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Clare's blog

Migration Stories: Review of March Yaji

By Clare Tyrrell-Morin

It was an enticingly warm, spring-like evening when Yaji took over ThinkTank in Portland’s arts district in March. Lanterns were hanging at the main entrance in celebration of this being the final day of the Chinese Lunar New Year—a sense of newness permeating the air.

Our second edition of Yaji was called ‘Migration Stories’ and featured two Taiwanese artists who have lived in Maine for decades. They came to us thanks to the inspiring exhibition Somewhere Here: Visions from Chinese & Taiwanese Artists in Maine that Ankeney Weitz, the Ellerton M. and Edith K. Jetté Professor of Art at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, had spearheaded with her class of students.

One of the reasons we launched Yaji last fall was exactly to find people like Ankeney Weitz—and all the artists that she was locating. We had a feeling that talents like this would be hiding in the woods of Maine, and we were right. Weitz is a scholar of Chinese art and history, who has quietly been living in Maine for the past 16 years. In 2016, she’ll be curating a retrospective of the master modern French-Chinese abstract painter Zao Wou-Ki at the Asia Society Museum in New York. It was a stroke of extraordinary luck that she decided to forge a project that located seven talented Chinese and Taiwanese artists in Maine during the exact time of our second Yaji gathering. We were thrilled to bring two of these seven artists into our intimate salon setting to tell their tales.

After tea was sipped courtesy of the Little Red Tea Cup, our audience settled into the back area of ThinkTank to peer into these artist minds. Ankeney Weitz introduced the Colby exhibition with Chrisbell (Jingwei) Ni, a first year Colby student by her side, who is originally from Beijing and worked on the exhibition. We also had two Bates interns, Yutong Li of Shanghai and Chialin Yu of Taipei helping us at the event (these events are revealing the myriads of East-West connections that already exist in Maine). After a video was shown of the Colby students spending time in each artist’s studio, we then moved onto the life story of Shiao-Ping Wang.


I have to admit that I was intrigued to hear her story. I knew that Wang’s father was the executive editor of the Shìjiè Rìbào (World Journal) in New York, the largest Chinese-language newspaper in the United States. So she comes from an intellectual family—and a strong conceptual mind was clear as soon as she started describing her radiant works.

“I grew up with a vague sense of uncertainty,” explained Wang as she took to the podium. “My parents being mainlanders, I was always called a mainlander even though I was born in Taiwan.” She then led us through the story of her life together with images of her art—of her migration to the US and the years it took to settle into her new identity.

In the maps that Wang creates, she begins with her Taipei childhood neighbourhood, then adds other maps on top—the map of Flushing, Queens in New York, where she has spent time and many of her family still live—to a final layering of a map of Berwick, Maine, the place she has called home for decades.

This perfectly speaks to the immigrant experience. It speaks to how the mind works as we build a sense of home. I have a similar series of layerings: my childhood home is in rural Lancashire in England, I grew up amid the skyscrapers of Hong Kong, and for the past six years I have called Portland, Maine, home. Wang’s maps show how the migrant experience isn’t a linear timeline at all, how it’s a “now” that has multiple entry points through space and time, and how home becomes a montage. Memory is like this, one sniff of the Old Port in Portland, and I am transported to the fishing islands of Hong Kong.

As she came to the end of her talk, Wang said that in recent years she has found peace in her practice. From her very early beginnings where she was labelled an outsider, she has come to a new understanding. “Accepting myself as a stranger has been very important in my life these days,” she said.  

After her talk, a young Asian-American man at the back of the audience stood up and shared his appreciation for Wang’s storytelling. “I’ve just come up from New York for the day, and I’m so happy I made it to this event,” he said to us all. “Listening to your artist talk was like hearing my mother’s story of her journey from Taiwan. We need to hear these stories.”


The second artist to speak was the groovy and fascinating Ling-Wen Tsai, who is the Head of Sculpture at Maine College of Art (MECA) just across the road from ThinkTank. Tsai is also from Taiwan, but her story is different. Her family were not from the mainland, but were ethic Taiwanese—a people with their own language and history, quite different from that of the mainland. Tsai had traditional parents who encouraged her into nursing, but she couldn’t get rid of a burning desire to create. So she finally made it over to the US at the age of 25 to study art. “It wasn’t the American dream,” she said. “I just wanted to be expressive.”

As soon as she landed in art school, she launched into some truly punk rock projects that questioned who she was in this new land and played with the way people were seeing her. One performance piece, Made in Taiwan, saw her cover her body with “Made in Taiwan” mock tattoos. “I wanted to question this idea of made in Taiwan,” she explained. “Everything I picked up seemed to be made in Taiwan and at the same time, people were projecting a lot of stereotypes onto me. This piece was my response.” In another project, she recreated herself as “Ling-Wen, Asian Friend of Barbie”.

Fresh from graduating, Tsai was offered a job at MECA and she has been here ever since. As she led us through her intriguing body of work, that has become more subtle and refined with her many years of living in the US, she concluded—in a similar way to Wang—of how she is now settling into a sense of peace in her identity. It is a sense of acceptance, she said, of being different and actually being perfectly happy with this. “I don’t feel quite Taiwanese or American,” she concluded. “I feel like a new creature, a new being.”

Our next Yaji takes place on Tuesday, May 12, and is called ‘Language & Identity.’ It features Lady Zen, Frank O’Smith and Ni Rong. More info here


Notes from the Road: Spring China Trip

My Mother’s Day was spent in Shanghai speaking to a mother’s book group about U.S. education and studying in New England.  The evening before, I had given the same talk to a different audience: a Christian mom’s group.  

Before I made my way to Shanghai I was in Fujian Province’s Zhang Zhou city, a non-descript city of one million known for its bananas.  Along with eating delicious fruit, I was visiting the Li Ren Sino-American School. This is a private high school of 10,000 kids where 20 are enrolled in a special “school within a school,” taking American courses taught in English by a wonderful teacher from New Hampshire.  Here, I spoke to a small crowd of 4,000 teachers and students also about American education and studying in New England. 

What stuck me at every stop of my intense, ten-day sweep across China this spring was the interest in studying overseas and the particular interest in our schools.  At a time when many of our schools in the U.S. are faced with budget cuts and other challenges, the interest in China in our small classes, focus on critical thinking and “project based learning” is truly overwhelming.

Safety and clean air top the list of concerns of the moms groups that I spoke to.  We tend to take our air quality for granted yet after breathing brown air in Beijing for three days, I have a deeper appreciation for Maine’s pristine air and incredible natural beauty.  As a mother of three, I have at times taken for granted the fact that we live in such a beautiful region. I felt for these mothers in China: trying to make sense of our education system, our schools and the different regions in the U.S. from so far away.  I was touched by their concerns for their one child and their desire to offer their son or daughter a coveted American education. When I returned, I brought home a deep sense of appreciation of our schools and region.   

- Suzanne Fox 



Guest Blog: More Idioms!

As usual, our gathering in early March ranged through a wide variety of themes. The weather in Beijing this time of year is not great, but people joke that the gathering of officials and delegates for the National People's Congress clears the air quality with their "big talk", or "吹牛" (chuī niú). 

We were soon discussing how Chinese restaurants in the U.S. have two ways of cooking your Chinese dish to sate your taste buds, depending on whether you are American or Chinese. A waiter in New York City in the 1980's shared that he would indicate whether the customer was Western or Chinese to the kitchen staff with "人" (rén) for Chinese and "鬼" (guǐ) or "(foreign) devil." For the Chinese guest, a little saltier, for the Western guest, a little sweeter. Also, the Chinese would serve gelatinous pig's blood "猪血" (zhū xuě) for a Chinese guest, but would not for an American guest. I know of a beloved Taiwanese restaurant in southern California that caters only to Taiwanese... Americans leave it hungry. Tastes vary in China as well. For example, dishes in Shanghai are sweeter than in Beijing.

We weren't far into the roundtable when Bob Poole, one of our most entertaining Chinese speakers, whipped out his colorful pages of more idioms for double-checking interpretations with the Chinese at our Chinese Language Roundtable. He pointed out that he checks every new idiom he stumbles across with at least five Chinese people. A good thing too. For this one idiom, a younger person explained it the current way, and my 90-year old mother explained it the older way. 打草惊蛇  (dǎ cǎo jīng shé) "Beating the grass and flushing out the snake" currently means alerting the target of one's schemes by being cautious. The original meaning is that punishment for someone can serve as a warning to others. But people now use the idiom to indicate that premature actions can put the enemy on guard. A similar idiom, 杀鸡儆猴 (shā jī jǐng hóu), Killing the chicken to warn the monkey means to punish an individual as an example to others. 

Here are a few more that came up for your reading pleasure and contemplation:

雪中送炭 (xuě zhōng sòng tàn) litto send coal during snow (idiom); fig. timely help to provide help when one most needs it. 

雪上加霜 (xuě shàng jiā shuāng) to add hail to snow (idiom); one disaster on top of another to make things worse in a bad situation. 

火上加油 (huǒ shàng jiā yóu) - to add oil to the fire (idiom); fig. to aggravate a situation; to enrage people and make matters worse 夜长梦多 (yè cháng mèng duō)  A long night is fraught with dreams - a long delay may mean trouble. 

Idioms can communicate so much with a few words. Like all communications, when in doubt, ask. Or in the words of Mark Twain, "it's better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool rather than to open your mouth and remove all doubt." 

Karen Morency was born in Taiwan, emigrating to Newfoundland at the age of 10, and then moved to Maine. Her love for the Chinese language and culture was renewed when she began teaching her children and other children in the 1990’s. Her East-meets-West personality is expressed in her alternative healing modalities, qigong, and tai chi. 

The Chinese Language Table meets at Fox Intercultural Consulting’s headquarters in Portland on the first and third Friday the month. Starting at noon, we spend the hour catching up on news and in-depth discussions in Mandarin.

Photo credit: Cultural China

Guest Blog: School Culture in a Private Chinese Boarding School

Almost routinely over the past couple of months, I have been met with interesting experiences as I continue my teaching stint in a private Sino American school here in Zhangzhou, China. So let me share a little about the school culture, which cannot possibly be covered in one blog entry, but here’s a snapshot.

After spending years teaching in U.S. schools, I am struck by the iconic differences in our country’s respective teaching pedagogies. Everything from teacher/pupil ratio, length of school day, to learning environment and teaching materials, varies, in this tea factory-turned private school system I have come to enjoy living and working in.

Whereas multi-modal teaching and experiential learning experiences are common in all American schools, these are practices that have yet to find their way into the broad network of traditional educational institutions in China. Subtle changes are beginning to appear, however, and in the duel diploma classroom where I teach, I have access to the same technology as my American colleagues. I use an iPad with Aps and a JBL Bluetooth speaker to project audio. I can connect it or my Apple computer to a Chinese version of a Smart board, which has Internet and an integrated ‘smart’ podium with a Windows-based computer and an overhead projector. My students have a laptop in their classroom lockers and engage in assignments that involve their use daily.

In traditional classrooms throughout the rest of the campus, however, use and access to multimedia equipment and Internet is restricted to the teacher. Students are not allowed to have personal computers in the classroom and the school and library are not equipped with them.  Smartphones, ubiquitous in American schools, are also not allowed.  And video games, as beloved to teenagers in China as in America, are a rare privilege confined to a few hours of play on weekends. It’s possible that, as a result of not using computers for writing assignments, penmanship--almost across the grades--is outstanding. Not just legible, but actually beautiful and a pleasure to read. The first time I wrote in cursive on my white board, my students were awed and ‘wowed’ out loud over it. They are fascinated with English writing and think it’s beautiful. I gained a new appreciation for the opportunity to practice good writing through them and I’m careful to form my letters well in their presence.  A practice, I’m sure, that my teaching methods professor would have been pleased to witness.

And the sheer number of students… well that’s where the rubber meets the road in terms of quantifiable difference. I quickly found out that a private school of this size, with a 7,000-member student body and growing, requires an educational system conceived and administered in a completely different way than private schools in the States, if only for practical and safety concerns. Students number 60 to a class and the length of a school day can run from 7am to 11pm, depending on grade level, with breaks for breakfast, lunch--and an intelligent and much appreciated convention at this school given the length of each day--the mid-day break (12:00-2:30). This is the time in the day when student, administrator and teacher can go back to their dorm or apartment to have a rest or take a nap before returning to afternoon classes that end at 5pm. I call it the ‘pause that refreshes’ because after dinner, which includes a little extra time for basketball, ping pong or badminton, everyone returns to their classroom for evening study hall at 6:30pm.

These kids put in some heavy-duty classroom hours, yet seem to take it in stride.  Of course, teachers put in long days too, especially when they have evening duty. From my point of view, teachers in China demonstrate the same love and dedication to their students as teachers in America, under more challenging circumstances.

As for the students, you’re one of many here and expected to pull your own weight and work hard to succeed. No handholding, no excuses.  Somehow it all works, Monday through Saturday…. and Sunday mornings for seniors.     And in the main, harmony and order prevail. 

Deborah Enright  (En Di)

We are thrilled to welcome Deborah Enright to The Reading Room Blog. Deborah is an American teacher currently living in Fujian Province as she teaches in adual diploma program. We will be featuring her updates as she settles into life in modern China.



Guest Blog: Deborah Enright

Hello from Zhangzhou

It’s 2pm and I’m sitting quietly in my apartment at the Liren Sino American Cooperative School in Zhangzhou City, Fujian Province, China. It has been a busy and enlightening six weeks and I’ve finally found an opportunity to pause and reflect on my time in this country. Things have been a bit of a whirlwind since I arrived to begin my teaching position on December 13th and some of the events and experiences I’ve had in this short time span could not have been imagined as I waited for my work permit and visa approval over the course of several months in the U.S. 

I have traveled to quite a few places in the last 35 years, but nothing can be compared to the life I am experiencing in China. Fujian province is a semi-tropical environment, similar in latitude to Key West, Florida. December can be rainy and cold. Fortunately I experienced mostly the latter. Being a New Englander, I am used to the cold.  But something that was totally unexpected was that in Zhangzhou and most towns and cities in the southeastern part of China, there is no heat in buildings or homes. Ever the adaptable and comfort-seeking American, off I went to Walmart (yes, there are Walmarts in China) with my interpreter and guide to buy a portable electric heater for my bedroom. A large enough room to set up a small living space with a desk and reading area, I quickly settled in.

The pace of life in a private Chinese school is quite different to the United States.  First of all, class sizes are much larger with an average of 60 students per room. In a way, I am very fortunate with my class size because the Sino-American, dual diploma program is brand new and not yet well known to the school population of 7,000. I have 15 sophomores who I meet with six days a week to teach all aspects of language arts, including pronunciation and English literature. Students start their day at 7am and end it at 10pm, with a two and a half hour rest break in the middle of the day. At first it seemed odd to halt the wheels of school life like this each day, but now, this too is part of my daily rhythm.

I arrived at the school gate the evening of the 13th to the warm greetings and excited faces of my students. I had conducted weekly pronunciation classes with them on Skype so I was a little familiar with their names and faces, but their presence and enthusiasm made me feel immediately welcomed, as did the staff and administration. Everyone went out of their way to make sure that I realized I was now part of the ‘school family.’ I have since come to understand and appreciate the importance the Chinese people place on the concept of family in all aspects of their daily life. Once you are a member of their community you are treated with respect, cared for and included in all important events.

And one of those important events occurred shortly after my arrival. Referred to simply as the ‘New Year’s Performance,’ I found out it was to take place in the new gymnasium/theater and I was to be part of the entertainment. I said to myself, “Oh, what the heck, why not.” Then found out I would also be addressing the entire student population of 7,000 with a New Year’s greeting in Chinese and performing alongside my students on stage over the course of two evenings. My students, being typical teenagers who love pop music, chose the songs that we would sing before I arrived. So there I was onstage, microphone in hand, choreography memorized, singing Carly Rae Jepson’s, It’s Always a Good Time. As it turned out, the performances and rehearsals were a tremendous bonding opportunity for me and my students. They saw that I wasn’t afraid to laugh at myself and to stand alongside them to be part of something very special that they cared about. And suddenly, it wasn’t so hard to get them to stand up and speak out in class. We had learned to trust each other up on that stage and that spirit has become a part of everything we do together, in class and out. 

Am I still adjusting to eating with chopsticks, avoiding the motorbikes that drive on city sidewalks and acknowledging the countless stares I get when I walk down a street? Yes. But I am also feeling like I’ve come to a very special place and am in the midst of a very special culture that has as much to teach me as I them. It was a long time coming to get here, and the administrative paperwork that needed to be completed was like nothing I had ever experienced before, but I am happy I made the decision to come to China and I know my time here will be memorable.

Deborah Enright  (En Di)

We are thrilled to welcome Deborah Enright to The Reading Room Blog. Deborah is an American teacher currently living in Fujian Province as she teaches in a dual diploma program. We will be featuring her updates as she settles into life in modern China. 

Guest Blog: Video blogging in Shanghai

Guest Blogger: Ben Wang

I had the pleasure of traveling with Suzanne and administrators from four other New England schools on a delegation to China in November. I was very excited to be there for my school (Vermont Commons School in Burlington), and I wanted to share the excitement. I made two videos that were shown at our Morning Meetings while I was still in China (I Skyped in for questions for the first one), and I showed the third one after I got home. I uploaded the videos to Tudou, a Chinese YouTube-like site, since YouTube is blocked by the government in China.

I made this first one in Shanghai, which was spectacular bordering on surreal under the influence of jetlag. The second one began with early morning scenes on the Bund in Shanghai and continued on to Hangzhou and our new sister schools. Being a teacher, interacting with Chinese students in their classrooms was a great highlight of the trip. The third and final video showed more of Shanghai, this time a bit off the tourists’ beaten path.

I made many meaning personal connections during the trip, with teachers, parents, and students, and I am deeply grateful and excited for the opportunity to build lasting relationships. The journey reaffirmed my school’s mission for global immersion for our students and my belief that increased intercultural communication engenders hope for the world.

On our recent fall delegation, we had the pleasure of taking a group of New England educators to Shanghai, Hangzhou and the greater Zhejiang region. The group included Ben Wang, Director of International Programs at Vermont Commons School. Ben is an example of an educator totally in tune with the online nature of China's new generation. He created a set of videos about the trip and then uploaded them to the school's Tudou channel. We encourage schools to capture the extensive reach that online content can afford in China. Check out the video links, and be inspired! 

Guest blog: Claudy Tu

A lot of people joined us for the second Chinese Language Roundtable in November. It was a beautiful day, sunny and a little chilly. This is typical early winter weather in mid-November. Time flies when the conversation flows. As we say in Chinese, “Huà xiá zi dǎ kāi le (话匣子打开了). The literal translation is “chatterbox open,” and the phrase actually means that the conversation was pleasant and there was so much to say.

Diàn cí lú电磁炉, Induction Cooker

One of our guests today was a teacher from Confucius Institute. He invited us to visit the upcoming USM International Food festival. He mentioned that they were still looking for a larger cooking pot to cook dumplings in the dining room, as the closest stove in the kitchen was too far, and that they would lose the opportunity to demonstrate cooking dumplings if they could not find one. Many Chinese families use Diàn cí lú电磁炉 as a substitute cooker, but he was wondering why it seemed that he could not find one here. It is similar to the induction cooking stovetop seen in some American kitchens. However, unlike a large electric cooking surface, it’s designed as a single-induction-zone cooker with a built-in digital controller for multiple cooking options that is easy to move around everywhere in the house (as long as electricity is available). You can either put it on the dining table or use it in the bedroom or a dormitory room with no kitchen. When I was a college student in Taiwan, this was a very popular cooker that everyone had in the apartment we rented. Additionally, it’s perfect for a group of people having the hot pot dinner together!

Zāi péi 栽培 vs. Péi xùn 培训, Cultivate vs. Training

The conversation then moved to the topic of learning languages and new cultures, and growing as a person. In English, we would say “train” a person or a dog while saying “cultivate” a plant. It depends on whether the object in the sentence is animate or inanimate. In Chinese, both Zāi péi and Péi xùn can mean “to train a person.” The difference is that Péi xùn is usually used to describe a short-term and intensive training process, while Zāi péi indicates a longer process of educating a person and fostering skills. 

Guà yáng tóu mài gǒu ròu挂羊头卖狗肉, Bait-and-switch

The topic of food was still in the air, and we talked about how sometimes advertising can be misleading - how sometimes a restaurant will release incredible looking photography, but you find something very different when you arrive – “bait-and-switch.” It is when one says one thing and does another. In Chinese, there is a popular phrase that has a similar meaning, guà yáng tóu mài gǒu ròu挂羊头卖狗, and it’s read as “He hangs up a sheep's head at the storefront and sells dog meat.” However, bait-and-switch is very commonly used in advertisements, and it’s more like a strategy of pushing a substitute or similar products or services while the advertised goods may still be available. When you point out that someone is doing guà yáng tóu mài gǒu ròu, it means the seller is cheating, and he/she does not provide product A but offers product B that is completely different than product A.

As 1pm arrived, and we all left the sunlit offices overlooking Congress Street, we were ready to go and feast on the amazing food choices that Portland has on offer. We hope to see you at the next roundtable, scheduled for December 6th. 

This week's blog features guest blogger, Claudy Tu, who was born in Taiwan and has lived in west Pennsylvania for several years before moving to Portland Maine in the summer of 2012.

Guest Blog: Using Cultural Idioms with Awareness

Our first gathering after the summer hiatus took place at the new offices of Fox Intercultural overlooking Congress Street near Monument Square. We felt like China's great emperors as we looked down at the passing people of downtown Portland through floor-to-ceiling glass windows.
As soon as the conversation began, we were entranced with Bob Poole - a Portland resident and former Vice-President of the US-China Business Council - who carries a stack a index cards full of Chinese idioms (chéngyǔ 成语 ) wherever he goes. His way of utilizing the time spent in lines at the store or bank to learn Chinese idioms, inspired us all. 
His most ardent advice about using Chinese idioms?
Always verify the application of an idiom with a native Chinese speaker first, because you can easily misconstrue its intended meaning. He shared what happened at a talk in the United States in June 1989, just days after the Tiananmen Square incident, when reports were flying around wildly and facts were still being sorted out. In his attempt to placate the crowd, as no one was clear on what exactly happened, he said that coming to any conclusions would be like searching for fish in muddy waters or "hún shuǐ mō yú 混水摸鱼"... you can't fish out the facts since you cannot see clearly in muddy waters. After his talk, a Chinese person explained to him that the actual meaning for that idiom of "To fish in troubled water" was to "take advantage of a crisis for personal gain." Not his intended meaning at all!
Here are a few chéngyǔ 成语
四面楚歌 sì miàn chǔ gē  is literally "songs of Chu from all sides" that comes from a war strategy that when surrounding a group of Chu soldiers, the Han enemies sang Chu folk songs, sinking the Chu's into homesickness and worry... that the enemy enlisted Chu's, thus defeating and annihilating them. This idiom refers to a helpless and critical situation, surrounded by the enemy on all sides. 
鞍前马后 ān qián mǎ hòu  "in front of a saddle clean up after a horse," meaning to take care of things for important people, to serve them well...and sometimes, one also cleans up the mess a horse can leave behind. 
  guà yáng tóu , mài gǒu ròu, which means "to hang a sheep's head while selling dog meat"... false advertising.  
吞吞吐吐 tun tun tu tu "swallow swallow spit spit," used to describe stammering, which can also indicate an unwillingness to answer. 
We wondered if the younger generation use idioms (chéngyǔ 成语 ), if they are as popular as with the older generation of Chinese. In my own family life, idioms are coming out of my 90-year-old mother more and more... like her treasure trove of wisdom and experience is opening up with age and spilling over... and she is hoping that some of it sticks to me; hoping that these idioms will help me to understand human nature and behavior so I can have more peace in relationships and in my world. 

Karen Morency was born in Taiwan, emigrating to Newfoundland at the age of 10, and then moved to Maine. Her love for the Chinese language and culture was renewed when she began teaching her children and other children in the 1990’s. Her East-meets-West personality is expressed in her alternative healing modalities, qigong, and tai chi. 

The Chinese Language Table meets at Fox Intercultural Consulting’s headquarters in Portland on the first and third Friday the month. Starting at noon, we spend the hour catching up on news and in-depth discussions in Mandarin. 

Artistic Connections Between China and Maine

I am sitting at a banquet table in the ancient city of Xi’An as glasses are raised and “gambei” is hollered by all. It’s mid-January, the week before Chinese New Year and celebration is in the air.

To my left is my good friend, the Beijing-based art critic Karen Smith—who has been at the forefront of the Chinese contemporary art scene for two decades. On my right is a young design professor from Xi’An Academy of Fine Arts (XAFA); she has a Mohawk, wears awesome sculptural earrings and is talking about her recent residency in London. On the opposite side of the circular banquet table are the big shots: He Dan, the Vice-President of XAFA and an acclaimed oil painter in his own right, flanked by the legendary art critics Peng De and Wang Lin.

The reason why I am here, apart from eating this delicious northern Chinese food, is as a representative of Fox Intercultural Consulting to forge relationships between XAFA and the Maine College of Art (MECA).  My trip is a preliminary one—to plant seeds before a formal delegation travels from Portland to China at the end of March.

My own story blends art, China and Maine in a curiously circular way. I spent a decade working in Hong Kong as an arts writer for the South China Morning Post newspaper and Time Out Magazine. My beat was the avant garde art scene that was kicking off north of the border: a tremendously lucky space to be in as a young writer.  In 2009, I moved with my Maine-born husband to Portland—and despite being on the other side of the planet, have remained connected to China’s art scene: project managing the annual Time Out Hong Kong Art Guide, editing for the Asia Art Archive and the novelist and artist, Hu Fang. A string of good fortune then brought me to work with Suzanne Fox, who pioneers educational programs between Maine and China. When we entered discussions with MECA, the stars were truly aligning.

Art is an ideal vehicle to connect Maine with China—in part because it offers such a level playing field. The U.S. has for many years been the home of the art world yet the contemporary art scene in China and Hong Kong is ablaze with growth and many of the world’s leading galleries are forging bases there. For Chinese students to spend time in the pristine air and great artistic tradition of Portland is proving to be very compelling. Equally, for American students to set off for study opportunities in the burgeoning Chinese art scene is simply stuff of the future.

Here in Xi’An, they will find a city that mixes an ancient past with a bafflingly busy present. In the North West of China, Xi’An is home to the Terracotta Warriors. It is a city of such history that large sections still don’t have underground railway lines because there are too many treasures still buried underneath. Yet, Xi’An also has a startlingly modern and dusty face: there are Rolls Royce showrooms on the streets, neon is everywhere and cranes hang atop endless new residential towers.

This March, Don Tuski the President of MECA is traveling to Hong Kong, Xi’An, Hangzhou and Shanghai with Suzanne Fox in an official delegation to create connections with art institutions and forge pathways for art students to exchange. It’s the beginning of an exciting series of programs to deepen and explore the vast cultures of China and the United States through the prism of its artists. We can’t wait to see the cross-cultural, visual art forms and conversations that will emerge.

The Sister School Initiative

As Suzanne Fox stood before a delegation of dozens of Chinese and New England educators in the McKernan Center on the wintery afternoon in January, she borrowed a line from one of the wisest minds in Chinese history: “A journey of a ten thousand miles begins with a single step.”

It was a nod to the philosopher and sage Laozi and the first step in building meaningful new connections across the globe in a new program known as The New England-Zhejiang Sister School Initiative. This event saw 12 Chinese principals and government officials from Jinhua, a city of five million people in Zhejiang Province, to travel to Maine to meet with their New England counterparts. The task? Forge bonds and sister-school relationships.

The day had begun two hours earlier as the Chinese educators traveled from Boston to Maine, stopping off for a tour of Kennebunk High School. Then came the main event at the McKernan Center, an historic house overlooking glistening Casco Bay. They were welcomed by South Portland Mayor, Tom Blake and President of Southern Maine Community College, Ron Cantor—as well as educators from nearly a dozen New England schools.  The New England participants included a group of principals from elementary, middle and high schools from an array of private, public and charter schools. The Maine group included Van Buren and Millinocket in the North and Brunswick, Yarmouth and Baxter Academy in the Portland area. Also attending were schools from Connecticut and Vermont.  

After the welcome speeches, each school was matched with its sister school partner at tables overlooking the stunning views of Casco Bay, and with translators at hand, they launched deep into earnest conversations. “This was an opportunity for them to learn about one another,” explained Suzanne Fox. “This is what the whole day was about, laying the foundations of what we hope will be the beginning of long-term relationships.”

The event closed with a formal signing ceremony as school heads were called up to exchange gifts and sign their relationships into reality. It was a day of new beginnings, of setting out on a very 21-st century journey for New England schools—to create cross-cultural connections with partners in China and open pathways for new forms of student exchange. From here, many Chinese students will travel to New England this summer for short-term summer programs in the blissfully clean air.  Students in the US will also get to travel to one of China’s most interesting and historic provinces.