All Day Brunch, Improv Tea Ceremonies, and Green Onions For Free

By Daniela Izaguirre (MFA 2016)

I am a bad liar. As I mentioned in my previous post I was a slightly nervous about traveling to China. In all honesty, I didn’t know what to expect. 

It is said that it takes twelve days to recover your body from jet lag and forty days to adopt a new habit. It is our 30th day in Beijing and our group has already formed some new habits together. The days when the newness of experiencing Beijing would confuse us at grocery stores and restaurants are starting to feel distant.

Sophia, Ben, Taylor and I have picked up the tradition of eating brunch together, mostly every day at a Korean restaurant chain called ‘Tous Les Jours’ offering All-Day Brunch; not very adventurous, but a great start to a full day at the studio. It is often funny trying to communicate with the waitresses with probably the only three words in Chinese we have managed to remember –‘vinda’-iced, ‘xie xie’- thank you, and ‘haoshi’- delicious— and hoping they will understand what we mean. Luckily, almost every restaurant in Beijing has picture books for menus.

Polly at Belencre
Being an introvert myself, whenever I move to a new place, I tend to look for quiet spots where I can have some time to unwind my thoughts and recharge my batteries. I found such place in a small coffee shop called Belencre, inside the ‘Little White House´ art supply store near CAFA. Coming from the hustle of living in NY it really surprised me to see a café-in this case also Chinese tea- barista preparing coffees and rose milk teas in such a ceremonious manner. Her name is Polly. It was a delight to see her put so much care and reverence in preparing a drink. It was as if the millenary China of my ‘mundo imaginario’-the one fed by writings of Basho, art history books and period style movies, the same one somehow hidden behind a scene of highways filled with literary ‘millions’ of cars and landscapes of skyscrapers competing with each other- somehow lived within her and shaped the very way she holds the cup, the times she chooses to filter the tea, the seconds she waits for the tea to release its flavor.

Drinking tea at our studio
“Five seconds exactly,” “The first time is the ‘waste,’” “You clean the pot and the cups,” “There are four ‘tao’ or times you filter the tea,” explained Zai Zhou to me during an improvised tea ceremony at one of the CAFA studios. He is also a second year graduate student and my studio mate for the last five weeks in Beijing. “You have to taste the tea with the back part of your palate” Zai Zhou instructed me so that I could taste the transition from bitter to sweet. “For older generations the tea had more meaning.” He also explained to me that due to China’s rapid economic growth and globalization in the last years, it has created a gap between older generations and young Chinese people, conflicting over contrasting values. During one of our many hour-long taxi drives to the clay shop (my ceramic sculpture exploded into 20 pieces in the kiln 5 days before our exhibition!), Zai Zhou shared with me that these scenes of contemporary China inspire him to create paintings that show ‘the invisible truth behind’ through humor. I was very excited to find that our art had some points in common and also to learn more about how Chinese people perceive art and the world around them.

My studio mate Zai Zhou

Clay shop one hour away from Beijing
Although, I still find myself puzzled about Chinese modes of communication and humor, I am starting to tacitly understand some of its elements. I am curious about how it is understood specifically in each culture by the collective mind of their people, to understand the role it plays in communicating concepts, showing the truth and making statements relevant. Due to the language barrier, humorous situations have been the ‘pain quotidian’ of our trip.
Glazing my ceramic pieces

Clay figurines in progress
English is not my first language, so I am used to a certain amount of conversations getting lost in translations. Being in China multiplied that experience exponentially. I wonder every time I go to a store what do Chinese people think of me when I stare at them perplexed trying to figure out what are they saying. I think as much I vo-ca-li-ze my words it doesn’t help. I have resorted to use all the expressive skills my very histrionic Latin mum taught me and talk with my hands. I often feel like Cai Honping, the ‘Chinese Susan Boyle,’ when at the China’s Got Talent show she forgot the lyrics in Italian from the famous song Nessun Dorma and substituted them for the songs she sings at a Shanghai vegetable market where she works: “Chicken leg, chicken wing/ Duck leg, duck wing/Carrots, tomatoes and green onions…/Come and get green onions for free!”

Funny restaurant names
This is what I have learned about myself in this trip to China: to laugh at the detours of life. Beijing has exceeded my expectations and helped get the best out of me. I am going back to NY with an extra suitcase filled with art supplies, souvenirs and a broken project. I am also taking back a heart full of memories and friendships I will never forget. It is hard to condense everything I want to say about China in a one page word document but I will stop or else I will end up turning this post in for the Residency trip of 2016!

Xie xie and Green Onions for Free!! 

At our exhibition opening