Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Visual Culture and Cultural Misunderstandings

This is my fourth year. Teaching art. In China. But I still make cultural mistakes, almost daily.

My friend blogs about the blending of cultures. He's truly an expert in this thing. Not just an expert--he's a professional. It is his job. For me, I just fumble along as I teach art.

Just this past month, I made two big blunders, both art-related, that continue to humble me on my cross-cultural journey. First I designed an image that some view as Satanic. And then this week...well let's back it up.

For last year's Gala, I did a wall of monochromatic self-portraits down the hallway to our art gallery. I wanted to do something similar this year, but not portraits. I decided to have students create designs with the following parameters:

     The design must be symmetrical.
     The design must include a border.
     The design must only use one color.
     The design must incorporate your first name (English).

The colors were assigned based on my class color coding. Brilliant! Until I told the first graders they could only use red and they had to write their name. BUT THAT MEANS DEATH! Yes, one boy insisted that to write your name in red means death. At which point in time, bits of cultural lessons from the past four years rushed through my brain and I realized the only four stipulations for this project forced the students to walk under a ladder, break a mirror, have a black cat cross their path, and step on a crack to break their mother's back. Except maybe worse. Because I can't think of an American equivalent---something that superstition says if you do this, you will die.

I popped open my door, looked into the Fine Arts office across the hall, and quick consulted with two colleagues, a Hong-Kong-Canadian (secondary art teacher) and Korean-American (elementary band teacher). Yes, writing your name in red is bad. It's an old thing that might mean death for you or death from your mother, depending on your tradition. It is an old thing. But it is still a thing. So what could I do? I'd already done the project in blue and yellow with no cultural faux-pas. I couldn't change it now for first grade!

To appease the kids, I added some brown colored pencils to the mix. If they felt strongly about the red name association, they could write their name in brown but do the rest of the design in red. That seemed to settle the most violent opponents. Now I'm just hoping parents won't be offended when they see the red name designs at next week's Gala...

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Class Pets?

With each class period, my love for Dumpling grew and grew.

     He won't hurt you.
     He's been here since Christmas vacation.
     He stays up by the lights and never even comes down by people.

You can only repeat those phrases so many times before that little (nasty) moth endears himself to your heart.

It wasn't just me. Even one fifth grader remarked "I normally don't like bugs but I love Dumpling!"

And then we found out Dumpling had a love of his own, Honey Drop. Yes, one of my students noticed that there were TWO moths. Which only brought more questions. How do you know it is a boy? Which one is Dumpling? How do you know that's Dumpling and not Honey Drop? The simple solutions---"Miss Brown told me" and "Dumpling is the one that flies around. Honey Drop likes to sit and rest."

What happened next was magical. I had just told a room of crazy first graders that Dumpling had never touched anyone and then he landed right on me!

The students decided that he landed on me because he loved me. We did spend lots of time together. And amazingly, having preached a message of moth love to students for a few weeks, I didn't freak out at all. There was a moth on my shoulder and I was still as can be, trying to keep him there as long as possible so my TA could grab a camera and document this!

Me and Dumpling!

(Obviously this is Dumpling, not Honey Drop, because he landed on me. Honey Drop likes to sit and rest.)

The first graders couldn't stop talking about our mothy friends for the rest of class.

     I wish I had a moth as a pet.
     I think he eats the m&ms you give him.
     I want to name him Bumpling.
     I want to name him Shine because he likes the light.
     If you say the moth's name, will it come to you?

Then the weather got warm. Just as my Chinese friend suggested, Dumpling only liked me for my warm classroom. Spring break came and went, and there went Dumpling and Honey Drop.

I miss the buzzing of their wings in the lights. The craziness that ensued every time they made an appearance. The fact that I had a class pet--me, the one who has a strong aversion to animals.

Our classroom gave our mothy friends a warm and welcoming place to spend the winter, and they gave us many smiles, a few shreaks, and lots of laughs on cold winter days.

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