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The Silent Skill of Sharing

The following brief chapter recently appeared in a book called Railway Cultures, which forms part of my collaboration with the British National Railway Museum. It’s a chapter about trains and bikes. Unfortunately, the editor had no space for images of trains or bikes. Luckily, space is not an issue in an online publication like this.

Sharing is en vogue. The past few years have seen a lot of initiatives for shared transport, whether they grew from environmental concerns, economic necessity, or simply because sharing is a highly marketable concept. However, if sharing is what we talk about, that does not necessarily mean we are also good at it.

Although this is a third-class interior, it shows the sort of compartment Virginia Woolf would have been familiar with from her suburban journeys. Southern Railway 4-Sub electric motor coach S8143S (built 1925), National Railway Museum no. 1978-7069.

In her story ‘An Unwritten Novel’, Virginia Woolf encounters the figures that people her literature in the train compartments of the Brighton line, which she frequents between London and the south coast:

Life’s what you see in people’s eyes; life’s what they learn, and, having learnt it, never, though they seek to hide it, cease to be aware of […] Five faces opposite – five mature faces – and the knowledge in each face. Strange, though, how people want to conceal it! Marks of reticence are on all those faces: lips shut, eyes shaded, each one of the five doing something to hide or stultify his knowledge. One smokes; another reads; a third checks entries in a pocket book; a fourth stares at the map of the line framed opposite; and the fifth – the terrible thing about the fifth is that she does nothing at all. She looks at life. Ah, but my poor, unfortunate woman, do play the game – do, for all our sakes, conceal it!

As if she heard me, she looked up, shifted slightly in her seat and sighed. (18)

Had Woolf lived in 1990 instead of 1920, she would have owned a car and driven up and down between her two homes. As it was, she lived in the golden age of rail travel, and, more specifically, in an age during which people were used to sharing their means of transport.

When we take a peek into one of the carriages from that time, kept by the National Railway Museum, we immediately sense what it meant for six strangers to share this confined space for a few hours. The space only seems the narrower because of the textile flowers that push themselves forward from the benches. Every sigh could be heard, every neighbour’s pulpy page read from the corner of one’s eye. Woolf’s journeys therefore offered the author a natural space from which to observe and imagine the tangled lives of the anonymous figures whom she loved so much, and on whom such a great part of her work centres.

The same carriage, standing in the museum.

Trains might be called the pinnacle of public transport. In no other vehicle do we habitually share a single space with so many other people, while also sharing an infrastructure – the railway – with many, many more.

Such sharing carries a high moral status in our world. Whether we look to the Bible for guidance or to Sesame Street, we are admonished to be hospitable, generous and accommodating.

Sharing spaces, services and goods also has practical benefits: it is cheap, it is social, and, if the shared service is centrally or collectively managed, it takes away some of the hassle and responsibility faced by individual owners. When it comes to transport, trains, together with trams and buses, form the most energy-efficient technologies for the middle and longer distances, while also saving their passengers time and work. For the shorter distance, the same can be said of bicycles.

Although the benefits of sharing have long been known, low incomes, housing shortages, climate change and a range of technical innovations have made sharing a serious option for a growing number of people over the past decade. Some of them have been motivated by the desire to cut greenhouse gas emissions. For many more, hit by the Recession, sharing is a bitter economic necessity. As they move in with their parents or take their children back in, opt for the tram or hire a bike, they share in order to save money.

But the marketing departments have also done their work. They have turned sharing from an embarrassment to some, into the new cool. Now, all who can afford any choice want to be a part of the sharing economy. Some of this successful marketing has been done by those commercial services that have been in the news so much in recent years (Über, Airbnb…). These companies make a profit by skimming the turn-over of the old-school independent entrepreneurs who provide the goods.

The new cool may benefit yet another type of provider: those companies that provide shared services themselves, for instance the rental services that replace the things we traditionally owned – the bulbs in our lamps, or the bike in our shed.

Passenger transport is one of those sectors currently seeing a surge in experiments in sharing. The most successful often build on the experiences of decades of smaller and sometimes failed initiatives. Looking at one of these recent developments, the development of shared bike systems, we can draw inspiration from two centuries of railway history.

Vandalised Ofo bike in Sheffield (photo: APHG, 2018).

The first system of free bike sharing seems to have been proposed in Amsterdam in the 1960s. At that point in time, the scheme failed, at least in the city. In De Hoge Veluwe National Park, the free white bikes were a success. Today, no one could imagine the park without them.

The problems faced by the white bikes in Amsterdam are some of the classic problems of collaborative consumption more broadly: the problem of the vandal (who makes the service unfit for further use) and the problem of the freerider (who takes of the service without paying for it). Both ignore the terms of use agreed by the other sharers. The fact that the national park is completely fenced off undoubtedly contributes to the success of bicycle sharing there, but since a fence does not eradicate the problems of joyriding and abandonment, a certain ethic or etiquette also seems to play a role, more about which below.

(photo: APHG, 2018)

More recently, bike-sharing has taken off in cities as well, and even across entire countries where bikes are allowed to cross local boundaries. These schemes have rarely been free, however, and they have always had fixed docking points.

The technology needed to manage subscriptions and payments across a large number of renting stations – often unstaffed to make the system more effective and efficient than traditional bike-rentals where bikes need to be returned to the original outlet – this technology has only been developed over the past two decades. What this technology does, in effect, is offer our somewhat feeble human sharing ethic a helping hand. After registering our identity, and paying for our bike by the day or the hour, we are less motivated to steal it, abandon it or use it ‘indefinitely’.

The newest innovation has been the provision of bikes without stations. After use, these bikes may be parked anywhere. Essential to this has been the development of mobile payment and identification technologies, as well as location tracking. This allows users to find a bike in the first place, but it also helps the company to make sure that their bikes stay within their designated area.

This new way of renting bicycles has been both welcomed and criticised. On the positive side, we do now find bikes in locations that the owners had not anticipated as potential customer bases, which seems to encourage a demographically more diverse take-up of such schemes. Yet the bicycles are also parked in obstructive and dangerous locations, and they take up parking spaces of privately owned bikes. A professor at the University of Amsterdam has called them ‘scatter bikes’ or ‘litter bikes,’ and various cities have already restricted their rollout.

‘Litter bikes’ in Sheffield (photo: JHMS, 2018).

The yellow bikes which have recently started to populate Sheffield are also frequently vandalised, with people taking lock, lights or basket, or simply destroying the bikes’ chain, mud guards or breaks, leaving behind a sorry sight. Such vandalism is made all the easier because of the bikes’ scattered and less visible locations. Although they are checked and redistributed on a regular basis, it does not take any effort to find a few vandalised specimens for a photo, even without using the app.

A few weeks after their introduction, the trail of abandoned bikes had started to resemble that other track of industrial wasteland that runs through Sheffield, the derelict railways.

So sharing does not just happen. You have to do it. Or rather: we have to do it. Sharing is a skill, and a social skill at that. The question is, therefore: can we, the citizens of Sheffield, York, or any other town or region, deal with this innovation in transport sharing?

I believe that there is every chance that these initial abuses will lose their novelty and decrease to a manageable level, and that with the right levels of support in both popular culture and infrastructure policy more people will get into the habit of using shared bikes responsibly. Earlier examples of successful sharing may inspire us in this process.

Before the age of sharing: George Keate, ‘Manner of passing Mont Cenis’ (drawing, 1755), British Museum no. 1878,0209.304.

When, two hundred years ago, railway pioneers first attached a steam engine to a carriage, they too were asking their passengers to experiment with sharing.

To be sure, shared transport was not altogether new. Public coaching services existed across Europe, as did barges drawn by horses over tow-paths, and packet-boats that sailed at regular intervals.

Nonetheless, travellers of the early nineteenth century arranged the bulk of their transport themselves and did not share it with strangers. The rich would take out their own carriage or rent one locally; or they would pay carriers to carry them in a sedan, or hire riding animals. The same applied to the poor: they would enlist an acquainted skipper to help them cross a river; during wartime, soldiers would commandeer farmers’ wagons; and the overwhelming majority of journeys were made, of course, on foot. Public transport, in contrast, made up only a small proportion of the passages made by travellers in the early nineteenth century.

As we enter the second half of the nineteenth century, we find a quite different situation. Travellers across Europe had come to prefer trains, stagecoaches, steamboats, omnibuses and tramways. Trains, specifically, had quickly become the default travel option for longer distances over land.

One example demonstrates how such choices were made. In 1861, a well-to-do Dutch preacher, Marie Adrien Perk (1834-1916), made a journey across the south of Europe. We can discover a lot about the way he travelled in the account he published soon afterwards. Although both private road carriages and shared trains were available to him, the railways were his first choice. Only when on one particular stretch of the journey he learnt that his train would not depart for another two hours, he secured a private carriage instead.

Travel accounts from the 1850s all the way up to the early years of the twentieth century show this predilection for shared transport. And then, as now, sharing was encouraged by the transport companies that might benefit from it. From its very beginnings, the railway sector promoted collective leisure activities. Railway lines organised cheap group excursions, published hiking guides, and facilitated everything from temperance meetings to great exhibitions.

After this period of busy sharing, individual transport gained the upper hand in Europe once more. From World War Two onwards, private bicycles and automobiles in particular came to form the dominant means of mobility. Yet the lesson I think that this story has to offer is that it is possible for a culture to adopt a new ethos in travel and other ‘consumer preferences’ – and adopt it quite swiftly, too.

So how did this shift in attitudes occur? Various incentives may have contributed to it.

Perhaps the most obvious reason people have to choose public transport is that it is cheaper. When sharing a vehicle, passengers benefit from advantages of scale. Naturally, this had been the case for earlier public transport as well, but since labour has been growing more expensive from the second half of the nineteenth century onwards, the effect became more pronounced.

What was new, of course, was the railway and the steam locomotive. Trains and trams introduced faster and more comfortable ways of travelling, and since it is difficult to operate individualised transport over rails, a preference for rail transport would inevitably also mean a preference for public transport.

Yet an even broader development was on its way. A first clue is that the development just sketched did not coincide with a shift from road transport to rail transport. In both, the same tendency towards sharing was manifest. Although the railways may have spurred such developments along, road carriages and trains continued to co-exist, and in road carriages too, the shift from private to shared usage can be observed.

A second clue is that even wealthy travellers – for whom the wish to save money and time were less pressing motivations, possibly even diminishing their status – participated in the shift.

Finally, other cultural norms also changed, norms that were only tangentially related to the choice between rail and road. Travellers began to take considerably less luggage on their journeys, being less attached to the food, linen, furniture and other comforts from home, and more interested in partaking in their host cultures. Travellers started to cultivate a pragmatic and flexible attitude. To travel light was the new ambition, also promoted in the media and education: the scouting movement evolved in the same period (prompted too, it must be admitted, by increased militarism). To share things and spaces therefore became desirable in itself.

Rather than a golden age for just the railways, we can speak of a golden age of sharing.

It is important to acknowledge that this does not mean that the people of that era always found it pleasant or easy to share. As anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson is said to have remarked: ‘sharing is sometimes more demanding than giving’.

Consider the following episode that took place in Austria in the winter of 1910-1911. Frans van der Hoorn (1886-1946) came from a family of greengrocers, had finished his primary education and, after starting work as an Esperanto teacher, decided to make a round-the-world trip with three equally idealistic friends. On a daytrip that winter, he experienced a rather familiar drawback of sharing:

The train had been so full with people returning from a match, that many, amongst whom he himself, had not even been able to secure an inside seat, but had had to satisfy themselves with a [standing place on the balcony], where they were not sheltered from the weather. Exposed to the strong, cold air current [and] unable to stir a limb because of the crowdedness, this is how he’d had to pass the entire journey back. (The episode is retold by his travel companion Abraham Mossel, 160.)

Now as then, to share things or spaces can result in a host of discomforts: a lack of privacy; irritation by what is conceived of as noise and dirt, caused by other travellers; and other conflicts that stem from a disagreement about how a space ought to be used. The joyrider and the freerider have already been mentioned. Another threat, the one posed by aggressive co-users of the same space, is among the more serious problems of sharing. And as Van der Hoorn already experienced, a shared service such as a train seat is not always at one’s disposal where and when one likes.

Note that Van der Hoorn’s story differs markedly from Woolf’s: even though we are all sharing, the availability and comfort of the shared services we use depends literally on our class. So too does our safety. Rooftop travel on crowded carriages may not be as common in Britain now as it was during the nineteenth century, but it has by no means disappeared globally. Some people have always had a greater say than others in the conditions under which they share, and the selection of the people whom they are sharing with.

Nevertheless, during that earlier peak in collaborative consumption, everyone knew what it was like to wait for a train, regardless of their wealth. All sharers had to contend with a wide range of drawbacks, and although occasionally they complained, the point is: they managed. They planned their activities to coincide with shared schedules, they stuck to previous agreements, they coped with their lack of privacy or comfort. Whether sharing was pleasant or not, it was normal.

That normality has disappeared in the age of the automobile. Is it now coming back? Are we in the midst of another fluctuation in our culture of sharing – one that has already swung from reluctance to the embrace of sharing once before?

In past decades, it has been car ownership that has consistently been portrayed as the ultimate symbol of and means to independence. But our perspective may now be turning, freedom increasingly lying in not owning an expensive vehicle, which, after all, needs to be selected, insured, maintained, parked… In situations where we can establish the right levels of mutual trust and tolerance and do not become too attached to the things we are sharing, sharing may even become enjoyable.

Of course, there is more than one way of sharing. In Woolf’s story, sharing is accomplished by most passengers through reticence and concealment. But for Woolf herself (and, perhaps, for her readers) it is also achieved through the pleasures of the imagination.

After the necessary financial and design conditions have been met to make collaborative transport a realistic alternative for more people, a new culture of sharing may reach a critical mass. Sharing may become routine and even desirable once more.

Even if we do not yet know exactly what that potential new sharing culture for Britain or Europe entails, or what its rules will be, what we do know is that we have acquired the skills to share at least once before. This offers the hope that we can do so again.

 

Quotations from

  • Mossel, Abraham. De wereldwandelaars. Een zwerftocht door Europa. Maatschappij voor Goede en Goedkoope Lectuur, 1917 (translation by APHG).
  • Perk, Marie Adrien. Uit Opper-Italie [sic]. Schetsen, ontmoetingen, indrukken. Roelants, 1864.
  • Woolf, Virginia. “An Unwritten Novel.” The Mark on the Wall, Oxford UP, 2008, pp. 18-29.

Chapter slightly modified from Railway cultures (Longbarrow Press, 2018).

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2

China: 44640 minutes of fame

This is the third episode in a series on freedom and China. Previous posts were about the elegant carelessness I found in Chinese culture and about feeling safe: two causes of the sense of liberty I experienced while visiting the country for a month. I want to discuss a third factor here – one with less positive overtones.

Last time I spoke about anonymity. This time I’ll speak of celebrity.

The more billboards, adverts and shop-windows we saw on our journey, the clearer it became that a European look is a sign of beauty in China. A big proportion of the models promoting the clothes and jewellery, cars and real estate on sale, is of European lineage.

In other cases, I only thought they were European at first sight. On closer inspection, they had been made up to change, for instance, the shape of their eyes. Extra lines and glue create the impression of a ‘double eyelid’. Many East Asians even resort to plastic surgery to achieve this extra wrinkle. The same applies to other eye characteristics and to noses – which are supposedly prettier when they are bigger. Another technique, which we could study in detail in the sleeper trains we took, is to try make the skin whiter as well as ‘younger’ with (toxic) creams, electric devices, and old-fashioned slapping.

To a large extent, these beauty ideals show the influence of North American pop culture, and of the history of European colonialism. Some of it – such as the whiteness ideal – may also be a much older home-grown desire, based in class politics and the division between those who had to work (in the sun) and those with leisure. But a large part of this beauty ideal that we found in Chinese cities is clearly a form of racism that values a European appearance over an East Asian.

To me, these practices and desires were frankly horrid. And yet I cannot deny I benefited from them.

Throughout my stay in China, I was showered with a inordinate amount of attention. And so were my European-looking co-travellers. Some would no doubt give us attention because they were curious or sincerely interested or because they like to mock a foreign tourist. However, much of the attention we got was clearly positive and amounted to admiration. The blonder, the taller, and the bigger the nose, the better.

We posed for literally hundreds of photos; more than I have of ourselves. (I wonder what happened with them?) On one boat trip, an actual queue formed of people wanting to talk to us and take our photo. For our fellow tourists – our Chinese fellow tourists – we had become an attraction in our own right.

CelebrityinChina

We had become ‘iconic’ indeed. On the left: someone from our group. All the others in the photo: unacquainted tourists. Of course, by taking this picture, I placed myself in their company.

Shy boys and giggly girls would come up to me for a chat. At the conference, a boy confessed he was a ‘fan of both your work and you as a person’. One waitress took the trouble of asking her colleagues to write a note in English, with which she approached me after dinner. It said: can I have a photo of us together? And so on. Never in my life have I had so many girls tell me I’m beautiful. (Another thing Northwestern Europeans can learn from people in the rest in the world: how to be less skimpy in their compliments.)

There’s nothing like receiving compliments from strangers at any moment of the day, for boosting your confidence. And there’s nothing like confidence for making you smile and feel at ease. And, as one in our group remarked, the effect spirals upwards because the more you smile and feel at ease, the prettier you will be.

China’s European bias – who knows how long it is to last? – therefore added another layer to my sense of liberty there.

I had not expected to find something which I detest so deeply – privilege rooted in racism – leading me to feel so good.

True, part of the reason that large chunks of my journey made me laugh and smile, were precisely because I was aware of this ridiculous situation; because I had the feeling I had stepped into a period drama, set in the age of empire. Having grown up in the place I did, I had never encountered such ostentatious privileging in real life. The situation was overly familiar, but only from books and films, which made it almost fictional at times.

Have I now also got a taste of the dangerous attractions of real imperialism?

2

Free as a … Foreigner

In my earlier column on China, I talked about a certain kind of freedom that I experienced there; a physical ease that seems to imbue Chinese culture.

There is another way in which I felt amazingly free during my month-long stay there. This had to do with safety, and with being on my own for part of the journey.

Feeling safe and feeling free are closely related. (1) When you do not feel that you need to be on your guard, you relax. Instead of seeing danger everywhere, you see interesting people and beckoning paths. You can start exploring.

Sometimes when you climb every mountain, you run a risk of getting too high... (Authorities worrying about our safety in Yangshuo. Photo by the author.)

Sometimes when you climb ev’ry mountain, you run a risk of getting too high… (Authorities worrying about our safety in Yangshuo.)

I felt safe in China, and I felt free. Thinking over why this was so, I was probably subject to a lucky combination of factors.

1)

People at home in Europe had warned me of China’s dangers. No doubt, real dangers exist in China. Yet my journey made me realise there is also a lot of misunderstanding between Europeans and Chinese, including a lot of prejudice.

How well can most Europeans (and North Americans, etc.) estimate the dangers of going to China as a foreigner? What is the information that really gets passed on through popular media? That must surely be the news, mostly negative, on things like censorship, working conditions in big factories, the long-term effects of air pollution, and heavily centralised politics. These things are serious stuff, I agree. But they are not at all unique to China. Also – and this is the point here – they are not the first things you encounter when taking a stroll in a Chinese city.

But of course, I had been influenced by the same media, and, having never travelled far out of Europe, I came prepared to be watchful.

2)

Once I stepped foot on Chinese soil, however, I did in fact feel quite safe, and continued to do so for most of my journey.

I was wary of infectious diseases, but for the rest? As said earlier, I did not see any traffic incidents or other serious accidents. I do not remember being followed or leered at by suspicious men (which is a rather sexist fear to start with!). The only time I came close to that was at the thoroughly ‘respectable’ international conference I attended in China. None of the beggars I met were intimidatingly insistent, and hardly any of the salespeople. (2) I did not witness any physical fights or see any drawn guns. (I saw a drawn sword in a park, in the hands of someone practising their martial art.) Even dogs were well-behaved.

But most of all, it was precisely because I had come so well-warned, that things truly looked ridiculously safe on closer inspection.

3)

I was clearly a foreigner in China. No doubt a valuable foreigner. That is to say, I am acutely aware of the disproportionate benefits my European passport and looks gave me.

I could travel into China and out again.

I was recognisably a tourist, with spare time and a little bit of money to spend.

And finally, officials probably made it their task to prevent giving foreign newspapers the chance to report more bad news, along the lines of ‘tourist found dead at bottom of prestigious dam’ or ‘innocent young woman gone missing in Beijing alleys’. So people were perhaps just a little bit more careful around me than they are around their fellow citizens.

Many also treated me quite matter-of-factly, especially when at work, which most Chinese people are most of the time. The elite, however, with a reputation to care about, tended to be fantastically polite or else fantastically protective.

One tiring afternoon, our travel group had been shuttling to and fro through Shanghai to finally catch a sleeper train to Beijing. Some of us had even been stopped at the station security checkpoint and had to unload their bags. Then, one authoritative figure started a heated conversation with our tour guide. We were ordered to a separate section of the waiting area. We had started to feel apprehensive already, when our guide finally explained to us that we were given a (rather unceremonious) special treatment that would allow us first entrance to the platform. It would save us a lot of queueing up. (It saved the locals a lot of time, too, no doubt, because we were clumsy with our tickets, and as long as we stuck together we did not have to process our individual tickets).

Later on in the month, I was exploring the buildings and grounds of my conference hotel, but kept running into cheongsamed ladies (partly selected for their height, I suspect) who with their stunning, never-ceasing smiles tried to cajole me back into the prettier central regions of the hotel. When, on my second day there, I had finally grown properly tired of its third, fourth and fifth stars, I sneaked out for a lunch in the park. As I was eating my steamed buns on a bench, however, one of the conference’s student volunteers spotted me. (3) Surprised, he asked me what I was doing there. And on my own, too! Had I lost my way? He offered to walk me back, but I protested that I had specifically wanted to spend some time outside the hotel enclave. He still did not quite believe someone would choose to be on their own, so he sat down next to me and we chatted for a while. Although both these events around my conference hotel created the impression with me that I was being watched (somewhat diminishing my sense of freedom during this last week), it is only fair to stick to the kinder conclusion that I was simply being cared for.

In between the people too busy to care, and the people busy caring, there was the category of shopkeepers and others with whom I had some kind of brief business to arrange. They were usually quite happy to spend a little extra time on the dumb foreigner.

All this enhanced care for privileged foreigners is completely unfair to China’s own citizens of course, but again: that is not the point here. The point is that, apparently, you can fly to the other side of the world where you do not even speak the language, and feel free and at ease.

Last solo meal. Last meal in China.

Last solo meal. Last meal in China.

Imagine, being a young woman on your own, with all the connotations that come with that; in a city which you have been raised to consider dangerous, where you stand out as a foreigner, and where everyone stares at you.

Imagine packing everything you have in a bag, leaving your hostel room, and handing in the key to reception. You can now no longer rely on them, either.

Imagine knowing no one, and having nowhere to go, except one of the many stations in that sprawling city – one of the biggest in the world – where a train will bring you to one of the many, many other cities in that vast country, a city completely unknown to you, where you are to again find your way through millions of strangers, to the next place where you are supposed to sleep.

All through the journey, you stand out as a stranger, as someone who may not know her way around and who can hardly ask for help.

If that is the case, and yet all the circumstances conspire in such a way that you are not afraid, then, surely, you must feel exhilarated beyond measure?

(1) That was one of the conclusions of the project I did at the University of Oxford some years ago. Then, I was looking at people of the past. Now, I am experiencing it myself.

(2) I am probably thinking of these examples because, again, these were typically nineteenth-century travel fears. (See my research project at the University of Twente!)

(3) Half the conference was run by unpaid students. One of their vital tasks was to interpret between the foreign delegates and the Chinese (hotel) staff. They cannot be praised enough.

3

Carefree in China

I have just returned from a month in China.

Before I went, I was not sure how much I would like it. I had been reading things like Een barbaar in China and Carolijn Visser’s travel stories, both written in the 1980s. I held on to the comfort that, if the worst came to the worst, the excellent food would pull me through.

I have a completely different image of China now. In fact, it has been the people that I have come to love most of all.

My overnight stays in China. Adapted from Joowwww’s map on Wikimedia Commons.

Of course, China is vast and varied, but in the places I visited, I encountered one cultural feature again and again, one that completely differs from the European North-Sea culture I am used to. This was the people’s openness, their physical freedom, their carelessness almost, but an accommodating, elegant sort of carelessness.

Of course, most of the places I visited were very crowded. You may argue that this makes it simply impossible for people to maintain some distance to each other. Still, when you look around you on the London underground, you notice that people can succeed at this, if they want. In eastern China, however, people did not seem to mind touching each other. In fact, I have often seen strangers touch each other on the back to ask them for room to pass, instead of only saying ‘excuse me’.

And then there is the infamous pushing and bumping into each other on the street, which annoys a lot of visitors (yes, that includes myself). I received the impression that, instead of estimating the way of least resistance through a crowd, most people just walked; and instead of giving way to pedestrians with a determined look on their face, as in Europe, they stuck to their own swerving path… and let the bumping happen. Or perhaps I should say ‘we’ instead of ‘they’, because by the end of my journey, I was doing the same.

In motorised traffic, this habit gets a little more dangerous. Cars as well as the uncountable electric bikes, scooters and mopeds, all approach you uncannily closely before giving way. What is more, the lanes for pedestrians and two-wheeled vehicles are usually one shared space, and usually they contain traffic both ways.

And yet, I did not often feel unsafe. With all the millions of people I have seen pass during that month on the road, I did not witness a single accident.

Most of all, I think this is because 1) drivers keep to a modest speed, much more modest that you would expect in a place where most formal traffic rules become irrelevant. And 2) people look at you. They ‘do’ traffic through a continuous visual and aural negotiation with each other, rather than by ‘blindly’ obeying traffic lights. The result is a general worming and pushing, rather than people flashing past (or into) each other.

The same happened on the sleeper trains. You share a single space with 66 people. Everywhere, bodies sleeping or eating or brushing their teeth. Feet and heads sticking out from the berths. People happily come by for a chat or for dinner on your bed. I was not always ready for this, but that was just me being from a different culture. So I had to get used to it!

But what I wanted to come back to, was the fact that people look at you. Of course, I was obviously a foreigner, and this seems to have been quite a bit of an attraction to many Chinese. However, a strange person in Wiltshire or Drenthe is not looked at in the same way as a European in the prefectures of Guilin or Yichang (which are both popular tourist destinations). In Europe, I think parents would admonish their children: ‘Don’t look!’ In China, they might sooner ask their child to take a photo. People stare at you unabashedly in the street – and they smile. I don’t think I have ever smiled back at people so much in my life. In fact, much of our interaction was so weird (to me), that a giggle was always lurking near the surface.

In this highly touristic place - for Chinese tourists - people would nevertheless watch us curiously, and actually shout to each other: 'Look over there, foreigners, foreigners!' (in Mandarin)

In this highly touristic place, people would nevertheless watch us curiously, and actually shout to each other: ‘Look over there, foreigners, foreigners!’ (in Mandarin). After all, the place is primarily touristic for tourists from China itself. They received some laowai spectacle for free. (Photo by author)

A lot of strangers also came to us with, for us, rudely personal questions. Most were just either being friendly/curious, or showing off their English (this group did not understand our answers anyway…). Yet it made me realise that there is a third option between either getting angry or complying completely with demands you do not feel comfortable with: you can always laugh and move on to the next topic. As a visitor, you want to respect the fact that norms are different in different places, and what is impolite in one place may be polite in another. However, at the same time, you have to protect yourself from your own cultural ignorance that makes you so vulnerable to abuse from the more mercenary types. Accommodating to the people you are visiting does not need to be an all-or-nothing question.

I won’t go into any post-colonial issues now, or the current goverment’s policies, though of course these also played a role in creating my experiences. But the simple fact that so many Chinese people whom I met, were so easy in looking at you, touching you, sharing things with you (or from you), talking to you (or shouting at you), made me in fact feel very free. It was not always nice; it was not always pleasant; but I felt a certain carelessness come over myself as well.

A fellow European tourist may have experienced something similar as we visited a hot spring. In order to take her mud bath, she had to change into her bathing costume. Afterwards, she reported that there had been no other option than to change in an open space full of strangers, women and men. As she told this, the horror in her voice mixed with elation and carefreeness.

By the end of the journey, I was no longer minding other people’s bodies so much, nor my own. I no longer cared so much where it was, what it was doing, whether it had the right degree of visibility or invisibility or normalness, and what or whom it might bump into.

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Greetings from a [insert weather] place!

It’s a holiday cliche.

‘We’re having a great time here and the weather is nice.’ Or: ‘rain every day since we arrived.’ Or: ‘even the locals complain about the heat.’

On our postcards home, we write about the weather.

And not just we. As I examine letters from a century or more ago for my work, I find the same preoccupations, the same themes, the same wordings.

Here is a postcard from 1905. It was sent by a father who had to be away from home for work and regularly reported to his daughter about his activities.

Postcard, in the collection of the Library of Congress.

Postcard from a father to his daughter, sent in 1905, now in the collection of the Library of Congress.

On 14 August, he wrote:

The weather much cooler to day.

The same kind of texts can be found on postcards and in letters and diaries throughout the western world.

Now many scholars agree that such statements form a mere convention. Talk about the weather, as talk about hotels or sight-seeing, consists of cliches, slavishly repeated from existing models. Travel writing, in their opinion, consists largely of stereotypes and set topics that do not tell you much about what travellers really thought or felt.

I beg to differ. When we talk about the weather, usually it actually means something to us.

Yes, the weather is conventional in the sense that it is quite a common theme to broach in a letter or on a postcard. Yet we are not obliged to mention it. Nor are we obliged to always describe it in the same terms. If it were just a mark of good manners to say something like, for instance, ‘we are seeing some bright days here’, in the same sense as you would say ‘thank you’ when receiving a gift, that would be a full-blown convention, a formula. But except on those Gobi treks which your grandpa treats you to on your birthday, you would be perfectly free to write to him that where you are staying, the weather is miserable.

And if the weather is miserable, this really matters to you! If it’s raining all the time, this may make you cold or depressed. If it is 40 degrees Celsius in the shade, you may feel equally awful. The weather can prevent you from visiting certain places and from participating in a lot of enjoyable holiday activities.

So conventions come on different levels, in varying degrees. The weather happens to be a thing that affects us a lot, which is why, as a topic, it has become a convention in travel writing, while in its content, it remains highly specific and meaningful to the people involved.

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A real traveller?

Ever since the eighteenth century or thereabouts, travellers have carried an attitude commonly called ‘anti-tourism’.

Writers characterise others as Tourists: they are lazy, superficial, conventional. Tourists go on package tours; Tourists do not speak the local language; and all Tourists really want is a snapshot of themselves with the Great, Berlin or Hadrian’s Wall, which are as interchangeable to Tourists as the motel beds they sleep in.

It is not always acknowledged that this Tourist is a construction by these writers, an image, a personage. In real life, holiday travellers’ experiences are a great deal more complex.

Still, the image is an attractive one. It allows us to style ourselves different travellers: Real Travellers.

Charles Baudelaire, photographed by Etienne Carjat, 1863 (from Neue Zürcher Zeitung article).

Charles Baudelaire, photographed by Etienne Carjat, 1863 (from an article in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung).

Charles Baudelaire is one of those writers who shaped our image of the Real Traveller. This is from his poem ‘Le voyage’:

Mais les vrais voyageurs sont ceux-là seuls qui partent
Pour partir; coeurs légers, semblables aux ballons,
De leur fatalité jamais ils ne s’écartent,
Et, sans savoir pourquoi, disent toujours: Allons!

In the translation by Geoffrey Wagner:

But the true travelers are they who depart
For departing’s sake; with hearts light as balloons,
They never swerve from their destinies,
Saying continuously, without knowing why: “Let us go on!”

Many of us will know the feeling this fragment evokes. The lightness it brings to leave one place, full of muddy memories and a thousand duties, and exchange it for another, fresh one. It’s a splendid feeling.

But Baudelaire does something besides describing this feeling: he sets those who feel it (‘vrais voyageurs’) apart from the rest. They are the wanderers, the wayfarers, for whom the journey is more important than the destination. Apart from the fact that this is a poetic distinction that does not exist in real life – often, the destination and the journey are both important, and the same people who have happy, ‘balloony’ feelings can also experience homesickness and anxiety – Baudelaire also chooses to set these people above the rest: those who are ‘fated’ to roam are more properly travellers than those who are actually going some place.

This tallies nicely with the rest of Baudelaire’s oeuvre, in which the protagonists are never able to find their place in the world, never satisfied, never at peace with their environment. Baudelaire himself, too, does not seem to have been very able to go somewhere and stay away for long.

It is flattering for Baudelaire as well as for ourselves to think of ourselves as the Real Travellers, especially when the activity mostly consists of dreaming of other places from the comfort of our own room, with little or no contact with the actual people and cultures we dream about.

But should we praise ourselves for our restlessness? To arrive is also an art. It is a fine romantic notion never to settle, but to depart on journeys, real or literary, has never been a particularly difficult task for the rich and male.

The hard part is staying in the new place: making do and adjusting one’s expectations and prejudices. It seems that Baudelaire did not find this pursuit worth much effort. But however wonderful some of the lines he wrote, we should not let ourselves be swept away by the authority exerted by romantic poetry. Perhaps, those who go somewhere and make an effort, however imperfect, to adapt to the new place – the Nigerian trader in Guangzhou, the Sudanese refugee in Amsterdam, the Mexican housekeeper in Los Angeles – perhaps they are the real travellers.

The standard work on anti-tourism is James Buzard, The Beaten Track: European Tourism, Literature, and the Ways to Culture, 1800-1918 (Oxford, 1993). Geoffrey Wagner’s translations appeared in Selected Poems of Charles Baudelaire (New York, 1974). My biographical impressions were largely shaped by the chapter on Baudelaire in Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel and Francis Scarfe’s introduction to his selected verse.

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Mimic women

Yesterday I heard a talk that made me wonder whether a much-used concept for men might not in some instances better apply to women.

Braia's wall stencil of a man with umbrella. Look how the ink really only pictures his costume (and some shadow in his face): his flesh blends with the wall and could be of any colour.

Braia’s wall stencil of a man with umbrella. Look how the ink really only pictures his costume (and some shadow in his face): his flesh blends with the wall and could be of any colour. N.B. this photo was taken by SliceofNYC (CC) on Flickr, but I do not know Braia’s own stance on the copyright of their work.

 

[A]lmost the same but not quite

[…]

Almost the same but not white

This comes from Homi Bhabha’s essay ‘Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse’. Post-colonial writers like V.S. Naipaul and post-colonial theorists like Homi Bhabha have studied the phenomenon of the ‘mimic men’: colonial administrators who would function as ‘translators’ between the colonisers and the colonised of the eighteenth- to twentieth-century world. ‘Indigenous’ men from India, for example, would go to school in London, clothe themselves in black suits, carry around umbrellas, read the Times in the rush-hour underground (this is how I picture it: it is not in Homi Bhabha’s essay)… and so they would come to mimic Englishmen, continuing this mimicry after their return to India. In spite of their transformation, however, there always remained ‘the difference between being English and being Anglicized’:

Mimicry is […] the sign of a double articulation; [1] a complex strategy of reform, regulation and discipline, which ‘appropriates’ the Other as it visualizes power. Mimicry is also [2] the sign of the inappropriate, however, a difference or recalcitrance which […] poses an immanent threat to both ‘normalized’ knowledges and disciplinary powers.

This is what makes the phenomenon so important, historically. Although stimulated by the colonisers, it also scared them. The act of mimicking showed the emptiness of the English (French, Dutch, …) colonist’s own identity:

Mimicry conceals no presence or identity behind its mask: it is not what Usaire describes as ‘colonization-thingification’ behind which there stands the essence of the présence Africaine. The menace of mimicry is its double vision which in disclosing the ambivalence of colonial discourse also disrupts its authority.

It undermined colonialism by

articulat[ing] those disturbances of cultural, racial and historical difference that menace the narcissistic demand of colonial authority. It is a desire that reverses ‘in part’ the colonial appropriation by now producing a partial vision of the colonizer’s presence; a gaze of otherness, that shares the acuity of the genealogical gaze which, as Foucault describes it, liberates marginal elements and shatters the unity of man’s being through which he extends his sovereignty.

In other words, the colonisers felt themselves being watched by their own image in the mirror.

Yesterday, I heard an inspiring talk by post-colonial historian Coll Thrush. It was about Indigenous travellers from North America, Australia and New Zealand visiting London, from the sixteenth century through to now. Their presence and their activitiy ‘indigenised’ the city. (As soon as his book will be finished, we will once again be better able to feel their presence in London, with the help of the walking-tours that he is creating for the book!)

Engraving of Pocahontas or Rebecca Rolfe by Simon van de Passe, 1616. Digital image from Wikimedia commons after a print in the British Museum, London.

Engraving of Pocahontas or Rebecca Rolfe by Simon van de Passe, 1616. Digital image from Wikimedia commons after a print in the British Museum, London.

Coll Thrush also showed images of many of these Indigenous visitors. Strikingly, many of the men he discussed were dressed in the Indigenous clothes they (in most cases) grew up with. In contrast, most of the women on these pictures wore British clothes (like Pocahontas on the picture above).

This reminded me of the widely-researched idea in sociolinguistics that women use more prestigious forms of speech than men. More often, they avoid slang and ‘working-class’ pronunciation, for example. (see footnote)

In my own work, I have seen Dorothy Wordsworth’s pride in applying the German that she had learnt in the German-speaking lands of central Europe, and so blending in. On the whole, both female and non-elite travellers of nineteenth-century Europe seem to talk the local language of the places they visited more than did male elite travellers.

Of course, men learnt languages as well, and women were often keen to affirm their difference from locals, rather than their similarity. But perhaps, in cases when the locals had a high social and political status, women had reason to want to look and sound like the locals – and perhaps they had somehow more reason than their male companions?

Of course, the women I have mentioned were no colonial sub-administrators, who had gone to school in the ‘centre’ of their empire (London, Paris, etc.). So they were not quite the familiar ‘mimic men’. But they played important roles in the translation of knowledge across cultures. Some of them already had a higher status than the people they visited, but many of them were in some way marginalised, and thus comparable to the mimic men. And all of them apparently had their reasons for wanting to blend in. They inevitably held up a mirror to the people they visited – though a distorted and sometimes a disturbing mirror, no doubt, in the eyes of the locals.

So perhaps it is fruitful to consider the existence of ‘mimic women’?

 

Note: See Peter Trudgill’s seminal article ‘Sex, Covert Prestige and Linguistic Change in the Urban British English of Norwich’ and Elizabeth Gordon’s ‘Sex, Speech, and Stereotypes: Why Women Use Prestige Speech Forms More than Men’, both published in the journal Language in Society.