Out of sight of land

Sunday August 8, 2010

Travel, it has to be said, does not necessarily broaden the mind. Nevertheless, there is something to be said for placing oneself in an entirely alien context, and in running up against the limits of your own cultural conditioning. It’s not for nothing that certain Buddhist texts recommend that the Bodhisattva – the exemplar of Buddhist practice – should leave home and family and should live in a place not of their birth.

If there is one experience of travel that I could identify as being the most useful, it is the experience of being out of one’s depth, of having the usual markers and reference points taken away. This is something that happens on all kinds of levels: geographical (where exactly am I?); social (what is expected of me in this situation?); linguistic (what are these folks telling me?); conceptual (how does this way of thinking work?); ethical (wait a moment, that’s odd, these people are completely OK with x, but find y abhorrent…); and aesthetic (what is going on with the Chinese version of X-Factor?). This loss of reference is not something that is an end-point, something that is worth seeking in itself; but it can be useful as a way of freeing up ways of thinking and seeing the world from their habitual tracks and pathways. In fact, I’m persuaded by Michel Serres’s idea that loss of reference is essential to all learning. You simply cannot, to take a linguistic example, get your head around the Chinese grammatical particles like le (了) and guo (过) without taking leave of the assumptions and the biases of Indo-European, and more specifically English, ways of thinking about grammar. Similarly I don’t think you can make much headway with the likes of Confucius, Mencius, Xunzi, Laozi and Zhuangzi without taking leave of some of the assumptions embedded in the Western philosophical tradition. And if you do become more accomplished than I am at the moment at negotiating these kinds of passages, then I suspect that it is not because of finding a solid place to stand, a kind of grand synthesis that can encompass everything (for example, a larger universal grammatical framework into which both Chinese and English can be slotted, or some kind of universal philosophy), but that is instead because of finding more fluid and fluent and elegant and, perhaps, aesthetic, ways of moving between these various worlds.

But to descend for a moment, if not from the philosophical heights, then at least from the philosophical foothills… I have been in China for around a month now, and I’m here for just under over three more weeks. It already seems a long time, and the more I get the hang of those everyday transactions that they teach you about in language classes – in the post office, in the restaurant, in the railway station, introducing yourself, talking about the differences between life here and life back home – the more I am aware that the task of getting to know a different kind of world is a vast one. As is often the case, the awareness of how much you don’t understand increases in the the measure to which your understanding increases. At the moment the chances for loss of reference, in other words, seem to be only increasing, rather than decreasing. It is particularly social situations that seem the most baffling: what should I do this situation? how should I behave? how should I comport myself? what cues should I be looking for and responding to? Finally, because I have been fortunate enough to be hosted by some very generous people here in China, I’m constantly aware of the question of how I should interact as a guest and a temporary member of the household. Of course, good will gets you a long, long way. But by itself it is not enough.

So it is interesting to be here, and to be travelling again for the first time in three years. Nevertheless, at the same time, it occurs to me that travel has also changed and this sense of being out of one’s depth is less common, or less intense, than it once was. Twenty years ago, I spent nine months traipsing round Pakistan, a fresh-faced eighteen-year-old. Back then, there was no internet. Nobody kept a travel blog. I wrote an epic diary instead, in school notebooks that I bought from corner stores for a few rupees each. You couldn’t make internet calls or send emails to friends back home, and phoning seemed like something that should be done only in an emergency. Anything to be communicated urgently. Stop. Use telegram. Stop. Pay by the word. Stop. Brevity the soul of wit. Stop. The chances for complete loss of reference, that is to say, were much greater. And it is undeniable that there was something extraordinarily exciting about turning up at some dusty town – Dera Ghazi Khan, for example – and seeking out the post office to ask if any mail had arrived. Then, after much fumbling and muttering, somebody would hand you a bundle of letters from friends and family, addressed to you Poste Restante. I can still remember the days of anticipation before arriving at the next Poste Restante address, the thrill of looking through the letters to see whose had arrived intact, and the excitement of sitting in a small tea-house, drinking sweet tea and reading through all of the months-old news.

I don’t really lament the loss of those times. Nor do I regret that twenty-four hour news, in a sense, has gone personal. I am a Twitter enthusiast, a fan of blogs and the internet in general, and a regular, if sometimes reluctant, Facebook user. I like the fact that – if the connection is good – I can make internet calls to friends and family for a matter of pence. There are advantages to this. It is good, after all, to maintain an awareness of friends and family, to have ways of bearing them continually in mind and ways of keeping in communication. But I am aware also that, in comparison to back then, I am sailing a bit closer to the shore. I recently came across the following quote from Gide (although I think it is referenced by Serres, in passing, in the way he has of not citing his sources…): “One cannot discover new continents without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a long time…” How often, I can’t help wondering, am I these days out of sight of land?

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