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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


Trip to China: Guest Blog by Kirby "Lark" Thwing

Why would two retired people decide to go to China?

For my wife Beth, it was a “bucket list” item—wanting to walk on China’s Great Wall. She has MS, uses a walker and still found the notion most tantalizing. Could she do it? We weren’t sure but decided to give it a shot.  For me, an engineer during my working years, the Three Gorges Dam and locks loomed large on my own list. It was hard to wrap my mind around its massive design complexities, its mile and a quarter long dam, the challenges of its construction, its controversial issues—and its final result as the largest producer of hydro-electric power into the world. I wanted to see it with my own eyes.

The rest of our amazing China adventure came together serendipitously. I think it was meant to be.

I’m vice-chair of the Mohawk Trail District’s School Committee and have a finger on the pulse of new and different things that happen. A year ago, our high school/middle school principal, Lynn Dole, traveled to China with Fox Intercultural Consulting and established sister-school relationships with Danghu High School in Pinghu and QingHe Middle School in Hangzhou. This past summer, Dole’s school hosted a group of students and teachers from Danghu and  from QingHe. Each came for a five-day visit as they toured the eastern seaboard’s ivy class colleges and other important sites. Interaction between the Mohawk and Chinese students was stimulating for both kids and staff. My wife Beth and I hosted a student from each school during their time here.

From then on, new connections kept emerging. Dole learned of Beth’s Great Wall wish and put her in touch with a former Mohawk graduate, Julie, who married a Chinese man and now lives in Mutianyu, a village of about 300 at the base of the Great Wall. In answer to Beth’s question about Mutianyu having no schools of its own, Julie created a bridge to that area’s rural, regional middle school, in Bohai. Beth had many email conversations with “Fiona”, that school’s lead teacher (of five teachers of English)  which resulted in our first school presentation that compared and contrasted education in China and the U.S. 

At Bohai Middle School, uniformed kids acted like middle-schoolers everywhere, laughing and goofing around, but very attentive in their Chinese classrooms. Like so many students in China, these kids wore brightly-colored, athletic-looking uniforms. Bohai Middle School was amazing. Rebuilt from the ground up just three years ago, the government had stocked it with state-of-the-art equipment that would make most American schools green with envy. This rural, agricultural area was not a wealthy area, but in China, the government decides and subsidizes what schools it feels need attention, and this occurs without regard to the ability of the community to pay for the improvements, as is the case in the U.S.

After visiting the wonders of Beijing and Shanghai, Beth and I traveled to our two sister schools, Danghu High School and QingHe Middle School, each about one and a half hours outside Shanghai but in different cities. At Danghu High School we viewed classroom buildings and an artfully designed campus for about 3,000 students, including its dormitories. Most students live at the school, regarding commuting time as “lost time” from their studies.

At each, the principal, staff and students greeted us warmly, showed us around their respective well-appointed schools and filled us in on pertinent background and current details. For instance, at QingHe Middle School, we learned the school had recently been in another building across the street. It’s present home is a new larger building that accommodates a bigger student population. What left us open-mouthed was learning QingHe will move again in just three years, this time to a yet larger building that will serve even more students! 

How exciting it was for us to see and talk again with teachers from both schools, whom we’d met last summer at Mohawk. We also met the principals and reconnected with the two boys who stayed with us last summer. Everyone was so warm and welcoming, making us feel like important people.

Beth and I gave our compare-and-contrast presentation, in one case to students and the other to teachers. Like many kids in this age range, being self-conscious makes speaking before a group challenging. At the start, they were reticent with their questions for us—until the first brave soul ventured that first question. Then others followed, which was gratifying to us. At the other school, we loved the professional perspective of the teachers’ questions, as they delved into more detail about how things worked in the U.S. I think we all agreed that each system has its strengths, and that we can also each benefit from the other as well.

Chinese kids arrive at school at 6:30am and can’t leave till 5:00pm!  Eighth graders study twelve subjects a day versus seven subjects for eight graders in the U.S. With our shorter class day, there simply isn’t room for more.

Exercise is another big issue. We saw no overweight Chinese students during our time there. In China, all middle/high school kids run for 15 minutes before their class day begins, then… again later to stimulate alertness after so much intense study. The kids also have sports teams (basketball is very big in China.) The clincher to the exercise issue is that no one can enter high school if he/she doesn’t pass the PE exam! 

Who studies what in languages in high school? Everyone studies the native language, Chinese, just as everyone studies English in the U.S. The only foreign language Chinese kids generally study is English (and they begin in elementary school.) Why? English is more universal. The Chinese  know, wherever they go, they may not speak the language of the country they’re in, but it’s highly likely they can find someone who speaks English. 

We also observed how the Chinese method of teaching depends heavily on memorization and recitation, particularly so in English. Kids come to read and understand English much better than they can speak it. For instance, a child can say, “Hello, how are you?” and he can say, “I am fine, how are you?”  But to carry on a conversation is most difficult.

Going forward, the English thread continues. Many Chinese parents want their kids to go to high school in the U.S. Canada, and the UK. Why? It provides the opportunity for young people to perfect their conversational English and adapt to Western culture, which in turn, prepares them to apply to colleges here if they choose—and many do.

There’s so much more to say about education in China and the U.S. We could add  more, but this blog entry is long enough.

Our three and a half weeks in China were most gratifying in so many ways. We experienced a new country, its culture, its friendly people, encountered eye-popping colors and sights, and absorbed enough information for a college semester—at least. And yes, Beth was euphoric when she succeeded in walking on the Great Wall of China, and I reveled in the amazing engineering feat that comprises the Three Gorges Dam.

Kirby "Lark" Thwing is the Vice-Chair of the Mohawk Trails Distrcit Schools Committee. Beth Thwing is the author of the book, Amazing Amusing Emus. Now retired, they live in Hawley, MA and like to travel.

Halloween In China - Guest Blog by Deborah Enright

I arrived in China last December to begin my English teaching post in a private high school in Fujian Province. Having missed the opportunity to celebrate Halloween with my students last year, I was even more determined to share with my Grade 8, 10 and 11 students the fun and wacky things Americans do to celebrate this holiday.

After combing through YouTube videos for an entire weekend, I found several ranging from a dog/owner costume parade in Central Park, New York, to a 1930's Disney, black and white cartoon entitled, The Skeleton Dance. I couldn't remember ever seeing this one but I have to say, my students were absolutely enthralled with it, as they 'oohed' and 'ahhed' throughout. That's one of the great rewards of digging up these treasures. It doesn't matter what age these kids are because Disney cartoons haven't been shown in China, so for everyone viewing them it feels like a brand new experience, which made it brand new for me all over again. Now all I had to find was Michael Jackson's infamous Thriller video and I'd be good to go.

Next, it was time to think about pumpkin carving because as everyone in the U.S. knows pumpkin 'sculpting' is a high art this time of year. First of all, I couldn't believe the examples of pumpkin carving on the Internet. There's the good old, 'two eyes, a nose and the toothy grin pumpkin' we all grew up with... and then there's everything from pumpkin coaches to drilled hole pumpkins with twinkly lights, to the infinite number of relief carved pumpkins. I found a pumpkin with smoke coming out of its mouth (dry ice) to make the pumpkin's smile even more creepy and cool. After viewing a variety of demonstration videos with students and staff, two of the teachers in Grade 11 went off to purchase pumpkins, candles and carving tools.

Pumpkins in China are not like pumpkins in the U.S. They are more like thick, hard squashes. At first I was disappointed because I couldn't imagine how the students were going to manage it. But everyone was so excited about doing this activity that it just didn't matter. They dove in with childlike abandon and in the course of two hours, each had carved a pumpkin worthy of a spot in the Guggenheim. To say they loved and enjoyed doing this is an understatement. And that evening, as I watched them light the candles and march upstairs to the second floor to show the 10th graders their handiwork with all lights clicked off and spooky sounds echoing down the hall, I thought I was going to cry for joy.

No one got out of control in the ensuing darkness, and amid the screams of delight, no one had to be spoken to for misbehaving. Big shock there because, after all, these are teenagers. But the Chinese have shown me over and over again that they have an endless reserve of self-restraint in situations such as this and one never has to worry too much about anyone going off the deep end. They are so grateful to break out of their typical routines that they embrace every new experience with complete and utter 'being in the moment' joy.

After leaving the classrooms, much to the disappointment of the remaining students, the revelers held up their pumpkins against the white walls, playfully raising and lowering them to watch the shadows they cast in the darkness. In their wake was a bevy of off-duty teachers, clicking Nikons and camera phones. I heard that the very next day, pictures were posted on the school's website. I don't think the Sino American school will forget Halloween for a long, long time.

We eventually made it back to our classroom, pumpkins still alight, and proceeded to watch a classic American horror movie (Invasion of the Body Snatchers), a 1990's remake from an earlier black and white film. We indulged ourselves in candy and organic bananas that a teacher/interpreter had just picked in a local village plantation and huddled together enjoying each spooky moment.

Halloween had come to Fujian Province... and it was a very good thing indeed.

Deborah Enright (En Di)
English Teacher/Coordinator

Chinese students visit Searsport schools, officials hope it marks beginning of a lasting educational exchange

Bangor Daily News, July 14, 2014: The hallways of Searsport District High School normally would be sleepy and dark on a summertime weekend, but on Saturday the gymnasium was alive with the sounds of laughter and shouts — in Chinese. Read more... 

Stowe-Chinese exchange ends with hugs, tears

The Times Record, June 2014: Fifth-graders from Harriet Beecher Stowe on Friday gave a bittersweet goodbye to the 21 Chinese exchange students they hosted last week. “There were a lot of hugs, and lots of tears,” said HBS Principal Jean Skorapa. Read the full story here

Why China Matters

June 2, 2014: Suzanne Fox was a featured guest on MPBN's radio show, Maine Calling. To listen to the show, click here

Young Students Develop Brunswick-China Connection

The Forecaster, May, 2014: The term "international delegation" usually summons images of somber diplomats with business suits and briefcases. It's less likely to bring to mind chipper elementary school students, outfitted with lunchboxes and sneakers. Read the full story 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.