Updated: Oct 28, 2018
It's been two weeks since I arrived in Chongqing for my 3 month artist residency.
It's interesting how when you spend time in a new place, your mind temporarily lets go of some of the pre-existing habits that have been cultured for so long -- you let yourself wander around aimlessly with no goal in mind, never once questioning whether you're learning enough or if the time spent is done so productively. At some point though, usually a week in or so, your minds becomes comfortable in the new space and the usual mental habits resume.
"You must be productive today" it says, "You must create something."
This is certainly how it is for me. But if productivity and creation are the goals, then what is the path? -- Go actively absorb daily life in culture that is not your own, and create artwork that is representational of that experience? Now that is quite a tall order, but I think I'm beginning to wrap my head around how to get there. The key for me is "active absorption."
This past week something has become strikingly obvious to me. A region's culture is so tightly tied to its language. From the way we speak to the way we think, the words and phrases that we use to tell stories and communicate ideas are all symbolic of a much larger way of thinking.
If I want to understand these ideas and observe how they form the "mental lens" that specific cultures look through when engaging with the world, I need to prioritize spending time with the local people and try my hardest to speak their language. This way I can begin to identify my own "lens" as well.
To find to most people that I could chat with, I took the bus to one of the city centers. This place is called the 杨家坪商圈 (Yang Jia Ping Commercial District) and there are thousands of people here. Holy God there are so many people.
The entire center of the district is all concrete with no motor ways. The shape seen from above is similar to that of an octagon, but a giant octagon. On all sides of the space are stores topped with buildings which tower high into the sky. Through the middle of the space, a beautifully painted elevated rail system snakes along - - carrying people from one end to the other. This area of the city serves as a major transportation hub for buses and trains, but the open air of the plaza creates space where many people tend to gather...and gather they do.
In China many retired people spend their days on the streets chatting with their friends and enjoying tea. Most of the time however, you will see them in groups playing a card game called 斗地主 (Dou Dizhu) or something like "fight the landlord." This name makes more sense when you learn that the cards represent debt and that the goal is for one player, the landlord, to get the other players to pay all his debt. This game almost always involves gambling and shows me that a tenant's frustration with their landlord truly is a universal thing.
The other game that is widely played is 象棋 (Xiang qi) or Chinese chess. Many MANY people play this game and they will play it absolutely anywhere. In a restaurant, on the ground, or even just by using a rice paper board on a park bench (pictured above). While I was standing and observing this particular game, one of the men broke his focus to ask me where I was from. “美国" (Mei guo) [America] I responded.
His face became noticeable upset and his speech hastened to a pace that was too quick for me to understand. The only cluster of words I could catch were "贸易" (Mao yi) or “trade” and "战" (zhan) or “war.” At this point, most of the other men had stopped watching the game and redirected their gaze onto me. About 20 in total. They were waiting to hear my response to a statement that I didn’t fully understand to begin with. I felt very nervous and was noticeable shaken, but I took a deep breath, brought my hand to my chest and said, “我希望贸易战很快和平结束” (Wo xiwang maoyi zhan hen kuai hepin jieshu)
"I hope the trade war ends quickly and peacefully."
Or at least I think that's what I said.
They paused and looked at me for what felt like forever, but soon they nodded and returned their attention to the game. The older man who first spoke to me responded,
“我同意" (wo tongyi) - "I agree.”
Even though the other men had already resumed their attention to the game, one man was still paying attention to me. Coming closer, he leaned over, gestured to the chess board and asked me if I knew how to play. I said no. He then pulled his phone from his pocket, scrolled through several pages applications and touched his finger to a virtual button named "象棋app" - The Chinese chess app.
“We can play together” he said. “I can teach you."
Needless to say, there's a lot that I still have to learn, like how to talk about geopolitics with older men in another language... but I've found that if I search often and keep my mind open, I might just find someone who is willing to teach me.
I'm already well on my way too! --- after all, isn't a trade war kind of just like a big game of chess?
Thank you for reading.