Last night I sat for another Chinese artist, this time a man, this time on a corner on 45th Street. When I started asking him questions I’d asked the first artist earlier this summer—How long have you been here? Why did you choose New York City and not San Francisco or Vancouver or Paris? Where did you study art?—he shushed me. For the moment, I knew only that he was from Shanghai and that he was mighty impressed by my Chinese, at least for an ABC. In the quiet between us, I listened to the street. Tourists paused to stare shyly. I winked at those who caught my eye. A security guard studied the portrait; I asked with a thumbs-up sign whether it was any good, and he merely shrugged. Two Ghanaian men wearing gorgeous silk ties and suits peered at the portrait, then asked if it was of my friend who was standing beside them, also watching the sketch being done.
Finally, the artist said, “Almost finished. You can talk now.”
I told the artist I was a writer, then corrected myself: “I write things.” I’d read somewhere that in Chinese one should never introduce oneself as a writer, that such a claim was up to somebody else to make. The artist, sincerely or not, expressed amazement: “Writing is so difficult. Your brain must be brilliant.”
“We’re all painting the world as artists, aren’t we?”
“No, there’s a grand difference between writing and the art that I do.”
“Did you ever write?”
“Yes, when I was younger and when I first came here. There are many Chinese writers here but not so many in China anymore. The government just doesn’t care for it. Here, I used to wake up at four or five in the morning and toil away with words, because I could. But words are so difficult! I don’t use them anymore.”
His knuckles were hairy. He had a mole above his lip, like me. When I asked him to sign the portrait, he signed in English, and then added only his last name in Chinese when I insisted on a Chinese signature. I didn’t press for his full name, nor did I ask any further questions.
He said, “You know ladies from Sichuan are the most beautiful Chinese women?”
“I’ve read that before. My dad’s very handsome.”
“Your mother must be beautiful, too. Taiwanese women know their stuff as well.”
“I’m okay, but yes, I love staring at my parents.”
The artist from earlier in the summer had been eager to reveal a little more; her tone had been guarded as well, but also curious. I’m not sure how many ABCs these artists meet, and when they do what kind of interaction they have with them. With the artist from last night, I didn’t get a chance to refer to my trip to China, or that my parents are retired and live in Flushing, or how many siblings I have. I’m glad to share such nuggets because for every nugget I offer, I get twice as many back.
He gave me a discount on the portrait. “We Chinese have to help one another out with discounts and such. Okay?”