Official To Chinese Tourists: ‘Be Quiet, Don’t Spit’

Chinese tourists
Kim Traynor

A senior official in China has urged Chinese tourists to improve their behavior, the South China Morning Post reports. Vice-Premier Wang Yang said the “breeding” of some Chinese tourists leaves something to be desired and there are problems with them, “talking loudly in public places, jay-walking, spitting and willfully carving characters on items in scenic zones.”

Mr. Yang is backing up his warning. He made the comments at a meeting where the Communist Party passed a law that will allow travel companies to cancel their contracts with tourists who “violate social ethics.” While the wording is vague, it basically means tour companies can send embarrassing guests home.

Needless to say, this bit of news is causing much snickering in the Western press, but personally I haven’t noticed that Chinese tourists are any ruder than any other kind of tourist. Having lived in tourism epicenters such as Madrid and Oxford, I’ve seen plenty of Chinese tour groups and never witnessed any spitting. The only bit of obnoxiousness I saw was a group walking through Oxford with a tour leader giving her spiel on a megaphone. Yeah, passing through the dreaming towers of academe with a bloody megaphone. The Oxford police must have put a stop to it because I never saw it again.

Considering that the Chinese come from a culture where international tourism is a very recent phenomenon, I think on the whole they behave quite well. As China reaches out into the world, however, the government has become increasingly image conscious, doing such PR blitzes as putting on grandiose Chinese New Year’s shows in places like the Estonian capital Tallinn, a city with only a tiny Chinese population.

So congratulations to Mr. Yang for being overly cautious. If only David Cameron would tell the English not to go on drunken stag trips. If only Barack Obama would tell Americans to not be so damn loud and arrogant. Yes, these stereotypes only apply to a small minority, but it’s those obnoxious few that we tend to remember.

New Agers Trash Mayan Pyramid At ‘End Of The World’ Party

Mayan, Tikal
Revelers at an Apocalypse party at the ancient Mayan site of Tikal in Guatemala have damaged one of the pyramids, AFP reports.

Temple II, built at Tikal’s height around 700 A.D., was damaged when a crowd of partygoers ignored signs saying it was off-limits and climbed up it anyway. An official at the site didn’t reveal how extensive the damage was but did say it was permanent.

About 7,000 tourists visited Tikal on Friday to mark the end of a cycle in the Mayan calendar, which many wide-eyed dupes believed would bring the end of the world, or at least some New-Agey world transformation that would imbue their crystals with deep spiritual significance.

If they had asked the Maya themselves they would have learned that the world wasn’t actually ending, but why do that? Traditional cultures and UNESCO World Heritage Sites are only there as props for jaded First Worlders shopping for a cheap semblance of spirituality the same way they’ll buy Save The Whale T-shirts made in Filipino sweat shops.

They’ll also blithely ignore the real historical and cultural significance of such sites in preference for silly theories about secret civilizations, aliens or Atlantis. This sort of New Age archaeology is rooted in racism. As some locals complained, the party wasn’t really about the Maya at all.

Dave, an old friend of mine, calls the New Age movement “Newage,” because it rhymes with “sewage.” I propose a worldwide movement to adopt Dave’s term for these callow crystal-clutching consumers. Protect ancient Mayan sites by flushing the Newage movement!

[Photo courtesy Mike Vondran]

6-Year-Old Saves Manet Painting For UK (With A Little Help)

ManetLast weekend my family and I visited the Ashmolean Museum here in Oxford. My 6-year-old son loves this place because of all the headless statues, the bow you can use to shoot deer in the Prehistoric Europe room, and the gold coin of the Roman emperor Julian, who he’s named after.

In the European art section we came across several paintings by Manet. One was “Portrait of Mademoiselle Claus,” painted in 1868. The Ashmolean has been campaigning to keep this painting in the UK.

As an Ashmolean press release explains, “The painting was purchased by a foreign buyer in 2011 for £28.35 million. Following advice from the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art, the picture was judged to be of outstanding cultural importance and was placed under a temporary export bar … the painting was made available to a British public institution for 27% of its market value.”

So the museum set out to raise £7.83 million ($12.25 million). Julian puzzled through the fundraising plea with a serious look on his face, reached into his pocket for some coins, and plunked them in the box.

Three days later the Ashmolean announced they’d raised the money.

This is what I love about museums. They connect people with the world’s heritage. In some cases, like with the Ashmolean, they connect them for free. Art like this doesn’t belong in the living room of some asshole banker who makes his money from sub-prime mortgages and keeps it in offshore accounts. More and more, art and antiquities are seen as investments for the super rich, commodities to be bought and sold instead of appreciated. I’ve had to mingle with these plastic people in galleries like Sotheby’s in London. It’s the only chance I have to see the art for sale there before it disappears into a private collection.

I don’t even like Manet all that much, but that’s not the point. His work has touched millions of people for more than a century. So congratulations, Ashmolean, thanks for keeping this painting in the public eye where it belongs. And thanks for teaching my kid an important lesson in democracy.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

St. Bride’s Church in London: a place to honor fallen journalists

St. Bride'sI am not a Christian. I have read the Bible twice and have attended the services of several denominations and remain unconvinced. Despite this, any time I’m in London I go to an old church off of Fleet Street to pay my respects.

Fleet Street used to be the center of London’s journalism industry and St. Bride’s was the journalists’ church. The newspapers have since moved away to less expensive neighborhoods but St. Bride’s still maintains its connections to the journalistic profession.

At this point I would usually launch into my historical song-and-dance and tell you how St. Bride’s was designed by Sir Christopher Wren, how its steeple may have inspired the shape of wedding cakes, and how there’s a Roman building in the crypt. None of that makes me go there. I go there because to the left of the altar is a memorial to journalists killed in the line of duty. A few candles illuminate photos and cards and a list of names. Yesterday two more names were added.

Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik were killed yesterday in the besieged city of Homs, Syria, when the house they were staying in got shelled. They were both seasoned war correspondents. Colvin had lost the use of an eye while covering the Sri Lankan civil war in 2001. Both knew the dangers and both went to Syria anyway.

I was familiar with their work because I’ve been watching the carnage in Syria closely. I spent a wonderful month there back in 1994 enjoying Arab hospitality and seeing the country’s many historic sights. I was there when the dictator’s heir apparent Bassel al-Assad died in a car crash and the nation pretended to mourn. His younger brother Bashar now rules Syria and is ruthlessly suppressing his local version of the Arab Spring.

When I visited Hama, I learned how the al-Assad family leveled the city to quash resistance there back in 1982. Once the fighting started in 2011, I feared Hama would be leveled again. I was right about the massacre and wrong about the city. It’s Homs this time, or at least it’s Homs for the moment. Syria’s dictatorship would level every city it owns in order to stay in power.I never had the honor to meet Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik. From their work I bet they were like the war correspondents I actually have met, with a deep love of humanity and a firm commitment to the truth. It would be presumptuous of me to put my job on a level with theirs, but it has taught me the same valuable lesson–that the majority of people around the world are good. Lots of folks believe that, but I know it to be true. I’ve had it proven to me over and over again in places my friends think I’m crazy to visit. Somaliland. Kurdistan. Palestine. Iran.

And Syria. The fighting and oppression and state-sponsored terrorism that Colvin and Ochlik gave their lives to reveal to the world do not diminish my estimation of the Syrian people one iota. The majority of Syrians are good, just as the majority of all people are good. And if you disagree don’t argue with me, argue with Anne Frank, who wrote the same thing in her diary while hiding out from the Nazis.

The news is so often negative that it’s easy for us to develop a negative view of the world and its many peoples. It’s important to remember, though, that those who travel the world for a living don’t share that view. Their travels have taught them better.

So when I’m back in London next month, this agnostic is going to St. Bride’s Church, not for a dogma I don’t believe in, but for an idea I do.

Photo courtesy St. Bride’s.

Opinion: Dutch khat ban smacks of racism

khat, qat
The Dutch government recently announced that it will ban the use of khat, a narcotic leaf widely chewed in the Horn of Africa and Yemen.

I’ve written about khat before. I’ve spent four months in Ethiopia, especially Harar, a city in the eastern part of the country where chewing khat (pronounced “chat” in the local languages) is part of many people’s daily lives. It’s a mild drug that makes most people more relaxed, mildly euphoric, and talkative. It also helps concentration and is popular among university students.

Of course there are side effects. Short-term effects include sleeplessness, constipation, and for some people a listlessness that keeps them from achieving their potential. Long-term use can lead to mental instability and heart trouble. I met one western researcher in Harar who had been there two years. He’d stopped using khat after the first few months because he was afraid of the long-term effects. If I lived in Harar that long I’d stop chewing khat for that very reason.

So the Dutch government seems to have a good reason to ban khat. Or does it? This is a country where marijuana, hash, herbal ecstasy, and psychedelic truffles are all legal. And if we’re talking about long-term health effects, we need to throw in alcohol and tobacco too.

So what’s different about khat? It’s almost exclusively used by the Dutch Somali community, numbering about 25,000 people. According to the BBC, “a Dutch government report cited noise, litter and the perceived public threat posed by men who chew khat as some of the reasons for outlawing the drug.”

Drunks aren’t noisy? Cigarette smokers never litter? The last reason is the most telling: “the perceived public threat posed by men who chew khat.” In other words, black men. In Europe, khat is a black drug, little understood and rarely used by the white population. This ignorance and the fear it generates are the real reasons khat is being banned.

While there are some valid health and social reasons for banning this narcotic plant, they also apply to the narcotic plants white people like to use. But we can’t expect white people in The Netherlands to give up those, can we?

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