Pincher Martin's Bibliothèquewebbie -- Sunday, January 29, 2012 -- 01:39:17 AM
Reviews and commentary on all things related to books. Extended discussions on political, social, and cultural topics sparked by a review of a book are also welcome.This thread is tagged:
(All users will see what tags exist for a thread. Please tag carefully!)
Actually I don't care for train rides all that much, either. I much prefer car also, but car travel is a dicey proposition in many parts of Central Asia. I've taken a bus (actually a combination of buses, shared cars and hired cars) across Xinjiang twice, on two totally different routes. It would have been much better if I had had my own car. And, yes, sitting on a train for days with Han Chinese is not terribly fun. Also, don't do the Trans-Siberian or the Trans-Mongolian train rides even if you get them as gifts. Though they are icons of travel they are overrated and extremely tedious. Unless, of course, you enjoy meaningless small talking with starry-eyed western tourists or sharing bland stuffed buns with Russians (depending on who you end up with in the compartment) for a week while there's nothing interesting to see from the slow moving train during the 6 out of the 7 days.
I highly recommend Mongolia rather than a second trip to Tibet. It's all round the best place in Inner Asia -- the microcosm, topographically, of the many landscapes that the region offers. Taiga forrest, big mountains, steppe, tall grassland, rolling hills, lunar landscapes, desert landscapes, alpine vistas, verdant meadows, gorges, bare rock canyons, green canyons, lakes, rivers -- the country has everything. And hired cars are very easy to arrange. I like Gansu and Inner Mongolia too but if you do Xinjiang and Mongolia there's no reason to trouble yourself with those, unless you're an Inner Asia fanatic.
hahahah! I was just thinking that PE's description sounded awesome until I considered the necessary details, and "hell" was the word that came up for me, too. I just don't do well with people around.
Nothing puts the difference between Japanese and Chinese cultures in bas-relief as much as sharing a compartment on a train for long periods with Han Chinese. The endless talking in the middle of the night (can the Chinese ever abide silence?) ; the industrial degree of smoking in putatively no-smoking areas ; the proud defrocking of socks and baring of foetid feet ; the complete indifference to how one might conceivably leave a toilet after use, etc. But they are very nice.
PE, am I allowed to ask where you live now? I haven't kept track.
Hahaha! The descriptions of the Han Chinese are all dead-on.
Like Cal, I don't do well with people around. Or to be more accurate, I can put up with people infinitely better when I have an escape hatch. So I arrange our trips accordingly. We never do group tours. We try to hire cars and guides, if that's necessary, to avoid being shoved into a group. If it's not necessary, we summarily dismiss the guides and figure it out on our own.
In Bhutan, we had our own individual tour guide (it's mandatory), but the place we stayed had about a dozen other couples with their own tour guides, and many of these people flew in on the same plane we had arrived on. Since we had largely the same itinerary, we frequently bumped into the same people during the week -- at temples, on hiking trails, in the hotel lounge, at dinner, etc. Most of these Westerners were harmless and a few were even pleasant companions.
But some were incessantly chatty and witless. One fat Australian lady, and the husband she was tugging along, seemed to zero in on us for some reason. If we were eating dinner at the hotel restaurant (there being no other place to eat in most of Bhutan), she would waddle over to our community table and plop herself down to tell me about her day and her observations on life in general.
She liked to talk politics, but had about as much political knowledge as what you would expect of the average fifty-year-old Australian housewife. She was repetitive. She told me about six different times that the Bhutanese didn't like China. For what reason I have no idea. She seemed to think it important. Communication was all one-sided. She loved telling me her opinion, but had no interest in mine. She kept telling me the best places to stay in Bangkok even after I told her I'd been to Bangkok many times and stayed in most of the famous hotels in the city.
I finally grew tired of her dreary tedium. But I didn't want to cause a scene. So I told my wife that we were to arrange our lunch and dinner schedules so that woman was never again by my side. There was some flexibility in when we could eat, so we took advantage of it. Once they came in as we were finishing up, and I literally stood up in the middle of a bite and walked out. They got the message and didn't bother us again.
This might surprise some people who read me here, but in real life I talk as little about politics as possible. I actually shy away from political discussions. I do this for two reasons. First, I was taught that it was rude to seriously talk politics or religion with people I don't know well in casual social circles, and the habit has stayed with me ever since. Second, I tend to come on too strong when I do start discussing politics (which probably doesn't surprise too many people here). So I avoid political discussions in situations like these. It never ends well.
But as bad as some Westerners can be, there is simply no comparison between the worst of them and the majority of Han Chinese. Individually, many Chinese are among the finest and best people I have ever met. But come across them in a group, and you'll soon understand why China was the place which invented so many creative ways to torture people. 5,000 years of history and they still have the toilet culture of medieval peasants. And you might as well ask cats to queue up for their meals as expect the Chinese to line up properly or wait their turn. It's always a mad dash in China.
My own wife's original dual identification as both a Taiwanese and a Chinese grew into a strong sole identification with Taiwan the more time she spent around mainland Chinese. The more we traveled through China, the more she desired to be known as solely Taiwanese. She always tells Americans that she is Taiwanese and politely corrects anyone who believes she is Chinese.
For me, great traveling companions don't discuss family, work, or politics at any length. They briefly introduce themselves (name, country of origin, etc.) and then immediately segue to a brief rundown of a few recent fun things about their trip. If you take some interest in what they say or ask specific questions, they might share a little more. If you don't, they understand and politely move on to something else. They also know how to stop talking with as much skill as they knew how to begin talking. They're upbeat, but not too cheery. They don't tell you about their troubles. They're sensitive to the mood of the listener. They take a polite interest in you, but they don't pry.
75% of people I bump into don't know how to do this. So it's quite natural to put up a few barriers when traveling.
Man, I love talking politics. And the reason I talk to people on vacation (I travel alone) is to discuss politics, food, and exchange a bit of info on stuff to see.
I don't know if your wife will find this funny, but as you may know, I teach enrichment to an entirely Asian group of students every Saturday. Six year ago, I rapidly got used to the fact that some of the kids' parents were from mainland China, and others were from Taiwan, and that this was a critical difference. But since part of my class approach is to teach these damn kids that they're Americans, I also started deliberately tweaking them.
So right now, I've got 8 kids, three of whom are "Taiwanese" and 3 are Chinese (the otherh two are Vietnamese and one Korean). Periodically, I drop the words "ethnic Chinese" into the conversation, and one girl--who is the quintessential Silicon Valley gurl--always reliably reacts.
"I AM NOT CHINESE! I AM TAIWANESE!"
"Oh, lord. I said ethnically Chinese!"
"I don't know what that means."
"What language do your parents speak?"
"What food do you eat?"
"Okay, Chinese, but..."
"How many times have we had this conversation?"
"and WHERE THE HECK WERE YOU BORN? Class?"
"STANFORD!" the entire class choruses.
"Exactly. So you're a wannabe Taiwan identity slave from Paly, you goofball."
She thinks this is funny, too. "But I'm not Chinese!"
"You're as Chinese as a Malyasian or Filipino or Burmese Chinese! Deal! I'm not remembering fifteen damn nationalities just to make you all happy. You all eat with chopsticks! The Koreans and Vietnamese are lucky I make a distinction!"
We do this practically every week. The kids think it's very funny. I'm not sure what this means.
It probably just means that you keep a potentially touchy subject light and humorous, and they enjoy the tone of your discussion.
The last two (food and travel tips) are perfectly acceptable topics for discussion with a casual acquaintance, but politics is a death knell to any discussion with me, unless for some reason I hit it off with someone. I have no strict rule on anything, of course -- just a rule of thumb. I've discussed politics at length with many people I've bumped into, but I generally have found the discussions are not interesting or productive, and I prefer not offending people. If I discuss politics, I tend to let the other person explain his ideas and I just listen. But that's usually if they are not Westerners.
I'm probably more used than you to the cognitive dissonance that occurs to me when an otherwise normal person starts spouting liberal nonsense. And I'm often pleasantly surprised when I find someone sane.
What a nice thought! I shall hold onto that.
Here's an example of what I mean. I'm in Tibet for seven days and we're using a Chinese-language guide and driver (guides are mandatory for us) because my Chinese was better than my wife's English at the time.
Halfway through our trip, our guide mentions, quite casually and unprompted, that she doesn't support Tibetan independence. And she explains that she thinks Chinese rule in Tibet has brought many economic benefits. That sounds like the party line the commies use, but her tone seems unforced and reasonable, and she's Tibetan, not Chinese. Besides she's well aware that I'm an American and my wife is Taiwanese. I think she's being sincere.
I listen politely. I ask a couple of general anodyne questions like what benefits she thinks Tibet has gotten from China. But I don't engage her in a full-throated political discussion. I don't share with her my opinion that Bhutan is a much more pleasant place than Tibet because, I believe, the commies have spoiled Tibet. In short, I don't inflict my political opinion on her.
Well, that's just simple politeness. I'd listen quietly, too. But I'd be genuinely interested. I might ask something like "You know, some people think that Tibet is more controlled and less open under the Communists. What do you think?"
I wouldn't say "Lady, from my pov the Commies have turned Tibet into a Stepford world." That's online talk.
You'd be surprised at how some of what we take to be polite opinions will greatly upset many people.
I once shared my opinion with an Indonesian lady that I thought the world was getting closer together and thus becoming more alike. Even if you don't agree with that opinion, it's hardly radical. But she took great offense and I had to abruptly end the conversation.
There's another reason I don't like to share my opinion abroad. I think it affects your companions. They often start shaping their views and discussions to fit your opinion.
Here's an example: I'm talking to a Bhutanese. He mentions his country's environmental policy, which is pretty strict for a developing country since the young Bhutanese king was educated in England, and so imbibed much of the Western environmentalist claptrap that passes for a modern education.
The man I'm talking to seems proud of his country's environmentalist policy, but then the discussion suddenly takes a turn. He tells me a story about his small farm. He tried to prevent wild pigs from eating his crops by killing them, but a foreign NGO which works in the country prevents it. (I think the man wanted to poison the critters). So he gets very little sleep at night because he constantly needs to be aware of when the pigs might be in his crops.
I felt very sorry for the guy. This was not a rich man. I listened politely and sympathetically. You know my opinions on most environmentalist groups. But I didn't betray my views. I didn't want to affect what this guy was telling me by voicing my own frustration with environmentalist groups. I didn't want him shaping what he was telling me because he understood exactly where I stood.
Interesting. I think I would have expressed sympathy. I don't know that I would have gone into an anti-environmental rant.
Consider that conversation if I'm an ardent enviromentalist. He begins by telling me how proud he is of his king's environmental policy. I enthusiastically agree and share my own pro-enviromentalist views.
Perhaps I don't hear about that pig story.
Oh, I know. I agree with you about sharing your own views. But you can make non-committal noises and prompts whilst not shutting him down.
I'm a good listener. One of the reasons I preemptively shut a lot of people out is that the high quality of my listening ability invites a lot of bores to share more about themselves, to open up. And that I can't abide. Life is too short, and I am on vacation. You need ways to maintain a little distance from these bores and keep them from becoming a time-suck.
Just as most people are about average in looks or brains, so most people have average opinions and views. In short, they're uninteresting. There's a bell curve for quality of opinions, as well as for intelligence. Even when abroad, where you would expect to meet a higher class of traveler who is more interesting and cultured, you still find a lot of those types like the Australian housewife.
Of course, I'm mainly speaking about English-speaking Westerners right now. They're fairly predictable. If you're dealing with natives, it's different. But even with natives, I find no reason to discuss my politics or to invite them to discuss theirs. If they want to initiate such a discussion, that's fine. But I'll mostly listen, not talk.
One of the reasons I preemptively shut a lot of people out is that the high quality of my listening ability invites a lot of bores to share more about themselves, to open up.
Oh, my God. This is something to which I can really, really relate. Except in my case, I think it's more about the quality of bores to shout out their own viewpoints than any particular quality of my listening ability.
When we were in Britain during my first pregnancy (eight months along, so fairly obvious), we kept running into an American couple. The wife said, over and over, "You're so brave to travel here when you are pregnant!" To Britain, for God's sake!! It wasn't like I was squatting in some sub-Saharan jungle! But she kept going on and on about it, as if I couldn't find a competent health-care provider in the whole island. Whereas my O.B.'s comment, when I inquired about getting a letter for the flight, was, "If you do run into trouble, you'll get better care over there than you will over here." There's just something about some people that causes them to insert themselves, to everyone elses' great pain, into every situation and conversation.
That lady you kept bumping into has all the features of the itinerant bore: repetitiveness, judgement without knowledge, and stickiness.
Pincher, I remember you reviewed a book on Jackson's battle at Horseshoe Bend, but have you read an entire bio of him? I'm reading Brands' book--I like Brands, generally--and am flabbergasted at some of the details. It reads like a Who's Who. Jackson was the first representative for Tennessee, he knew Jefferson, he fought a duel with Thomas Hart Benton's brother and the scandal is what drove Benton to Missouri, John Fremont was an infant child who happened to be there with his dad, Davy Crockett was in his army, Sam Houston was his pal. And that's all before he got to Washington.
I feel like that movie In & Out: Is EVERYONE Gay? Did EVERYONE know Jackson?