And the Power of Art and Literature
I’m on a China Southern Airlines flight to Guangzhou, China, the first stop on my Asian summer. I should be sleeping or working on the guest lecture I’ll give in South Korea, but instead I’m dreaming of the trip and realizing how long I’ve wanted to visit Asia—China and Japan in particular. My love of Chinese and Japanese art and literature began decades ago with a family dinner at a Chinese restaurant when I was about four or five years old. My mother tells me that there were no Chinese restaurants in the little town in North Dakota where we lived, so we must have been away on vacation at the time.
I remember entering the restaurant dining room through a wide doorway filled with long strings of bamboo beads hanging from ceiling to floor. As the beads parted around me, I caught my first glimpse of what looked to me to be the most beautiful, fanciest room on earth. Plush red carpet covered the floor; shining golden dragons hung on the walls; fringed white, yellow, and red silk lamps hung down from the ceiling, each painted with intricate intertwining flower patterns. We walked across the dining room and sat down at a large round table. As the conversation swirled around me, I stared up, transfixed, at the lamp hanging nearest me. More than forty years later I can still picture that delicate red lamp.
Around that same time back in North Dakota, my nursery school teacher, Mrs. Teninenko, read the picture book Crow Boy (Taro Yashima, 1955) to our class. Crow Boy tells the story of Chibi, a country boy who walks miles through the rural Japanese countryside each day to attend school. The other students laugh at his country manners and his inability to comprehend school lessons. I can still feel the empathic twinge I felt as Mrs. Teninenko sat in her rocking chair, reading about the children’s cruel teasing, and I can still see in my mind’s eye some of the glowing colored pencil, watercolor, and ink illustrations that covered the pages: Chibi at his school desk, Chibi in the rain, Chibi walking alone along the long road home.
By the time I turned about six or seven, these two watershed events among others and a continuing fascination with China and Japan led me, like so many other dreamy children, to hatch a plan to dig a hole straight through earth to the continent of my dreams. I imagined digging down, down, down, until I reached Asia, popping my head up through a sidewalk on the other side of the globe to see what the people there were doing (little realizing that China and Japan are in the northern hemisphere).
Determined to carry out my plan, I enlisted my neighbor to help, and we spent much of one summer digging underneath a lilac bush in my backyard, until one day we abandoned the project, forgotten in favor of some other youthful ambition. Who knows--the hole, which we managed to dig several feet deep with an old trowel--may still be there under the lilac bush, waiting for another wide-eyed child to pick up a trowel and continue the dream.
So here I am today, on an airplane headed to China, and later this summer heading to Japan and Korea as well, to live out the dream of that awestruck little girl in that Chinese restaurant all those years ago.
Click here to learn about traditional Chinese silk painting.
Click here to read about Taro Yashima, a highly acclaimed author-illustrator and lifelong political activist, and the author of Crow Boy.
Click here to read about the importance of providing children with literature representing diverse cultures and groups.
Click here to figure out what’s located on the other side of the globe from you.
Click here to buy yourself a trowel.