Tuesday, December 06, 2005

The Illusioin of Lonely Planet

We wrapped up shooting at 3am Sunday morning in Old Town Shanghai near the Yu Garden. It was freezing and I was hugging my latte tightly. The water truck was coughing its way through the streets to create the effect of a recent rainfall when I had a revelation –

“See,” I said to a fellow assistant standing next to me while pointing at the lights and the extras that were producing the illusion of a busy happening neighborhood, “we shot in modern skyscraper district like Pudong and in old neighborhoods that are being preserved for tourism purposes only, and then we shop this collage of extreme contrasts all over the world. Audience look at the images and would probably think this represent the intriguing and enigmatic modern China. But how about the majority between these two extremes? We both know that for most Chinese, life is not in glamorous Grand Hyatt or smoking water pipes in old buildings with decaying beauty; rather, life here is in boring apartment buildings with routines of going to work, cooking, trying to make more money, marrying and divorcing, just like everywhere else.”

My insightful observations depressed both of us. We sighed in mutual sympathy – “Hollywood. What do you expect?”

The last two days saw some crew members partying their heads off in hip clubs with African American DJs, some hurriedly getting on a plane back to LA, and others excitedly preparing for trips to Beijing and Xi’an. I cringed every time I heard someone talking about “seeing the real China” as if a few days with Lonely Planet is the holy grail to understanding this country.

Then it’s time for me to sit down and plan my Christmas vacation. I thought of visiting Thailand. I checked mainstream tourist-info websites and those for backpackers. The former told in sweet tongue why Bangkok is a must-see because it epitomizes the modern Thailand. The latter screamed that Bangkok is not real Thailand; for real Thai culture and people one has to go north, go to the countryside.

I sneered at both – how could there be only one real Thailand? I told myself not to succumb to the temptation to arrange my itinerary around images I had seen previously in movies and on the Discovery Channel.

So I did more research. I visited epinions.com and read traveler testimonials such as “we met a couple of Thai people in a restaurant and we had a very interesting conversation. And oh my god what a nice way to know the real Thailand”.

I sneered at their naivety.

But still I had to come up with an itinerary. What do I hope to do - understand Thailand in 10 days? Where to start? Which guide to follow?

I imagined Thailand as this giant animal that could be an elephant but I could only touch its rough skin briefly to figure it out.

After a few more hours of researching, I gave up. What am I expecting anyway? For all my gripes on foreigners custom-fitting China into their own fantasies, I was in no mood to see the “real” Thailand on my vacation, at least not the part of high HIV infection rate, sex slavery and wide wealth gap. For most of us who sample cultures in fast-food fashion during brief visits to foreign countries, travel seems primarily to validate our pre-conceived expectations. It’s a leisured entertainment activity. Why should it be much different from Hollywood?

There’s a bar in my neighborhood in Beijing called Want Travel? and it has all the Lonely Planet guides. I decided this weekend when I fly back to Beijing, I would sit down with the guides and plan my Christmas vacation accordingly.

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