A casual observer of this blog might infer that I live in a totally random town in rural China. But this hypothetical reader might be surprised to learn that Rebgong, in all its filthily chaotic glory, is a major Tibetan monastic and cultural center and, as such, the province’s fourth-most-popular tourist destination (after Qinghai Lake, the Kumbum Monastery near Xining, and (duh) Xining itself, due to its status as the region’s major transport hub). And despite this rarefied status, not to mention the multiple state-classed AAAA tourist sites (yes. those were four capital A’s. you should be impressed) within the town, Rebgong only ever sees a small trickle of foreigners passing through – at this time of year, maybe one to five daily, maximum – a statistic indicative of Qinghai’s now-firmly-cemented status on the Hot List of destinations for foreigners traveling within China. Cemented to the very bottom of the list, if not scrawled, an afterthought, on the list’s coffeestained back side.
In short, there really aren’t too many foreigners coming out here, at least compared to most of China’s tourist destinations. Though we’re at the end of high season, I go days without seeing other foreigners (other than my friend/co-worker/Rebgong hospital-tester Brooke). But due perhaps to my current lack of local friends, a desire to meet people or speak non-classroom English, or maybe even simple loneliness, I always like to greet the foreigners I meet in town. While I haven’t lived here for long, I’m always excited to meet visitors, welcome them to town, and maybe dole out a few bits of travel advice.
But most of my greetings go unanswered. Or, if answered, the response is usually far from friendly. Over the past month, I have not gotten into a single conversation with a foreigner I’ve seen here in Rebgong. Not even a conversation: it’s never gone past exchanging hellos.
What is this apparent malady inflicting the foreigners who are visiting Rebgong? Is it that these travelers want to have their own personal experience? That’s fine, I’m only attempting friendliness, but I understand people’s desire to be with themselves or immerse themselves in the culture for a time. Is it that they’ve had a bad experience while traveling here, that they got up on the wrong side of the bed, or that their hotel had no beds for them to get up on the wrong side of, or that they slept on the floor or had a cold or nonexistent shower or had the standard Tibetan stringyfatty yak or mutton momos and nearly puked or that their beds were bedbug-afflicted or that they were caught by the ladies at the office at the entrance to the monastery and forced to pay sixty kuai for an entrance ticket, and they didn’t realize they could use their drivers licenses from home and pay half-price for a student ticket, as they were intimidated, those ladies run a tight ship let me tell you. Maybe they had a travel problem and weren’t happy to talk. That’s fine. Or maybe they were angry or upset or disappointed at seeing another foreigner in this town, which should be pure Tibetan and their experience and not any other foreigner’s. Or maybe they want to feel the joy of discovery, and they don’t want that joy quashed by the arrival of other outsiders who are discovering it for themselves.
But aside from self-discovery, which remains the central, essential experience of humanity, is discovery nothing but an outdated joy? A selfish, conquering, culturally insensitive joy, the joy we feel at finding something and claiming it – whether it be an experience, a sight, an actual item – for ourselves. In a frighteningly confused and interconnected world, in which everyone is panoptically linked but any anti-relativistic word is crime, discovery has become a concept antique to the point of quaintness.
But discovery still exists; we can still claim experiences for ourselves, and in so doing feel that little excitement of pride, that jealousy of wonderment, that self-interested joy which immediately makes us feel ourselves a Da Gama, a Magellan, a Zheng He, or at least the company of such great men. And while in doing so we can further our process of self-discovery (shoot me…that should be in the cliche graveyard), is that really why we go out on adventures? We do it to find uniqueness, an experience that is singular amid the vast trashpile of experiential familiarity – and to claim this uniqueness as our own property. A selfish feeling, an insensitive feeling, a culturally violent and colonialist feeling; yet, I would argue, a feeling necessary for our own mental health and the maintenance of our sense of wonder.
I used to begrudge the unresponsive foreigners in the streets of Rebgong (or really anywhere I come across foreigners in rural China) due to their seeming selfishness in the process of discovery. Is it of such importance that your experience be absolutely singular, I often wanted to say, that I’m not allowed to be here – in your experience, or in Rebgong – at all? I went on an offensive, going out of my way to burst others’ senses of discovery, their belief that their experiences were unique among foreigners due to the fact that no other foreigners were in their experiences. I did this simply by making my presence known, waving and saying a friendly hello to anyone within range.
And while I still begrudge the especially rude travelers – those who refuse to even acknowledge my presence, such as a memorable backpack-toting young lady on the street a couple of weeks ago whose anger upon seeing us was palpable – I’ve decided to stop being the self-righteous culturally sensitive unique-experience-bubble-burster and let people enjoy their own discovery of a place. I don’t care if the feeling is selfish or colonialist; after a simple exchange of hellos I let the others go on their way unless they are interested in talking. For I’ve realized that the experience of discovery, despite its morally questionable roots, is an essential one – and one I cannot prevent others, no matter the selfishness with which they go about it, from having.