are open, and the daily sounds remain much the same. Things and people are being delivered in all directions through all forms of mechanized and non-mechanized transport. Other people are waiting around everywhere. Young boys are preparing food in eateries or soldering metal bars together. Men are waiting tiredly next to their tools for someone to come to have fix their bike or machine fixed. Laundry is hanging. Women are working the checkout at grocery stores. Someone has left rabbit hides to tan. A group of men are gambling over cards. The prostitutes lounge about watching TV and waiting.

Not knowing, it would be hard to tell the difference between today’s national holiday of so-called celebration and any other day.

Admittedly, there are people who are sitting or walking leisurely about in a park near where I live. This park is cramped between several multi-story apartment complexes, cellphone stores, clothing shops, an impromptu garbage dump, small eateries, a KFC, and a main thoroughfare with buses and an entire assortment of various modes and eras of transportation who buzz and pass.

This park is an island surrounded by the humming life movement of this urban ocean of tidal in’s and out’s, of towards and aways connecting every here and there in an immediate universe of most people going nowhere.

The front entrance to this park, like almost everywhere around where I live in China, has been under some form of never-ending construction for the past few weeks. The constant sounds of constructive activity echo up to my apartment window late into the night and early in the morning, even after much of the surrounding area is still and unilluminated. Perhaps it’s the holiday rush. While elsewhere in the Western world this work would have been to a great extent aided by machines and various technical equipment, in China this work is done mainly through human power and more or less basic, lesser expensive tools—hammers, chisels, shovels, wheelbarrows, and an occasional jackhammer whose gas-powered generator leaves a heavy toxic odor in the air.

While the final product remains much the same, it’s arguably the constructive in-between that largely separates “developing” countries from their industrial counterparts.

There are no uniforms, no safety equipment, no security barriers, and it is difficult to tell who, if anywhere, is the boss. In spite of the seeming lack of supervision, their work on this section has been constant. I pass and re-pass this sidewalk numerous times in the day during my daily goings and comings, and they are always in physical, muscular movement with their hands, legs and arched backs. Even when the rain would send most Western construction companies home for the day, several remain to chip and crack away with hammers and chisels as lit cigarettes hang from their mouths. There is even one woman amongst this group whose form is difficult to distinguish from those of her equally sexless companions. Their lithe and hardened bodies move the sand and cement, tiles and tools in a unswerving activity, which, as it started, ended suddenly in completion right before the national holiday.

The final touch included a day where a group of painters came by bus and added color and art to a 15-meter section of a wall to the right of the front entrance. These specialized workers are clean and pausing in comparison to their now-absent “fellow” workers. Their one-day of artistic work give an sobering touch to the weeks of backbreaking work that those dirtier, less specialized human bodies carried out and fabricated in what would elsewhere be done by machine.

These brief moments offer stark, unwitnessed, unwatched contrasts, which are difficult to quantify with all of my inherited and learned notions.

Picture 2:

We entered the park unassumingly from the back entrance. We crossed under a couple ornate over-hangings and found an unoccupied bench. My friend, who teaches English at one of the colleges, and I had just bought a few art supplies, and our intention was to enjoy the weather and draw some. It was “arts and crafts” day.

It should be admitted that my friend and I are both “whities,” both, as the Chinese consider univerally, 美国人(mei3 guo2 ren2) or Americans, whether or not it is literally true. We had gone to the park for a moment of artistic solitude, but we got more than we were looking for.

Within a few minutes of taking position and our first pencil-to-paper scribblings, Chinese people started gathering around us. The sacredness of artistic solitude is clearly not a Chinese concept, at least not in a public space and especially not if you are a foreigner. Initially it was children. A group of four or five girls edged by to see what we were up to. They left, came back, and eventually settled into watching the play-by-play or stroke-by-stroke of our creative endeavors.

Unbeknown to me as I concentrated on my paper, this initial group soon multiplied several times over as more people continued to take their place and to peek over our shoulders to see what these “strangers” were up to. As I peered up from my page, we suddenly were a small crowd.

Though China has seen a dramatic increase of Westerners visiting and living in China, their presence is still relatively small, and, being that most Westerners are visually distinguishable at first glance from their Asiatic counterparts, we couldn’t help standing outside of the crowd. Standing outside of the crowd or getting people to do a “double-take” at the unexpected are relatively normal human reactions to what is uncommon in our daily lives. If a clown or someone dressed up as gorilla walks by, we generally notice if we are paying enough attention. Normally, we don’t really look at all at the things around us, because they often simply fit into our day-to-day familiarity with the world and things around us. So, naturally when something unexpected appears, we suddenly do see, we suddenly do look again.

The Chinese also have this natural reaction of looking again at the unexpected but they also add their own particular cultural reaction, namely the Chinese will not only look again, but they’ll stay there to continue looking. So, while Westerners would mostly likely look again at the unexpected, they generally don’t, culturally speaking, stare at other people nor do they flock around two “strangers” painting in a park. Even one unknown person staring over your shoulder can affect how you do an activity, so you can imagine how an entire “mass” of people affected our artistic effort.

My friend was relatively calm about the situation, but I suddenly felt like the spotlight was on me and that suddenly I had better perform. This meant that I had better draw something worth their staring at. In another context, people would have realized that we weren’t really artists and would have left us to our amateurish scribblings. But in this Chinese context, they weren’t really as much concerned by the aesthetic content as by the spectacular side. They weren’t really staring at the art, which was admittedly mediocre, but at us as outside of their normal Chinese world-view. We were outsiders, and, as such, our value was simply being just that. We couldn’t really fail to live up to what they were looking for, because what they were looking for was simply us as different, as unexpected, as unknown, as the mark of outsiders.

More people continued to gather. The initial five or six had become ten or so. And, as our heads were turned toward the page, this group had add an entire bonus layer as the mass turned into around twenty people. Now there were not only these girls but boys and women and men and even a landscaping worker peering over to see what was up. Even though they were relatively quiet, they weren’t particularly silent either as the girls mouthed the English words for different colors and the rest chatted in Chinese. In spite of this, I attempted to plow forward and put my new paper and art supplies to good use.

Our scribblings eventually led to enough color on the paper to constitute some form of completion. We had a sun, some birds, a blue wave-like thing, and a sorta-green-brown triangle thing with permeating purple lines coming off it. It was crap, but being that it was our crap added a certain amount of charm to us as the artists and being that it was the Americans’ crap added a certain amount of hysteric value to our gathering of spectators.

With the picture more or less “completed,” discussion turned to what it exactly was. Since neither planning nor developed artistic talent went into this piece, interpretation was still much in the air. Our Chinese spectators seemed to require some sort of additional component to this piece. There was clearly a sky with birds and sun, so, as such, my portion of the page turned into the landscape and my triangle turned into a mountain. One of the curvy lines emerging off of the “mountain” became a mountain path or road. I added some more color, and it became what it could only in the force of the moment be.

With an interpretation in place, all we had to do was give it its Chinese title: Beautiful Mountain Road. Even though spoken Chinese is relatively easy and my friend had managed to tell them the title our work, written Chinese is rather difficult considering it is basically a complex system of pictures you have to memorize. So we decided to put one of our girl spectators to work by having her write in Chinese the title on the left-hand side.

Our artistic masterpiece was complete. But the show wasn’t over.

Suddenly it seemed as though we were supposed to give themselves, before we could, before they would leave. Amongst this small crowd, our young female helpers and constant spectators wanted our work to be theirs. What to do?

We discussed briefly what could be done, saddened by the apparent need to give up what had turned out as a halfway decent art piece. But it was difficult to give a single thing to a group of wanting many. Yet we attempted to peacefully give away our single-page artwork to this anxious group of three or four girls. The initial hand we gave the fragile page to almost instantly had several more wantingly attached. As they edged away, the battle for possession was brief and it was torn.

And yet the majority remained, waiting. We started to pack up our things when a girl asked us to sign a piece of paper. This act spurned a general desire by the young people around for a similarly signed fragment. So we signed, like celebrities, a dozen or so.

And then we walked away, wondering why they cared so much for something of us?

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