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Saturday, April 12, 2008

How to 'Experience' an Ethnic Minority, and Other Difficult Tourist Questions

This past weekend was Grave-sweeping Holiday (Qingming Jie), when Chinese families visit their ancestors in cemeteries to pay their respects. Seeing as mine are buried either in Malaysia or unknown Chinese locales, I took a last-minute trip with two friends to southern Guizhou province, one of China’s most remote and poor. Our goal: to see some ethnic minority villages.

Following a 19-hour overnight train ride from Chengdu to Guiyang, the capital city, we traveled another two and a half hours east, to a haphazard town named Kaili, which is billed as the gateway to Guizhou’s numerous ethnic minorities, including the Miao, Dong, Shui and Baoyi. Finally, after a scenic 40 minute cab ride, we arrived at Langde “Lung-de”, a popular Miao (Hmong) minority village. It proved to be a very mixed experience, more a reaffirmation of social realities than a diversion from them.

Upon arrival, we were greeted by a welcoming parade of Miao women, ornately dressed in their traditional embroidered clothing, who appeared to spend their day just hanging around, greeting tourists. The village itself is quaint and charming, all cobble stoned paths and stilted wooden homes, with thick bushels of corn hanging against the walls. As an early clue into just how touristy contemporary Langde is, tri-lingual wooden signs and informational posts were stuck up throughout the entire town in Chinese, English and Japanese, using a carved, hand-written type that evoked some hammy reality TV show set in a jungle.

We found ourselves gathering in the town’s Drum tower square, as a dance performance, the meat and potatoes fare of any standard ‘ethnic tourism experience’, was about to begin. A large tour group of Han Chinese was already seated. They stood our starkly in their heels and jeans, they’re video cameras and fashionable haircuts. Some of the twenty-somethings, perhaps art students, were drawing sketches of the town into their sketchbooks.

The performance was interesting enough. The men played the drums and lusheng—a traditional, ethereal sounding flute, and the women’s dancing was elegant and visually arresting. A man in plain clothes kept asking me to buy a 20 kuai ticket. I wasn’t sure whether this was indeed necessary or whether he was simply trying to scam me, and when I asked other tourists seated nearby, they told me they hadn’t purchased one, and thus figured that I didn’t need to. Finally, another man, in Miao clothing, approached one of my companions, and we reasoned that we had to pay because the other tourists had pre-paid through their tour group. We paid up, and I felt somewhat sheepish whenever my gaze fell near the man I had continually refused.

During the performance it became increasingly clear that the performers were simply “going through the motions.” The children taking part acted much like they were at a middle school end-of-year concert for parents, giggling and ribbing each other when not performing. An article on Miao tourism explains that such dances are merely a show for tourists, and that all meaning and tradition associated with the music, dance or dress are kept separated from this commercial activity, in spirit if not in appearance.

Afterwards, the hard sell begun, and middle-aged and elderly women began peddling their wares: cheap jewelery, Miao-costume dolls and various other pieces of common tourist bric-a-brac. When I decided to purchase a piece of jewellery for my girlfriend from one lady, within seconds there were another half-dozen, shoving almost identical versions before my face. I bought a necklace from the first lady, selecting one that didn’t feature an Olympics symbol or some other entirely non-Miao-related iconography. I apologized to the others, telling them “you all look very beautiful” as meager placation. Judging by their gazes, it offered little appeasement.

We’d come looking to “experience” some minority villages, but when I asked the reflective question: “What does that actually involve?”, none of us could provide an answer. We agreed, however, that roughing it in very basic accommodation sounded like unnecessary privation, with little “minority-ness” attached to it. We decided not to spend the night and drove back to town, where we stayed in the damp “Petroleum Hotel,” run by Mandarin-speaking Miaos dressed in Western clothes.

In Shitouzai (‘Stone Village’), a Baoyi minority village famous featuring good examples of stonemasonry, the experience was far more tempered. The Baoyi are of Thai origin and are noted for their skill in wax print manufacture. Only the older women were wearing non-Western dress, and by the time we arrived near dusk, everyone was eating dinner. We wandered through the village’s stone and slate homes, built into a karst mountain as seems standard practice for such villages. We’d originally planned to stay in one villager’s house—a fairly modern place with her daughter’s pop idol posters still on the bedroom walls—but craving a hot shower (rather than bathing in the river) and more modern bathroom, we ended up staying in a guesthouse operated by a young Han man.

Both of my companions, an American and Colombian, are female. Earlier, after learning that it was against Baoyi custom for unmarried men and women to share a bedroom, we’d talked amongst ourselves of the likelihood of a villager raping a foreign woman. Unlikely as it was, that evening, just after I’d drifted off, I was woken by my friends, looking to sleep in the same room for security. Wailing animals kept Kira up most of the night.

The next morning we hiked up a nearby mount for breathtaking views of Guizhou’s hilly karst landscape, with its rice terrace farming. On the way, we passed two men roasting dogs on a spit. Dog is commonly eaten in this part of China, and we’d qualified home-cooked meals by mentioning politely: “we don’t eat dog.” At the foot of the mountain were three middle-aged women literally breaking rocks with wooden cudgels.

“I can’t believe they don’t have a machine to do that,” Kira said.

Tourism, still in its infancy in this Chinese hinterland of sorts, is undoubtedly a boon for Guizhou’s local communities, many of whom are ethnic minorities. Whereas the eastern flank of China attracts huge numbers of foreign tourists, Guizhou is visited largely by domestic tourists who tend to go with large tour groups. For those looking to eschew the well-worn Eastern roads and see another, non-Han side of this diverse country, you can certainly find authentic, distinct travel here. But, after only three days of wide-eyed stares—even in the cities--and being extorted by seemingly almost everyone we met (including our taxi driver, en route to the airport), I was ready to get back to Chengdu.

In a place so poor and far from China’s mad money grab, it shouldn’t come as a surprise for locals to see foreigners as giant walking dollar signs. And nor should it surprise, in a world where commerce and western culture penetrates even the remotest of regions, to see tennis sneakers and NBA jerseys on kids playing on dusty basketball courts in tucked-away villages. Rather than provide an escape to a simpler, agrarian hideaway of sorts, hiking around Guizhou reaffirmed the inequality and materialism of the urban world I’d sought temporary refuge from.


*Interesting article on Miao village tourism:

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