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China Notes

Learning to live and work in the Middle Kingdom. words and pictures by Sean Justice


China Notes Learning to live and work in the Middle Kingdom.




My first trip to China was in October 2005; in a sense, I’ve never fully come home. The initial period in Beijing and Shanghai—until the end of 2006—was the most intense and concentrated stretch of my life: teaching photography, exploring artistic collaborations, and producing commercial advertising photographs for clients in China and the United States. This essay is an exploration of that period, a poetic documentary of the work. One never knows what to expect, of course, at the start of a new project. I knew, for instance, that I didn’t know China. Yet, since I’d traveled extensively, living and working in many different cultures (including, in fact, South Korea, where I spent the formative years of my childhood), I thought I’d know how to navigate the learning process, to get beneath the surface. What I didn’t expect was to learn so much about not knowing. In Beijing I was told that my feet were in two boats, and that my position was untenable. The metaphor makes sense from the point of view of boats diverging. On the other hand, when currents come together, perhaps that’s the better place to be.



Chapter One



7:23 p.m., Saturday, October, 2005. In a taxi with a guy who has been asked to meet me at the airport:

We race into politics, history, America and China, and he wants to go to school in New York. “It’s funny you call us China because of plates and cups,” he says.




11:23 p.m., Wednesday.



11:47 p.m., the first day.


10:35 a.m ., Tuesday. Panorama Media Limited, Beijing.

An attendant brings water in a paper cup, as I wait for Zhai to return. The water is hot. That’s a surprise.



12:25 a.m., Sunday night, Beijing. 2005 I am a photographer, an artist, a teacher, and a businessman. I’ve come to China to explore my roots.

Yes, that sounds insane, but it feels true to my first memories of pictures, picture-making, photography, and of that early spreading ripple of friends outside the family, when awareness first stretched past the four walls of my own backyard. These memories, unfolding echoes from my childhood, return to me from South Korea, from the 1960s, from Seoul, where my father directed the Peace Corps’ program to eradicate tuberculosis. As well, I’ve come to China to expand. In New York I teach photography and new media art, and sometimes show my pictures in galleries, but I make my living from commercial advertising, editorial and stock photography. Accordingly, I’m intrigued by markets, and by how we sell ourselves a lifestyle we can’t afford. On set at home I wonder how my work plays into that dynamic, while at the same time I worry about maintaining revenue—that continual and crushing imperative that drives and drowns us entrepreneurs. So, lured by the song surrounding all things China, I’ve taken the plunge, just done it—come to Beijing to grab a chance to sell more pictures. Which frankly, now that I’m here, feels absurd. A half-thought surfaces, tickling my anxiety: strung out on jet-lag in this threadbare hotel, peering through the night-murk at a buzzing pit spitting clouds of dust horizontally from across the street, even now, at midnight, I ask myself, Can this city slamming frenzy day and night have a care for what I’m selling? And how the hell can I even hope to know?


Another impulse more difficult to articulate, and not noticed yet: I’ve come to China to start a small experiment.

My imagination is accelerated by photography, but the daily noise crowds out contemplation. In the studio I focus on simplicity, the surface that masks experience, but when making pictures for myself I want more complexity. I’m in two boats. Navigation has become impossible; latitude is tangled up in longitude and I’ve lost my prime meridian. Can I map myself more clearly by seeing myself in China?

I don’t know what that means. And don’t know what I’m doing. I’ve got no hypothesis, no expectations, and no idea how to evaluate what I might find, which obliterates the scientific method, and makes clichés invsible. What can I possibly learn here?

Already now after only two days there’s so much I don’t understand and can’t hope to understand, perhaps not even to the extent that I’ll know I don’t understand it. China may be the mother culture to my childhood memories, but what difference can that make to me now? And, is the thought that I might dip beneath the surface itself naïve? Today I’m living back to front. What happened yesterday might make sense tomorrow, too late to anchor me to today, and too early to be useful in navigating next week. But I’m here.

This is a story about going to China.




11:28 p.m., a farewell dinner, Shanghai.


Tonight, after several long weeks of production, after dinner at their favorite Korean place, and after their long disagreement about the danger of clothes dryers, Felix said he felt he was home, finally, when their plane landed last week in Shanghai, after a two-week visit to North Carolina to introduce his new son to the American side of the family, and Xiaowen, his wife, smiled.




6:12 a.m ., Tuesday, Chaoyangmen Apartments, Beijing.


Outside the foreigners’ long-term rental tower, the door attendant pulls an eight-hour shift, standing. Ni hao, in my American way. On the fourteenth day I think he smiles. The street and the density feel familiar, knowable, per-

haps from my childhood in Seoul—tiled sidewalk, sub-

terranean walkway, shuffling crowd, boiled cabbage and solvent in the air—I know these. But not: the sound is different. Beijing is dusty. And there’s a ruthless nonchalance in every interaction.

I’m a customer now.



10:38 a.m., April, Shanghai .




New York.


My Mandarin teacher is from Beijing, matronly, upright. Ten of us meet in midtown on the seventh floor of a nondescript building near Penn Station. We begin with names.

In the parking lot after tea, Zhai, Zeng and Han double in laughter as I become daisy sky or sky mountain or something equally ridiculous.

Wo xing Justice jiao Sean. An honorable name. My honorable name is.

She stresses the bright honor of a good name and we make introductions around the room— from a grad student in business school, to a guy with a Chinese girlfriend, to an attorney, a salesman, a journalist, another grad student, and to me, a photographer. Again and again around the circle:

Ni de? And yours? Wo shi she ying shi.

Neurons pop as my brain expands. It’s been a long time since I've sat in the student’s chair. I’m listening for the tones—the four-tones—and I’ve turned the words around. She laughs and then sternly repeats.

At the end of the evening she gives us names because she knows us now. I am gang shan, iron mountain.


I’ve transposed the tones, or forgotten the words altogether.

New York, preparing for Beijing.

Outside of time, China Air.

This is what I’ve learned: the language is not phonetic and there is no written alphabet. This fundamental shapes Chinese culture from the cellular level through to the body as a whole, and day-by-day I’m coming to understand how deeply this difference divides us.

I emerge briefly from Ambien fog and peer through murk. Below, a dim haze and— far away—a pale surface woven with grey streaks, jagged, fuzzy, and now dark lines spreading, thread-like.

For example, on the scale of the ordinary, since words cannot be indexed by phoneme, phone books are impossible—rather, inconceivable: an ordered phonetic list cannot exist because there is no substrate on which to hang the individual data points. And, at the macro scale, since foreign words cannot be “sounded out” in Chinese characters, each new word must be transformed, literally, into existing Chinese words.

America is rendered Mei Guo, or “Beautiful Country,” which taxi drivers like to explain. My favorite is Mexico, Mo Xi Ge: “Ink West Brother.”

What is this I’m looking at?

Some broken pattern, random and indistinct. Familiar. Chaotic. Strange. I look away; look again. The surface spreads out, endless. Texture but no detail. Ice. It strikes me. We’ve crossed over the pole and hang suspended above the far north sea. Broken ice spreads to the limit of this small window. I am looking at the frozen surface of the sea.

I wonder what this means for pictures?


6:45 a.m ., Sunday, Panjiayuan Market, Beijing.


At the flea market we must negotiate for throw away

ceramics with our cell phones, punching numbers into

the keypads to represent our displeasure and shower each

other with shame — negotiate from strength, ferociously; China hates a loser.

But I’m sleepy and just want to pay the man. Fei Hu grabs my shoulder and pushes me from the

crowded stall, scowling. Of course you must not pay, he says. How can I respect you if you pay the price?




China Notes (Chapter One)  

Learning to live and work in the Middle Kingdom.