Written by Emma Tilley, (Brown University) Student Correspondent CET Harbin, Spring 2019
I’ve been fortunate at both CET Beijing and Harbin to have a week off halfway through the semester, giving me time to travel. This time I wanted to take it slow, visit a southern city comparable to Harbin with fewer foreign and domestic tourists and get into the countryside if possible: a list of missing puzzle pieces to complete my first impression of China. Combined with my friend’s lifelong wish to see Guilin, home of the picturesque Karst mountains that make up the most famous scenic spot in the country, we had a perfect week’s itinerary.
On the matter of ethical or responsible travel, many sources have pointed out not to do anything abroad you wouldn’t at home. This is easy enough to swallow for those self-assured they aren’t part of the problem: please don’t pose for (and definitely don’t post!) photos with children you don’t know, be respectful of sacred and otherwise meaningful places and things, in general recognize you are a guest and your hosts do not exist as props for your adventure. Simple stuff. But the dynamics get complicated when you situate Americans in a developing country and factor in the desire for “authenticity” – a separation from “other tourists”.
Those few days in Guilin were the first time in China I felt utterly out of place – it hearkened back to an ill-advised “voluntourism” trip to the Dominican Republic I took in high school. From the dialect and minority languages far removed from the standardized Mandarin taught to locals and foreigners alike, to the shocking disparity between highly developed tourist infrastructure (resorts, shuttle buses) and local people’s standard of living, there was a pervasive sense that our improved language skills did not matter here. It facilitated communication but did not open a door to engage with the community as we imagined it would. But upon reflection we wanted such engagement for our own benefit – to satisfy a certain curiosity.
After a 2 hour hike we put together through directions on an old blog post and pamphlets, we arrived at a village called 渔村. An energetic old man approached us on the path through the orchard and invited us to dinner at his home. When we politely declined, he insisted on bringing us to the local site of interest, a traditional house that Bill Clinton (and decades earlier, Sun Yat-Sen) had visited. It was filled with photos of Clinton in that same house and he lost no time in rolling out a table of souvenir items for sale. When it became clear we weren’t planning on buying anything, we were quickly escorted out and onto a boat back to the town we were staying in.
Strange that we felt somehow misunderstood for being identified as tourists with money to spend when that’s exactly what we were. In Harbin there’s a sense of involvement at least on campus, but here there was no fooling myself: I’m here for a few days to hike and take photos and contribute financially and that’s where it ends. Maybe had we stayed for dinner we could have had an illuminating conversation with that old man and his wife – probably a conversation he’s had with dozens or hundreds before us – but even on the timescale of a semester or year I’m coming to realize it’s very, very tenuous to say something like: I’m involved here. I really understand. To have walked aimlessly around the village as we planned would just be…looking at people’s houses and lives uninvited.
In Changsha we strolled in a gorgeous park on Orange Island, ate some very spicy bullfrog that we tried and failed to cancel out with rice and beer, privately marveled at the distinct Hunanese accent and “red tourism” phenomenon. We still couldn’t assimilate completely (“do you think those Ukrainians can understand us?” –“of course, who would come to Changsha without understanding Chinese?”) but in the city we could go about our day much as in any other city, in China or elsewhere. It was unique and exciting but ultimately comfortable. I’m left wondering if Americans in particular bring with them a romanticism towards rural life that doesn’t quite reconcile with Chinese society.
Why even bring up discomfort on leisure, a pure exercise of privilege? Guilin and the few other occasions I’ve been able to visit rural communities – the “real China” Clinton asked to see – have forced me to interrogate my assumptions about myself and my purpose in studying and living here. It’s embarrassingly easy to get complacent with a basic language proficiency, a comfortable routine, and a surface knowledge of history and culture. To stop there is self-defeating and self-perpetuating – the tropes and principles that make for conscious or harmful tourism can just as easily be replicated as a student or long-term resident. I think if you set out looking for a wake-up call you’re still susceptible to confirmation bias and just through paying attention (really, sincerely paying attention) you can always find something a little uncomfortable. And that’s where you know there’s something to learn.