May 11, 2008

Yunnan trip

I just returned from a two-week field trip with my students to Yunnan. We were mostly in Lijiang and Tengchong, a town near Burmese border. Western Yunnan is being heavily promoted as scenic sites for tourists. Before arriving there, I reviewed some landscape photos and portraits of local people. I was very much enchanted by Yunnan. Once we were there, we were a bit overwhelmed by excessive development of tourism. Small old towns and villages are so commercialized. Our senses were stuffed with selling points of each vendor, loud music, nostalgic genres of goods, etc.

I gave my students an assignment – “Tourism: Consumption of Ethnic Landscapes.” Yunnan is the most ethnically diverse province of China. Its current revenue depends on tourism. This type of tourism especially cashes in on ethnic expressions. To a large extent, it is a field for consuming exotic modes of being. Landscapes are literally contained, tamed, and fenced. Dirt paths on the hills were replaced by fine bricks. Tourists buy expensive tickets to walk through these landscapes. We actually did not experience much native culture regardless of the fact that we had homestay opportunities with people of the Naxi and Bai Nationalities. Everyone appears modern. Am I disappointed? Yes, but not surprised. Everywhere in China, money and power dictate one’s behavior and one’s social relation with others.

Of course, there are oases if one looks for them. We made friends with two young artists. Like their North American counterparts, they are also struggling, but with dignity and a sense of reverence for the subjects of their artworks. I hope Wendy and kids will home-stay with them and learn about the modes of their creativity.

Perhaps I’m too cynical about the impact of tourism. I have to say, I noticed tourists are pretty happy there. Things there are manageable, nostalgic. Services are great. It’s green and water is everywhere one goes.

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