The ongoing thoughts of an art teacher in China - and home in Sydney

A continuing diary about my travels in China, and thoughts about China and Chinese art from home and abroad

Friday, February 21, 2014

中国梦: My Chinese Dream / Dreaming in Chinese

Changing China, from Yu Gardens Shanghai, photographed in 2012
Yesterday a friend asked if I sometimes dream in Chinese. I don't, of course, my Chinese is far too limited for that. But I do often wake up with Chinese words and phrases drifting through my head, and sometimes in those dark waking hours in the middle of the night I find myself going over and over Chinese sentences, or translating mundane conversations into Chinese. I find myself tempted to say "Wei, nihao" when I answer the phone. I want to ask people "Zenmeyang?" "OK?" or say "Wo mashang lai" instead of "Yes, I'm coming now". I'd like to tell my friends to "Man zou" instead of "Take care." The mental image of the horrified faces of my daughters stops me attempting Chinese in restaurants, or when ordering dim sum. Also the knowledge of how annoying and irritating that would be for people just trying to get through their shift without western wankers using them as language tutors.

 I am slowly, belatedly, coming to the unwelcome realisation that I am unlikely ever to be able to speak fluently - I left my run far too late. In my Eurocentric youth I learned French, then Italian, and naiively and optimistically believed that I was "good at languages." Oh boy, what a humbling experience awaited when I began to learn Chinese three years ago at the age of 54! And oh for a youthfully elastic brain to soak up this difficult syntax, these impossibly subtle tones, and to remember the damn vocabulary, much less to  help my quixotic attempt to learn to read characters. I sat in class in Beijing last year with 19 and 20-year old German and Dutch boys who began with no Chinese at all and soon outstripped me. I watched them soak up the language like sponges and learn to communicate pretty effectively. Perhaps in part because they went out drinking every night in attempts to meet Chinese girls. Also perhaps because they all had the hots for the very sexy young teacher, Yumi,  and wanted to talk to her about bars and nightclubs and try (in vain) to persuade her to go drinking with them. Each lesson began with a discussion in Chinese about who had drunk what and how much the night before - with the frequent absence of the American boy who was too hungover to come to class at all most mornings. Memorably, one day they discovered they had all coincidentally been at the same cocktail bar the night before and Yumi confided "Zuotian wanshang wo he le wu ge 'sex-on-the-beach.'" Five 'sex-on-the-beach' cocktails and the girl still rode her motorbike home to the outer suburbs!
My Chinese Dream: Tuanjiehu Park on an unpolluted weekend morning
After a period of being depressed and demoralised by the minuscule progress made after attending classes daily over 2 months in Beijing, I have decided to stop being so hard on myself and celebrate the small achievements. I should feel pleased that I can navigate the city, catch taxis and converse with shopkeepers. I should be amazed that I can remember any characters at all! So I shall persevere....and shall soon find myself back in Beijing, and back looking over the intersection of Gongti Bei Lu and Sanlitun Lu from the windows of the language school. Meanwhile, the new teacher of my Chinese class here (Level 8 - how ridiculous, what a sham!) is from Shanghai and continually corrects my Beijing accent.

Luckily, art is a universal language (at least to some extent) and with the help of my young translators from Beijing Foreign Languages University (who tell me that you can graduate from there either as a diplomat or a spy) I have managed to have fascinating and complex conversations with artists in my visits to studios. Here is my interview with Shanghai-based performance artist Wu Meng, published today in Daily Serving.
Wu Meng with her husband, Grass Stage Theatre director Zhao Chuan, photograph LG 2012
The Song of the Shirt
In her 2013 performance work And They Chat (also called Chat with Women), Wu Meng walked the streets of the old city of Haikou in a wedding dress made of newspaper, tying discarded domestic objects such as pots and pans, a broom, and a large mosquito net onto her body as she went. Her load became heavier and heavier as she dragged herself down the road, followed by small children and curious onlookers. The performance concluded with a reading from Engels on marriage and monogamy. A new collaborative work, Metamorphosis Garden, reveals her consistent interest in exploring aspects of women’s lived experience. “… sweet fairy tales, strange, even bloody little allegories, interwoven with real-life female stories. How should women view themselves and respond to this complex and lonely world?” In asking this question, Wu Meng creates a body of work that explores the contested territory of gender in today’s China.
Wu Meng, 'Gravity 1' 2010. Image courtesy of the Artist and OV Gallery Shanghai.
The contemporary Chinese art scene is exciting and dynamic, but at times seems fueled by a heady mixture of testosterone and “baijiu,” the Chinese white spirit that fells unsuspecting foreigners like rocket fuel. In my quest to meet women artists, I had been told by numerous people in Shanghai that I must interview Wu Meng: performance artist, freelance writer, and founding member of Grass Stage experimental theater collective. In addition to her work with Grass Stage, Wu has created solo works in Hong Kong, the German Pavilion at Shanghai EXPO (2010), Hamburg (2011), Leipzig (2012), and throughout China.
To read more, click HERE