Before hanging up the phone, my mother says to me hopefully, “You’ll go there and understand how to be Chinese.” It is 8 a.m., I am at Portland International Airport, I am half-asleep, and I have absolutely no idea what she’s talking about. I say goodbye, then head to the gate for the 11-hour flight which will take me and my Reed classmates to China.
In a mixed-race family (Chinese mother, Jewish father), the need to be understood is dire. Evidently, over the next week, it was to be my familial responsibility to figure out Chinese culture first-hand.
During fall break, I participated in a Reed-funded trip to the Shanghai Biennale with art history professor Lisa Claypool and two of her classes—Art in Contemporary China (ART 395) and Body Language (ART 426). The Biennale is an international art exhibition, and during our week in China we planned to look at work from the Biennale as well as that by local artists. We had six days, 21 students, three professors, and only five Chinese speakers among us.
By the end of the first day, we had all figured out that getting lost, left behind, or stranded waiting for a cab was an educational hazard of the trip. Without language skills, simple tasks such as asking for directions or reading a street sign become tricky. Some of my classmates had an even harder time, trying to figure out whether our food contained meat, pork, or dairy. My strategy was to stick with the group, eat without complaining, and make sure there was always a Chinese speaker around me.
As a group, we saw sites such as the Shanghai Art Museum (where the Biennale took place), the Yu Yuan Gardens, and Moganshan Art Center (an artist colony). During the week, I also visited restaurants, clubs, and Shanghai’s only sex museum. I received a blind massage, found a dedicated group of swing dancers, visited a swank gallery opening, and browsed through an entire mall of Diesel, DKNY, Ralph Lauren, and Puma knock-offs.
We didn’t stay at an ultra-modern Western hotel chain, like many Americans probably would if they came to Shanghai. Instead, professor Claypool opted for the historical experience at the Peace Hotel. It was constructed in 1929 in the Gothic style of the Chicago School, and its small European elevators, rooftop bar, and aging varnished wood exude an antique air. We received daily information in the glass-and-marble lobby, while steady rhythms poured out of the hotel’s “Old Jazz Bar.” The all-Chinese five-piece band played American standards of the ’30s and ’40s—Gershwin and Berlin and Porter. The musicians churned out the tunes like a rundown military marching band.
Much of the artwork from the Biennale demonstrated a clear criticism of China’s rapid transition from totalitarian communism to Western-style capitalism. Issues such as memory, authenticity, and transformation were brought up over and over again. Some artists dealt with the year’s theme—“Hyper-design”—and created high-tech objects and living spaces for the inevitably crowded and polluted future. Popular media ranged from photography to installation sculpture and film; there was little drawing or painting on display.
In the artist colonies we visited, the work exhibited less criticism and reflected internationalism in the Chinese art market. The audience for China’s art scene is almost entirely Western, and that affects the work. Some studios were dark, small, without division between creative and exhibition space. Others, owned and run by Westerners, had clean white walls, lots of open space, and fashionably dressed receptionists. I had the opportunity to speak to an artist through my Chinese-speaking classmate. The artist leapt into a political conversation about China’s cultural and environmental problems, complaining about the declining water quality in his home village, and leaving us—three privileged and well-educated American college students—with little to say.
As a cultural experience, the trip exposed me to how American culture is absorbed in industrializing countries. In China, anything Western is taken to the extreme. Pizza Hut employees dress like wizards in a Harry Potter movie, complete with capes and pointy hats; at McDonald’s, they’re all cowboys. Ads for American products are highly eroticized—dimly-lit glowing bodies sell toothpaste, face cream, and Big Macs.
The Western obsession in China is hard to take, especially coming from Portland, where billboard regulations and limits on development keep the city from being visually overrun by mass-commercialization. Everywhere we went in China, we were flocked by street vendors selling knock-off designer bags, shoes, and jeans. They would wait until you opened the cab door to push products in your face and yell “Shoes! Bag!” By the end of the trip, I was wondering what those vendors and cowboy-clad McDonald’s employees thought about us. If they had known I was half-Chinese, that my mother fled to Taiwan from Communist China, that I was only one generation away from Mao’s rule, would they act any differently? I realized that my experience in the States was irreconcilably different from that of a 21-year-old Chinese college student.
While waiting in the Shanghai airport for the long trip home, I thought about what my mother had said. There was no way for me to learn about being Chinese in China. Looking very Caucasian myself, I was treated as a Westerner and therefore taken for a wealthy, shopping-crazed foreigner. I left with many strong beliefs about art in China, and the future of art as China continues to modernize. I can say that I’ve experienced China, now—through Western eyes.
—Gabriella Cook ’07