Cultural mirrors

Chengdu Airport, 8:00 AM

She is well-prepared; I’ll grant her that. North American, around 50, I’d say – far too practical to dress in the swirls of cheap Thai cotton favored by younger backpackers, she’s armored in quality adventureware straight from the reviews in Outdoor magazine. But she’s still got that Traveler look: a supercilious gaze, a smug little smile that assures you she’s already assimilated this morning’s airport adventure into its proper niche in her Experiential Tapestry.

As we wait for our flight to be called (it’s delayed by snow at our destination, Jiuzhaigou) she’s tapping away on a notebook computer; updating, no doubt, a blog followed avidly by her Buddhism Book Club or Amnesty International chapter back home.

At last, we’re off. A bus gate. Since it’s raining and cold, many of us wait on the bus until the queue to climb up to the plane reduces. But our bus driver is impatient. He gives the doors a little shut-and-open push to encourage us, and that is enough for the Family Tall; we’re out in the rain. And so is everyone else – except, of course, our traveler. I watch as the driver does the door thing again, flashes the bus’s interior lights, and finally just hollers at her. She points up to the sky, then lets her hand drop with fingers waggling: it’s raining! The beatific smile never leaves her face. The driver is purple.

Once we’re all on board, I see the plane is nearly full, but she’s secured a bulkhead seat – the only passenger to get one. Well, who cares, on a 40-minute flight? I resolve to ignore her. But then, out of the corner of my eye, I see a pair of very nice hiking boots planted right up on the bulkhead, at eye level for us seated passengers. She’s made herself very comfortable, and no doubt those wet bootprints on the bulkhead fabric will dry rapidly. A flight attendant notices, too. She starts walking over, but then pulls up short. Is it worth a confrontation with the foreigner? I guess not.

For reasons I seem to understand less the more I think about them, this ordinary woman irritates me beyond all measure. I want to go over and lecture her on her sense of entitlement, of being someone special, for the hypocrisy written all over her: she’s no doubt The People’s biggest supporter, but she sure as hell doesn’t let the people get in her way.

Jiuzhaigou National Park

I’m pleasantly surprised by Jiuzhaigou. I’ve heard it’s beautiful, but it’s more than that. It has the look and feel of somewhere people will flock to – make pilgrimages to, even – once its reputation gets out and about. The park is also quite well-run; there many tourists, but the crowd control tactics and transportation make it possible to enjoy the spectacular scenery in relative peace – if you’re willing to eschew the prescribed photo-posing positions, that is.

One of these beauty spots, ‘Peacock Lake’, certainly lives up to the photos I’d seen. Startling, other-worldly blue-green water, so clear I can see the scaly details on the fish swimming several feet beneath its surface.

And so can the young Chinese woman just down the bridge from me. She’s delighted by the fish, especially by the way the whole school swims up to her in unison as her spittle hits the water.

Her companions – all 20-something mainland Chinese – laugh loud and long, and join her in trying out fish-wrangling tactics: clapping, yelling down at the water, dropping twigs and leaves, and of course that now-proven stand-by, hacking and spitting their own gobs.

I care about this far more than the fish do.

Jiuzhaigou Sheraton Hotel, daily Tibetan Cultural Show

We’ve taken the tour option of seeing this show tonight, and as we enter the auditorium, we’re greeted by a line-up of performers, all decked out in Tibetan outfits. Daughter Tall rushes up to one who’s smiled at her, and we take a photo.

The show comprises much of what you’d expect: culturally-representative songs and dances, feats of agility and strength from the young men, lots of frilly costumes on the young ladies, who are uniformly tall and lissome.

In an interesting twist, each paying customer has been given a simple white scarf as we entered the auditorium. We discover they’re not just souvenirs when, in the midst of a fervent solo by a matronly singer, a young man jumps from his seat, races down to the stage, and drapes his scarf on the singer’s neck (pausing long enough next to the star for his mates to take a photo). Daughter Tall is transfixed, and insists on running up and be-scarfing this singer, too.

At the end of the show, the chorus girls walk out into the audience to greet the guests, and are nearly buried under drifts of cheap silk. The young woman who comes up to us looks like the same girl we met as we entered, but who knows? Her smile is wide and winning, but the rest of her face is blank. She looks into the middle distance as Daughter Tall, all adoration and glee, drops our last scarf around her neck.

I wonder what she’s thinking. Is this her 5th such show, or her 50th, or her 500th? Does she enjoy doing the dances and singing the songs? Can she ever listen to one of them now without a sense of ironic distance ruining it for her?

It reminds me, in a small way, of the Dutch dancing I did in my small Iowa hometown when I was in school. Most of us had Dutch ancestors, and it was corny but secretly fun to break out the costumes and wooden shoes and pretend we were back in the old country. We knew, though, that our town's annual three-day Tulip Festival was just for giggles. No one was waiting outside with a rack of cheeses that needed toting up the dike to the docks.

But here, just outside the national park, are bleak grey mountainsides with real, live Tibetan farmers plowing barely-thawed fields behind real, live yaks. They’re wearing real traditional outfits – because they’re warm. They’re not doing this for fun.

So is it better that our dancing Tibetan girl lives in town, sleeps in, and spends an hour or two doing her makeup for each evening’s repetitious and maybe exploitative cultural show – or would it be better if she lived back out in the countryside, rising before the sun to go till the fields, but staying aloof from the whole putting-my-culture-on-display-for-profit scene?

I don’t know. Does she?

Being a long-term expatriate can make you extra-sensitive to questions of identity and allegiance. You want to see people for who they really are, to plumb their words and actions for their true intentions.

But at first, trying to see and understand another culture is like looking into funhouse mirrors: you’re definitely getting an image, but it’s usually so distorted you can’t really trust it.

After a while, though, there are moments when suddenly those images snap into focus – or at least you think they do.

And then, maybe a little later still, you realize it’s often your own face you’re seeing.


Excellent writing. Do you

Excellent writing. Do you write for a living?

Yes, I've been wondering for

Yes, I've been wondering for some time as well whether mr tall writes professionally. Truly a pleasure to read his work!

Just an amateur

Thanks much for the kind words, anon and City Dweller. I work in the education sector, actually, and just write for fun.

I, too, enjoy Mr. Tall's

I, too, enjoy Mr. Tall's writing, but would definitely enjoy it even more if he can sprinkle photos here and there, particularly of the beautiful places he has visited and the interesting people he has met, as described in his writing. Just a thought.

Jiu Zhai Gou photos

I appreciated the request to put up some photos, so here are just a few that give a taste of what Jiu Zhai Gou looks like -- Mr Tall.

You are such a great writer!

You are such a great writer! When's the book coming out?