Yunnan, a holiday with Chinese characteristics

I was recently told that I suck at writing on my blog. It’s true, I am guilty. I haven’t been so inspired to write anything recently, which may be a reflection of my growing disillusionment with Beijing and China. I’ve started many posts but after writing a few inane lines, I started boring even myself.

But, now that I’m battling a bout of insomnia brought on by several anxieties, I decided to turn my sleeplessness into productivity. Plus, I feel especially reflecting in the wee hours of the morning. So here goes.

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A month ago now (wow, time flies!), I went on a short trip to Yunnan with my parents. Just before I went, Evan Osnos at the New Yorker had a very timely and apropos piece about Chinese tour groups. It’s an excellent and lighthearted piece with some interesting observations about a more and more relevant topic — Chinese going on holiday. As they become wealthier with more discretionary income, and as China liberalizes, the Chinese are traveling more and more, and like everything to do with China, it’s having a big impact on the world and on themselves. So it’s interesting to see how they do it (what does this tell us about them?) and how it impacts their views. For example, they are notoriously insular and racist to a degree rarely seen before. Will contact with more people and cultures, on their turf, broaden the Chinese world view? It’s hard to say at this point, but Osnos makes note of many characteristics of a Chinese tour.

In the front row of the bus, Li stood facing the group with a microphone in hand, a posture he would retain for most of our waking hours in the days ahead. In the life of a Chinese tourist, guides play an especially prominent role—translator, raconteur, and field marshal—and Li projected a calm, seasoned air. He often referred to himself in the third person—Guide Li—and he prided himself on efficiency. […]

He outlined the plan: we would be spending many hours on the bus, during which he would deliver lectures on history and culture, so as not to waste precious minutes at the sights, when we could be taking photographs. […]

Li urged us to soak our feet in hot water before bed, to fight jet lag, and to eat extra fruit, which might balance the European infusion of bread and cheese into our diets. Since it was the New Year’s holiday, there would be many other Chinese visitors, and we must be vigilant not to board the wrong bus at rest stops.

Basically, there’s the stereotypical “shepherd guiding a sheep herd.” They are all wearing a custom badge to set them apart from other tour groups. They receive paternalistic advice on safety (watch out for Gypsies, don’t talk to strangers) and health (which the Chinese often discuss in a very unique Chinese way). Very importantly, they are informed the best way to maximize time for pictures — which I swear, along with shopping, is probably the main reason why the Chinese go anywhere.

(The article also includes many silly observations about Europeans and the way they do things. Really, the Chinese point-of-view is very entertaining.)

One of my friends who just graduated from university did her thesis on this very topic, actually. Her conclusion was basically that the Chinese prefer to know more historical context about the place they were going, told to them by a trustworthy, knowledgeable and authoritative expert (which a good guide would be), while Westerners prefer a more subjective and personal experience with a place. I said that was mostly true, but I couldn’t help pointing out that in lieu of a tour guide, many Westerners have a tour guidebook, which more or less points out the same banal facts a Chinese tour guide would. We might not travel in groups, but we generally all do the same things.

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I’ve been on two Chinese tours now, including to Yunnan. Somewhat different than Osnos’s tour, the ones I went on consisted of overseas Chinese coming to China. But this fact didn’t seem to make much difference on the way the tour was conducted, underscoring how living abroad for three-plus decades doesn’t change some things. The Chinese like the convenience of having a tour guide, and many times the ones in my tour group would accost the tour guide with incessant questions about minutiae details.

One thing I noticed that was absent on Osnos’s tour but ever-present on mine: the various business deals struck between the tour company and the “activities” on our itinerary. Tourism in China can be a very lucrative business, and many businesses see tourists as a very good way to make lots of money. So the businesses and the tour agencies cut a deal: Bring your tourists here, they’ll get discounts and you’ll get a part of our profits. And the tourists are all too willing to abet them. Like I said earlier, one of the main reasons the Chinese go on holiday is to buy things, things they can’t get elsewhere. Often, these things are hyped by the businesses, and gullible Chinese are talked into just having to have one.

In my five days in Yunnan, half of which was spent on the bus, we went to two of these “activities.” The first was a pu’er tea tasting, which could have been pleasant but instead was an hour-long live commercial with the pretty mienu hostesses telling us all about the qualities of pu’er, how to tell good from bad and real from fake, how to make it, how to drink it (by slurping!), why they are so pretty and healthy (because they’ve been drinking pu’er tea their whole lives), and what kind of deal they are offering us. I’m telling you, the Chinese have the art of infomercials down pat.

The next activity, on our last afternoon, was billed as a traditional Chinese foot massage. Sounds lovely! But then it turned into a performance of various special medicines the business sold and how it can cure such-and-such illnesses. It included a magic show of qigong and burn cream, so I was relatively entertained while seething at their opportunism. I just wanted a foot massage! But alas, the magic show is probably more entertaining than my complaints, so I’ll elaborate on that instead.

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Qigong is a very mysterious Chinese practice of channeling their inner qi (as in taichi, which means “air” or “breath,” but I think something like “energy” or “spirit” or even Schopenhaeur’s “will” are closer equivalents) and aligning it in some harmonious way with the elements and the rest of the body and mind. It’s supposed to make you very healthy. So this foot massage place featured a qigong master, who guided the business on its products and courses for traditional Chinese medicine practitioners. He came into our room to demonstrate how, through his qigong powers, he can make cigarette ashes dance around on a tray. Now imagine: He places his hand a couple of inches over this tray of cigarette ashes, palm down and parallel, concentrates on the task at hand, gives a little “hyup,” then lo and behold, the ashes start jumping off the tray in a little sprinkling sort of way, like how glitter looks in a snow globe. What’s cooler is that he can transmit his qi through another person. He used our tour guide to demonstrate. He held our tour guide’s hand, let out a “hyup,” and the ashes started jumping between the tray and our tour guide’s hand! Later, he said he had felt something, almost electric, moving through his body.

The next trick involved one of the products they were selling. Two helpers bring in a glowing-red iron chain, and just to show how hot it was, the salesman touches a piece of paper to it and it immediately catches fire. Then he touches the chain with his palm. The stench of burned flesh filled the room. “Ouch,” he said. “This is really painful.” He applies his company’s burn cream and then continues hawking other products. Ten minutes later, he wipes it off — and his hand was healed. Amazing! My parents bought a jar, and when they returned to the States, my dad burned his finger to a char. But he put on some of that stuff, and it healed. This has got to be some of the best burn cream ever. It puts Neosporin to shame, you know?

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Yunnan is a lovely place, popular for its range of landscapes, which are some of the most beautiful in China. Did I mention I am in love with its clouds? Yunnan means something like “south of the clouds.” The mountains are so high (they eventually lead to the Himalayas), the clouds just roll off of them and over the valleys below. Besides that, there are so many ethnic groups giving the region an interesting array of characteristics — not quite “Chinese,” subtly vibrant and utterly foreign. I highly recommend Yunnan to future visitors of China who have limited time to experience the range of Chinese landscapes and cultures and who want to get to know a different, arguably more authentic and definitely more likable China than the “standard” China that is portrayed to the world through Beijing and Shanghai. I was only there for five days, with a group of 20 senior Chinese-American couples, with little idea of where we were and what was coming next, but too engrossed in the surrounding beauty to care.

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