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Thinking Makes It So: A taste for Chinese art

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By Kelly LeVan

Clutching a painting for several thousand miles, in tiny airplane aisles and through multiple crowded airports, creates an immaculate bond. I know this from personal, international experience.I don’t feel the same special tie with my backpack or the warped energy bars I transported home from China, even though we had made a round-trip together. However, great art surpasses even great food - I really like Lemon Zest Luna Bars - on my list of the three most important things in the world. I love it, and although I crossed the Pacific for other, not entirely aesthetic reasons, I had hoped all along to find the perfect, if faintly bourgeois, painted canvas to bring home from the People’s Republic.I found it my first full day in Shanghai. Michael and I, traipsing through side streets in the vicinity of our hotel, halted in front of a small art gallery, captivated at once by a painting of two gloriously mottled people.I should rephrase: I was captivated. Michael, whose list of the most important things in the world is less accurate than my own, caught me staring and said, “You’re weird.”We were tired, hungry and still shy about trying to speak our meek Mandarin, especially in Shanghai, where we quickly learned people speak another dialect. We couldn’t even trust in our basic words - “hello” and “thank you,” for instance - all of which were now alien. So we kept walking. We found spaghetti, pizza, cheesecake and donuts, and adored them all.But the day we were set to leave, regret woke up me up early. I had thought of the painting several times over the past three days, always with that profound longing well understood by other people who can’t afford paintings but buy them anyhow. Many of these people will also empathize with the desire to travel to Asia even though it required months and months of peanut-butter-and-jelly lunches.Anyhow, this day, which happened to be a Sunday, we had to leave for the airport by 8:30 a.m. There was little hope the gallery would open at all, let alone in time for us to fumble our way through a bilingual, or possibly non-lingual if the shopkeeper spoke no English, purchase.I nudged Michael.“Remember that painting?”He slept on. I opened the curtain so a beautiful early golden light poured over his eyelids. He squinted and squirmed. I nudged enthusiastically.“The painting!” I said. “I have to see if it’s still there. I hope nobody else bought it. Come with me.”Because he’s wonderful, and because he thought it was cute that I assumed other people might share my unique taste in art, he rose and a few minutes after 7 a.m., we began crisscrossing the neighborhood, searching for the alley, the paper store - landmarks we remembered from our original trip to and past the gallery.We found an alley, but it wasn’t as scary as the alley we needed. We found a post office, and the green sign struck one of Michael’s brilliant neurons. We knew we had found the right street. Soon, we found the scary alley, the wall-full of colored papers. Then, we found the painting - actually two paintings:  one of the blotchy couple and one of a blotchy baby, as if the first canvas had given birth.They both sat behind a large, impenetrable metal gate. The shop was closed.We moped back to the hotel. I moped. Michael sleepwalked.At breakfast, I fidgeted madly as I ate my dumplings. It was 8 a.m. now. Maybe the gallery opened at 8 a.m. I left Michael to his second course and sped back. The gate was up and I touched the edge of the baby painting with a shaking hand.“Ni hao!” I shouted into the seemingly empty room. A head popped up behind a tall stack of artwork. The man returned my greeting and I tried to ask, in Mandarin, whether he spoke English. He smiled at me blankly. “English?” I said.He laughed and shook his head merrily.I led him over to the two paintings I liked, pointing at each and trying to signal that I liked them. He looked pleased, and pointed at his chest. He was the artist! I couldn’t contain my excitement.“How much?” I asked, unable to muster a worthy hand signal. Luckily, this was a phrase he knew.He brought out a calculator and pushed the buttons, displaying the price of each. With Michael’s help, I could afford the baby. I thanked him and booked back to the hotel, to Michael. We had 10 minutes to exchange our U.S. currency, run to the gallery, make the transaction and catch our bus.No problemo. And being the fine Asian travelers we’d become, we even had time to haggle.