Monday, March 5, 2007

Smoggy mountains

For those of you who don't know, I am writing a column in the Wesleyan paper this semester, from abroad. Here, for your amusement and intellectual betterment (or whatnot) I present to you my second Argus Column. I forgot to post the first one. Oh well.

A rusty van, filled to the brim with eager American college students, hurdled along a southern China expressway, whipping past fields full of musturd seed crops flowering yellow and farmers in old-fashioned woven straw hats tilling land for new plantings. Inside, I baked slowly in the hot sun and stared out the window, trying vainly to see the mountains surrounding this fertile plateau through the smog.

For the orientation period of my study abroad program in China, the group leaders took us to the rural city of Tonghai, located about three hours, or 200 kilometers, south of Kunming, the capital city of Yunnan Province. For three days we bonded, drinking bai jiu (extremely strong Chinese rice wine) with the local officials. We explored, ate new foods, climbed mountains with 800 year old Buddhist temples tucked among the trees. We learned to get lost and find our way again.

Once, on the way back to the hotel, my roommate and I found ourselves in an unfamiliar part of town. We stopped to ask an old man by the side of the road for directions, but he didn't speak Mandarin. During the painstaking process of written conversation that allowed us to get directions (Chinese dialects, while pronounced differently, are written the same), we noticed people stopping to look. During our first few days in Tonghai, we had seen not a single other Western face. Now, people
stopped to stare in full-out curiosity or paused and pretended to be interested in something nearby. One or two called out, "lao wai, lao wai," a Chinese slang word for "foreigner." Tonghai introduced us to China's difference, but in this way it also taught us about our own foreignness, through China's eyes.

I thought about all of this as we travelled from place to place in the Tonghai area, taking in the sights. But the image that kept returning to mind, almost of its own volition, was that of the smoggy mountains. The farmland on the way to Tonghai had been picturesque on its own terms, with horses, and donkeys wandering on terraced hills, but it had felt incomplete without the mountains that I only recognized by the faintest grainy outlines in the gray-blue air. Wanting to take in as much as
possible, thirsty for more landscape, I strained to see the land humping up into peaks on the horizon, but the harder I tried to see the more frustrated I became. I felt that with this smog China had, in some way, let me down. Why wouldn't she let me see her? I was here to understand, to experience. Even though I knew full well about Chinese overuse of coal, about the proliferation of cars, about how rarely the sun comes out in Beijing, my ideal of China had no room for air pollution.

During my first week in China I saw and experienced a great deal, and in my state of confusion and sheer sensory overload I became aware of an interesting parallel between my attempts at cultural processing and my frustration at the smoggy mountains. The most pressing question in my mind this first week as I "re-Oriented myself" (pun intended) became: What is the real China? Is it the students I met who told me their favorite shows were "Friends" and "Prison Break"? Is it the ethnic groups who are paid to wear their traditional costumes to draw tourists to particular
destinations or entire cities? Is it the naked glances of curiosity I got while walking to buy water in Tonghai? Is China in its history-- is it among the Buddhist temples in Xiushan park, where an old man taught me to play a scale on the Erhu (Chinese violin)? Or is it in the representations of itself, in cultural "performances" like the Tibetan dinner dance I went to, where tradition lives on? Perhaps it is the excitement of the Tibetan waiter, Dlma, with whom I made friends and promised to have dinner. Maybe it is in the internet cafe where I'm typing this column, surrounded by teenagers playing World of Warcraft. Can I experience the real China as a "wai guo ren" (foreigner)? Where can I find her? Where is she hiding?

Here is where I come back to the van ride to Tonghai. I knew those mountains were there, but try as I might, the smog hid them from me, much to my disappointment. I felt I was missing something of the landscape, not seeing those mountains, the equal and opposite response to the alluvial plain below. I think perhaps those of us seeking to learn about another culture encounter this same problem. The smog is there, rendering everything hazy, gauzy, and vague. It keeps we, the interested and
intrigued, from reaching out and touching it, from seeing the "reality," if there is one to be seen. Instead of seeking to see the mountains, perhaps the goal of cultural studies is to keep on looking in hopes of occasionally catching a glimpse of a peak or a verdant mountain flank. Maybe the object is not to see but to continue to try to see.

On the return ride from Tonghai to Kunming, the weather had improved some, and I discovered that what I had thought was all smog blanketing the mountains had been, at least partially, haze. I still couldn't see the mountains clearly, but they had color and depth that had been absent on my first viewing. Sometimes, I think, things can become clearer when you least expect it.

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