September 19, 2016

TINA HE | Bad Artisan

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Photo Courtesy of Tina He

I was in New York City for the sole purpose of visiting some indie second-hand bookstores so I could get some best deal in town to justify spending a hundred dollars traveling here from Ithaca. I got a tote that says “If you go home with somebody & they don’t have books, don’t f**k ‘em” and loaded it with as many books as it would fit. L let out a loud breath and asked if I wanted a photo of myself since I looked ridiculous with all these books and I probably would want this on my Instagram; hence I handed over my brand new camera and smiled hysterically at the ground to follow the rubrics of a candid photo—I also defended that I was currently on a spiritual journey of searching for inspirations. L proposed that inspirations would come through if we could go eat sashimi right now.

Photo Courtesy of Tina He

Photo Courtesy of Tina He

The sashimi were aligned according to their color schemes and the mystical glow diffused by their texture had transformed them into iridescent exotic gems. L started explaining which ones are so highly regarded in Japan that they used to be served only to the royals, and which ones have to be prepared at a certain temperature to preserve texture—perfectly-pronounced Japanese words and gastronomic terms flowed from his lips.

I was mesmerized by L’s knowledge but at the same time I wished he would allow me to eat the fish. The waiter had kindly advised us to let the ice sit for a while so that the flavor of the fish could blend perfectly with the soy sauce; a connoisseur like L would sacrifice many things for top-notch quality, including the well-being of his stomach, which had been growling for ten minutes. L is also a businessman—charismatic, caring and smooth, like the wine he made me try yesterday night—a physical embodiment of an ambitious, well-rounded, intelligent business school student in the City. They simply don’t disappoint. I am pretty sure he never really listened to what I said but he told me every thirty minutes that he loves me, which was exactly what I wanted to hear.

“So when did you start to take photos? And writing and all those stuff that you do.” He picked up the camera on the table and started scrutinizing; he pretended that his stomach didn’t just roar to protest against the tyranny of his mind.

At that point, questions about my creative journey—When did I start? Why did I do it? Who is my inspiration? How often do I do it?—had been asked so many times that my genuine answers almost sounded like a well-rehearsed pitch; I could expect an “oh that is cool” response and I was ready to give an elusive smile that creates a don’t-take-everything-I-said-too-seriously effect. At the moment, I felt as sophisticated as he is in knowing the types of sashimi and wines, the names of companies that he had just interviewed, and the best pubs for watermelon shisha. Over time I had unconsciously packaged a brand of myself that wears beanie in the winter and pair Dr. Martens with Opening Ceremony,  that steal quotes from the latest reviews of experimental rock from Pitchfork, that smokes in dim streetlights 4 a.m. in the morning awaiting sunrise, that can vary my lengths of sentence artfully—and if necessary, I would wear a bathing suit in a supermarket in L.A.  

The restaurant was dark and quiet; the light was intended only for food. My passionate talk seemed to catch someone’s attention from afar; the waiter finally announced that now was the time we could enjoy our food. Behind him was a grey-haired slender man dressed elegantly in a suit.

He started telling me about how, during college summers, he helped out at his mother’s rice shop and enjoyed it immensely. He liked witnessing how the mindfulness he put into the making of food immediately translated into visible joy. He would read books from the 20s when the shop wasn’t busy or talk to customers who frequented the shop about weather, cats or war on the other side. He smiled when he saw me closing my eyes in disbelief when the delicacy of fugu touched my tongue.

“I take photos too, and I studied literature in college,” he smiled and looked at me. “Slow down, and enjoy. ” He did a Japanese bow, nodded at me once again, and walked away. The waiter told us quietly as she refilled our tea cups that he had been doing the same business for almost twenty years now.

As L started to freak out about how awesome this place is, my thoughts drifted away—I came to the city for some second-hand books because I was not content with my writing and I was not happy with my photos; but I knew no one would question my status as an artist even when I currently have nothing to show them. I could talk better and better about my missions and beliefs but feel trapped on this boundless plateau as an artist—that’s what others called me.

A quote I always repeated to myself was one by Tom Kelley: “creative confidence is about believing in your ability to create change in the world around you.” But as the “believing” gets louder in my head, the “creation” weakens. The curation of this simple and impeccable collection of sashimi in front of me took years of time and work to develop—I can write a hundred posts about creativity, but without good artifacts, I can’t call myself a good artisan.

I left the sashimi place, the streetlights were on. I could hear car horns from afar that were about to declare a war. That day, I took a late night bus back to Ithaca with something to search for.