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...

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