When I visited Yunnan in February 2003, I was, of course, interested in seeing something of the lives of the minority people that live there. I didn’t want to participate in exploitation, but I wanted to satisfy my own curiosity and learn something about their ways of life.
A unique opportunity presented itself when I had dinner with my Japanese friend at a local restaurant in Jinghong (景洪). It was one of those minority-themed restaurants you might expect to find in an area with a large minority population: the servers are of the minority, wearing traditional dress, serving traditional minority dishes (undoubtedly modified to suit Han Chinese palates). They even had minority music and did minority dances. The complete minority entertainment package designed to satisfy the Han tourist.
My friend and I arrived as the entertainment was ending. Everyone else, it seemed, was in the restaurant because that was where and when their tour group dictated they would be getting their dose of evening cultural and culinary nourishment. At the appropriate time, they all filed out. At about that time, our food was served. As we ate, the staff cleared all the other tables. We exchanged some friendly small talk.
On the way out, we passed a table where the entire staff was gathered, eating their own dinner. I noticed it was a little different from what they had been serving everyone. They explained that it was the real thing, and they invited us to join them. We had just eaten, of course, but we were delighted by their friendliness and sat down for a chat.
The next day my friend left Xishuangbanna. I had some time to kill in that area, so I found myself showing up at that restaurant at their dinnertime for several more chats. I can’t say I learned about their way of life in a way that no other tourist did; I merely talked with them on a few occasions. But they seemed to appreciate my sincere interest, and I ate up a pure friendliness unmotivated by the desire to sell me anything.
My last day in their town, I stopped by the restaurant one more time. I wanted to get a picture with them. On previous visits I had felt that it was somehow exploitative to want to take pictures of them, but I felt it was entirely harmless to take a picture with them before I left. They agreed, with an expression I couldn’t quite interpret.
After I took the picture, they asked if I would send the picture to them. I said I would. “Really?” they asked, apparently unconvinced. “Many other travellers have taken our pictures before and promised to send them to us. But they never do.” What assholes those other travellers are, I thought.
“Yes,” I told them. “I will send you the picture.”
I moved from Hangzhou to Shanghai in January, 2004. I gathered a lot of papers in my stay in Hangzhou, and it all had to be sorted through before the move. On one such afternoon of tedious sorting, a tattered pink slip of paper caught my eye. Opening it up, I realized it was the address of the restaurant in Jinghong. I had carelessly misplaced it upon returning to Hangzhou, which meant I had been unable to send the photograph. But here it was!
I was about to move to Shanghai. I had a million things to do in the next 48 hours. Yet, this pink slip of paper represented an unfulfilled obligation that really bothered me. It would not be ignored or further postponed. Its time had come.
I looked at the pice of paper and remembered what the girl had said. Many other travellers have taken our pictures before and promised to send them to us. But they never do.
I slowly crumpled up the pink slip of paper and dropped it into the garbage bag, paused for moment, then hurriedly continuing my urgent sorting.