Sunday, February 28, 2010

For the last 36 hours I've been struggling deeply with the affliction of Tourist Shame.

As my good friends, thesis readers, and certainly Zeb have come to learn, I find authenticity, or at least the appearance of authenticity, hugely important. My proudest achievement in Asia to date has been eating the cheapest and localest food around without experiencing the colossal gastrointestinal revolt I was warned about. Still, despite my steely constitution and abundant charm, it's difficult keeping up a facade of credibility here.

There is really no such thing as white business visitors (though someone at the airport did ask us if we were government emissaries, thanks to our snappy suits and meticulously kempt facial hair). Because of the tourist quota system--it's impossible to come to Bhutan without booking a pricey tour--there's no such thing as a humble tourist, either. We've given our best efforts to look like we don't have money coming out our white pores, but to no avail. When we attended a screening of a film at a local community center, following a group of embedded honkies, the sober young man in charge greeted us with a huge grin: "Ah, I saw you walking, and I thought, oh, you're tourists." The rest was implied, and our relief was no doubt much greater than his.

My latent Tourist Shame (closely related to my latent all-purpose White Shame, Guy Who Knows Spanish Fluently but Won't Speak It In Taquerias Shame, and of course Princeton Shame) has been annoyingly reinforced by how polite everyone is here. I've had a number of Thank You Sandwich interactions with people here, especially service industry workers. ("Thank you!" "Thank you." "Thank you!") It reached an absurd apex today as we walked down a busy street and a little girl stepped off the side of the road so we could pass. I thanked her, and she not only returned the sentiment but repeated it as we walked past, a diminishing echo of painfully earnest thank you's marking us to everyone around as people whose mere missionary presence was assumed to be heaping money into their economy, which relies heavily on tourism. She had nothing to thank me for, and it really bothered me. I'm not comfortable in that role. I need to earn people's respect. It's what keeps me honest.

I was granted some kind of respite from these feelings when we went out last night for our first tour of the town's various Bars and Other Things Cum Bars. We walked around for a while and finally decided on a place lively with locals playing snooker. I will say this: it is mildly uncomfortable to walk into a small room with nobody clearly assuming the role of proprietor and featuring a baby's crib as the main piece of furnishing. We quickly made friends with a taxi driver named Mangal who we were largely successful in convincing that we weren't tourists, and who gave us useful pieces of advice such as:

1. "When you walk around at night, trust no one."
2. "Bhutan is not a religious country."
3. "Trust no one. No one!"

We ventured on to another bar where we made pleasant conversation with the owner's sister, who was taking care of the place for a short time. She seemed to treat us with only a minimal amount of respectful distance, though as soon as we got there she did covertly tell her daughter to turn off the Hindi movie on the TV and put in a DVD of Kung Fu Panda. We bought two bottles of what we thought were beer but turned out to be 14% "cool red wine," which were actually very good but totally unnecessary given that it was our first night drinking at 7500 feet and we had already had a number of 8% Hit brand beers. Needless to say, our night was over soon after a valiant attempt to finish what amounted to a full bottle of wine between the two of us.

The Bhutanese like drinking. So do we. I had the rare feeling that our consumption of alcohol last night actually served one of its higher purposes: reconciling radically different people to the same context, lowering their inhibitions, and providing some artificial common ground. Here's to you, Mangal. Thank you for talking to us instead of your wife, who was sitting angrily in a corner texting the entire time. Thank you for ordering another whiskey even though you were already soused, and then telling her you couldn't leave and pointing to the drink in front of you as an explanation. No matter what country you're from, I think we can all agree on that.

Best things from the last 24 hours Clif Notes version:
--our new friend Mangal referencing Westerners as "whitey"
--a teenager on a busted children's bike wearing an Ed Hardy by Christian Andigier shirt
--ordering the spiciest thing on a restaurant's menu, being told "don't start crying" by the waitress, and having to add more chili to it just because that's the kind of huge-balled testosterone factories we are

1 comment:

  1. Ditch the Hit nonsense- it's all about the Druk 1100. Sorry I couldn't meet you guys this weekend. We had teaching seminars with guys from Paro teaching college (btw, being a teacher is really really hard), and lost power for the last 24 hours. However, I'll be in Thimphu (which I've yet to visit) next weekend. It sounds like a very different place than Dotey and Paro, where you can trust everyone. At any rate, I miss the hell out of you guys and can't wait to reconnect. We're only about an hour apart, after all.
    P.S. For hot food, try the Dala pickles. They won't disappoint.