Journeying into the business world... one undiscovered culture at a time

Welcome to [Per]Suit of Anthropology, a blog dedicated to the exploration of modern business trends and perspectives from the view of anthropologist, with a special emphasis on cultural understandings of work-life balance and disability rights in the workplace. This blog is a way for me to connect two sides of my professional self that I see in constant dialogue. Though the business world and the anthropological world may not believe it - they have more in common and more to learn from one another than readily acknowledged. Topics covered include: Western business practices and the impact of those decisions on socio-cultural institutions worldwide, invisible disabilities, Ignatian spirituality, work-life balance, and some discussion of issues of tourism and its impacts on culture, and common human capital practices in private industry and government.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Whose culture is it?

Over the weekend I was quite surprised to hear word that the Chinese government plans to build a Tibetan theme park outside the city of Lhasa, Tibet.  I first heard about the news via some Twitter feeds, and then proceeded to read some articles about the news online.

I must say that this move does not surprise me in the least.  When I was in Tibet in 2004, you could already observe a move such as this in the works.  There were "Traditional Villages" scattered throughout the Tibetan countryside, where busloads of Chinese tourists would pull up, and the local villagers would don their fine ceremonial garb and proceed to partake in shows and games to the delight of the audiences.  While the dances and games and shows the native villagers in the area displayed were not not authentic, it was more a matter of the timing and the manner in which they were displayed that bugged many in my group.  The dances or games were often items saved for a holiday, or a feast, and were not examples of "everyday" Tibetan life.

The display of Tibetan culture was also seen in the local clubs, or nangmas,  that are found all throughout Lhasa.  These night-clubs, frequented by both Tibetans, Chinese and tourists from around the world are perhaps one of the most bizarre scenes of cultural displays I have ever witnessed.  Picture this - 11pm at night you are sitting in a dark, crowded club with the music, the lights, the disco beats, when all of a sudden a young woman in traditional, colorful Tibetan clothing steps out on stage and begins to sing a traditional Tibetan love song, while the screen behind her flashes beautiful scenes of the countryside.  The club goes wild, everyone gets up to dance and enjoys a spectacle that I can only describe as modern Tibetan in its entirety.

A few years back, I published an article relating all these themes, and asked the questions "Whose culture is it to define?"  And this question has never been more relevant.  The comments in the Guardian piece I quoted above reflect a naivete on all parts - as the one voice missing from the conversation is that of local Tibetans.  It is true that the recent politics of the Chinese government can come under speculation and scrutiny - especially given the recent spate of self-immolation undertaken as a protest to Chinese rule.  Yet, it can also be said that what the Chinese are doing is not at all different from what the US did to Native Americans, or what the European colonies did to S. America and African nations.  The only difference in this time and age is that we are currently living in a consumerist society where everything (and I mean everything) takes on an identity of commodification.

As I concluded in my paper, and post again here,

"The exoticization of Tibet by China [and Western cultures] inadvertently cheapens its culture and prevents Tibetans from having the freedom to identify it for themselves and to lead their own lives freely.  The true reality of Tibetan culture, a rapidly changing and redefined identity, is then lost amidst the flashes of cameras and glimpes of a culture that existed long ago and no longer exists today."  

I, for one, do not think it wrong that people are alarmed by the idea of building a theme park when such a rich cultural tradition and artifacts already exist in Lhasa.  The Chinese government, for their part say that the purpose of the theme-park is to draw crowds away from these ancient structures so that the increasing footprint of the tourist does less harm to places such as the Potala Palace and Jokhang Temple, and nearby monasteries.  In fact, the Chinese tourist population alone dwarfs the rest of the world - and numbers of people who have travelled to Tibet despite restrictions on the part of Western tourists, have jumped dramatically.

Unfortunately though, we are all partners to this cultural commodification - we live in a consumerist society.  A society which China is quickly become a member of, if not a key driver in defining what has value, and what does not.  ANy time we travel and buy some item from a stall, or take a photo with a 'gladiator' posing outside the coliseum, we partake in this same commodification.  It is the way our world is.  For China to take advantage,while also promoting a culture is no different than what Walt Disney did when they created the Epcot Center.  Culture on display, and for sale.  Yet - at the same time many people's only interaction with these cultures is through a display like that in Epcot Center.  It is not truly authentic - but then what is?  Culture shifts so rapidly, and changes so frequently that we are not the ones to dictate what authenticity or tradition is.  All we can do is watch, observe, and speak the truth to our own experiences and our own culture.

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