Saturday, May 17, 2014

A Hokkaido Reflection...

The Q-gap between tour guides in East and Southeast Asia and the western countries is too glaring for all not to notice. The latter will explain history and other cultural facts and geography with authority. On the other hand, there is always a tendency for the former to act like primary school teachers. They would usually begin their sentence by asking Do you know this or that? followed by a pause to wait for some keener tour members to come up with an answer.

I personally find this attitude very condescending, even though I know most of them do not have this intention. Many claimed that they were graduates of tourism or hospitality courses; I just wonder if such ABCs are not even taught in these classes.

My wife and I toured Fujian on our own some two years or so ago. Since it was not quite practical for us to go about places ourselves, we decided to hire a local guide and a car that came with a driver. This guide is a case in point. On the way from Xiamen to Quanzhou, she excitedly pointed out some palms to us and asked us if we knew what they were.

Coconut, she exclaimed!

What coconut? In fact they were just some ornamental plants of the fan or royal palm variety, but certainly NOT coconut palms. And the one too many Do you know…? stuff prompted me to tell her that we were not there to sit for tests! It didn't take long for me and my wife to realise that was also her first trip out of Xiamen to Quanzhou! And she was carrying a People's Republic of China's accreditation card to confirm that she was a qualified tour guide! These Chinese sure have an easy way of getting certificates!

What prompted me to write this is because of a somewhat similar experience I just had from a recent trip I made to Hokkaido with my wife. The local guide actually hails from Malaysia. But he has been living in Japan for thirteen years. (He is married to a Japanese and they have two young children.) His attitude was excellent, but the "Do you know this and do you know that" stuff was a torture to me, since my wife and I were sitting just a row behind the row that has been reserved for him. I was very tempted to correct him, but decided to hold back. In Japan, one simply has to be polite. The only way was for us to avoid eye contact with him each time he posed a question.

* * *

Soft Power
In the wake of China's attempt to gain acceptance or respect by the world at large, it has begun a "soft power" offensive to sell its image overseas. There are two distinct periods in history that China was an object of great curiosity to the western world. The first is when China was under the Mongol rule. “Cathy” was a place of fabulous wealth and exotic culture, made known to the world by none other than Marco Polo. (But did he actually reach China? Or his stories were second-hand tales he collected along the way to the East?) The second is when China was under the Manchus and every Chinese seemed to be a sinister-looking, opinion puffing, Fu Manchu to the western world! The great contributions to culture and Buddhism during the Tang Dynasty, the industrialisation that began in the Song Dynasty and the sea-faring spirits of the early Ming pioneers were only appreciated by societies or regions that were directly impacted by these occurrences. China has largely remained a strange and exotic civilisation conveniently branded with Confucianism or Daoism or Qing's terracotta soldiers - for whatever they mean - to the rest of the world.

I didn't quite think about the real strength of soft power until my latest visit to Hokkaido. I can only conclude what the Chinese government is trying to project in the soft power front – notwithstanding the hundreds of Confucius Institutes it is promoting all over the world – will not do much to help soften the image of China or Chinese the world over.

Someone says soft power is like magnets – things are drawn to them because of their natural attributes. You don’t really have to go out to “sell” yourself.

Right from the coach driver who bows low to say “welcome” in Japanese to you, to the outlet girls who line up to bid you farewell after your visit to their factory (even if you have not bought anything from them), to the gentle nod you receive from the local old folk you run into in the elevators or by the roadside, to the salesgirl who painstakingly wraps the souvenir you have picked up, to litter-free roads and drains, to the non-intimidating calls of fishmongers to buy the catch of the day, and to the Spartan-ness of but rubbish-free dwellings you see everywhere, you FEEL totally at ease with them all. Compare them to the loud voices we are so used to hearing in public places, to the foul whiffs you smell from time to time, to the heaps of refuse piling like mountains, to your invisibility to fellow countrymen on the roads and in the elevators, to the unruly behavior of drivers, and to the apathetic attitudes of sales personnel, not to mention the spitting and clearing of throats, that we are constantly being subject to elsewhere in Asia, even the most anti-Japanese amongst us will conclude that theirs is a different world all together! To me, that’s real SOFT POWER.

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