cultural immersion

Asia, Culture

What is Cultural Immersion? I Don’t Think It’s This…

“When I’m in a new place, I don’t want to go to the tourist places; I don’t want to go to museums. I want to see real things.”
Thus began my tour of Nanxun, a water village 1.5 hours outside Shanghai. Our guide, Stacy, began her introduction loudly, Midwestern inflection un-dampened by seven years in China.
Here we go, I thought. I would not be sleeping as I had hoped, for all 18 participants would be introducing themselves next. I’m not sure I had ever been on a real group tour like this before, but that weekend I had the distinct pleasure two days in a row.
Will I do it again? Quite unlikely. Am I glad I went, if only for the wealth of new writing material to come of it? Oh yes.
As our bus hiccupped out of Shanghai, the platitudes rolled on. Introducing her partner, Mike, Stacy continued, “Of course, because Mike is Chinese, he’s good with numbers and dates and things.” 
Chinese towns, people and art, on this tour, were only authentic if over 80 years old.
Those who know me are aware of my crusade against terms like “real” and “authentic.” Last year, after months around tourists bemoaning the loss of “real” Tibetan-Nepali-Indian-etc culture, criticizing restaurants, cafes and people who were not “authentic” and congratulating those who were, I lost my taste for such judgments. After reading a large amount of literature on these discourses, I am convinced that “is it real?” “is it traditional?” and “is it authentic?” are the wrong questions to ask.
Our first stop in Nanxun, naturally, was for toilets. We pulled up outside a large, nondescript hotel where around 40 staff reluctantly moved through their “morning exercises”—something resembling the bastard son of the Macarena and the electric slide. They looked especially mortified to have an American, camera-laden audience, and I couldn’t find the spirit to take any pictures. After all, we all know the miserable feeling of dragging through forced routines.
Indeed, much of the day felt disturbingly reminiscent of an elementary school field trip I and my two aunts didn’t want to be on. We were the disruptive kids at the back of the bus.

As we marched single file through the house of a certain Mr. Wang (a retired blacksmith well over 80 years) to see his traditional Chinese oven, all I could think was, “What is the point of this?” 
I, like Stacy, enjoy seeing into people’s lives and homes. I tend to be nosy and curious and have few boundaries when I travel. I have participated in many home-stays and exchanges. But I hope I would never be so entitled as to walk into a stranger’s home, practically without conversation, take a few pictures, and leave.
What did we all learn that day in Mr. Weng’s home? I, for one, have no idea.
Stacy has branded her tours as off-the-beaten-track cultural immersion experiences. Certainly, I saw parts of Nanxun and Shanghai that I may not have stumbled on alone, but is it even possible to immerse ourselves in another culture in any meaningful way in just 8 hours? 
I wonder.
We spent a hefty chunk of the afternoon in a retirement home with three charming Chinese women. Why? Because, “these old folks have so much wisdom to share.” Our interview, however, proved far too short to extract much of any depth. And though I did learn that I should not dry my face immediately after washing it and that “There is more food now” than in the Mao years, that was about it.
One spry and flexible 90-something retiree led us through her morning Qi Gong routine. Later, I had the dubious honor of hearing “Jingle Bells” played on traditional Chinese instruments. Still, each stop on our itinerary, our “conversations” with local people, and our glossy overviews of entire schools of religious thought struck me as more shallow than anything else.

Museums and retirees are equally “real.” Back alleys are not intrinsically superior to touristy main ways. Cultural immersion does not emerge automatically with the right combination of orchestrated meetings and exposure to dirt. Cultural immersion does not literally mean walking in and out of a local person’s kitchen. It is far more elusive. It requires more depth.

That is not to say we should give up hope of having meaningful, culturally immersive experiences when we are short on time. 
But let’s not place the things we see into two categories: real and unreal.
When we have the opportunity to engage with another culture, let’s really engage. Ask questions. Look and see and taste and listen.
Let’s decide for ourselves what is real.
What is cultural immersion? That is a big question to answer, and maybe later I will try to go into it (though I’m not sure I have a satisfactory answer to give), but I am fairly certain it is not this.

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Asia, Culture, Food

I Drank Yak Blood

 I drank yak blood. Really. Yesterday, after eight years of not eating red meat. The flavor had a quality surprisingly similar to raw milk, a bit salty and, of course, metallic.  It was still warm. I won’t go into details about the chewy bit that I couldn’t finish. 
I stood at the top of a stone wall with two other Americans and a small crowd of children to watch the slaughter of three yaks from above.  The kids, none older than eight or nine, passed around fruit candies, shouted at us in shrill voices (the general belief being that if they spoke louder we would understand) and clambered onto rooftops and ledges to acquire prime seats for the show.  A woman sat behind us scraping creamy cheese off a flat stone, occasionally whacking me with a stick for blocking her sun.
I had decided that watching this event, commonplace to life in Mustang but wholly absent from my prior experience, was something I should do.  The longer I sat above the courtyard, watching the men turn bodies into carcasses, their hands turning from brown to deep red, the more comfortable I became.  Maybe desensitized is a better word.  I have long rejected the part of my own nature that is programmed to hunt, kill and eat meat.  Now, as before, I have no desire to order a steak, but I found it valuable to acknowledge that side of myself, and humanity at large, in such a manner.
When Tenzin, the owner of the Red House Lodge, beckoned to me, I made my way down the stairs on autopilot, having already committed myself several nights ago to trying yak blood.  “It will make you strong,” he had insisted, just as raksi(local alcohol), buckwheat, and nearly every other local product are said to do.  “You will try it, I think so.” And in the bravado of a moment I agreed.  I wasn’t about to back out later, and besides, what better way to go back to eating meat? 
I passed through the doorway into the arena.  Tenzin’s mother and another woman were already at work in the corner turning intestines and other innards into sausages.  Someone handed me a mug with rivulets of brilliant red liquid running down the sides. I drank, but could not finish.  On my way down to the river to wash out the remainder, I slipped on the muddy steps and almost fell.  The men in the courtyard laughed and joked that I was drunk from the blood.  I don’t know if it was the adrenaline or the shot of nutrients, but I did feel jittery for quite some time after.
That night before dinner, over cups of raksi, Tenzin and his friend lamented that they had not taken any pictures (sorry to disappoint) of me with blood smeared on my nose and teased me about falling down.  I felt I had proved my mettle to them and joined some secret boys’ club, at least temporarily.  There is nothing savage or bizarre about the process I witnessed.  Animals are butchered every day, everywhere; that is a part of life.  There is nothing disgusting or barbaric about the tradition I took part in; it made sense in its place, surrounded by others doing the same thing, with gusto.  Still, having proved myself to both the locals and to myself, it is unlikely I will choose to repeat the experience.  I am, however, glad that I did it.

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