Saturday, December 03, 2005

Graham Reid: Scholar no gentleman

When you travel to foreign parts, make an effort to respect local customs. Usually they're common courtesies or fairly obvious - you don't wear shorts or a halter-top to St Peter's, or in some Muslim states, and you should always take your headgear off (or put something on, depending on the faith) when you enter a place where people communicate with their god.

In parts of Asia you don't stick chopsticks upright in your bowl of rice - it looks like incense being burned for the dead.

Wherever you are, you don't smoke between courses unless your hosts do.

And in Texas you eat that godawful chicken-fried steak pretending it is fine dining - unless you want an argument from a 2m and 120kg guy in a Stetson.

These things aren't in the nature of kowtowing to others - although kowtowing can be a good thing - they're just in the nature of simple courtesies.

When you are out of your cultural zone you simply watch what the locals do and follow their lead - unless they are fire-walking, diving off high cliffs into a roiling sea, or eating chicken-fried steak.

Temples, shrines and memorials have a universal code - unless you are an Eastern European with a cellphone, as recent experience showed me - and that is of quiet reverence. So switch off your cellphone.

If you have been lucky enough to have been to Hanoi where the late Ho Chi Minh is in residence, (unless he's been shipped off for routine cleaning) you'll know that you enter his mausoleum in single file, no talking, no stopping to gawk, and no hands in pockets.

Those who insist on smoking everywhere or pointing a camera at anything which takes their fancy would be unwise to get in the queue. The Hanoi jail is quite unpleasant.

I quite like paying the occasional visit to mausoleums, graves and memorials. At best it gives you a chance to reflect on the influential life of the person.

At worst - as with Jim Morrison's grave in Paris - it reminds you that you should never judge someone by the behaviour of their disciples and acolytes.

You might think similarly at Mao's mausoleum.

Monuments to political leaders can often be bizarre monstrosities - Chiang Kai-Shek's memorial in Taipei has an eerie, lifelike waxwork of him in his office and a changing of the guard choreographed by the Ministry of Silly Walks. But there are memorials worthy of quiet contemplation.

One afternoon in Guangzhou I went to the Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall, the place which honours the man whose ideologies modernised China in the early 20th century on then-unfashionable principals of democracy, equality and nationalism.

He died disappointed when the country split into powerful factions out of which emerged nationalists, communists and rival warlords.

But Sun Yat-Sen is often recognised by all those factions so his Memorial Hall - on the site of his presidential offices - seemed worthy of serious attention, and his life a matter for contemplation.

When I arrived in the early afternoon only one other person was there, a bent old man intently reading every inscription.

I sat in the hall, which is often used for concerts and meetings, waiting for him to finish his serious business, not wishing to intrude. I thought of how China had changed- as the old man carried on reading the writings.

I mused on what odd circumstances had brought me here - as he shuffled slowly to the next piece of calligraphy. Then I thought of the unusual food I had eaten the previous evening - while the old man moved on slowly.

And finally I thought how bloody boring it was waiting - while the old man dragged his feet across the platform to some other piece of art, writing or some damn thing.

I assumed the man was a scholar or devotee, but finally decided I would have to interrupt his studious reverie.

I walked on to the stage alongside him with all the quiet reverence and respect for the cultural context I could muster.

Just as I did so, he let out a great sour fart - then left, leaving me considering the legacy of the great Sun Yat-Sen in cabbage-like Smell-O-Rama and mild hysterics.


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