Warning! Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness!
17 September 2012
At one time or other we’ve all surely been guilty of some kind of parochialism. It’s inevitable really. Where we were brought up was to us the centre of the universe. Our universe of course. Because before we had the opportunity to explore worlds distant from our own we were unaware that such worlds - with their specific cultural values - existed.
Such is the reality of ignorance. It was Mark Twain who said that travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness. He was right because travel can open up a whole horizon of alternative values. We have to be exposed to these other views to be aware of them and perhaps take them aboard. Therefore I’d like to share an experience with you that exposed me to a different set of values and way of life.
“Why are you drinking so many beers?”, asked Catherine, our friendly waitress, at the Cafe Soo at the Suzhou Shangri-La. ”Because it’s Friday”, I said. She gave me a funny look. Obviously this meant nothing to her. “In many countries in the West”, I explained, “the end of the working week is celebrated with the drinking of large quantities of alcohol”. This still meant nothing to her. Obviously this was not the norm in China.
I looked around the restaurant. Most people were drinking water and fruit juice. It was only us gwailos who were drinking beer or wine. Interesting, I thought, there seems to be a cultural divide here. But as it was Friday I finished my Tsingtao beer with gusto.
Afterwards we went to the nearby Lobby Lounge bar where again I noticed that the only people drinking beer were the Westerners. Everyone else seemed to be drinking something from smart red porcelain mugs.
The pretty Chinese waitress in a beautiful cheong san silk dress came up to our table and asked us what we would like to drink. I hesitated. Do I order another beer? When I travel I like to blend in with the locals and not to stand out as an ignorant foreigner, so I asked her what the people with the red mugs were drinking. “They’re drinking Bi Luo Chun Cha”, she told me. “Pardon”, I said, “what’s that?” She went on to explain that it was a type of famous green tea that has been cultivated around Suzhou for many hundreds of years and which has a distinctive fruity taste and floral aroma and is one of the best green teas in the world.
I was intrigued. We ordered a pot.
Many places in the west tea is served with milk and sugar or with a slice of lemon. But this Chinese tea was very different, it had a heady aroma and a very distinctive taste - it was delicious and it certainly didn’t need anything to make it more palatable. “This is heavenly”, I thought. We finished the pot and ordered another.
The next day dawned without a hangover and for a Saturday morning I felt very alert after my night’s sleep. Perhaps I should drink more of this tea I thought.
Later we caught the bus to Hangzhou. As it was my birthday I had promised myself that I should celebrate the day with a brisk walk around the West Lake. As always here we were staying at the Shangri-La on the West Lake with a great view over the lake from our room.
We went to the lobby where we discovered a man drying tea leaves in an electric wok. He spun the tea around in a series of intricate hand movements that meant the tea was never still for a moment and he was able to control the rate at which he dried the tea. (See the video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8MA-yjFAnLA)
I asked at reception about the tea drying man and I was told he was drying Long Jing or Dragon Well tea which is cultivated on terraces in the hills around the West Lake. “It’s the best tea in the World”, I was told.
We asked where the best place to enjoy Dragon Well tea was and we were told that at the State Guest House on the West Lake you could enjoy a Chinese version of High Tea with snacks and fruit. We took a taxi there and enjoyed a most delightful afternoon savouring the Long Jing tea which is, in my opinion, the best tea in the World.
I’ve now become an ardent green tea lover. I’ve given up the beer. No more Saturday morning hangovers, the waistline has shrunk and I feel much healthier.
So now I believe travel can indeed change one’s values for the better, but it’s a matter of going out there and discovering them for yourself.