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.
I was disappointed in the ending of your entry. It’s not what I expected. Do you think that they will find the picture on your ‘blog?
Ouch. This story tugs at my heartstrings.
Is there some way you can re-look-up the restaurant’s address? Have you any plans to visit Yunnan again?
I truly enjoy your talent for writing as well as your ability to choose your topics. For these reasons I’ll probably continue to read your blog. While your honesty is admirable, for being such a talented writer, the shame you should have for your actions – if you indeed have any – didn’t register at all. However, I wouldn’t want to be your friend.
on the contrary, I was anything but dissapointed with the entry. I expected a happy fun predictable ending, and then .. nope.
People are complex I suppose may be the moral – if there is one. seperated by time or space, we can act in ways that make us, more or less technically, hypocrites.
but more than that, your entry today sorta brings to mind all the old unfulfilled things I’ve also brushed aside. The kind of things you forget about until they get jogged back in.
I’d agree with pketh.
Maybe there can be some lessons called “the next time!” One, don’t make that promise the next time. Two, remember to do it the next time. Three, should you ever visit Yunnan the next time….
I’m not sure. I think I could easily find the restaurant if I went back to Jinghong (assuming the restaurant is still there). If I do go back, I’ll take the photo.
I think I lost the original in a hard drive crash, though, so I don’t have a very high-res copy. It won’t print well.
Still, I would do it if I could.
You think I don’t feel shame for what I did/didn’t do?
The story was not about shame. I don’t think my feelings of shame make for interesting reading.
Thanks for understanding.
We all do things we’re ashamed of. Normally we never tell other people of them. In this case I chose to do exactly the opposite.
A month ago I wouldn’t have imagined publishing this story, but then another writer did a similar piece, and it inspired me. I think some good can come of it.
On my last trip to China a street vendor proudly showed me a picture of himself and a tourist the tourist had sent him.
Then again, the vendor was Han and the tourist Japanese.
Still haven’t sent my own. But I plan to.
I must confess I’m a little confused at this one. Cearly, you intended to send the picture, you felt bad about not sending the picture, and you had a second chance to send it. Why didn’t you send it? You could have sent it after your move, kept the address for later, marked it in your planner, whatever… If you felt bad about it, why didn’t you take the chance you had to make it right?
Thanks for writing an intriguing and honest post. It is definitely more refreshing when you reveal such things instead of always puff pieces.
I’ve had many promises that were never lived up to, and therefore mad friends. Thus I’ve learned to let my “yes be yes, and my no be no.” The trouble is figuring out when to make the commitment or not. If there are any doubts, I will usually err on the side of caution and not commit. Then you can always surprise those people with the nice gesture without any pressure.
Many of us who are foreigners have been through similar experiences wherein we dissapointed a local’s expectation.
You’re right John, some good can come of this story being honestly shared. It takes guts to put yourself in a bad, but honest light. Perhaps many of us who read this will think twice before we make the same mistake.
I think it’s very easy to tell stories about ourselves in which we do the right thing, or respond in the most gracious way, or come through in the end, but I’m afraid that is not life. We are all a collections of memories and past events, and some of them aren’t flattering, but those are the things that shape us. But from my first post on my Weblog back in 2003, I have struggled with how honest I’m supposed to be.
Hank Jones, of Laowai Monologues, was unflinching and honest. I always admired his courage. He told stories where he wasn’t always the hero, or wasn’t always delicate in his dealings with a foreign culture. He encouraged me to do the same no matter who was reading, but I still have trouble being able to completely get out of the way, step back, and let it rip. Greg K told me if I was too busy worrying about what my audience would think then nothing I ever wrote would be true. It’s natural for us to be dissapointed with John. That’s the point, we all screw up. But they shouldn’t be dissapointed with him telling about it.
At the time I had too much going on in my life, including big money problems. The rediscovery of the slip of paper added another obligation (however small) at a very unwelcome time. I took the selfish way out, eliminating the burden. It was a mistake.
dear heavens, it looks like you’ll burn in hell with the rest of us!
I’m also confused. The whole write-up built up this expectation that you were going to do it, right to the details of your guilt, then, all of a sudden, that pink slip was bound to a trash can. I had to re-read the whole paragraph just to make sure I didn’t miss anything.
Had you invested the time you spent writing this entry on a little research about the restaurant (I’m sure there is some information online), perhaps you could have figured out where the restaurant is and sent them the picture.
I’d say track down the URL for the leading newspaper in Jinghong, and send them the story along with the photo, and ask them to publish it. That would almost guarantee that some of the ladies from the restaurant will hear the story and see their photo, and you are thereby redeemed.
I think Carl Parkes has a good idea. Even just mailing them the picture and the story would be worth something.
I also agree with doom. I’ve been struggling with finding the right space to stand in writing for a blog and haven’t found it yet. I do think John is being brave by sharing with us and I hope he comes to peace with it.
Carl, what a great idea.
John, I ADMIRE your honesty and your writing. I didn’t mean to come off so harshly, but I didn’t sense any regret in your original post.
You’ve since clarified that here, and as such, I’ve come to admire you more (not less). Thanks for sharing.
Take up Carl’s idea. Why not? It would even help to drive more traffic to your blog. Heck, you never know, I think the story (along with the photo) are good enough to get picked up on one of the wire services. Regardless, good luck.
Attention-grabbing title, but then a fizzer of story afterwards (sorry John). Reading the title and first bit, I imagined the end of the story to go something like “and then when I arrived back in the town, I saw that they had printed my photo onto a large billboard advertising the restaurant” – well, that shows how cynical China has made me.
Anyhow, I don’t imagine they are losing much sleep over it.
I realise this is just an anecdote, but this posting and the whole betrayal, guilt thing does tend to reveal your provenance. A couple of years ago I started watching some western TV series on DVD after a long hiatus and it gradually dawned on me (yes, I am slow) that one of the main pillars or threads to the fabric of western society is this whole guilt, blame, retribution and absolution trip, whereas it doesn’t seem to be such a big thing over here in Asia. Certainly in China, it is only necessary to feign guilt or remorse after you are caught – if you are not caught, you are not guilty, therefore why on earth would you feel any contrition?
Yes, being a gawked at and photographed minority must suck, especially when even those people you felt you connected to on a deeper level just left and never paid you a second thought…
But hell man, don’t feel bad, it is kinder to not send them the photo – you are almost as tall as they are squatting down! A considerate soul wouldn’t rub stuff like that in.
Like everyone else, I find it interesting that you chose to tell this story. Perhaps what I find most interesting of all is that (in my perception) you take some amount of pride in not being “just another American” (both in your estimation and the estimation of the people you encounter in China). It’s interesting that you separated yourself from “other American tourists” by chatting and being friendly with the restaurant staff, but then, later, unified yourself even more with the other tourists who made empty promises.
I think that because you like to distinguish yourself a bit more from the average American tourist or ex-pat and this story seems to prove the opposite (in this incident), that made this entry even harder to write, and makes it all the more poignant.
Paulo loves you.
i agree w/ matthew and sam. i disagree w/ dave. carl has a great idea; when you get a chance, you should try it.
grace made a very eloquent point, and i ditto that.
The story was a good one because it was what actually happened (I assume). If this had been from a readers digest or an inspirational pamphlet the ending should have been different, but in real life people do shitty and inconsiderate things (no offense John). To gloss over that with some feel good anecdote would have been a betreyal to the reader and wasted to grace that the true story has. Good for you.
What is this daft obsession with happy endings? Go to disney.com if you want those.
I appreciate the honesty of the story, that’s why i read this blog.
Why not send them one now? Late is better than not doing anything at all…..
[…] while back I posted a story I titled “Betrayal.” I visited Yunnan and promised from friends that I would send them a photo when I returned […]
This story was all too human. How easily we toss out our ideals when they become inconvenient. Though unpleasant, this kind of honesty is important and inspiring. Thank you for sharing, I believe you’re a better person for it.
Hey, just so you dont feel so bad, I had a lady at a bank in Xining give me 100 yuan and her address so I could repay her. I never did. Fuck I am horrible.
I was driving my motorcycle from Tibet to Inner Mongolia and ran out of cash in QingHai. I hoped that there would be an atm in Xining, nope. Qinghai apperently is not on any international network. I literally had 0yuan and an empty gas tank on the steps of the bank of China.
Shit, I am a horrible human being. I even wrote an email home about it after she gave it to me about how I was going to send her some cool Mongolian things and the money. My mother to this day brings it up as an example of how much of a dick I am. I lost the address, and it was 3 years ago.
Do you think she would still be working there? I dont know her name, but I do know that it is the main branch of the Bank of China in Xining…
Thanks for writing this. It helps me reflect on the thousand little promises I break. Sometimes I feel like I’ve got ‘special excuse’ written all over my face to make up for my mistakes in Beijing. You remind me that its because I’m so foreign (and consequently unjust to others by accident quite frequently) that I ought to feel the shame of those intentional screw-ups.
Just go back! Its better than a picture!