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.
I met Mr. Zhang for dinner in a little shop around the corner from my hotel. This was our first time to plan the program for his students. He graduated from Shanghai University with a degree in philosophy, teaches at the university daily, and works with the kids every day, including weekends, from 2:30 to 8:00pm. The parents of the children work long days, mostly in menial jobs, and the kids have no after school options, so the Jiuqian Volunteer Center is their home away from home.
The Jiuqian Center has introduced music as the focus and has gained quite a reputation for its accomplishments. I had happened to see a special about their program on CCTV from my home in Taos, New Mexico. I was taken by Mr. Zhang's dedication to improving the lives of these children. I wrote him an email offering my service to add art to his program. He quickly and enthusiastically accepted and said, "come over this weekend!" Well, as I was half way around the world, we had to plan a bit before I could arrive.
Over the next few weeks we painted many fun and creative projects, visited museums together and even had a day sketching in the open air along the most famous strip in Shanghai, the historic and picturesque, Bund.
On my 57th birthday I flew to Xishuangbanna, Yunnan in the southwest of China. It was just turning dark as I left for Mengla. The milky atmosphere smelled of smoke from the burning farm fields I saw as we landed. It was warm– nearly ninety degrees. The roadways are lined with many plumeria trees, banana trees and coconut palms.
The three-hour drive to Mengla from Jing Hong was very dark. The winding road pierced the mountain with long black tunnels without interior lighting. The taxi driver pulled off the side of the road about 10:00 pm in the pitch dark, and called someone. He spoke very fast so I could not understand what he was saying. If I had not reserved this driver with Mr. Zhang, I would have been frightened. Mr. Zhang appeared with his iPhone to use as a flashlight, to join me for the last drive to a hotel. My hotel is cheap. We sat for awhile to plan my classes as little lizards scurried across the ceiling and giant cockroaches ran onto the table and jumped across the hole in the floor, which served as the toilet. I smashed a big one; it was very juicy.
From Mengla I managed to buy the bus ticket to the small Dai village of Longlin. The driver dropped me off at highway marker 107. I crossed a narrow river wall, past a small temple for the little minority village, a complex of old wooden houses. The bottom floor of each house was reserved for animals, ducks, chickens and pigs. The dogs are always on guard, or they may become dinner. Corn was drying on the rafters and men shave the bamboo to make strips to weave chairs and baskets. As I walked to the village school an old woman invited me in for sweet rice cakes cooked on the wood-fueled fire. The cakes were dipped into fresh-harvested honey--delicious.
The Longlin Grade School housed 200 of their three hundred students. There are 20 regular teachers and eight volunteers from Shanghai. I was the only American; in fact I was the only American to ever visit the school.
Mr. Zhang and the kids surrounded me quickly and were instantly welcoming. The students, 7 to 11 years old, came from afar and most lived at school away from their family. The Director of Longlin school was honored I came to paint and share the art spirit.
Before we filled a large cotton sheet with drawings of favorite animals the children sang happy birthday to me. They loved mixing paint. After class we dined outside. The teachers prepared local Dai dishes. We partied, ate too much, drank too much bai jiu and bee, which promoted singing and dancing. At the end of the evening we all walked into the blackness of the rubber tree forest to look for the fireflies, ying huo chong.
The kids were so sweet. They always greeted me, Kevin Lao Shi, Teacher Kevin. Both boys and girls liked to hold my hand, both boys and girls. It felt good to fill a niche and feel the love of little children.
Each day was filled with new experiences, inspirational locations, unexpected wonders and exceptional people. At an early age I embraced the art spirit. Since then my life has been blessed because of art. I have taught thousands of adult students, and now I would like to share the gift with young, underprivileged children as long as I can physically and financially continue my mission, Art Ambassador for a Colorful World.
To learn more about my mission , go to our website: www.artambassador.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Letter from Mr/ Zhang:
"Thank you for bringing a colorful world for the kids! I believe these days with you will never be forgotten in their mind. These beautiful memories will also company with me. And thank you for painting my portraiture, it's the best gift I had in my birthday!"
Best wishes, 张轶超（Zhang YiChao, of Jiugian Center）
Here's a nice art nice about Mr. Zhang and the Jiugian Center, where Kevin teaches: