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Friendship makes anyplace home


It’s very quiet here, at Sanbao International Ceramic Institute, at seven in the morning.

In this 300-year-old building situated in the outskirts of Jingdezhen, a town known as the Porcelain City, I hear ancient China breathing through those crumbling brick walls, through the woodwork that had long lost its glow, and through the squeaky floor under my feet that groans every time I walk on it.

Mao Zedong’s solemn portraits hanging on the walls makes me uneasy. Three decades had passed since his death, but his presence is vibrantly alive here, like in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. I wonder whether the folks in this place also participated in the Cultural Revolution in the late 60s, in which anything that reminded Mao of feudal China was smashed — landowners, Buddhist temples and monks, books on Confucius and his teachings, palaces, mansions — and he built a communists state, where everyone was equally common and poor before his nonnegotiable leadership.

I arrived here a few days ago as a resident artist to learn the ancient Chinese methods of pottery-making and to work with other foreign artists, but at the moment, I am the only “foreign artist” here. I was informed that they’d join me later. Two Chinese students from Jingdezhen Ceramic Institute are working with me on a daily basis.

This place could have belonged to a storybook once upon a time. Surrounded by tall, fog-capped mountains, no 21st century civilization had touched yet, except occasional motorcyclists speedaways with a spray of dust and a loud boom. I like it so much that I dread the day I will have to pack and head home.

Through the large picture windows before my work area in the studio stands a majestic green mountain whose peak is sliced off by the straight roof line of the building I am in, and on the back is a terraced patio tiled with broken, mismatching ceramic pieces and a basin collecting crystal clear water from a brook that runs through the property. From this basin, we fetch water to work, and when we’re done working, we wash hands, tools and the muddy apron for the next day. The gurgling water and the scenery remind me of Beethoven’s Pastorale Symphony.

Two dozen employees, all Chinese, treat me well. In fact, I am a bit of celebrity here. Everyone wants to talk to me, jabbering in Chinese. When I understand what they say they cheer me, saying “Hen Hao!” But when I don’t understand, they write the characters on a piece of paper for me. I had taken a Chinese language class at a local college, but talking comes slower than reading. Still, my ability to utter a few Chinese sentences pays off in a big way. It seems also that the people have warmed to me because I am eager to learn their language. My maiden name, Suh, originated in China, and I told them so in my halting Chinese.

I came here to learn arts and craft of ancient Chinese pottery, but what I’ve gained from these folks is rather profound. Now I realize that wherever you go on this earth, you will always find something familiar and someone who opens his or her arms to you as a gesture of warmth and friendship because, after all, this planet is the home for all humans to find comfort and share with one another.

Eight thousand miles away from my home in Kansas, I am definitely comfortable.