We replied in unison to our guide who had just inquired about how we were feeling. The translation: Very, very good.
Our group was somewhere in China – I can’t pinpoint the exact time or place, but I do remember the enthusiasm with which we answered, each of us scrambling to blurt out the correct Chinese response first. We laughed at ourselves, full of pride at our language skills but sprinkled with a bit of whimsy for how silly we sounded. Our guide was impressed, or at least she pretended to be. Deep down I wondered if she might have thought we were stupid Americans. If so, she didn’t let on, and our amazing tour continued without missing a beat.
As you perhaps know, I recently returned from a 12 day trip to China, which was part business and part touring. The fact that I don’t remember when we learned DING DING HOU or when we used it for the first time is indicative of the whirlwind that defined our journey. In fact, while I remember every last detail of what I saw and how I felt, I can’t reliably tell you what city I was in for each and every experience without double checking our itinerary. We moved like lightening through Shanghai, Xian, Hangzhou and Hong Kong – never staying at the same hotel two nights in a row until the very end.
The trip was everything I thought it would be, but if I had to choose a single word to describe the adventure, it would most certainly be “enlightening.” For me, the world is like a house constructed of rooms which are mostly dark and which I have never entered. I know nothing about what is inside; I have never breathed the air, or smelled the smells, or seen the people who live there. China was nothing more than a fictitious place that was interpreted through the TV or computer screen. But it only takes one visit to switch on the lamp, and I am forever grateful for the opportunity for China to become real to me.
I expected to feel far more out of place than I did. Visions of a foreign, perhaps hostile, Communist land were quickly replaced by vastly different truths – a rapidly developing country that in many places and in many ways resembles the Western world. And the Chinese people couldn’t have been nicer to us. From our tour guides to shop owners to the residents of the lane neighborhoods we toured, we were always greeted with smiles and a willingness to share all that China had to offer.
Frankly, I’m not sure I would have been as nice to us as the Chinese were.
Of course we were always the picture of decorum. Our group was genuinely interested, respectful of our surroundings, and even a bit tentative at times, scared that perhaps we were overstepping our welcome. This was especially true as our guides led us through the lane neighborhoods – and in some cases, into the small homes of the residents. Between the two blondes, one beard, and one set of dreadlocks (our guide), we must have made quite the spectacle. But remarkably, we were greeted with smiles and conversation – not exactly the reaction I might have to a group of Chinese tourists showing up unannounced with cameras, in MY living room for a tour.
The entire experience made me think twice about the way I view foreign tourists in our country. I can only speak for myself but I rarely give these people the benefit of the doubt they deserve. Tourists are easy targets for ridicule– with their cameras around their necks, taking pictures of everyday sights that most locals fail to even notice. From the self-imposed distance I keep, they may even seem a little silly or simple. For goodness sake, they don’t even speak our language! In fact, they are about as goofy as …… um……
…. Americans in China.
Yes, that’s right. Even on our best behavior, we were no better than – and perhaps even worse than — Asian tourists in New York City. We took pictures of everything that was foreign to us – which was, in fact, almost everything. Even sights that were familiar to us were snapped because isn’t that interesting that China is just like America???!
Who are we to discount tourists who are agog over the Big Mac when we couldn’t help but create the chicken head photographic opportunity?
Our amusement at the people walking the lanes in their pajamas rivaled the awe of a Naked Cowboy sighting in Times Square.
And our need to document the size of the airports was as significant as the length of the terminals.
It was a trip where the lines between the ordinary and the extraordinary continuously blurred. I think that is what tourism is all about.
But I feel as if the concept of “the tourist” has taken on a negative connotation over the years. The term is used in my business to define an investor who isn’t committed, but likes to look around a lot. Locals often lament the tourists in resort towns near and far. Sure, we are probably slower moving, less informed, and temporarily unproductive members of society. But there is truly no other way to turn on the light in that room without entering it and flailing around in the dark for a stretch.
Tourism doesn’t promote ignorance; it cures it.
China was an eye opener for me in many ways as I’m sure trips to the U.S. are enlightening for foreigners. I come home with a new appreciation for the value of the tourist. I, for one, feel smarter having been one, if for no other purpose than being able to quickly and accurately respond to the question, “How was the trip?”
DING DING HOU! Indeed.