Sunday, September 02, 2007

My last words in China

“Do you have any last words?” my translator asked.
I was in China. I had been sitting for two days at the International Symposium on the Comparative Research of Modern and Contemporary Chinese and Western Art Education. I felt numb from the waist down. Add to my sitting time the twelve hour airline flight and the train, Bus and taxi time… There had been so much traveling and so much preparation for this conference. From the moment my translator had met me at Beijing, every conversation with my gracious hosts had been revolving about the topic of aesthetics, that is, the beauty, history, tradition and moral meaning of art.

Even during the lavish welcome banquets, this topic of aesthetics was already the central focus. Once the symposium began, the formal speakers at the conference presented long, staccato lectures in Chinese about the subject with subtopics like “The Embodiment and Construction of Confucianism’s Aesthetic Educational Spirit”, “The Aesthetics of Grandeur, Sublimity and Splendor”, and “Postmodernism Culture and Education.” Heavy, heavy stuff. My young translator Wang Qi whispered faithfully into my left ear during these talks, giving me a blow by blow account of each presenter’s thesis.

As a representative for America, I had already delivered my presentation to those assembled at the Conference earlier that morning. I spoke about my work with the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, and how art brought communities together. I spoke about the Full Circle Education model and the joyous children’s project we had created for the United Nations Environmental Programme.I emphasized the power of creating art, free from confined presuppositions.
It was well received, once my translator had completed her tidy follow up to the crowd. But I felt dissatisfied. There was something more I needed to convey. Something off the cuff, and direct. The subject in the room had turned to the question of how to reach students, and how to make them care about all of this theory and philosophy of aesthetics. It was at that moment that I was overcome by a realization of what I really needed to say.

“Do you have any last words?” my translator asked again. “ The President has opened up this time for any follow up comments. Do you have any words for China and for the professors of the Nation?”

Yes I did. I waited my turn for the microphone to be handed to me. I took a deep breath.

“I want to tell you a story,” I began. My translator Wang Qi echoed me in Chinese.

“ I walk down a road and I see a house.” Wang Qi translated.

“In the house are two people. They let me come in and they give me soup. After my soup, I go to bed.” Wang Qi translated.

“ This is a boring story.”

My translator was momentarily confused. She blinked at me.

“Please,” I assured her. “Translate these words as I speak them.”

I repeated, “This is a boring story.”

My translator did her job and the room became filled with a kind of nervous tension. Some listeners turned to whisper to their neighbors. Where was this American artist going with this?

“Now I am going to tell you a new story,” I said, with my voice stronger and my gaze more direct at the faces in the crowd. “YOU walk down a road. YOU feel the stones and pebbles beneath YOUR feet. You feel the wind and sunshine on YOUR face.” I turned to my translator and beckoned her to resume. As she spoke, people began to refocus their attention on my words.

“At the end of the road you see a house. You recognize It. It is the house you grew up in as a child.”

Wanq Qi translated.

“As you see this house, you think of the times of sadness and times of happiness from your life.”

Wang Qi translated.

“Two people open the door to greet you. You recognize them. They are your parents.”

Wang Qi translated. As I scanned the faces of my colleagues, all eyes in the room were fixed on me now.

“Your mother offers you some soup. It is your favorite. The taste, the aroma make you feel joy.”

Wang Qi translated.

“As you eat, you speak to your father at the table.. You hear his strong, familiar voice.”

As my translator spoke, a few Chinese English speakers in the room added suggestions as to how to phrase it just right. As she did, people nodded.

“You grow tired, so your mother suggests that you go to bed. You lay down, and she softly sings you to sleep. Do you hear it?” I was making this metaphoric story up as I went along, and as I spoke the last descriptive sentence, the nerves in my skin shivered.

Wang Qi translated. Her voice was different.

“Now you care about my story.” I paused. “And, this is how we reach students.”

I waited for this final translation with my heart pounding in my chest.

There was a burst of smiles, and applause. Quick laughter and nods.

Immediately, the chairman called for a short break, and I was met by many in the hallway who wanted to discuss my stories. As my translator spoke, I was glowing.
“It was about emotion, wasn’t it !” exclaimed a young professor. “I felt the feelings. I felt in my heart a connection to what you were saying.”

“I cared about your words.” said another. “I felt every idea. Not just thinking, but feeling. Very good!”

“We all felt it.” an elderly Chinese professor said as she grasped my hand. “We understood. I want to thank you.”