(This column was published in DNA edition dated June 23, 2010.)
The writer Mark Twain recommended travel as an antidote to “prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.” Stirring out of one’s comfort zone and interacting with other cultures, he believed, would help shape “broad, wholesome, charitable” views of men and things.
As more and more Indians venture out on a foreign strand and see how the ‘other half’ lives, it raises the hope that they might return home with a finer appreciation of the Hegelian Other and, inversely, gain a better understanding of their own place in the world.
It appears, however, from some recent accounts of Indian travellers abroad – and of foreigners coming to get an eyeful of ‘Incredible India’ – that that hope rests on infirm foundation. Two recent narratives in this space, both by first-time Indian travellers to our trans-Himalayan neighbour China, are illustrative.
One dealt in merciless detail with the wild range of eating options at Beijing’s famed snack streets. And although, to his eternal credit, the narrator himself appeared to have been low on food inhibition and combined an open mind with an open mouth, the entire tone of his first-person gastronomic account appeared calculated to appeal to the ‘Eew-yuck, these Chinese will eat anything’ factor.
The other was, again, a first-person account of a young couple who were so charmed by a group of English-speaking Chinese youngsters in Beijing that they allowed themselves to be conned into coughing up a disproportionately large amount of money for a tea ceremony.
Beijing’s street snacks of course readily lend themselves to exoticising, but they are also something of a cliché. Dwelling excessively on them contributes little beyond reinforcing Chinese culinary stereotypes, in the same way that pictures of cud-chewing, traffic-blocking cows lolling on Indian streets – which so turn on foreign visitors and television camera crews – are no more than a lazy visual metaphor for an India where, presumably, anything goes. It is only when travellers can frame these visual stereotypes in a larger perspective, without dwelling disproportionately on them, that they will have taken the first step on the 1,000-mile journey towards a keener appreciation of other cultures.
Likewise, the realisation that there are enterprising Bunty-and-Bubli con-artists in the heart of Beijing wouldn’t have come as so much of a shock if the defrauded young couple had done the most rudimentary research on tourist traps to avoid. The ‘tea ceremony’ rip-off is the oldest trick in the game, as infamous as the Nigerian 419 advance-fee scam, and is an adequately well-documented alert in travel guides.
If you’re sufficiently clueless, you can just as easily be gypped in Bandra as in Beijing. There are just as many tourist alerts for foreign travellers to India, and a reading of their chronicling of their experiences is enough to establish that when it comes to playing artful Bunty-and-Bubli con-games, Indians yield to no other nationality on grounds of sheer enterprise.
Chinese people themselves aren’t immune to the enterprising trickery of their home-grown con-artists, and just earlier this week, Beijing police dismantled – I kid you not – a fake ATM machine that had been used to illegally gather card data and PIN codes from unsuspecting customers.
And somewhat more bizarrely, recently a Hong Kong property developer successfully sold a ‘68th floor’ apartment in a 46-storey complex for a world-record sq-ft price to new-rich mainland Chinese buyers who, venturing away from their cocoon, hadn’t evidently acquainted themselves with the Bunty-and-Bubli schemes that operate in Hong Kong.
Should we therefore not travel out of the comfort zones of our minds? Perhaps Mark Twain was a trifle naive: perhaps, as poet Maya Angelou noted, travel cannot prevent bigotry. But there’s still the hope that she nursed: that by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.