Paint on Our Hands.

It’s our last day in China, and my jetlag has me wide-awake at 6 o’clock in the morning. Outside my window, I hear the city of Kunshan slowly awakening. Birds tweeting, cars honking.

Our trip is slowly coming to an end. No one has mentioned it really. Perhaps we’ve silently agreed to just live in the moment and enjoy it while it lasts. This semester, “living in the moment” has been a foreign concept. In the blitz of midterms, time is a rope I grip tighter and tighter. I always seem to be pulled into the past or dragged into the future by some exam, application, or project deadline. They come and go, and I jerk from blow to blow like a floater caught in a current.

This trip has been smoooooth sailing. Not to say that it’s been without its obstacles—jet lag, adjusting to a new culture…But each bump along the way has been welcomed with open arms. It’s been radical happiness.

We are a motley crew of artists ensuring that each day has been an adventure. On boat rides, around dinner tables, across ancient cities I have been flooded by a feeling of wonder, of joy. We laughed A LOT and as each moment echoes back into my memory, I can’t help but smile.

While the art, architecture, and culture has absolutely floored me; I am most moved by the people I have met and grown to call my friends.

The Duke Kunshan students and staff so warmly welcomed us to their campus that I’m seriously considering coming for a semester. (fr fr #DKUFall2016) So many smiling faces accepted our bad Chinese, joined us on adventures, and enthusiastically engaged in cultural exchange. I am so grateful for their kindness!

As for my group, we are a squad of the dorkiest Dukies. There’s no one else I would have rather shared this week with.

There is nothing more beautiful than creating with other people; to build and grow together is a true blessing. The “Evening of Art” event on Thursday reminds me of this deeply. We did all the art! Literally every medium of expression you can think of was employed. The whole campus came and we—of all ages and ethnicities—danced, painted, sang, played instruments, made poetry, took photos…We were creating together, building and growing. It was magical.

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Mural Workshop, DKU Campus – March 17th

At the end of the night, we all left with a rainbow of colors splotched across our palms. I can’t remember the last time I’ve had paint on my hands! It’s then that I realized that I’ve been depriving the artist in me.

Making art was pretty much all I did as a child. Life was a box of crayons. I sang so much that my aunt still calls me Song Bird. I played guitar and flute. I participated in every theater production at my high school. I made documentaries and stop-motion videos. I read books deep into the night with music humming in my ears. (Shout-out to my mom for being the marshal of all this!) I was always up to something creative and since coming to college, I’ve let the busyness get to me. I spend most of my time with my head in a textbook. I’ve wandered away from my first love!

This trip has revitalized my devotion to the arts, to artists and creativity. Regardless of what career I end up having, I want to make art for the rest of my life. I want to duArts! Sometimes, you have to travel halfway across the world to realize that life is better when you have a little paint on your hands.

Mathama Bility

The World According to Wang Xiachen

Our journey to Suzhou from Kunshan began at 7:30am just as the University and its students were waking up and our first stop was the Humble Administrators Gardens. The gardens were originally the oasis of Wang Xiachen. Xiachen was a government servant who became sick of his fast-paced, complicated government job and retreated to the city of Suzhou to live in a garden as a “humble” man and lead a simple life of poetry, gardening, and farming. Xiachen’s gardens were breathtakingly beautiful with a distinctive visual landscape of hills, small forests, and ponds that will forever live at the forefront of my memories of China. 20160316_093834

There have been times in my life at Duke when I believed that all my happiness revolved around how busy I was, how productive I was, and how much I was doing. But it only created an illusion of happiness that someday in the future I could finally slow down and live a simple life like Xiachen. Even though we were traveling all over the place and it felt like I came back to Kunshan exhausted every night, China felt like an escape from my life at Duke where everyday and every hour felt like it was planned out for me already. I was seeing the world through the eyes of Xiachen, the people doing tai chi and yoga in the gardens, the people painting Chinese landscapes on the banks of small ponds, and the people singing on benches in the middle of the woods. I was one of those people in Suzhou who were simply wandering around and just taking it all in. As I walked through the gardens, I felt peacefully relieved and relaxingly happy rather than a disillusioned happiness that I felt at Duke sometimes.


Later that evening, we slowed down a little bit more by visiting an old arts shop in old Suzhou. We participating in a workshop about Chinese painting, took part in a ritualistic Chinese tea ceremony, and also learned abut the art of embroidery. I think I’m just going to graduate and either become a tea expert or a professional embroiderer or both – I finally found my calling. These traditional forms of Chinese art continued my exploration into China’s history of meditation, peace, and beauty. Too bad that this escape will have to end eventually, but I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to runaway to China, do some art, and explore! Maybe one day I’ll be Xiachen and live in a garden, but until then I’m pretty ecstatic about taking a page from his play book and embroidering once in a while.



The Universal Language

“Wǒ yào zhēnzhū nǎichá” I say as I order bubble tea from a small stand in Suzhou, a city where we spent our third day in China. Bubble tea is a group favorite. I stumble over a few more words as I indicate I want a large, vanilla flavor tea. The cashier appears to be just as confused as I am. Somehow I leave with bubble tea. No language barrier is impenetrable enough to keep me from my bubble tea.

We’ve had so many great conversations with the students at Duke Kunshan, who have been so eager to teach us their language (which often begets lot of laughs as we stumble our way through tones and complexities of Mandarin Chinese) – I’ve really never been more tempted to pick up Chinese again even though I haven’t studied it in academic setting in years. But since we arrived in Kunshan, I’ve been thinking about a different kind of language.

Through our program, we have a chance to teach art, but at Suzhou we got to spend some time being art students again. One of the highlights of the day was learning calligraphy and traditional Chinese landscape painting from a master, who us taught techniques for painting various elements of nature essential to archetypal Chinese landscapes: dynamic, twisting trees, rocks, and round, towering mountains. Everyone in our group was at different level of “fluency,” so to speak, in their landscape painting abilities, but still everyone’s voices came through so clearly in their artwork – in the length and breadth of their strokes, the textures they create on the paper, the way they compose the leaves on trees or shadows on rocks – the way we communicated the same basic concepts was different for each of us. In that way, I think art can broadly be paralleled to language. Even though sometimes we flounder trying to communicate across English and Mandarin, in art there seems to be a basic understanding of what others are trying to express, even though it might look very different from how we, as individuals, would try to express something.

During the mural painting workshop we hosted this week, a student came up to me and asked me how he should complete the paint-by-number style drawings we created for students to paint as a group. He said he was wondering what the specific and exact steps were, and I told him there weren’t any. We painted some parts of the canvas ahead of time so students would have an idea of what colors to use where, but beyond that they were free to fill the canvas in their own unique ways – to be creative. As artists, our challenge was to look at all the voices of the students, which came through in the painting in the form of bright splashes of colors or thoughtful textures and shading, and tie them together into a meaningful finished piece.

The completed murals – two of which will hang at Duke Kunshan, and one that we will bring back to Duke with us – each have their own personality shaped by the artistic language of the students. The painting of the Kunshan campus, which we will bring back to Duke, resembles a soft, tranquil Chinese landscape painting not unlike the ones we painted in Suzhou; the students at Duke Kunshan took great care to shade each lotus flower floating in the lake of the Duke Kunshan campus, and worked in a group to blend the colors of the sky to create delicate clouds. In comparison, the paintings that will stay at the Kunshan campus – one that represents the academic departments of Duke Kunshan University (medical physics, management, global health, and the undergraduate global learning programs) and another depicting the Duke campus (namely, the iconic Duke chapel) – were vibrant, colorful, and geometric, resembling American pop art, so it seems fitting that these will be the ones to stay in China, while Chinese-style landscape of Kunshan will return to Duke with us.

It was such a pleasure to see the students at Duke Kunshan and those on our duARTS team – painters and non-painters alike – overcome any language barriers to express the spirit of both of our campuses through art, and I hope that these kinds of art-exchanges will be able to continue in the future.

~Kelsey Graywill
Project Co-Lead

Breakfast: DKU Style

Some people don’t eat breakfast. Occasionally, I have the displeasure of being one of them. This guarantees a day empty of fun and full of hanger. Fortunately, DKU has hit us up with some amazing breakfast to get us duArts students through our daily journeys.
When I strolled into the breakfast lounge on that first morning, I immediately  wanted to have a taste of all the things. My gluttonous desires were calmed by the thought that I had every morning of the trip to make it through all the things. And yes, “things” is what I must collectively call it all as there are a few items whose ingredients are completely unknown to me. Nevertheless, I proudly support their existence and consumption.
We’ve been on campus for the past 3 mornings, and this is how i’ve utilized them:
  • Morning 1-three buns and a sphere
The buns of this morning were pork and vegetable with noodles– but their identities are never quite certain when we order them as they give no outward indication of what type of yum they contain.
a small bun of yellow egg custard–twin of small bun of red bean paste. to me at least, mistaking these two isn’t as big o a divergence of taste.
and the red bean sesame ball. this little delicacy has become, by far, the most popular breakfast item among us duArts students.
  • Morning 2- mandatory sesame ball, red bean rice porridge, petite-garlic-like-toast-thing, dumpling-like-thing-filled-with-rice-and-meat-….maybe, and homemade soy milk
The rice soup was one of three, the others being plain white rice and a yellow rice soup with fruit inside.  The taste of these are rather plain, but this cannot be put against it as our typical grits and oatmeal don’t burst with flavor either. The soy milk was delicious. We were not aware of its greatness until advised by a dku student that it was special and freshly made here. You could most definitely distinguish this from any carton of Silk.
Though I myself didn’t indulge in any this particular morning, dragon fruit also made an appearance and disappearance at our table.
Before leaving for the day, I snagged a drink from the juice bar– apple and orange juice– made freshly in front of me with 3 oranges and 4 apples and absolutely nothing more. pure and delicious.
  • Morning 3-  mystery yummy rice meat dumpling, sweet potato, carrot pear juice
When I ordered the carrot pear juice I did it in the name of health –sacrificing my taste buds. But the carrot did not ruin the juice at all, it was incredibly sweet and smooth–equally as good, in my opinion, as their incredible 7 oranges orange juice.
The sweet potato and corn have remained on the buffet –unordered by any member of our group. These items to us do not seem breakfast-y, especially not the corn. But upon more thought the sweet potato made sense. We eat sweet things for breakfast, and we eat potatoes in various forms for breakfast– so why not combine those two and why not do it in the most lazy of ways where nature has already done all the combining.
Ironically, after chatting with a DKU student, the corn isn’t totally uncommon for a Chinese breakfast–but the sweet potato was, and its presence here was puzzling.

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Jetlagged Dreaming

Where do I even begin? I keep writing this post over and over again because each word I type seems incapable of capturing everything that has happened over the past two days. It feels like I need someone to pinch me every hour or so just to remind me that I’m not dreaming, that I’m actually in China right now, and that we’ve #madeit.
It was only four months ago that I was sitting in a meeting with Jennifer and Ali to discuss the possibility of organizing a trip to Duke Kunshan during Spring Break. And now I’m surrounded by 7 incredibly talented and artistic Duke students, a beautiful University, and some of the most welcoming new friends. It’s easy to take Duke’s incredible arts community, the billions of opportunities, and the wide-range of interdisciplinary work for granted. But Duke Kunshan is truly a canvas to transform, create, and learn from.
As someone who finds inspiration in the everyday, this trip has been everything but normal. Whether it’s the random eye-contact with the man practicing Tai Chi in the middle of Ting Ling Park, the hilarious moments of uncontrollable laughter while exploring Zhouzhang, or the random people of the streets that keep taking pictures of us while we spend an hour ordering bubble tea in the middle of downtown Kunshan, this trip has been full of unforgettable moments and a lot of firsts. Yesterday, I had my first authentic Chinese lunch full of local delicacies like squirrel fish, coconut water, and lotus roots. Today I had bubble tea for the first time and it was delicious as everyone said it would be. Honestly I’m having a hard time taking it all in because it’s all so incredible, so mesmerizing, and unbelievable. But my favorite part of the entire trip has been the people that I’m lucky enough to share this experience with. I have minor panic attacks with Ali because we both cannot believe how far we’ve come from the one-page proposal we put together back in November. Kelsey and I as co-leaders pretend like we know what we’re doing on this trip when in reality “ting boo dong” has become our new slogan. Steven and I shot an audition video for MTV’s Cribs in the middle of the gardens today (MTV hit us up) and also perfected our smize all over Kunshan. And there have been very few moments on the trip that I haven’t been laughing. I’m lucky to be spending my Spring Break in China, but honestly I’m even luckier to be here with people that constantly make me laugh, that inspire me with their talents and passions for art, and that have already become some of my favorite people.
– Anshu

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Such Warmth

After what felt like a lifetime since our last rest, we returned from a beautiful, packed day in ZhouZhuang and felt our bodies start to go limp from our exhaustion.

We just wanted to sleep, we said.

I’m not even hungry, we said.

Yet, a dragging our feet in a little bit late, we made it to the dinner dining area of Duke Kunshan University’s (DKU) campus, and sat amongst some of DKU students who came to keep us company. Socializing over dinner replenished enough strength to help me personally to at least make it back to the residential hall.

Somehow during dinner, I managed to open a discussion with some DKU students who were intrigued with me. Rumor had it that I was an ABC – an American Born Chinese. Curious of my abilities, I tried my hardest to deliver. I even crafted some sentences in a particular way to prove my Beijing accent – the butt of a lot of jokes going forward.

Being an extrovert in these types of situations is a trait about myself that I value immensely. Without all these lovely faces surrounding me, I would have wiped out right there on those strangely comfortable stools.

And missed some of the most memorable conversations I’ve ever had.

These students are so, so lovely. I am having trouble finding other adjectives not because the individuals are undeserving, but rather there are few other words that fully encompass how much I valued this amount of time with them. At first I tried to engage them as much as I could about themselves – what they were studying, what their hometowns were like, attempted to offer up my broken Chinese as a source of comic relief. But when the students started opening up to me and asking me questions, I realized that they weren’t looking to just observe American students – they were looking for friends. Which was not difficult, seeing that there was absolutely no lack of topics to discuss.

Like curious incoming freshmen, they were incredibly interested in what my American life was like:

What kind of food do we eat on campus? [I tried to explain the concept of Marketplace and foodpoints. It was kind of a total disaster]

What are you studying? [Public Policy – it’s a practical combination of economics and politics, and satisfies my indecisive tendencies]

Do you have a boyfriend? [College dating fascinated them – an interest I believe many of us at this age pursue quite intensely]

What are parties like? [“I mean… it is a lot like how American movies portray it… but less… dramatic? Oh and we have something called Shooters”]

Take a selfie with me? [“Yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!”]

After many WeChat QR Codes were exchanged, pocky and fruit snacks consumed, and names repeated over and over to which my brain simply couldn’t retain any more, I have retired back to my room, smile still resting on my face. Such genuine people I’ve met today, and there are very few things my little extroverted self loves more than exchanging with the generosity and warmth of others.

Amy Wang


First Impressions

Arriving in Shanghai seemed like victory after fourteen hours and thirty minutes of being trapped on a plane. As soon as we landed, found our bags, and proceeded through customs, our group was immediately greeted by two Duke Kunshan students who awaited our arrival. Their warm welcome cheerfully contrasted Shanghai’s chilling breeze.

After brief introductions, we walked over to a Scooby Doo-eque bus that helped us complete the two hour drive between the airport and Duke Kunshan University’s campus. As we traveled through the night, neon lights decorated our horizon and streetlights revealed numerous residential buildings that were laid out in identical blocks. Sometimes four by four, sometimes five by five. No matter the size, each housing block seemed like a somber veil that covered bustling life inside.

Soon enough, we pulled up to Duke Kunshan’s residential building and were again greeted with smiling faces and joyful introductions. It immediately struck me that these students had waited inside the building’s lobby just to welcome us to their home. Their friendliness and sincerity made a striking first impression. It made clear that while the Duke name represents two campuses, it signifies only one interconnected community.

Once we heard the next morning’s logistics, our group split up and moved into our suites for the week. I cannot help but notice that my room in Kunshan is far nicer than my room in Durham. Also, not having to share a bathroom with an entire hall is pure magic.

Steven Soto