For the past four years I have been traveling alone extensively in China and have been so inspired I have been studying Mandarin. It has been an adventure and challenge. I paint on my travels but not all paintings are successful. I view my time here in China as a place of exploration and discovery. In addition to learning the language, making friends and sharing the art spirit, I have been gathering many photographs, sketches, paintings and ideas that will be inspirational for me back in the USA.
This spring I have had the joy of volunteering to teach painting and drawing for underprivileged children of migrant workers. My Mandarin is poor at best but the universal language of art and smiles go a long way. I hope I have added color to the lives of these wonderful children. I was especially impressed with so many who had natural talent, and I hope I have inspired some to pursue art in their future.
My wife, Wanda and I had just finished touring Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam when we bid our farewells in Hong Kong as she boarded for Los Angeles. I flew on to Shanghai to start my next adventure. It was emotionally difficult to see Wanda walk towards the international connection and fade out of my view. On past trips, I had had fifteen hours on the plane to China by myself to deal with my separation anxiety.
The Jiuqian Center provides after-school activities for underprivileged kids of migrant workers. The children come from all over China. They can enroll in Shanghai schools only through middle school, then they must return to their home provinces to continue high school.
On this first visit to the Jiuqian center, I was greeted by two fifteen-year-old girls. They both spoke English better than I spoke Chinese. I told them I would be teaching painting over the next three weeks; Yang Xiao Min quickly responded she did not like painting, the other girl, Ban Fu Jun said she did. Ban Fu Jun is from Anhui province and Yang is from Sichuan. Ban Fu Jun plays the Pipu, a traditional Chinese string instrument, which looks like a cross between violin and guitar, but is played upright on her lap and leans across her shoulder. She took a few minutes to wrap her right hand fingers with white tape before obliging me with a demonstration. She played quite well and told me she has been studying music after school here for three years. Ban was my "fanyi," my translator. I tried my best, but needed to ask her to clarify many words in English, as I couldn't yet understand much. I definitely needed to wear my down jacket while working here, as it was very cold throughout the makeshift school.
Although I had never met Mr. Zhang before, we immediately felt like we were old friends. Mr. Zhang, a tall, slender man barely forty years old, is director of the Jiuqian volunteer center. The first evening at the school he invited me to partake in the Yuan Xiao Jie, the Chinese Lantern Festival, a celebration of the last day of the lunar new year. We were all served the yuan tang, a sweet rice soup with white eyeballs filled with meat, sesame or lucky peanut to insure your wishes are fulfilled. We proceeded to draw and write on the orange lantern skins. I wrote mine in Chinese, "This year I want to speak Chinese", and drew a cartoon of myself. I helped Xiao draw a snake to represent this year's animal, she was hesitant as she dislikes art but I guided her arm for a sweeping serpentine gesture, which also drew a big smile on her face. Before I left, she asked if I will be coming back, and she said she would give art another chance. We all went outside to light the lanterns for a glowing send off. All of Shanghai was blasting fireworks, which offered spectacular light displays and thundering echoes between the buildings. Many people were on the Bund watching the sparkling reflections on the Huang Pu River.
I spent most the next day buying art supplies along Fuzhou Lu in the center of Shanghai. This street is all about art, book stores and calligraphy supplies. I was looking for supplies for the children's art projects. I never have taught children before, so I winged it and came up with ideas off-the-cuff. I found a shop that had a pile of ping-pong paddles. I thought painting the bare wooden paddles with a handle was a great idea. So I purchased thirty for the kids, along with umbrellas for the kids to decorate. I filled bags with paint and brushes, drawing paper, stickers, canvas and a cheap easel. In the Shanghai bookstore, I also bought two of my Fill your Oil Paintings with Light and Color books, in the Chinese translated version, in the Shanghai bookstore to share with the kids.