My mum enrolled me in teacher Zhou’s class. In her class, we read aloud a lot to memorize text, and our hands were folded behind our backs to show our obedience.
I don’t remember much about elementary school except my love for reading and writing. But I do remember a fine spring day. Teacher Zhou asked us to write an essay about spring. When it was my turn to read my piece aloud, I reached the sentence, “Spring has bloomed as smiles on people’s faces.” Teacher Zhou gestured me to pause and turned to the boy sitting next to me, “Did she cheat on writing?” “No, she didn’t,” said the boy. She then gestured me to finish the reading. I could detect a hint of grin on her face.
From that moment on, I validated my existence through writing. I was not pretty nor popular at school. My parents didn’t show much affection towards my brother and me at home so I just thought I was unworthy of love. But I knew it since that spring day: I could write and, through my writing, I could be heard.
Decades later, I paint the same way I write. In the early spring of 2013, I created an ink painting titled “Spring is here.” It’s a simple picture of daffodils blooming in a Chinese vase and beaming like sunshine. As soon as I hanged it up in Yordprom coffeehouse, it was snatched by a customer.
At the time, I was equally passionate about painting. I’d secretly draw and paint during nap time. Both writing and painting were escapes from my gloomy childhood, barely passed Cultural Revolution.
As middle school approached, my parents advised me to focus on academic excellence because it meant everything to them. My dad became an orphan at the age of six and taught himself how to read. My mum delayed her college dream because of pneumonia and the misfortunate association with a “dangerous” adult. During Cultural Revolution, any imperfect political record could prevent a college admission. Early on, I carried my parents’ dream, and it was just as heavy as my backpack stuffed with textbooks.
Naturally, my parents didn’t encourage me to create art. They came from a humble background, and I didn’t have anyone in my bloodline to look to as a role model. Like most families at the time, my parents were poor with a combined monthly income of 60 Yuan, equivalent to 10 US dollars today. I’d save my little spare money to buy tiny glass animals. That’s my way of art appreciation, which was met with my parents’ disdain because they thought it wasted money.
On my own in early teenage, I evaluated pros and cons to pursuing art or writing. This was one of the most difficult and memorable decisions that I’ve made. Writing seemed most logical: It didn’t cost much money, measured in school and can lead to a stable living as a teacher. And so, I let go of my art dream after starting the middle school.
Since then, I’ve always hung out with artists. My two college boyfriends in China were artists. My best friends are artists too. Only after recently listening to an interview podcast with Julia Cameron, the author of “The Artist’s Way”, I discovered I had a “shadow artist” syndrome, meaning that we hang out with other artists to compensate for our unfulfilled creative dreams.
Still, I am grateful that my writing has been a good, faithful friend for nearly thirty years. I’ve filled dozens of diaries in various shapes and colors. Diaries accompanied me when I dropped out college; when I traveled alone in China to find inner peace; when I worked for a German construction company in a remote Himalaya region after my first divorce; when I came to America to finish my bachelor’s degree; when I found my first real job in the high-tech industry—and my second; and when I returned to my passion of art after a perfect storm.
But, back in China, writing also brought me heaps of troubles with authorities. In middle school, a Chinese literature teacher handed my writing to the school principal and reported it as “dangerous” and “anti-revolutionist.” This could have meant a permanent black mark on my student record, enough to prevent my college admission. But, luckily, the principal had suffered from punishment as a “dangerous right element.” He dismissed the charge. I only found out the incidence from my mum years later.
In my high school, my mum discovered that I was dating a classmate. Dating in high school was forbidden in 1980s of China. My mum furiously demanded me stop seeing him immediately. All my diaries were gone in flame.
In 1989, I was accepted by ChongQin Normal University, where I majored in Chinese Language and Literature. Right after our mandatory military training, I submitted an article reflecting on our experience to the university newspaper. The editor called me to his office and told me that he would publish my article—if I could put a positive spin on it. I refused. But disillusion wrapped me like constant fog in ChongQin. After I dropped out college in my junior year, I stopped creative writing except my diary, which I’ve kept going till today.
Susan Sontag, an American writer and filmmaker, said, “In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could do to any person; I create myself. The journal is a vehicle for my sense of selfhood.” Similarly, my diary writing has helped me digest my experiences and create myself today—“fearless”, commented by my friends.
Art, the twin sister of my writing, finally graced my life again after I moved to Portland in 2010. Not knowing anyone in the new city and dealing with many changes at once, I took an evening art class in Southern Maine Community College. Since then, art offered me another way to express my voice.
Comparing with writing, art is more intuitive and sensory oriented. It opens up mental space. Because of its indirect approach, sometimes it’s more effective to process emotions through art making than budding head with challenges through writing. The downside of art making: it can degenerate into sensory chaos. That’s when writing is helpful for me to drill deep on certain thoughts. Naturally, writing blog helps me integrate my Gemini sisters: I can use my own artworks and write back stories behind them.
Not only art and writing balance each other, they also take forms of each other. As I keep creating art, I found myself tell stories and connect with literature visually. I recently finished an artwork called “Fortune-Misfortune”, which tells an old Chinese story “The Old Man and Horse (塞翁失馬).” In the story, the old man remains centered as the horses come and go, despite his neighbors consider these events as “fortunate” or “misfortunate”.
If I could advise my twelve-year-old self, I’d tell her that art and writing aren’t really in conflict. They come from the same source: the Tao. Seek for it. Once found, it will sustain whatever you do.
Art heals. Writing also heals.