By Jaeyoon Shin
Xiao He (XH): Hi, everyone, my name is Xiao He. I was a January Freshman (JF), and now I’m a Sophomore. I expect to graduate in 2018. One thing I experienced in America is my last name “He” which is pretty common in China, being pronounced here as “he”(as in he and she). It’s kind of strange so I make fun of myself a lot.
Jaeyoon Shin (JS): How old are you?
XH: I’m seventeen.
Rowan Sinclair (RS): So you came to college earlier than most people do. Did you graduate early from high school?
XH: I skipped a grade, so yes.
RS: Had you been to the United States before going to school here?
XH: Yes, I had. I came to the US for tourism after graduating middle school. I stayed in Los Angeles and in some other cities. I decided to study in the US when I was in high school. Though I actually did not expect to end up in St. John’s. In China, students choose whether to pursue the arts or the sciences for college, and I thought that I ought to study chemistry or mathematics in the US. It is mysterious to me that I am here, but I think it was a good decision.
JS: How did you hear about the college?
XH: During my application process, late October to early November, a friend of mine applied to St. John’s and she recommended I apply. When I looked at the program, it was so attractive to me with the great books that I applied.
RS: Do you think the liberal arts education here has allowed you to explore areas of philosophy and literature that you may have not experienced if you had gone elsewhere?
XH: Yeah, exactly. Not only about literature, history and language, but also I find that my understanding about the sciences has totally changed. In the first semester of my freshman year, in lab, I felt so stupid! But gradually I realized how amazing it is to learn the history of how scientific thought developed. After finishing Freshman year, I realized that the subjects offered at St. John’s are not that divided, but always to some extent connected. For instance, Plato’s Timaeus and Ptolemy. The ideas that we discussed in Timaeus seminar have correspondence in Astronomy.
JS: Yes, also seminar works have correspondence in Science as well. Reading Ptolemy, he talks about Aristotle in the beginning. You mentioned that you were focused on the subjects of mathematics and science in high school, was it here that you began to explore the arts? Or was art always an interest of yours?
XH: It has always been an interest of mine, but I had never developed it much until I came to St. John’s. If I had come in the fall I would have come to Annapolis, but as a JF I came here. I really enjoyed the summer here, I went to the opera and chamber music performances and art events nearly every week.
I think it is here that I really started to explore art and think about it.
RS: You were telling me that you worked with an artist at a local art event.
XH: When I was here during the JF summer I got an email from the school about the International Folk Art market needing volunteers. So I applied to be an interpreter because I speak both Chinese and English. I was assigned to Kalsang Tashi, there were other Chinese-speaking painters but I was assigned to him! I Baidu’ed him (Baidu is a search engine popular in China) and found he was a very famous painter of Tibetan Tangka.
I worked with him from Friday to Sunday. It sounds like a very short time, but we spent all day, everyday together. He has impressed me as an artist, because he is not focused only on selling his paintings. One particular instance when Tashi impressed me was when he was sitting in the crowded market place just painting peacefully while the crowds went by. Our booth was more quiet than the others, the other booths had crowds coming in and out and people buying jewelry and other things, but at our booth it was just us two in chairs. The first day I felt so bad for him! But he told me how he understood the situation, that he was not so focused on selling the art but introducing Tankgas to people.
When he would meet people who were interested in his art he was so excited, like a child (although I shouldn’t say that!) When he would hear music he would dance. He was the first artist I’ve interacted with and the image I have of him is not of what an artist should be, but of what one actually is. People would come and ask where he was from, from where in Asia and the politics of the situation. And Kalsang told me to tell them that despite the political conflicts around the world art belongs to everyone.
Kalsang is less than forty years old and something different about him from other Tangka painters is that he started his art career very young, when he was only fourteen. Kalsang was born in Province in Tibet, he learned from the local master there. I wondered why would he come to Santa Fe, and I think it is because he is taking on the responsibility of developing Tangka in the US. He is doing this in two ways: he is introducing Tangka to the public through the international art world (not just among Buddhists) and has come to the art market here for three consecutive years.
The other way he is developing Tankga in the west, is through his innovation of the art form itself. When we are looking at the Tangka as laypeople we don’t see the ratios, because they are covered up. But this painter, Kalsang Tashi, leaves the ratios on the canvas uncovered so people can appreciate how beautiful they are mathematically.
Every Tangka painting is rooted in precise mathematical ratios and these ratios are different depending upon the school (of the painter) and the artists are rigorous and believe that unless they follow these ratios it is an offense. I got to understand the creation process of Tankgas: first the ratios are drawn on the cotton, then the shape of a Buddha or Tara is drawn in pencil, following that black paint is used to outline the shapes, and then the color is added. The last step is adding the eyes. You know the Tangka is finished when the eyes are drawn. It is such a delicate process, and an artist can spend many months, even a year, to finish the painting.
RS: How did your work translating for him go?
XH: He lives in Shenzhen near Hong Kong and speaks comparatively fluent Chinese, but Tibetan is his first language. He sometimes would pause in order to consider how he should convey things to me in Chinese and I would think “Oh! How do I put that in English?”
RS: We’ve talked about your translating for Tashi and the barriers of language with him, but how do you feel living here regarding the barriers of language even with the Chinese student population?
XH: I went to a foreign language school in high school that emphasized learning language very much, and the good thing is that I am okay with listening to English, but when I express myself there is still some tension and people don’t always understand what I am talking about. That happened a lot in my JF year, but less in Sophomore year. But it was frustrating, to be honest. In class, I would say a lot and be received with silence sometimes. But people here are nice, really nice. They’ve helped me with English and listened to what I am trying to say. I believe my English has improved during my studies here. I don’t think that the language barrier is a big problem for me anymore, though it is still a problem.
JS: How would you sum up your experience as a JF and your feelings about the year?
XH: I find JF community particularly nice. The JF background is so diverse, when I first started I was the youngest, and the eldest student was 36. Because many of my classmates were from different backgrounds and of different ages, the classes were really fun. There’s a story that I want to share. Several weeks ago, in my Sophomore music class with Mr. Carey, there was a hummingbird in the classroom. Instead of continuing class, everyone shut off the light and opened the windows until the hummingbird found its way out, and only then did we have class again. It was so touching. I think it reflects how people care about each other.