On further reflection…

I keep thinking about the negativity in my past few posts. I’m out here in the world, seeing new places, meeting new people, doing what I love to do! Why all the complaints?

A big part of it is the tourist/traveler tension. In roughest terms, someone on a 2-week holiday is a tourist: You see the sites, eat the local specialties, take lots of photos, and go home happy. Someone on a year-long trip is more of a traveler: You read the history and literature, you learn the language, you get off the beaten track, you have the option to stop and hang out for a while.

The observable differences between the two are fewer than most long-trippers would like to admit. “I’m not a tourist,” they sniff. “I’m a traveler.” Whatevah. See you on the shuttle to the local shrine, along with all the other tourists wearing zip-off trouser-to-shorts cargo pants.

The difference is in frenzy. Tourists have little time to see/do everything, so they rush about during frenzied, tightly scheduled days and go to bed exhausted. Travelers have little time to absorb what they see/do; their minds are frenzied. Tourists can reflect on their trip to China in a leisurely fashion back at home, but travelers must try to think deeply about a place in the moment; tomorrow, after all, is a new country, a new culture, a new language.

By this definition, I am a traveler by disposition, and suffer the consequences. But new China doesn’t let people be travelers. Foreigners can’t drive here. Many mountains, lakes and other beautiful places now *charge admission*, the proceeds from which are used to build chairlifts and offer themed rides and other horrors that spoil the very nature we’re being charged to see. No wonder I feel so uncomfortable here.

Following this tangent for a bit: let’s talk about the Disney-fication of China. Most travelers I’ve met have commented on it. The best-known example is of the hutongs in Beijing. These traditional inner-city neighborhoods were the lifeblood of the city…and tourist attractions. But the Chinese government chose to tear them down (for political reasons as well as simple short-sightedness, I’d imagine). Now the government is scrambling to rebuild some – newer! better! cleaner! with tour guides and shopping! But they miss the point: hutongs were interesting to tourists as a glimpse into real life, an older way of life, a different life. They were a chance to get lost, slam into the odor of their public toilets, see old men playing MahJong with their lifelong neighbors, etc.

Here in Xian I met Ben, a native of Taiwan, now an American citizen splitting time between LA and Hong Kong. Like the Chinese-Singaporean I had met on the train to Ulaan Bataar, he was eager to explain and defend many aspects of China which I find distasteful. He said the Chinese government is learning – slowly – that foreign tourists do not (for the most part) want Disney-China. In the past, he says, it created experiences for Chinese tourists. And these Chinese tourists, he continues, are similar to the caricatured Japanese tourists of 25 years ago: They travel in controlled our groups, with cameras, obediently boarding buses and eating buffets on cue. They *want* Disney.

Now the Chinese government is learning, Ben continued, that foreigners don’t want a sanitized, easy-to-digest, manufactured version of the country. I smiled and nodded at him, but I don’t believe it; the senseless destruction of Chinese heritage continues apace. See: Kashgar.

[Please note that I’m not saying that hutong residents shouldn’t get modern plumbing and internet if they want it; in fact, if they want to knock down their homes and replace them with ugly concrete modern high-rises, so be it. But it’s not the residents that choose; it’s the government. And the residents of the “modern” tourist-hutongs are turned into human zoo attractions, forced to put signs on their doors that say, “This is a private residence. Please do not enter. Respect our privacy.”]

Indeed, as China destroys the artifacts of its cultural heritage it has no soul to replace it with. I *thought* I had written an earlier post about my (unsuccessful) search for Chinese funk, but I can’t find it in my archives. Anyway, I had a whole thing about how there’s no FUNK here, how the Chinese artists at the 798 Art Space in Shanghai, and musicians like Carsick Cars (“just like Sonic Youth!” said a promoter at a concert I attended) are the definition of derivative. I’ve seen no originality or uniqueness in the 7-ish weeks I’ve spent here.

Lo and behold, my instincts were dead-on! Read this article in the NYT, about the 60th anniversary of the PRC: “On Day for China Pride, Little Interest in Ideology”.
A short quote:

“…ask Mr. Xie to explain China’s core values β€” not what his country achieved, but what it stands for β€” and he is dumbstruck, a student called on in class to report on the book he forgot to read.

“The ability of China to adapt,” he said after a long silence. “To learn from the West.” And, in a phrase that sounds plucked from a pamphlet, β€œthe diligence and industriousness of the laboring masses.”

(italics added by me)

I could go on and on here – is it the end of political ideology around the world? After all, America seems to have lost its own centering ideology, its politics having devolved into sniping and mutual obstruction. And remember the Russian business-school administrator I wrote about earlier, who said that her country is also searching for a guiding philosophy.

These are the questions on my mind. They make me want to read more books, by clever people with PhDs in history and/or sharp, witty insights. Instead I’m stuck with what I can scrape together from hostel book-exchanges (trash) and Chinese English-language bookstores (American and British classical literature). I would give my left arm for 30 minutes in Idlewild or a free Malaysian delivery from Amazon.com.

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Something we all can do for the people of Burma (erm, Myanmar?)

I just met an American guy called Grady at our guest house who has been in here in Yangon for 6 days. He’s been poking around, trying to find a way to help. Unfortunately, there are very few options. White people are simply not allowed to have anything to do with anything.

But there is some quite good news for Burma (according to Grady) – in the short term and perhaps even in the long term. Groups of young people in Yangon and around are extremely frustrated with the government’s lack of action and downright corruption when it comes to helping the victims of the typhoon. They have been meeting in secret, forming task forces to go to the nearby delta region to do small, simple, but much-needed tasks: giving out tarps, water, food, construction material, and so on. They’re using their own money to buy supplies, rent boats and trucks, and doing the work of relief organizations themselves. There’s no red tape or delay to making things happen: if a group of monks need $5000 to buy tarps for a town, the groups gives it to them.

For me, it’s heartening to hear of self-organized political (not to mention humanitarian) action in a country where the people seem to either be unaware or feel disempowered to take any action against the regime here.

The one thing we can all do to help these kids – who are definitely putting themselves in danger – is to donate money. If you care to, visit www.foundationburma.org and give what you can. Note that the site may not seem legit to you, but it’s deliberately vague so as to not draw any unwanted government attention to these groups.

Grady says he’s spoken with quite a few of these groups. They report that the situation is awful – dead bodies are still floating around in rivers, doctors fear the worst – cholera, malaria, worse. Meanwhile, Official Myanmar TV broadcasts sanitized video of cheerful “victims” in well-tended shelters cheering generals who pass out packets of biscuits. The youth groups mock these “show camps.” Kids, this is 1984.

As for the victims themselves, unlike Katrina victims in the States, they had absolutely no expectations that the government would do anything for them. So they’re not angry. They’re just trying to put their lives back together. Incredible.

And finally, the government: evidently the generals are confiscating all food aid (sometimes including from these youth groups!) selling the high-quality rice and other food to the highest bidder, and passing along low-grade stuff to the victims. Not surprising at all, but still terrible to hear of *actual* Burmese people *actually* witnessing these actions.

Back to the kids for a moment: I see them all the time at internet cafes, emailing on Yahoo and chatting on GTalk with friends around the world. They’re learning a different story of how the world works from what their parents know. Perhaps this typhoon, tragedy that it was and still will be, may be a catalyst for future political action. I hope!

Speaking of which, one more story about politics: For those (most) of you who don’t know, May 10th half the country voted in a sham referendum to essentially rubber-stamp an absurd “constitution” that the Burmese government concocted to give people “civil rights.” I won’t go into its craziness here – just Google it if you’re interested. But Grady told me a tour guide told him that, on the day of the election, he was away from home. A group of local police came to his house and forced his mother, an elderly, uneducated and therefore manipulable person, that she had to vote YES for *the entire household* right then and there, in front of the police. She had no choice but to do it. So the tour guide, who had wanted to vote NO, cast a YES vote cast for him by his mother, under duress.

I’ve got all sorts of other political blustering I’ve been saving up from my travels here, but I’ll save those for some evening at the Stoned Crow when I can be well lubricated by Mr. JW Black.