I had another rather quiet weekend this week, with little fanfare and traveling. I did venture out to Fuzhou Lu to check out the stationery stores, where I got some colored brush pens. Unfortunately, the street isn’t much to look at, but the Foreign Language Bookstore is there, and it boasts the widest variety of books in Shanghai that are written in English and other languages.
I spend a lot of my time in the evenings doing calligraphy, which you may have seen on my Instagram. My calligraphy is almost always in Kannada, which is my mother tongue. I was inspired by the beauty and tradition of Chinese and Arabic calligraphy, wanting to create a new kind of art that younger Kannadigas can appreciate. A lot of the art that younger Indians consume is less textual, not always physical, and very aesthetically oriented. More traditional forms of art, like classical music and dance, are less interesting to younger Indians, simply because of a strong fascination with Western culture. I grew up in the West, and I have opposite sentiments, being rather tired of the stuff I saw in the States.
Calligraphy is a blend between the semantic qualities of language, and aesthetic qualities of art, and that’s what I love about it.
Chinese calligraphy (in my experience) is often about a precision that demonstrates respect for the written word, and only once you’ve mastered that do you have the creative license to innovate in writing. Arabic calligraphy is similar, and it’s often said that a student spends years learning to prepare the paper before they even learn to use the pen. Arabic calligraphy, as artwork, is a work of devotion and encourages the beholder to appreciate the semantic meaning of the writing.
These traditions are about a conscious and active appreciation of language, art, and culture. There is purposeful selection of content, skillful application of artistic skill, and an expression of cultural appreciation. I can only hope that my calligraphy will get somewhere to that level.
I really want other Kannadigas to appreciate the language in a special way, one that really inspires a love for who we are and where we come from. I feel that the spread of English and Hindi makes it really easy for people of all regional backgrounds to discard their identities in favor of something expedient.
It’s like being caught between a rock and a hard place, because on one hand, using English or Hindi makes it easier to do business and get ahead in society, but when you have all the money and material things that you need, you don’t have much of a personal identity anymore. You end up spending so much time using another language for finite ends, you lose the ability to appreciate something that really lasts.
The dissolution of all these identities into the whole, in my humble opinion, is not a good thing. It’s not only easy to gloss over people’s issues this way, but it also dashes an opportunity to understand more visions of the human experience.
The only ways to really keep our languages alive is by using them in art and in our media. I know that my Kannada is not absolutely perfect, but it would make it so much easier to reconnect with my culture if I knew that there was niche culture scene where it was the predominant medium of expression. There are languages that are close to dying out (and Kannada isn’t even one of them), and I can only imagine how some young people in those communities feel. The helplessness of watching your culture die before you is horrible. To have someone else essentially tell you “If you can’t beat’em, join’em” when it comes to resisting a dominant prestige culture is even worse. Hindi is not the only language of India, and English is not the only language of the world. I won’t let my language, my history, or my people be erased, if I can help it.
Here’s my rundown of my third week in China! Note: I should probably note that this is actually my fourth week in China, since I spent the first week mostly moving in and doing orientation-related activities for school. But I’m just going to run with the numbers I’ve done so far. With that, here we go!
Shopping in Shanghai
Shanghai is an enormous city, just like New York, and can be divided into at least two areas, roughly speaking: Puxi and Pudong. Puxi is west of the river, and is where most nightlife, shopping, restaurants, and generally fun things to do are located. Pudong is primarily a financial district, with many of Shanghai’s corporations, banks, and other companies having buildings here. It’s also where NYU Shanghai is located, so I’m in Pudong most of the week. That’s not to say there’s nothing to do in Pudong, since there are a few malls here and there, along with food stalls that open
On the weekends, I usually go to somewhere in Puxi with friends, and this weekend, shopping was a big part of my travels. Specifically, I was trying to find a new pair of shoes, ones that I could wear for going out, but not casual. Regardless of what I was looking for, I wasn’t going to find it in any store whatsoever.
I’m a fairly large person, even in the US (though definitely on the smaller end of plus size individuals). This is especially true in China, where people my size are few and far between (yes, I’m aware that people like Yao Ming exist). But the trouble for them, and expats of my size, is finding clothing items that fit them. For me personally, finding clothes wasn’t a huge issue, since if I go to Western stores like Zara and Uniqlo, there will usually be larger sizes like XL and XXL available (my usually size range when shopping). Chinese brands are a little harder, and XL is considered quite big, and generally speaking, I have to look for at least a size larger for a given item to fit.
However, shoes are the biggest problem. I wear a US size 13, which is about as far as most US outlets go, though some stock up to 14 or 15 (I haven’t seen anything larger). But in China, they use the European sizing system, which I believe is in centimeters. It is ridiculously difficult to find my size in China! Contrary to most sites with equivalency tables, a 46 is NOT a size 13; it’s a 12.5 at best, since I ordered a pair of size 46 shoes from Taobao (the Chinese version of Amazon, though with much lower prices), and they were too small! I started asking for 47, but even in most Western brand stores, the largest size I found was a 44. The one time I did find a size 47, it was in a Clarks, and it was ridiculously priced at around 1800 RMB for a shoe I didn’t feel was particularly worth the expense.
My online searches seemed to indicate that the only recourse was to find stores that explicitly stock plus-sized shoes, look more online, or go to places like Charles Philip to have a custom pair of shoes handmade (which I don’t recommend unless you have the money to spare). For now, I’m sticking to trying to find something online again. If anyone has some ideas, I’m all ears!
Adventures in Food
My travels in food this week brought me to relatively more upscale places than I usually frequent in New York. When you’re vegetarian in the US, it’s commonly assumed that you really can’t eat anything, and by extension, anything you can eat is relatively inexpensive. I am used to paying no more than $13-14 USD for my meals in New York (which I consider somewhat pricey, given my frugal upbringing).
I was surprised to see that the vast majority of vegetarian and vegan restaurants in Shanghai seem to be fairly upscale. I can’t really guess as to why this is the case, but since the RMB is only around $0.15, and I might not get the chance to do this again, I figured that spending a little extra on food is not such a bad thing. At my school’s cafeteria, my meals run from about 10 to 30 kuai, the colloquial word for the RMB in English, from the word 快/塊 (kuài), which is the measure word for currency in Mandarin. Interestingly enough, the colloquial word for the RMB in Mandarin, 元 (yuán), is sometimes used as the formal term for the RMB in English, labeled as the CNY (Chinese yuan).
Anyway, my vegetarian meals at restaurants in Shanghai are also usually no more than about 20-30 kuai, though sometimes I’ve spent 40-50 kuai, usually by buying a drink. Specialty drinks, such as mocktails or freshly brewed tea can often cost an extra 10 to 30 kuai, depending on the restaurant. This weekend, my friends and I went to the Portmann Ritz-Carlton, and checked out the restaurants near there, including one called Beef and Liberty, which is to the left of the entrance of the hotel as you walk toward it (to the right if you’re coming out). Coincidentally, Saigon Mama (the Vietnamese restaurant I went to from last week) is directly across from Beef and Liberty.
Beef and Liberty is a fairly small American burger restaurant, and despite its name, serves a variety of different burgers, including a vegetarian falafel burger! Be warned, as it is pricier than most restaurants I’ve been to so far. Sadly, the only vegetarian burger they have is their falafel burger, but fret not, as it was one of the best burgers I’ve ever had! (That means something coming from someone who doesn’t really like burgers in the first place!)
The falafel burger burger has a sesame sauce and a harissa yogurt sauce on it, so it has a bit of a kick, but the yogurt tames it a little bit (I would have preferred plain harissa, to be honest). While most people tend to thing of veggie burgers as not real burgers or not substantial enough, this burger was a hefty one, with a thick, crunchy exterior, but soft and almost fluffy inside. Each burger comes with a side of fries that aren’t oily and not too crunchy either, which I quite appreciated, and it certainly filled me up.
But something must be said about the ketchup. Now, most ketchup in the US (which is often Heinz ketchup) is very sweet and seems unnaturally smooth and shiny. I usually avoid ketchup in favor of hot sauces like Sriracha and Cholula. Beef and Liberty provides bottles of Wilkin and Sons ketchup on each table, which was far better than most ketchup I’ve had, with a sweetness that came from the tomatoes and a little sugar, rather than corn syrup (the predominant sweetener in the US). It was more natural-tasting, and I really enjoyed the meal overall. The bottles don’t have a lot in them, so be careful about running out (I don’t know if they charge to replace them)!
The whole meal came out to 78 kuai, plus 30 kuai for a drink (a Liberty Lemonade, a sparkling lemonade with mint essentially) . For 108 kuai, which is around $16.33, I paid for a meal that I quite enjoyed, and certainly for which I will be back in my time in Shanghai. I might not get the drink next time, simply because I usually don’t order them, and I didn’t think it was anything special. I then proceeded to pay 88 kuai for a “temperance cocktail” (fancy word for a mocktail) at the Waldorf Astoria Long Bar, called the Secret Garden. It was quite good, flavored with elderflower, kiwi, and apple.
I don’t drink alcohol, but alcohol prices in China are also fairly low compared to the US (so I’m told). My friends frequently buy several bottles of soju and beer from the nearby Family Mart (the Chinese 7-11; called 全家 (quán jiā) in Mandarin) every weekend after dinner (if not more often). Restaurants may charge around 20-50 kuai for a glass of beer or wine.
Another interesting thing I came across was that one of my favorite stores, Muji, is completely different in China. It’s mostly a clothing store in China, whereas in the US, their products primarily consist of home goods and stationery. I can’t speak to the quality of their clothing, but they sell a variety of pens, notepads, and other stationery that are quite good quality (especially the pens). The pens don’t bleed and they come in different sizes. The Chinese locations sell brush pens, which they seem to have discontinued in the US, and it’s a shame because they’re really quite good quality! To the right is one of my calligraphy pieces using a Muji brush pen.
However, I discovered another oddity at Muji: ASIAN FOOD KITS. I’ve never seen these items at the Muji stores in the US, and I had no idea they make these things. I don’t know about the quality, but I will have to try it some time (the prices on these seem a little high in my opinion).
Anyway, that’s all for this week, and I look forward to writing next week’s post!
(Sorry I haven’t posted in a really long time! I’ve been studying for finals and finishing up my freshman year of university, but I’ve produced a lot of good work that I’m somewhat satisfied with. This is part of a larger work that I started as a project for a class that I’m going to expand in the future.)
Calligraphy has fascinated me as an art form because its artistic components and the analysis thereof have always mystified me. It seems like just pretty handwriting, and indeed in the case of Chinese calligraphy, it is often the case that calligraphy is used as an example of good handwriting.
The pedagogy of calligraphy in Chinese is highly focused upon small details. Stroke order, stroke rhythm, the correctness of the stroke, and the structure of the character are essential to the art. Apprentices begin by practicing 永 (yŏng, “eternal”), its eight strokes representing many of the most common ones, as well as its particular structure being good practice for learning proportion and shape. Deviation from the standard of the master or other teachers is seen as unthinkable, and to me, this presents a particularly puzzling issue. Copyright laws that impede the imitation of others’ works also make it difficult to maintain the tradition of following the work of masters. What defines the artistry of Chinese calligraphy? Where is there room for new stylistic choices? These questions are very important to the art of calligraphy, in my mind. Because different strokes represent different ideas, and the ultimate meaning of the components of a character comprise the final artwork’s meaning, it is very difficult to achieve mastery in calligraphy.
The meaning contained in Chinese characters, utterly unitary in their art, is contrasted with Arabic calligraphy. Calligraphy in the Nastaliq script is strongly connected with the expression of ideas and beliefs outlined in the Qur’an, since figurative depiction is forbidden in Islam. Calligraphic representations of verses and words can be difficult to understand, since meaning is distributed along the horizontal and vertical axes. Words and letters overlap one another and where the work begins and ends can be difficult to see, especially in non-singular compositions. Arabic, being a language written more or less phonetically from right to left is not well suited to the styles of Chinese calligraphy, seemingly separated into invisible boxes. Further contrasting with Chinese, Arabic calligraphy is significantly more free-form, with a higher rate of occurrence of curved lines, and other decorative forms added to further illustrate the beauty of the words.
The fundamental differences between Chinese and Arabic calligraphy lie also in the linguistic differences. Chinese calligraphy is composed of glyphs with meaning unto themselves, whereas Arabic is written in multiple symbols strung together for meaning. Each letter, however, does have numerological value, similar to the values assigned to strokes in Chinese, each with a unique classification and mode of formation. The consonantal roots of Arabic make it an interesting step away from the formation of meaning in Chinese. Chinese forms meaning through the construction of a glyph from multiple different strokes, but all of the meaning exists in one place. Words in Arabic are constructed from usually triconsonantal roots, inserting different vowels around the consonants.
For example, the root k-t-b is related to writing, and different insertions of vowels can change the meaning of the resulting word, within the limits of the spoken language, of course. But what this means is that meaning is suddenly abstracted, free from tense, gender, plurality, voice and other grammatical qualities. Only the vowel marks, which are not mandatory and in fact are discouraged, contextualize the root. Only in works concerning the Qur’an and other religious texts are the vowel marks included to ensure the absolute correct pronunciation and reading of the text. Here we see yet another contrast: meaning is inherent in the root in Arabic, whereas in Chinese meaning is derived by the construction of its parts.
This brings us to non-Semitic and non-ideographic scripts, where there is no inherent meaning in strokes and letters. This includes scripts like Latin, Devanagari, or Cyrillic, all three of which have small but present calligraphic traditions. English has used Latin calligraphy for older written documents, such as the Declaration of Independence or the Magna Carta, mostly for representation of heightened qualities of official documentation and aesthetic value. Sanskrit and other Indian languages have used Devanagari for transcriptions of the Vedas and other religious texts, similar to Islamic Arabic calligraphy, but mostly manifest in regional variations which evolve into different scripts in the north of India. Cyrillic languages use calligraphy in their everyday cursive handwriting, similar to the Chinese art of modeling handwriting.
Now, the reason I discuss calligraphy at such length is because of the nature of non-Semitic and non-ideographic scripts restricts the artistic scope of calligraphy in the languages in which they are written. They are purely aesthetic traditions, and there is little artistic meaning ascribed to anything inherent in the letters or the language. What I wish to do is establish a set of parameters for calligraphy in Kannada, a language near and dear to my heart, as my mother tongue. I wish to cultivate an artistic tradition with real meaning in the real world, one with which people can channel their ideas in significant ways. The word, “calligraphy” in Kannada is often translated as ಸುಂದರವದ ಅಕ್ಷರ (sundaravada akṣara), or “beautiful lettering”. This does little justice to the artistic, narrative, and semantic beauties of Arabic and Chinese calligraphy, and therefore I propose a different word: ಸುಬರಹ (subaraha). Composed of the root ಸು- (su-, good) and the word ಬರಹ (baraha “writing”). While simplistic, I wish to ascribe special significance to the “goodness” of the writing. Calligraphy is an artistic medium through which semantic meanings are conveyed through an aesthetic manipulation of its physical form, thereby invoking a more esoteric dimension in the writing. As such will ಸುಬರಹ be defined.
The basic components of ಸುಬರಹ shall be enumerated as follows:
The choice of word(s) – The semantic and narrative choices of the artist; It goes without saying that the language of the word must be in Kannada, and if derived from Sanskrit or another language, it must be appropriately altered.
The manipulation of the letters:
The length of strokes – The expanse of meaning of the syllable or root
The proportion of diacritics and components of each letter relative to the base form of the letter – The interpretive expanse of the work (narrative) or the ornamentation of the work (aesthetic)
Shapes contained (depicted or not) and perceived in the letters – Associative elements meant to narrow the focus
The thickness of the instrument – The levity of meaning, precision of interpretation, or intended intensity
Color of the medium – Associative meanings through color
Canvas or setting – Contextualizes meanings of the work as appropriate
The artist may ascribe a poem, subtitle, or other form of description to the work. The original, printed version of the work’s content should be included somewhere in the work for clarity of comprehension, along with the artist’s signature (their real name or pseudonym, whichever is preferred). While none of these rules are set in stone, they should be regarded as the core elements of the Kannada calligrapher’s repertoire. It falls to the artist to indicate special stylistic choices that are heterodox or unexpected. Below are a few example works for you to examine and understand, given this new set of criteria.