In May of 2005 I landed in Shanghai, on my way to a job working for a local architecture office. After slogging through check points, I made it to the arrival gate, where I met my aunt, uncle and their friend. While my aunt and I joked about our common fear we would not recognize each other, their friend manically recorded our reunion with a camera. With my uncle’s help we hoisted my luggage into the trunk, and the four of us drove into the city for dinner. The restaurant was like a hotel for dining, where service attendants wove in and out of private suites carrying food, beverages, dirty plates, and cutlery. The elevator stopped on the tenth floor. We were guided through a long corridor finished with gold wallpaper. More of uncle’s friends were already waiting in our suite. I sat as the guest of honour and watched platters of steaming vegetables, bubbling soups, fish and meat coated in glistening sauces appear and, eventually cover the surface of the lazy susan. As the night wore on, I – no longer able to resist fatigue – began to respond simply with ‘yes’ and ‘no’ combined with hand gestures.
“That’s so funny!” one friend exclaimed. “I’ve never seen anyone move so much when they talk!”
“That’s what Westerners do,” said my uncle. “They’re always very emphatic when they talk.”
I was horrified. My natural movements had become a topic of interest. In China, where I am camouflaged, one raised eyebrow or a simple bob of the head could completely give me away.
My boss was a small man, who dressed in black and always wore a pair of large, round, acrylic framed glasses. Everyone at the office called him Lou laoshi. He kindly arranged an apartment for me, on the 24th floor in a building by a park. It was a two bedroom suite – white walls, spare furnishings. An empty fish tank divided the dining area from the living room, my balcony facing a light well. It wasn’t much of a view. Directly across from the neighbour’s balconies, vertical pipes ran up the walls and horizontal pipes tapped into each unit. The apartment belonged to my boss’s friends who were overseas. I was their house-sitter for the summer. All the hot water in the apartment depended on the successful ignition of the gas water heater in the kitchen, a wall mounted metal box. I’d never seen one before. My uncle showed me how to light it.
“First push the button,” he said. “Hear that clicking sound? That’s the gas ignition. Count to seven and turn the knob. To check that it works, just turn on the hot water tap.”
A surge of gas ignited at a spark inside the box.
“See that? It means you’ve done it right. Oh, don’t forget to turn it off when you go to work. We don’t want any gas leaks while you’re away.”
Every morning, I would get a breakfast crepe on my way to work. An ah-yi standing before a coal fired drum, would spread batter onto the hot metal cook top, break an egg, sprinkle green onions, pickled vegetables, and deep fried dough sticks, then roll the crepe over with a trowel. I’d coupled this feast with a glass of fresh soy milk. 160 Anshan Road was the gate number for a complex of residential buildings. The architecture office was in building number eight on the fourth floor. Building eight was almost an annexed property of Tonji University. There was an architecture book store on the third floor, and two practices run by professors downstairs. Lou laoshi also taught at Tongji. The office was originally a two bedroom suite. One bedroom was converted into the private office, the other, the model room and general storage. There were nine of us, two principles and seven employees. My first project was a schematic design of a house on Fuxing Road, a property walled around an ancient tree that grew in the middle of the lot. My boss had intended to show the client sketch models for their first design meeting. I began my job working alone in the model room. I had been in Shanghai for about three weeks. Still trying to find my bearings, I enjoyed the solitude. The room was equipped with a foam cutter, a CNC router, and boxes of cardboard and packaging foam. There was a table for outdated models, discarded ideas, and rejected schemes. Scattered about the room were pieces of paper crumpled between cardboard and foam, or stuffed in boxes. There was writing on them. Calligraphy to be exact. I asked who wrote them and was told that Lou laoshi had long dabbled in the calligraphic arts. I mentioned that I had practiced calligraphy.
“Oh, that’s interesting. I have brushes here if you like to try.”
Weeks later my boss was asked to show a visiting Spanish architect where to buy antiques. He invited me to join them. We drove past the outer ring of the city where paved roads turned into gravel lanes. Rows of squat double storey warehouses replaced the concrete towers. Re-bar piles lined the streets, along with terracotta wares and columns of rubber tires. We came to a stop in front of a building of no distinction. In the foyer, there was a wooden scroll table and two yoke back chairs on display. The real storehouse was a concrete shell with a wood plank mezzanine. Everything was raw, splintered, dusty and unpolished. But almost every corner of the building was stuffed with objects for sale. Baskets stacked to the ceiling. Paths barely wide enough to weave through, separated the rows of painted drawers, carved bed frames, chairs, statuary, and pottery. The Spaniard lit a cigarette, walked around, and asked if all the pieces were original. She didn’t buy anything that day. On our way to the car, Lou lasoshi glanced at the price for the yoke back chair and scroll table in the foyer.
“$2000 RMB! So cheap!” he said. “There’s no room for it in my house…I’ll put it in the office. It will be my calligraphy table.”
The summer of 1997, my parents, my brother and I returned to China. I was thirteen and didn’t like the idea of spending my summer before high school in a strange land and, in a sense, getting to know my Chinese family. We took a few tourist trips – we toured the Great Wall and Forbidden City; we floated down the Wu Yi Mountain valley in a bamboo raft. But most of the time was spent commuting between my aunt’s house and my grandmother’s house. I learned Chinese landscape painting that summer. My teacher was skeptical. Although I had painted watercolours before, “this,” he said, “was entirely different.” Perhaps he thought that my Western upbringing crippled any inborn ability to understand Chinese culture. Once I started to progress, perhaps beyond his expectations, he never mentioned my (in)experience again. Instead, he suggested that I practice calligraphy.
“But I don’t know the language,” I said.
“It doesn’t matter; it will help you become a better painter.”
We returned to Canada with a bundle of shuan paper stuffed in the trunk, several volumes of landscape painting manuals, and two calligraphy books. I kept up the painting and wrote calligraphy for a few months. Then, like most of my projects, the paper, the brushes, the ink stone moved into our basement, unfinished.
At first, I’d sit at the scroll table out of novelty. The chair wasn’t particularly comfortable and the table was too high for regular writing. But there was always ink and a brush on it. One day, I took a piece of newspaper and wrote a few characters.
“Wah! Ling ah, ling ah!” exclaimed my boss.
In Shanghai-ese, “ling-ah” stood for something good or clever. At first I only had the patience to write a couple of characters. My wrist felt strained after just a few strokes. But I kept returning to that table and I continued writing. A few words turned into few pages. Eventually, I’d spend a half hour or more after lunch devoted to calligraphy. Although I wasn’t “working,” no on questioned the thing that I substituted for the work.
I am always struck with fear before I write. When I first learned to draw, confronted by a blank page with a pencil in my hand, I would, as if by instinct, panic. I fought between the urge to draw and the fear of doing it wrong, so my father usually initiated the process. He drew the first line, and then assured me that there was nothing to fear and that the eraser fixed all mistakes. My father kept a pencil sketch he drew of a lion that stood between tall reeds in the savannah. He copied the image from a book, and it was the only drawing he would ever show to others. I too copied the same drawing. He always liked my version better, and used to say that I had a natural talent for art – which he worked very hard at.
“You know that if you memorized one Chinese word a day, that’s three hundred and sixty five in a year. Basic literature only demands comprehension of around a thousand words. It would only take a few years, less even. You have the background.”
My father liked to boast about my calligraphy to his friends. His description of my work usually started with “well she’s illiterate, but her writing is very beautiful.” It seemed perverse that I, when compared to a Chinese person from the mainland, am the better calligrapher. The culture was mine when I chose to participate in it. To my art teacher, my boss, and my father, my calligraphy was a curiosity. But I rather enjoyed the absurdity that my works signify. Oddly enough, the longer I had practiced calligraphy, the more often I wondered what the words meant. Sometimes I’d come across a line of text in a book or in a caption, and the image would register as a character that I had repeated in various styles or struggled to perfect in my calligraphy. Little by little, my memory bank grows from the characters that challenge me in the writing process.
At thirteen I was first introduced to Chinese painting and calligraphy. At twenty-one calligraphy became a common place between my Western and my Chinese culture. It wasn’t that I had it “figured out” but, somehow, equipped with the knowledge of this particular cultural tradition, China was less of a mystery. Now at twenty-four, I’m about to return. I’m not sure how I will react or how the place will react to me. But it will be good to slide back into that yoke back chair, place my hand on the scroll table, pour out some ink and start writing.