It’s September, that time of the year which brings an abrupt end to the wanderlust and when children enter or return to school.
For many urban residents, travel is no longer a luxury only enjoyed by the leisured. It has become part and parcel of respectability.
My wife was enjoying a feast with some of her middle school classmates at a reunion, over the weekend, when one of the party, a police officer, got a call from his wife, telling him that their younger daughter, now a first grader, was supposed to turn in a PPT showing her travels during the summer.
That was, of course, more of an assignment for the parents, and the father was embarrassed, for he did not know how to do a PPT himself. Fortunately, their elder daughter, a senior high school student, fixed it up in an hour. At least their trouble was technical.
But what about those who did not travel at all, or whose travels did not include some fancy destinations? Will the parents feel embarrassed?
Last week my elder sister and her grandson arrived in Shanghai for a tour just ahead of the new school year, after doing Guangdong and Fujian provinces. Asked to name the sights he had in mind to see, the eight-year-old blurted out “the Oriental Pearl Tower!”
I took them there, under the blazing sun, but was unnerved by the long queues at the famous tower and the nearby aquarium. After much persuasion, I took him to the Bund. The boy was cheered up again only one hour later. Would the distant view of the tower from the other side of the river give him sufficient confidence to relate his travel experience to his classmates afterwards? As a matter of fact, this heavily tanned eight-year-old boy had already seen more places than many of his relatives at 70.
Dangers of travel
Chinese as a people used to be wary of long-distance travel. Wang Zengqi, one of the most celebrated contemporary writers, wrote in one of his novels: “Our folks there all hate to leave their native land, and would start penning a letter about 8 kilometers away from their home. The elderly would as a rule caution the young people against two things: The evil society, and the dangers of traveling … With pickpockets and swindlers lurking everywhere, leaving home was as good as giving up half your life.”
Liang Shiqiu, another best known man of letters, in discussing the Chinese fear of travel, wrote of his maternal grandmother, who had lived in Hangzhou all her life without ever visiting the West Lake, which was just outside the city walls. “She made it to the lake at last — being carried there, never to return — she was entombed on one of the mountains by the lake.” That was a thing of the past. Today, the Chinese have itchy feet and want to travel.
Soon after the summer holidays this year began, my son needed to have some neighborhood activities scheduled as part of his summer holiday assignment. We went downstairs and knocked at the door of a neighborhood woman. It was answered by her 14-year-old grandson, who said she had “gone out to enjoy herself,” suggesting she was traveling.
I remembered last year that she made a trip to the USA with some other neighbors. I never had occasion to ask about her impressions of the Brave New World. But somehow I seemed to envision a crowd of elderly Chinese being shepherded from one destination to the next, being lectured to about American history, democracy, and rule of law. Although those were probably places they could neither quite comprehend, given the language barrier, nor like, given the food difficulties, you cannot think of more glamorous travel destinations than these.
Travel has become a fast growing industry. This year one of the burgeoning branches of this trade is “study tours,” or escorting children to well-known universities at home and abroad. It is hard to know if such travel really brightens the life prospects of young people. It certainly substantiates the pocket of some travel agencies who have the clairvoyance to cash in on this fervor.
Travel, when done in the right manner, can broaden our horizons, enrich our knowledge, and bring us closer to the nature. But when practiced as a mass movement, as an obligation, especially as a result of peer pressure, there is a danger of it becoming another way of consumption little relaxing than our workaday drudgery.
It is ironic that when you think of a typical tourist sight, with its crowds, and sometimes fraudulent pitfalls, you find that some time-honored Chinese caution against travel might be relevant after all.