Sunday, May 27, 2007

Perspectives across ponds- a random post

I have had a couple days of downtime - unplanned downtime- here in the East. Because my communications skillz are severely lacking, I have willied away many hours on the internet. In doing so I came across this headline: Britain is 'sleepwalking' towards US-style segregation of schools, figures show.

This is an interesting article to read as I, a foreigner, sit in China, in a "French" cafe -never mind the sweet bean-filled croissants and green tea mousse cake- sipping a latte (which is quite delicious, btw!). Speaking for my paisanos back in Meiguo, the typical western perspective of China is that it is filled with only Chinese, not counting Tibetans in Tibet or Taiwanese in Taiwan. In a way this is true, since relatively speaking there is not a huge population of immigrants here, legal or illegal. But to the Chinese, thier society includes several dozen minorities that they view more or less as exotic creatures that are most interesting when practicing cutural rituals, songs or dance while wearing traditional clothing. Imagine if the Indian reservations in the US were Disney-ified, and then multiply that by 1 billion (the difference between 300 million US residents and 1.3 billion Chinese) to get an idea for the huge industry built around minority tourism here. And that's just the domestic tourism market- there's a huge international market for this tourism branch as well. In fact, during my first stint in Beijing, I was taken to a bar with some type of minority theme. There were real live minorities, young adults, singing, some quite well, and dancing, wearing blue jeans and sneakers beneath their traditional costume, as a crowd of Han Chinese, chain-smoking and drinking Heinekin for 5 USD, looked on. It's very likely these singing/dancing minorities were sending money they made back to the people in their village.

Interestingly, for being apart of a food-centric culture, mainstream Chinese aren't generally too interested in partaking of minority cuisine. I've happened through some of these minority areas over the last few years, and the Chinese I travelled with usually go to great pains to stay at Han hotels and eat at Han restaurants... Anyway, I'm getting to a point...

...which, is that segregation in China was never an issue, because there is the Han Chinese and then there was everyone else and that's just the way it was and the way it had been for millenia- even though to the outside world the difference wasn't neccessarily that noticible. Diversity, particularly during the Cultural Revolution, wasn't an inherent value or a lifestyle concept here. (I just googled "cultural revolution" ... probably a bad idea! If this post ends suddenly, call the U.S. Embassy!)

Change is brewing, though you can bet that change is happening much more slowly than economic growth, and in actuality is a side-effect of that growth. I'm here in a cafe - the only foreigner with a dozen or so Chinese. Last night I ate at a "South American" BBQ place that was remarkable for many reasons, one being there was a waiting list to get into the place, which for a town with at least a million restaurants and probably half a billion people who could never afford this place (the set menu included absurd quantites of meat and a buffet for the equivalent of 6.25 USD), is something remarkable. This restaurant isn't even downtown- its way in the northern edge of the city- basically a suburb. Another reason, is that in this giant restaurant, a main floor and encircling balcony- probably sat 250 people all told- I spotted 2 other foreigners. The place was packed, a soft-rock trio sang covers of Wham! from a little platform. There was a buffet. There were no chopsticks- instead forks, spoons and knives! Twenty years ago- heck even 10 years ago, this would have been unheard of. And it wasn't like the customers were at a display or some kind of exotic show. It was definitely still a Chinese atmosphere- a bunch of families eating and talking, just there for dinner, some possibly for a special occasion. The great thing is Beijingers are enjoying these places! Maybe soon the aspects of other cultures, including minority populations, won't seem like a spectacle, but just like a good time.

So what I am saying is that- Pollyanna Moment- there is hope for harmony in the world, because we are all susceptible and in many ways accustomed to sticking to our own cultural norms. But, lo and behold, when we expose ourselves to other cultures, we often find many things that we like about it and that there really isn't a need to blow one another up over it. On the contrary, our differences make for lucrative tourism industries. But keeping us all from sticking to our comfort zone, takes effort. Look at me- here I am in Beijing at a French (i.e., western) cafe. But hey, at least I didn't go to the KFC or Pizza Hut next door.

Really, we humans aren't all that different from one another. Just take it from the Chinese boy band video playing in a continuous loop feed on the LCD flat screen TV that hangs on wall next to me. I think I'm going to go have another latte.

1 comment:

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