About a month ago on a tropical night, steamy and close, I sat in a small, dimly-lit tree house in the heart of a southern Chinese jungle and listened to a familiar song (“Aqueous Transmission” by the alternative rock band, Incubus, for those who might wonder) on my iPod. This particular song was one I had listened to countless times before, mostly because of its calming effect. Whether I was in the library studying for finals or in a sleeping bag on the Montana Plains, the quiet refrains of the chorus fading into a full two minutes of the sounds of frogs never failed to help me stop and take a breath.
On that particular night as I listened, something thrilling happened: as the song drew to a close and the chirping of frogs filled my ears I had the sensation of amphibious harmony, a depth of sound I had never before noticed. It was then that I realized that the frogs chirping in the jungle surrounding me were mingling with the comforting, familiar sounds at the end of the song. It was a moment of sublime cooperation between the old culture I had left behind and the profoundly new settings with which I had surrounded myself. I’ve written in this column before about the frustrations of cultural difference, but such bridges over the cross-cultural gap are also notable and, indeed, essential in the life of a person living in an alien place.
Not all moments of cultural cooperation have settings as seemingly mystical as a tree house in the middle of pristine jungle. In my home stay in Kunming I often experienced fleeting moments of such cultural symphony, mundane but still powerful: my home stay mother would call her daughter for dinner, and the daughter would reply “Coming!” When the exchange was repeated again thirty seconds later, I would hear echoes of home. And when I would forget to turn out the lights to my room, the bathroom, or the kitchen, I would often find my home stay mother trailing behind me, shutting them off in my wake. Then I would feel the sides of the gap between my idea of home and my experiences abroad closing, coming together, straining to touch.
We all strive, I think, to reach across that void, to feel the other that we perceive as so different from ourselves—in anthropology we call this “exotification,”; abroad, I call it the desire to connect, to feel that sublime cultural symphony for at least an instant. And it isn’t just we, the visitors, who feel this pull toward connection. I catch a glimpse of it manifested in the embroidered shoes my Bai minority (one of 56 minority groups in China) homestay family insisted on giving me after three days of awkward but well-intentioned exchanges. I see it in the note my friend’s homestay father gave her after three similar days of silence, with the words “If you ever come back to China, welcome to Shaxi [the village we stayed in] and our home, I am very glad to have met you” written in painstaking English. I feel it in the quick and embarrassed but earnest hugs given by those unaccustomed to such contact.
And so, in a way, we are united by that pull for sublime connection, reaching across the void to face the other and, perhaps, unexpectedly, see ourselves. At a rural market in that same Bai Minority Prefecture I found myself mesmerized by Yi people (another minority in the area) who came down from the hills to buy supplies. Their colorful vests, intricately embroidered with spirals; their brightly striped skirts; their octagonal headdresses draped with black velvet—in them I saw something profoundly Other and found myself simultaneously compelled, and ashamed at my compulsion, to take pictures. As I wandered the market, inspecting corn and trying on Chairman Mao-style hats, a young Yi girl approached me, watching me with a look of friendly but potent curiosity. Reaching across the veritable rift between my blue jeans and her mountain life, I donned a cap and asked “Hao kan ma?” (“Does it look good?”) She giggled and assented, dallying to watch me wander and pack up my things, shooting me a series of shy smiles that reminded me of the things we might have in common.
It is this spark in the face of the vacuum that I think drives us to take pictures as I was, to buy souvenirs as my tripmates have as we’ve traveled around Yunnan province this past month. No doubt the Communist government would say that our woven bags, wall hangings, and photos of snow-capped mountains are indicators of our capitalist culture—and no doubt as well that this opinion would have some merit. But lately I’ve been thinking that really, behind the materialism is that same human urge, to be able to say “I was there, I felt things, I saw things-- I faced the void, and here I stand.”