The bigger picture

In my 20s, I spent time living and teaching English in Wuhan, China. My job was to prepare MBA students to receive instruction in English from visiting Canadian profs — improve their listening and speaking skills for lectures and help them apply a ‘western’ (linear) approach to academic writing.

Foreigners were still exotic then in China, and it wasn’t unusual for people to stop in their tracks, mouths agape, upon seeing me in the city or even on campus. In fact, I could count on this if I happened to be with my new boyfriend – a handsome young foreign student from Senegal, west Africa.

But there was refuge from the culture shock and hotplate dinners. Down the road from the campus guest house where I lived  was a little restaurant — just a couple of tables — where my boyfriend would sometimes invite me for a real meal. It was always the same — chicken stir fry with rice. Was there a menu? I don’t remember.

The best part of going there, though, was the waiter. He seemed thrilled when we arrived, as if we’d simply made his day. He was also young, perhaps early 20s. And he was decidedly fashion-forward, even within the constraints of the place and time. He had a trendy haircut and his outfits mimicked those that were in style in the west. He stood out and he was making a statement and we understood it.

I spoke no Chinese really and he spoke no English, but over the months, we developed an affection for one another. Before I left China, we visited the restaurant one last time.  When we rose to leave, the waiter handed me a gift. It was a watercolour he had painted, a historical scene of a woman and child on horseback. He’d signed it with a smiley face in spiky haircut – himself, of course – and had written my name in English along with his own in Chinese.

I framed the painting when I returned. Over the years, I wondered what had inspired him to paint it. Was it a tribute to his own mother? Did it evoke some important Chinese theme?——

One day not long ago, while reading one of my favourite online magazines, I was surprised to see my painting embedded within a larger painting that was apparently a Tang dynasty-era classic (Spring Outing of the Tang Court, by Zhang Xuan, 713-755 AD)! My waiter friend must have been practicing his skills by copying a section of the grand work from the golden era of Chinese civilization (according to Wikipedia).

So what, you ask? Yes, so what.

It’s taken 20 years to see the bigger picture and it was an accident that the bigger picture came into view at all. More likely, I’d have continued to believe my painting was evoked from the fond maternal feelings and imagination of my waiter friend.That’s the story I told myself for 20 years. Instead, there’s a different story about iconic art works and technical practice. There are other figures surrounding my mother and child. The horse has a head and a tail. The painting has a name.

Would it have mattered all these years, knowing about the bigger picture? Does it matter now? Will I forever see my painting as an amputation? Will I enjoy it less knowing there is so much more to see beyond mother and child?


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