Paper Shirts – Personal Narrative

Introduction

Losing someone close to you in your life is incredibly hard, and coping with that loss, or even the mere concept of death, is hard – especially for a child. The personal narrative below, Paper Shirts, details my flashback to my 12-year old self, when my grandfather (waigong) passed away due to lung cancer.

*****

Paper Shirts

At some point during my childhood, my daily life began to revolve heavily around rhythm. There was a beat – a flow, a sense of order that you needed to sustain. If that rhythm – that sense of order, were broken, then there would be chaos. Continuity was the consonance, the C and E, the do and mi. Change was the dissonance, the C and D, the do and re. I liked harmonies, I liked staying the same, and I had an order to the things I did every day: Wake up at 7. Brush your teeth. Wash your face. Change. Eat breakfast. Go to school… This routine would continue to the next day, and the next, and the day after the next, and on and on and on.

This rhythm I had in my childhood changed enormously when news of my grandfather’s lung cancer hit our family. We had expected that something was wrong when he talked about having sudden “heart-strains” and “chest-pains” occur randomly the year before. We had urged him to make an appointment with a doctor to get a medical check-up. But he refused. Exactly 3 months prior to my 13th birthday, and 7 days prior to Christmas, my grandfather died on the 18th of December 2015. With his death, a new rhythm was created. A new beat for us to follow.

Beep. 07:00 a.m. Wake up. Wear black. Brush your teeth. Wash your face. Don’t forget to put on your armband. Take three incense sticks. Light them. Kneel before his photo. Kowtow three times. Place the incense into the urn. Don’t cry. Did you kowtow three times yet? Good. We can go get some breakfast now…

When news arrived about my grandfather being in the ICU, we had caught the earliest flight from San Jose to Hunan. He had 2-3 days left to live. After moving back to the States, visits with my grandparents were reduced to none. Other than the occasional phone call, and the usual conversation about grades and life in the States, there had never been enough time to bond with my relatives who lived practically a world away. It was six o’clock at night when we had finally arrived at Hunan. Compared to the sunny Californian skies, the night sky in Hunan was dark and freezing. Upon landing, we drove to the hospital immediately.

Ba-dum. Ba-dum. Ba-dum.

My heart thumped loudly within my chest. Everywhere around me, people were crying – Why? It was cold. Why didn’t I say something to him when I still had the chance? There was a ringing in my ears – whether the sound had actually come from the frenzied beeping of the heart monitor instead, I wasn’t sure.

He died.

The room is too bright. Is it already night out? I stood in the corner of the room and watched the scene unfold before me. It shared an uncanny resemblance with the Chinese dramas I had once joked about with my brother – you know, the ones with those overly dramatic scenes where the grandfather dies – there’s always going to be the classic, wailing grandmother at their bedside. Check. With that came the daughters who would try and soothe their mother. Check. Then came the other adults who stood around his bedside, trying desperately to hold in their tears. Check. There would also be the children, who looked around with wide eyes, still haven’t fully comprehended the situation yet. Check. And, of course, the nurses and doctor who would rush into the room, recheck the pulse, and record the date and time of death onto the clipboard that had been hanging down from the patient’s bedside. Check. They would then push the patient, who lay in eternal slumber, out of the room and into another. Darker. Colder. The oldest daughter would then pull out the funeral outfit she bought for her father weeks ago. Weeks ago. Because, his death is inevitable. Because, the protagonist of the funeral has to be the center of attention. Because, unlike the dramas, the movies, the shows – there were no miracles. Death is death… And there’s no coming back from death. The nurses started changing the patient into his new outfit – a classic, Chinese-styled red magua, embroidered with golden dragons and clouds.

“Don’t look.” My brother murmured, standing beside me. “If you look, you’re admitting to the fact that he’s dead.”

“He is dead, D, that’s why we’re here.”

“Well… Remember that story waigong told you about me when I was still a kid? You know, way before you were born. The ancient times.”

“The story about him watering the garden with a hose?”

“And I stepped on the hose without him knowing.”

“And he brought the hose up to his face.”

“And I stepped away from the hose.”

“And the water splashed him right in the face.”

“Yep. Those were the good times, weren’t they?” he chuckled.

Plip. A single tear rolled down my cheek as I let out a small laugh, earning a scowl from my mother who stood a few feet away. Biexiao, she mouthed, don’t laugh.

“That’s why he’s still alive. In here.” He said and tapped the side of his head lightly. “He’s still living in our memories.”

Fsss. Fsss. Fsss.

It was the February of 2007. I watched with wide eyes as waigong’s hands moved quickly from one corner of the paper to the next.

“Make a fold here. Flip it around, fold it diagonally this time, and open it up like this.”

The pieces of square-shaped paper that once lay on the table had now transformed into a group of different animals: a frog that bounces high up into the sky when you push down lightly on its back, a crane that flies when you pull on its tail, or a flower bud that magically blooms when you blow air into it. I was sitting in my grandparent’s home office, next to my waigong, while the other adults pestered my brother about his test results and grades outside.

Meng-meng, did you get any of that?” Waigong asked, holding out his new creation for me to see.

“What? No! Of course not! That was way too fast!” I whined, stomping my tiny, 4-year old feet against the wooden floorboards. “Can you show me again? Please?”

Chuckling, waigong took two pieces of square-shaped paper from the pile and placed one in front of me. “Let’s fold something easy this time. Together.”

“Why? I’m already 4-years old! I’m smart enough to make an origami crane.” I said while I puffed out my cheeks and folded my arms together to make him understand my frustration.

“You’ll like this, come on.” Waigong laughed and started folding the paper. “Fold it diagonally, and then fold it in half. Open it up. Fold the insides together, like this… and… We’re done!”

With waigong’s help, I completed the last few steps and stared at the final product blankly.

“What’s this?”

“A paper shirt! You can fold and decorate these to make clothes for your dolls.”

“This is awesome! Can you teach me how to make pants next?”

“Of cou-”

Waigong, Meng-meng, it’s time for dinner now!” One of my cousins shouted, pushing the door open.

“Ah. We’re coming!” Waigong patted my head apologetically. “Sorry about that, Meng-meng, we’ll just have to find another time to do this…”

Beep. 02:00 a.m. I sat next to my brother in front of the bonfire outside of the funeral home. Take three sheets of paper money. Fold it in half. Throw it into the fire.

“Hey, D? You know what’s funny?” I said, turning away from the fire to face my brother. “We haven’t come back here in 3 years, and I haven’t seen all of our relatives gathered together in one place in like… 10 years? And now that we’re finally back, and everyone’s together, it’s because waigong’s dead.”

He nodded. “Can I ask you something, Michelle?”

“Yeah?”

“Why didn’t you say anything to waigong when you had the chance? Before he passed away? It’s fine if you don’t want to talk about it.”

I bit my lip and stared at the flames in front of me. “… I don’t know. I really don’t know, D. I just… I really wanted to say something to him! But I couldn’t do it… I couldn’t bring myself to talk.”

“Okay.” He nodded again and tossed a few more sheets of paper money into the bonfire. At this rate, waigong’s going to become a trillionaire in heaven. “So, what are you folding?”

I looked down at the small piece of folded paper I had been unconsciously fidgeting with and threw it into the bonfire.

“It’s an origami dress shirt. For waigong. Gotta have something to wear up there.”

“Oh.” He cracked a small smile. “What about the pants?”

“Never learned how to make them.”

“Ah. Should be fine, though. I’m sure waigong wouldn’t mind.”

“Yeah.”

Together, we watched the paper shirt slowly burn and dissipate in the bonfire. We watched the fire curl and dance around the paper shirt. We watched the fire fully engulf the shirt, the pure white shirt, and we watched the paper twist and seethe in pain. Sss. Ssss… We watched the paper disappear, and we watched the smoke of the fire slowly drift off into the dawning sky, bringing our gift to the recipient – our waigong. We watched the cloud of smoke dissipate, and I wondered about the stories that he never had the chance to tell us, and the stories we never had the opportunity to tell him. I wondered about the words I never managed to say to him before he was gone. I wondered if a simple “goodbye”, or a “we love you”, would have been better than nothing. I wished, that if he was still here by our sides, I could have the chance to tell him to teach me the way to fold a pair of origami pants. I wished, that before he had left this world, I could have the chance to tell him a simple: “Haojiubujian. Long time no see.”

*****

Rationale

In my personal narrative, I played around with the point of view by using both first and second-person perspectives to tell my story. This helps add interest to my narrative by referring to the reader, and it helps establish a change in the rhythm within my narrative. For example, my third paragraph changes from first (second paragraph) to second person point of view: “Brush your teeth. Wash your face. Don’t forget to put on your armband…”. This paragraph was used to demonstrate and describe the change in my life, and to establish a rhythm to the text with the repeated use of short, broken sentences. The use of first person also contributes to the narrative by describing the situation and developing myself as a character, for example: “It shared an uncanny resemblance with the Chinese dramas I had once joked about with my brother – you know, the ones with those overly dramatic scenes where the grandfather dies…”. I also used some of my internal thoughts (emphasized by italics) to intensify my internal conflict: “Everywhere around me, people were crying – Why? It was cold.”. The order of the sentences used at this part of the narrative is in a bit of a mess – creating a sense of confusion, which allows the reader to infer that the character isn’t thinking straight at the moment.

Throughout my narrative, I also used many literary techniques to develop myself as a complex character and describe the situation, for example: contrast (“continuity was the consonance, the C and E, the do and mi. Change was the dissonance, the C and D, the do and re”), repetition (“Ba-dum. Ba-dum. Ba-dum”), and onomatopoeia (“my heart thumped loudly within my chest”, or “the frenzied beeping of the heart monitor”).

D.I. Post #10: Ten Portrait Techniques

1)  Altering Your Perspective: In the portrait below, I altered my perspective by getting down low onto the ground, only focusing on my cousin’s legs, feet, and the teddy bear. The selective color used helps create a stronger effect on the photo, bringing a stronger focus to certain subjects (knitted sweater, flower, etc.)

 

2)  Playing With Eye Contact: This picture’s eye contact is really interesting since both subjects are looking at different places (the little boy is looking down at his artwork, and the little girl is staring right at the camera). When I took this picture, I set my camera on the table and tilted it upwards a little so that the lens would mainly focus on the little girl’s face. The aperture was quite low, so the background was blurred out.

 

3)  Experimenting With LightingI played around with lighting in this portrait of the little boy. He was playing with mosaics on a table that was lit up, which helped create a beautiful glow effect on his face. This photo was taken at a low aperture, so both the foreground (wooden border) and the background is blurred out, leaving only the subject in focus.

 

4)  Shooting Candidly: The portrait below shows a man and his son lighting up an incense and putting it into the temple’s incense pot. Both of their expressions are completely natural and focused on what they’re doing since they didn’t know that I was taking a picture of them.

 

5)  Introducing A Prop: In this portrait, I introduced a prop (the flowers), which helps add a story element to the portrait and sets the mood of the photo. I took this photo by asking my mom to lie down on the table while holding the flowers. We tried quite a few different angles and this ended up being my favorite. The photo was taken at a low aperture so the main focus is the flowers and the hand while the background is blurred out.

 

6)  Focusing On One Body Part: In the photo below, I chose to focus on my dad’s hand. This allows viewers to leave the rest to their imagination – what does the person look like? Who is he? The ring strengthens the impact of the photo, creating a focal point and making the portrait a lot more unique.

 

7)  Obscuring Part Of Your Subject: I chose to focus on only a part of my dad’s face. Like the previous technique, this allows viewers to leave the rest of the picture to their imagination. My camera was at a low aperture when I took this photo, so my dad’s hair and the ear is blurred out.

 

8)  Taking A Series Of Shots: I was using continuous shooting mode when I took these pictures. By taking a series of shots, you can show the entire “story” chronologically, and viewers can see what happens across a certain period of time.

 

9)  Introducing Movement: I kind of used the panning technique when I took this portrait. I followed the little boy’s movement so that his face and torso was in focus while his hand, the car, and the background are blurred out. This shows that the little boy was moving around at a fast speed. This technique helps add more interest to the photo.

 

10)  Experimenting With Subject Expressions: The portrait below shows an interesting expression that helps demonstrate the subject’s personality, the mood he’s in at the moment, etc. This photo is also a candid shot, where the little boy was sticking out his tongue playfully and looking off into the distance.

D.I. Post #9: Cyanotypes

The cyanotype process was first introduced by scientist and astronomer John Herschel (1792-1871) in 1842 when he was trying to find a way to copy his notes. This method provided people with a more permanent way of preserving old photos. One of the first people to use this process was Anna Atkins, a botanist who published a book called “British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions” by using this method. Later, this process became popular among pictorialists and architects, and they used it to copy architectural plans (blueprints).

To create a cyanotype, we first chose a picture that we wanted to copy, inverted it using photoshop, and printed the inverted picture onto a plastic sheet. Then, we secured the sheet onto a paper that’s painted with a mixture of two chemicals: ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide. This was then laid out in the sun for a few hours to allow the chemicals to react and expose the photo. After exposing the photo, the paper is washed with water to remove all of the remaining chemicals that hadn’t reacted. After a good 2-3 minutes of washing the paper, hydrogen peroxide is added to enhance/darken the blue and white color of the picture.

I really enjoyed watching the chemicals get washed off from the paper and finally seeing how the picture turned out. Watching the “unveiling” process really feels like magic. The challenging part about creating cyanotypes would definitely be trying to secure the plastic sheet properly on the paper so that the photo would be copied clearly, and not blurred out.

A tip to the first timers would be making sure to not expose your paper to any type of light if you’re not ready to copy your image onto the paper yet. Also, make sure that you secure your plastic sheet on the paper so that the photo will be copied clearly.

D.I. Post #8: Field Trip

We went on a field trip last Thursday to Beijing’s Nanluoguxiang (南锣鼓巷), Houhai (后海), and the Drum & Bell Tower (钟鼓楼) to experiment with some street photography techniques. It was really nice to finally be able to get out of school to take photos, and I really enjoyed exploring the Beijing streets and hutongs. Seeing people (middle-aged men and women) jumping and swimming in Houhai lake had really surprised me. It’s nearly autumn, and the weather in Beijing is quite cold. Their courage to jump into the cold lake to swim was actually quite inspiring since they had the courage to try new things and gain new experiences. I managed to try out pretty much all of the techniques on the assignment list, other than shadows (since it was a cloudy day). I found getting close to the subjects of my photo (especially when they’re people) was really challenging since nearly everyone didn’t like people taking pictures of them. Sneaking portraits of someone at a close distance was nearly impossible without them noticing. To get a good shot, I would say that you just have to keep your eyes open for anything, because anything can happen at any time. If you’re prepared, you’d get better photos, and some of them may even be coincidental ones. Street photography is quite challenging because you have to be constantly on alert, trying to anticipate the “perfect” moment. I learned and tried out quite a lot of new techniques like juxtaposition, setting up your background, etc., and it was really nice to see and take photos of the lifestyle in the hutong neighborhoods since it contrasts quite a lot with the city lifestyle in Beijing. Overall, this field trip was really fun, and I enjoyed this experience quite a lot.

D.I. Post #7: Aperture Collage

Aperture is one of the three factors that help determine the exposure of a photo, along with shutter speed and ISO. Aperture is the hole through which light enters through the camera. The size of the hole, which is referred as an f-stop, can be changed to control how much light is allowed to enter through the camera. A smaller aperture (f/22) = less light, and a shallow depth of field. A bigger aperture (f/2.8) = more light, and a wide depth of field. These are all shown in the collage above.

Photographers often use smaller apertures when they want either the foreground or background blurred out in a photo; when they want to focus on only one part of the picture (often used for portraits). Bigger apertures are used when nothing is blurred out in a photo; when they want to focus on everything in the picture (often used for landscapes).

Some things you’ll have to be careful about when controlling aperture is that the picture can end up being either overexposed or underexposed; since bigger apertures = more light, and smaller apertures = less light. To avoid these problems, you can change the ISO and shutter speed settings. For cases of overexposure, you can lower the ISO settings and/or make the shutter speed faster to allow less light to enter through the camera. For cases of underexposure, you can raise the ISO settings and/or make the shutter speed slower (you may need a tripod) to allow more light to enter through the camera.

Understanding aperture helps you to really get the most out of your photos – especially in taking portraits and landscapes. It also makes sure that you won’t use the aperture settings incorrectly and get confused about it.

D.I. Post #6: ISO Collage

ISO is one of the three factors that help determine the exposure of a photo, along with shutter speed and aperture. ISO (stands for International Standards Organization) controls the sensitivity to light of the sensor in your camera, which affects the exposure of your photo. A low ISO = a low exposure, and a high ISO = a high exposure, as shown in the collage above.

For most occasions, photographers use the lowest ISO setting possible, since the higher the ISO, the stronger the noise is in a photo. Noise makes photos grainy and reduces the quality of the photo.

An ISO setting of 100-200 will provide your photos with the most detail and the best quality; this setting is great for shooting somewhere where there’s plenty of light and you don’t need to boost the ISO any higher. A setting of 200-400 is best for slightly darker settings; in the shade, or indoors where it is brightly lit. An ISO of 400-800 helps produce even more exposure indoors with a detailed background. Setting 800-1600 is often used at live events with low light conditions. 1600-3200 is also used at live events, but with extremely low light conditions and no tripod. 3200+ is only reserved for extra low light conditions and artistic effect; but, for most cameras, it is nearly impossible to avoid grainy pictures at this range.

Understanding ISO helps you to really get the most out of your photos and also makes sure that you won’t use the ISO settings incorrectly and get confused about it.

D.I. Post #5: 1 Object/30 Times

Creativity can come from anything, even if it’s something that’s really really simple. For this assignment, everyone brought a 3D object that had a unique shape, and could stand on its own – our goal was to take 30 completely different photos of this object. Simple, eh? Not exactly.

The purpose of this assignment was to allow us to practice using composition (the rule of thirds, leading lines, focal point, framing, simplicity, etc.) to help tell a story in our photos. What do you want to show in your pictures? What’s the story behind it? The way you compose your photo can help you strengthen the effect you want to give to your viewers.

The most challenging part of this assignment would definitely be trying to find unique ways to take 30 completely different photos of one single object. We had to constantly think about the ways to compose a picture so that it would be completely different from the others; whether it’s by using different angles, backgrounds, placement, etc.

I learned a lot from this assignment, and it did indeed help me improve as a photographer. From this assignment, I learned how to use the compositional guidelines to help show a “story” in my photos, which all professional photographers do. I also learned that each of my photos should be unique and different from each other. Like people, each picture should have their own story to tell, a story that’s different from everyone else’s, a story that catches peoples’ attention.

D.I. Post #4: The Principles of Design

The principles of design are concepts used to organize or arrange the elements of art. These principles help artists convey and express the message they want to show in their work. There are seven main principles of design: balance, emphasis, movement, pattern/repetition, rhythm, variety/unity, and contrast.

Balance is the distribution of the visual weight of objects, colors, texture, and space. There are three types of balance: symmetrical (both sides are similar), asymmetrical (sides are different but still looks balanced), and radial balance (elements are arranged around a central point, similar to a flower). Emphasis is the part of the design that catches the viewer’s attention. Artists will often make one area stand out by contrasting it with other areas (different in size, color, texture, shape, etc.). Movement is the path the viewer’s eye takes through the work of art. It can be directed along lines, edges, shape, and color within the piece. Pattern/repetition is the repeating of an object or a symbol to make the work of art seem active. To create rhythm, one or more elements of art have to be repeated to create a feeling of organized movement. To keep rhythm exciting and active, variety is needed. Variety/unity is the use of several elements of art to hold the viewer’s attention and give all parts of the work of art a feeling of harmony/completeness. When opposites are next to each other, it is known as contrast. Value contrast is the most common use of contrast.

Similar to the elements of art, understanding the principles of design helps you describe what an artist has done/created, analyze what’s happening in a piece, and it allows us to communicate our thoughts and findings using a common language. Also, knowing the principles can help you become a better artist by looking for more ways to create your art.

Through this activity, I’ve learned many things. Now, it’s easier for me to look for more captivating and interesting angles and ways to take a photo.

My favorite photo that I’ve taken during this activity is probably the photo of the “floating” vases and cups. I took this photo in my house’s glass display (the shelves are glass), so it helped me create an interesting angle from below. This photo really demonstrates the principle variety/unity. There is a variety of cups and vases, and they all share the same concept, which creates a feeling of unity.

D.I. Post #3: The Burning House Project

Name: Michelle D.

Age: 14

Location: Beijing, China

Occupation: Student

Website: http://blogs.isb.bj.edu.cn/20michelled/ (Haha :))

  • Artwork that I’ve spent hours working on (about 20 hours/piece), so it would be really sad to lose these
  • Art supplies that I’ve used for most of my artwork (they’re as important as my family and friends)
  • Sketchbook that has a lot of my random ideas, sketches, and experiments with different styles of art
  • School laptop… I have quite a few school work that I haven’t been able to backup yet, and I definitely don’t want to know what would happen if my school laptop got burned to smithereens
  • There’s a lot of important pictures and videos on the camera that I wouldn’t want to lose, and it’s a nice camera… So, yeah 🙂

D.I. Post #2: The Elements of Art

What are the elements of art? Now, if you’ve had art or photography classes before, you probably know what I’m talking about. These elements basically serve as the building blocks for creating something. There are seven elements of art: line, shape, form, space, texture, tone/value, and color.

Line is a mark with greater length than width. They can be horizontal, vertical, diagonal; straight or curved; thick or thin. Shape is basically a closed line. They can be geometric (squares, circles, etc.), or organic (natural shapes, free form, etc.). Shapes are often shown in a 2D way and can express length and width. Forms are 3D shapes that express length, width, and depth. Spheres, cylinders, cubes, and pyramids are all examples of forms. Space is the area between and around objects. The space around objects is often known as negative space. Space can also refer to the feeling of depth. Real space is 3D; when artists create the feeling or illusion of depth, we call it space. Texture is the surface quality that can be seen and felt. It can be rough or smooth, soft or hard. Value is the lightness or darkness of tones or colors. Color is the light reflected off of objects. There are three main characteristics: hue, value, and intensity. White is pure light, while black is the absence of light. Primary colors are the true colors, secondary colors are two primary colors mixed together. Intermediate colors, also known as tertiary colors, are made by mixing a primary and secondary color together. Complementary colors are located directly across from each other on the color wheel, which shows contrast.

Now, you may be asking: “Why is all of this so important? When would I ever use this?”. Well, you may have noticed already, but a person can’t really create art without actually using a few of these elements. If there aren’t any elements, then art wouldn’t exist. Also, knowing and understanding these elements helps us to describe what an artist has done/created, analyze what’s happening in a piece, and it allows us to communicate our thoughts and findings using a common language.

This activity helped me get a deeper understanding of the seven different elements of art. It’s easier for me to find cool places and angles to take an interesting picture now that I can utilize my knowledge about the elements.

Out of all of the pictures I took during the time that we were given, this was one of my favorite photos. This is a picture of one of the walls out in the courtyard of ISB. The wall had immediately caught my attention when I saw the words “HELP ME” scratched onto it. The angle where this photo was taken really helps exemplify the element of value and texture. The lightness and darkness of the photo are shown quite distinctively, as well as the bumpy and gravelly texture of the wall. These elements help show my focal point (the words scratched onto the wall) clearly, since the shadows kind of creates a line the leads toward the point of interest.