If you are an American (or apparently Swedish, keep reading) traveler going through the streets of Beijing, or just taking a stroll on TianAnMen Square, you will be confronted by some ‘art students.’ These supposed students speak very good English and are very nice. They are usually English students looking to make some quick yuan. If you fall into their trap and go into their ‘art studio,’ they will teach you about Chinese traditional art and show you some of their ‘professor’s work’. They will maybe give you a small gift, such as writing your name in Chinese characters on a sheet of rice paper. Then they ask you to buy some of their work, which is ridiculously overpriced. The following are some of my family’s stories involving ‘art students’. Our first experience with an ‘art student’ was on our second day in Beijing. We were walking down a street when a nice looking man asked us where we were from. We responded and as we walked he followed us. He introduced himself as “Kevin” and we found out that he had recently gone to Cleveland for some art business. He also described some of the work that he had done lately. He asked if we wanted to go to his studio where he worked with his professor and see some of his latest work. We gladly accepted thinking, “Wow, what a great chance to get some Chinese culture into to our trip. Oddly we went down an alley and into a business building. There we went up an elevator to a floor where there was a small room with loads of paintings hanging up on the walls. He explained the meanings of some of the paintings and asked us for our names. My dad wrote them all down on a piece of paper and gave it to the man.
He called out ‘the professor’ who smiled and began writing down our names. My mom called my dad into another room and showed him something she had read. It was an warning from their Rough Guide book regarding ‘art students’. After what seemed like two hours of explaining how just about everything in Chinese culture stood for long life, he asked us to buy some art. Tom kindly refused and took the free calligraphy with a smile. Kevin’s plan got to me. I felt awful for not having bought the art and asked my parents why we hadn’t. They explained the scheme and I still needed more evidence. That came an hour later when two men approached us saying, “What a happy family! Four childrens, wow that is a happy family.” We talked and then they brought up the subject of art. We declined their offer to go visit their “exhibition” and moved on. Now the fun began. We started to make plans on how to make a little game out of this scam.
We thought about having Dad call out to any approaching “students” with, “You know what I really hate? Art.” But in the end we opted for a more clever plan. Tom would say he was an art professor from Spain or Sweden and we would be his adopted children. Two women approached us about ten minutes later using the phrase, “What a happy family! Four childrens. Wow, what a happy family!” This line is what they all would use to open. My dad said he was an art professor from the U.S. and that I was born in America, Mac was born in China, Kieran was Portuguese and Asher was Spanish. They promptly asked if we wanted to see their exhibit and we refused. They immediately quit being friendly and left. To this day we continue to have fun with any ‘art students’ who approach us. I recommend that you think up something comical to say to an ‘art student’ next time you come to Beijing.