China Trip 2017

After receiving my passport, reading forums, filling out many hotel bookings (mostly out of necessity for the China visa), and finding an embassy to send my application, my shoulders dropped. My cousin Jen Bruner Casselberry was very kind to deliver my passport and application to the embassy in Chicago for me (it has to be hand delivered). Around April, it finally arrived in the mail. That was when I knew China would actually be a thing. Finals were over. I made it through my first year of college…but the firsts were only just beginning.  I think we left May 8th. Just a couple days after the 2017 spring semester had officially ended. 

The day I got my visa!

Side tangent on Japanese encephalitis – probably should’ve gotten the vaccine, if only for the anti-paranoia benefits. I found myself swatting at a lot of mosquitos over the trip, especially the first hotel I stayed in. I came equipped with crazy bug repellent devices, which helped to a degree. I never got encephalitis, but you never know. Just make sure you give yourself at least two months to figure out vaccines and whatnot before traveling anywhere out of the country. You’ll thank yourself later. That is not to say that it ruined my trip! It was amazing. A small handful of paranoia plagued moments made for that much more of an adventure. At one point I recall taking off my shirt to use as a mosquito machete. It was…fun!

I was there for a month. If I went over every significant experience, I’d probably be set for life as a blogger. So I’ll stick to the highlights, the insights, and the toils.

After a 13 hour flight and a decent enough aerial breakfast, there we were. We took a two hour train ride from the Shanghai airport to Suzhou, the province where Miranda and her parents live. I was warmly greeted by her father who drove us home from the station. Both Miranda’s parents speak little English, and I speak little to no Chinese, so we bonded through our mutual cluelessness, exchanging smiles, improvising sign language, and trying out new words, often followed by fits of laughter. 

The air is…not as bad as I was anticipating. Beijing is notoriously smoggy, but Suzhou is fine. What I did notice were small spores flying through the air. They come from a certain type of tree, and they’re the main cause for people to wear masks out in the open. 

Anyway, we pass by a few hotels, general stores, and arrive at Miranda’s home. A large apartment building with 15 stories or so (minus the 13th floor). Their place is very small! But it’s beautiful. Kept very neat. I meet her mom. They all seem very excited to have me. We sit down for our first dinner together. Miranda’s dad keeps on offering me rice liquor. I have to refuse after the second tiny wine class he pours. I’m only 19 at this point, and I’ve never been a big drinker. And that shit is strong. Obviously my access is limited in the US, which is not the case in China. Miranda explained so I wouldn’t come off as being rude to reject his offer. 

Miranda’s boyfriend Yuanxu on the left. Her mom on the right.

The food was…different. But good! The weirdest thing served that night was cow tongue. Probably important to note that I had been vegan since the fall semester. It was not going to hold up here. No way.

The first hotel was…mosquito-friendly. I found myself in a whirl of paranoia, swatting all the mosquitos I could find in my room. Finally I slept. The next day, Miranda’s dad was kind enough to book me a different hotel. It had a much lower bug count. 

We spent about a week there. Then off to Nanjing! We met up with Yuanxu again. I made some friends outside of the Hotel 8 I was staying at. They treated me to a meal! 

In Nanjing, we journeyed to a beautiful historical park, dedicated to a famous emperor who’s tomb can be found there.

Walkway in the park in Nanjing

The single most cherished experience of all had to be XuoZhaigo, a vast, mountainous area located about 8 hours from Chengdu. It is regarded as one of the most beautiful places in the world. There is a popular national park there, showing off “five flower lake.” It was given this name because of the naturally occurring chemicals in the soil which result in five distinct colors that one can observe through the water. 

I’ll back up a little bit. The plan was for Miranda and Yuanxu to meet me in Chengdu (they flew, I took a train). My train ride was around 13 hours long, and couldn’t have been more integral to the journey ahead. All sorts of people came on and off the train, some of which I conversed with, thanks to Google Translate and good ole improvised sign language. Between these interactions, I journaled, took field recordings, pictures, produced music on my laptop, made sketches, etc.

It had to have been just a couple hours before arrival when I walked to one of the “links” between train cars. Just to stretch my legs and get some water. There was a young Chinese man standing there and I soon found that he spoke English. He was the first I had met on the train who could hold a conversation in my language! He also spoke German. I found out that he was with a group of friends planning to car pool to Jiuzhaigou, the very place I had been dreaming of traveling to! I was not so sure Miranda and Yuanxu were going to end up committing to that idea, so I was a little uncertain as to how I would end up getting there. Here – perhaps as unexpected as the entire trip itself – was my answer. I jumped on his offer to take me along with his friends, so we got each other’s contact info and met up after the train arrived in Chengdu. 

Soon after, we chowed down on some street food, rented a car, stocked up on snacks at a nearby convenient store, and we were off! I hardly slept that night. I was too excited, too inundated with adrenaline at the sudden turn of events and my new travel companions. Plus, the drive was ridiculous. Not to mention their driving. We tore up and down a winding mountain road that snaked along cliff edges and bore through huge tunnels. The only other vehicles were cargo trucks delivering supplies and busses full of tourists. Speed limits were not really a thing. Just cameras that you can anticipate with your GPS to know when to slow down . Most of the route was a two way, dotted road. As my companions (and myself) took shifts driving, we passed many of these slower moving vehicles, with varying risk of head on collision with those going the opposite direction. 

But fate had it that we arrive safely in this natural paradise, nestled in the mountains. I’ll let the pictures speak for the rest of Jiuzhaigou.

Flash forward to my Last night in China:

I arrived safely at the Shanghai airport. There is a hotel about five minutes from the airport that I’m planning to stay at before the flight The next day. I suppose I should’ve been a bit more alert when I walked out of the airport and was immediately greeted by a taxi driver who Beckoned me into the car. I knew something was definitely up when the driver charged me about five times more than any taxi fee I had witnessed during the trip. when I asked him why it was so much, all he managed to get out was “highway fee.“ I was a bit confused. I told him that I simply didn’t have that much. He then asked how much I did have – clear red flag but I was flustered and not totally on my guard. So I gave him nearly all the money I had left. After I arrived at the hotel, I talked to a man who spoke good English, explaining what happened. He told me it was definitely illegal. Clearly I was targeted and taken advantage of because of my appearance. Fortunately, The hotel had been paid for ahead of time and was the last expense of the trip. Plus, Maranda’s mom supplied me with some delicious homemade dumplings that served as my last meal before returning home. So it turned out to be a memorable last night, with plenty to reflect on. And from those reflections came these lines: “ It’s hard to see in the midst of a mistake / all that went right and the trouble you escaped ”

I finished this lyric during my journey home. And a song was born! My last souvenir. 

Without this unforeseen sequence of events – The drawing class, meeting Miranda and Company, China, my trustworthy nature – I don’t believe this song would’ve been conceived of.

In the next few weeks, I will continue to reveal the journey of this song “Midst of a Mistake,” leading up to its release!

Drawing to China

At this point, I’ve gotten to know most of the students in my drawing course. A handful of them were Chinese exchange students. Miranda (Xinruo), Yuanxu, and Mike (Zenan Fu) were three of which I grew especially close with.
One day, while we worked on self portraits in mirrors, Miranda approached me. She asked “would you have time to come to China this summer?“ I paused, slightly caught off guard, and replied honestly “It’s not a matter of whether I have the time but whether I have the resources!“ To which she responded “my parents can pay for your flight.”
Having recovered from momentary shock, I accepted the generous offer. The only time I could recall intending to go to China, I was about five years old, digging a hole in my backyard in Pennsylvania (the classic “dig a hole to China” trick…it didn’t seem to work). Having been given this opportunity, a flood of unforeseen adventures burst through my imagination. The answer was obvious. Of course I’ll go halfway across the world to experience a culture with thousands of years of history firsthand!
So it was decided, right then and there. My intuition got me this far. I might as well give it full reign.
The first step was to get a visa. The first in a slew of unknown journeys was beginning to unfold. It all began with passion, intuition and friendship.
And here is our final project from the course! We ended up each taking a selfie, cutting it into nine pieces, and then swapping out pieces with other students until we held a New collection of pieces, each from a different student. We drew each of these pieces out on large pieces of square paper. Once we had finished drawing the squares, we returned them to their rightful owners, and helped each other tape together the pieces, revealing unique, collaborative self-portrait collages!
Miranda (Xinruo)
Yuanxu
Mike (Zenan Fu)

Mollie HD’s Drawing Class

Our professor, Mollie Hosmer Dillard (Mollie HD) had a lot to do with the liveliness of the class (Mollie’s Website). Her open spirit made for an enriching experience for all the students. I think her approach encouraged students to work together more often and to give constructive feedback voluntarily. The focus was less on perfected work and more on completing many works – increasing the sample size. Perhaps an even more important aspect was the approach to the process of drawing – how it feels to do it. This holds especially true in one of our first in-class assignments. We were instructed to form two parallel rows, sit face-to-face, and create blind contour drawings of each other! (blind contour drawing is where you keep your eyes on the subject the entire time). I believe we were given one minute per drawing, then we’d shift to the next seat and proceed to draw our new partner. This exercise resulted in laughter, embarrassment, friendship, uninterrupted periods of eye contact, empathy, and more. It was the best icebreaker, to say the least. Here are a few of my drawings from that exercise.

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It was a great start to the class. It turned out to be a really effective outlet for busy freshman me. Something that I could lose myself in. I feel it tapped into a very early creative place that I hadn’t been acquainted with since middle school and early high school. Before music was ever a creative pursuit, drawing was my world. It felt great to return, so great that I declared a studio art major for the fall semester of 2017.
Here are a few more drawings that I completed for the class. Charcoal was something I’d only tried once or twice on my own, but we made dozens and dozens of them in this class. I fell in love with the medium. So flexible. Wonderful for smooth, broad gestures. Effective for conveying dark and light.

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(still life starting with a charcoal ground)

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(still life)

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(study of my bedroom)

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(In-class night drawing – The lawn behind the IU fine arts building. It was hard to see!)

The final project was so unexpected. We were not yet told what the end result would be, but Mollie HD’s first instructions were to go outside and take selfies.

Don’t Mean Broken

When I lost contact with a dear friend, I wrote this song as a message to her, in the hope that she would find strength from within. “Don’t Mean Broken” speaks to those who may lose direction in the co-dependence of others. It was brought to light as a collaborative effort between me and independent record label Instru Dash Mental in the summer of 2018.

The recording sessions took place in Instru Dash Mental studios in Frankfort, IN, and my own Music Box Studios in Bloomington, IN.

A special thanks to Tato Bolognini who recorded drums at Berequetum studio in Montevideo, Uruguay; Marco Messina on bass; and my brother Gabe Bruner on keys.

More to come.

Peace!

-Michael