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Monday, August 11, 2008

Income Disparities: Considering the Other in Guilt-conscious Tourism

For me, living and traveling in China is a constant reminder of the fact that its people are still largely poor and needy, and that at this stage in its economic rise, there are few, if any rules of etiquette when it comes to getting ahead.

As a traveler from the West, many locals find it difficult to understand why I would choose to leave a country like Australia or America in the first place, and why, if given the choice to go somewhere like England or France, I would choose to come to live, of all places, in China.

After the earthquake struck, those of us in Chengdu--so close to the epicenter yet so fortunately unharmed--felt idle in the face of so much suffering on our doorsteps. Not being picked to go out to one of the towns reduced to rubble in the initial rescue efforts, I made do with visiting some survivors brought in to Huaxi Hospital, supposedly Chengdu's finest.

I met an eight-year-old who has lost a leg and a sixteen year-old who was slowly losing sight in her left eye, her hand having been pressed against her eyeball for 72 hours by a concrete slab that had fallen on top of her. They had lost most of their classmates. Most wrenching however, was a pretty 22-year-old who had lost not only her legs, her friends and her family, but also her still-alive boyfriend, who, upon discovering what had happened to her, decided to break up.

When we talked, on the limited subjects that my Chinese permitted, she was courageously upbeat, given what she'd recently experienced. In their colorful, soft doll-filled hospital room with the two others, each with a personal helper—all volunteers, I learned—they had formed their own family of sorts. Martin, my English colleague who had allowed me to tag along, comes to see them each day, and during my stay they were frequently visited by well-wishers bearing gifts. It was both tragic and inspiring, and gave me some hope for times to come.

Naturally, when an opportunity to go entertain children at a refugee tent village arose with a local volunteer group, I jumped. And, at first, it actually felt rather magical. The kids were ecstatic upon our arrival—in no small part, though, due to the group's mostly Caucasian foreigner body. My group presented some of them with letters written in English by students from other nearby towns—assigned by their teachers in English class—and they wrote moving responses detailing their will to recover and achieve their goals. Parents and older refugees stood behind watching, broad smiles across their faces, grateful for our presence it seemed.

The following week, problems began to arise as the group's goal—to play with and entertain children for a few hours on Sunday—took a subtle, crucial twist. One volunteer, with all the good intentions of every foreign aid program that has exacerbated problems in Africa, took out the Pandora's box: a bag of sweets. The children immediately swamped her, arms outstretched, and she reacted by throwing the sweets into the quickly-gathering crowd, where they fought crazily, like children without access to candy.

Things got nastier the following week, when, upon arrival at the camp, the group attempted to hand out t-shirts it had purchased for each child. The line they originally created quickly devolved, and soon adults were involved, pushing and shoving for t-shirts. Instantly, curious "brothers" and "other children in the tent" were dreamed up, and some of the more entrepreneurial hoarders got away with perhaps ten or so shirts. For the rest of the day, the magic was not only lost, but a new mood had swept the crowd. When playing badminton, a man came up asking not to play, but simply for our rackets. When getting the pre-schoolers to draw pictures, adults came up asking me to procure shirts for them, and one boy kept asking for volunteers' watches. Relations had, as they so often do in China, been reduced to a matter of wealth. We had things that they didn't, and they realized now that they could get some of them from us, a proposition that for many seemed much more lucrative than our mere distracting their children for a few hours.

On the road, we visited Wulingyuan, a national park as great as the Grand Canyon, if not as famous, located in China's belly in Hunan province, home to Mao. It's sheer, towering karst-formed pillars of sandstone are the most dramatic I have ever seen; from a cable car to the top, it's a scene as dramatic and transcendent as a natural landscape has perhaps ever made me feel. But besides the brief moments of respite from the tour groups and hawkers, when we could appreciate our solitude and smallness in the face of such majesty, the trip was an extended hustle. Everybody, from the park authorities themselves, to the drivers, hotel staff, and service providers appear connected in a complex web of commission-based networks. All of them, from the second you stepped out of the park, were chasing your dollar. It might not have been as aggressive as some of the hawkers in Bali or Cambodia or other poor tourist destinations, but when you've paid an enormous park admission fee (245RMB), I quickly lost patience with having to constantly dole out extortionate prices on everything else.

We had decided to go rafting, one of the park's heavily marketed attractions, but upon seeing the site originally recommended to us, it's route unremarkable and its operator's shady, we decided to take a park official's suggestion. We paid 180 RMB for a supposedly two-hour raft trip about half an hour away. The journey ended up being closer to an hour and a half, and an hour's drive away. However, it was indeed, as beautiful as we'd hoped: idyllic, verdant countryside and sheer cliffs, eroded in intricate, diagonal lines, with only dragonflies and fish to bother us.

Traveling with two Canadians, we got onto the topic of national anthems, giving renditions of our own, before asking our raftsman if he'd mind singing us a bit of the Chinese one. A shabbily-dressed man, perhaps in his late-sixties, he declined. He had been silent for almost the entire trip, when he abruptly revealed his anger towards us.

"Tai shao le, tai shao le," he kept repeating, ("Too little") explaining that the rafting company wasn't paying him enough to make his job worthwhile. He was paid for each person he steered: three in our case, whereas normally he steered eight people at a time. His pay for each person? Four RMB, or about two percent of what we had paid the company.

It was, as with many times prior, another stark reminder of the realities of contemporary China. But floating along this stunningly tranquil river, having gotten as far away from the hustlers as we could, now juxtaposed against the simple sorrow of an elderly man toiling away for a pittance in the most dog-eat-dog capitalist society I've known felt particularly crushing.

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