August 14, 2013 - 5:28pm
BY CARLINA DUAN
Part 4 / Week 4:
During my last week in Qingdao, I walk around the courtyard in my grandpa’s neighborhood at night. Lamplight trails across the concrete, smushing everything to a brilliant, buttery yellow. Late at night, the beer belly population flocks out into Qingdao streets — sipping plastic bags of amber-colored beer, eating clams, hailing taxis. Yet here, in the neighborhood, it’s eerily tranquil. A toad waddles politely. Cicadas screech. A man hawks a mouthful of spit into a sewer’s gritty, waiting mouth; then hoists his shirt up, revealing his own pale-melon belly. The duality of this city never ceases to surprise me — it can be so flooded with commotion in one sector, then nearly empty in the next. In the “New City District,” Qingdao’s urbanite center, skyscrapers continually hum with automatic doors. Speakers blare Beyoncé’s “Diva,” water fountains gurgle, couples kiss. Meanwhile, in the “Old City District,” buildings from the ’60s remain intact. Bomb shelters display meaty walls of brick. An elderly woman spreads out plastic washtubs on a checkered blanket for sale on the street. Bikes rust. I take the bus in and out of both districts, a sloppy weaving. After weeks of being in this city, I’ve come to recognize that traveling inherently brings in dualities to navigate, customs to learn and, perhaps most surprisingly — art to create.
The art of distance and travel is a difficult “art” to classify, let alone define. There is a certain methodical craft to folding clothes; to packing a suitcase; to sitting on the rigid seat of a Chinese public bus for the first time, gazing through a smeared window at the fluorescent lights and supermarkets puffing by. Travel guides and maps don’t do it any justice. Like many can attest to, traveling is very much an individual experience: one infused with sight, with curiosity, with push, with detailed remembrance. Yet, for me, travel is considered an art form not because it is a “master-able” or admirable skill set, but rather, because traveling makes my brain and my chest whir at high speeds. It makes me uncomfortable. I begin to see things in completely new, stuttering light. When I travel, I become one version of myself, which is to say I code-switch. The person I am when I travel allows me to use different figurative limbs that I otherwise wouldn’t exercise as frequently at home — fear, inquisitiveness, awe, Mandarin, to name a few. The ability to use new emotional, intellectual, and practical “muscles” is an ability that I gain when reading a poem, or admiring a new piece at UMMA. In that sense, to travel is to make art; to prompt very human urges to question, to discover, to be fascinated by.
When I travel, I use public transit. I floss my teeth. I eat a sticky rice pudding breakfast with my grandma and go white-water rafting with my aunt. I grow embarrassed when I can’t understand the waiter ask if I’d like hot spice or medium spice with my noodles. I grow uncomfortable when I am asked, repeatedly, if there are “black people” at my school. I don’t know how to talk about race, or about familial history, or even the dining hall in a language I don’t own. I felt very strongly when I first arrived to Qingdao that I was “supposed” to have a grasp on Chinese, because of my familial background. I hail from Ann Arbor, but I hail from Qingdao, too. It is difficult bulk to carry around, but now, I am recognizing it’s bulk I have to honor somehow … the discomfort, the humiliation, the wild ache to belong. These emotional complexities are all earnestly a part of travel, a part of the art. They fuel my own navigation with poetry, with paints, with praise and heartbreak and staying human. And the homecoming, too, will be an artistic project — understanding how and where the pieces of my trip fit into Ann Arbor life, into interactions at home, into my writing.
Once, I was told by a friend that he didn’t think emotion and intellect could ever belong together. The classic heart vs. brain dilemma. I claim: bullshit. Anybody who travels, I think, recognizes the interplay between the brain and the feels. I don’t believe in separating the two. Art is very much a brainy kind of pursuit, just as intellect requires a swig of art. The two overlap and fuel one another in very ordinary and brilliant ways. As my trip to China comes to an end, I wanna pledge allegiance to the emotional intricacy that has bound itself to many instances of my trip. As an artist, I want to remain uncomfortable and blasted with risk and indecision and wonder, which traveling insures. As a student, I also think artist adherence works well. I want to remain uncomfortable. To keep asking questions. To remain unsure, all of the time. To stay curious and confused and filled with a reverence for beetles, for bodies on a public bus, for sticky corn and grandparents. I want to ask everything of the world. I want to ask shitty questions, and great questions. I want to plumb angry, challenging depths. I think that’s the only way to live. To travel is to art is to human. I’m not an arithmetic genius, but it all makes good, sound logic in my head.