Wednesday, October 05, 2011

When do you stop being a tourist?

In a couple of days I'll be off to Zhuhai for business, which, as I understand it, has little to see historically relative to quite a few other areas of China.  Its chief "advantage" to a tourist is that it sits due north of Macau, on the other side of the Pearl River from Shenzhen/Hong Kong.

Who knows, maybe I'll find another Minsk World there.  

After that it's onward to Japan.  I do not feel like a tourist at all in Japan anymore, just as I've never felt like a tourist in New York  I've been to Japan about 2 dozen times or more now, and getting to the hotel I'll be staying at is as rote as arriving in LaGuardia and getting where I'd stay in New York.   At one time in my life it felt exotic - I remember the first time I landed in Narita, looked at the Japanese style trucks on the roads, and thought, "They've really done a good job of rebuilding this place since Godzilla."

That's the thought going through my mind as I read Nella Lou's and Nathan's posts on "bearing witness tourism."  NellaLou writes:

There’s a lot of these witnessing retreats going on where the bourgeoisie pay substantial amounts to be with suffering, whether that be located on the homeless streets, at Auschwitz, in Rwanda or elsewhere.
This to me turns the extraordinary suffering of people into a circus. The spectacle of suffering.

 As a card-carrying member of the bourgeoisie,  I have to say she's right, and it's maybe not for nothing that the main progenitor of this, um, circus, has been known to be arrayed in clown regalia from time to time. 

Though it might not be to assuage privileged guilt that people do it; it may be that people are so insensate that they need to do this, and at least some people suspect they are insensate enough to warrant such spectacles.
Void knows that there's a heck of a lot of other folks, dyed in the wool narcissists, who would probably cheer on the sadists at Auschwitz.

But NellaLou's prescription is dead on:  Suffering's pretty close if you look.  It can be the guy in your office torpedoing his own career with self-destructive behavior (and you, sorry to say, are helpless to aid him in any way).  See? It might not even involve class issues.  Though it's  ubiquitous as economic status deteriorates; there's no doubt about that.

Nathan writes:

Furthermore, there's a particular attraction to Jewish Buddhist practitioners to the Auschwitz retreat specifically, which often has both a personal healing element, as well as a collective recollection of, and reclamation of, past injustices to it.
 It's understandable, in the way that Japanese in Nagasaki have a particular abhorrence of nuclear weapons. That is, it's a suffering central to their cultural narrative.  But I'd question whether it's "healing" anything. And just what is a "reclamation of past injustices?"  Your family had them; my ancestors had them.  To those who lived through the horrors of such things it actually is a bit patronizing to think in these terms.  You can visit Tokyo, and the post-War construction speaks more about the fire-bombing of Tokyo then you can ever put into words or actions to "reclaim" it.  It's why I haven't been to Hiroshima: Hiroshima's all over Japan (save for a few bits in the Kansai area)  if you know what you're looking at.  I'm acclimated to Japan now...I think.

I understand that I'll be able to still see the damage from the earthquake.  But I'll be on business, not suffering tourism - it might be more poignant from my vantage.

More relevant for now, though, (and it too is "suffering tourism") might be to do such "bearing witness"  in Gaza.

But better to dispense with the tourism thing entirely.  There's a place for "Beginner's Mind" in experiences, but there's a great, yawning need to get beyond "Beginner's Mind" to be skillful at doing what matters.  That involves doing the work day-to-day.


Carol said...

"More relevant for now, though, (and it too is "suffering tourism") might be to do such "bearing witness" in Gaza."

Thanks for saying so. That has been my thought every time I see one of the Auschwitz tours.

I do have a good friend who has taken people to Gaza and the West Bank for the past 10 years or so ... because they really didn't know and because their suffering was and remains untold and needs attention.

Mumon said...

Thanks Carol. Though it should be noted that travel to Gaza is substantially more fraught with peril than travel to Auschwitz.

But I would still say that even travel to Cambodia wouldn't count, because the witness that needs to be borne is the witness of ongoing suffering.

Carol said...

I'm not sure I agree that travel to Cambodia or Gaza "doesn't count." Doesn't count for what? Doesn't count as a spectator activity, maybe. But where there is oppression that has little or no voice in the international media, little or no representation in the hearts and minds of the world, I do think it counts to go there and bring the story back. Being the many hands and eyes of Avalokitshvara is necessary work.

Mumon said...

Hi Carol,

Doesn't count as a spectator activity, maybe.

Yeah, exactly. Oppression can be nearby very often. That was my point.

I do think it counts to go there and bring the story back. Being the many hands and eyes of Avalokitshvara is necessary work.

Oh, I would agree with that too. But taking the case of Gaza again, the solution to Gaza, I'm sorry to say, begins in the US.

Re: Cambodia, maybe you're right. Maybe I should call my niece who's recently done some kind of pro bono work as a law student in the area of the still ongoing crimes against humanity trials happening there.

But even there, the United States could have done things long ago exerting its leverage to have mitigated suffering there. And for all I know, maybe now.

Carol said...

The solution to Gaza may lie in the US ... or the time may have passed when the US had enough traction to do much about it. Obama's recent speech at the UN is a case in point.

But the reason why taking US citizens to Gaza is important is exactly that the solution may lie in the US ... but if US citizens know nothing but the propaganda they read in the press, there isn't enough understanding of the situation here to generate the political will to do anything about it ... Obama's recent speech at the UN, again, is a case in point. The suffering in blockaded Gaza was left out entirely from that speech, as was the suffering in occupied West Bank.

So, "political tourism" may do more good than "spiritual tourism."