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The Vuvuzela Comes To Beijing

June 15, 2010

The colourful vuvuzela, a sonic weapon of mass annoyance. Fortunately for me, this is not Beijing. Image provided by Dundas Football Club under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic Licence.

Just a quick vignette from Beijing, where I live and work. Yesterday evening I was walking to my usual Mexican restaurant, through streets that were a little busier than usual because it was the first day of a three-day holiday marking the festival of Duānwŭ Jié. Duānwŭ Jié is sometimes known as the Dragonboat Festival, and indeed dragonboat racing is one of the traditional activities associated with the festival; another is eating zòngzi, which are sticky rice dumplings that are normally pyramidal in shape and wrapped in bamboo leaves.

Anyway, I was on my way to the Mexican restaurant when I heard a strange, prolonged, foghorn-like blast of noise very different from the automotive honking that you hear all the time in Beijing. Looking around, I realised that the sound was coming from two or three people wielding what I recognised from descriptions in news reports as vuvuzelas, the uniquely loud and obnoxious plastic horns that are driving some people to distraction at the World Cup in South Africa. Inside the Mexican restaurant, the Netherlands were handily beating Denmark live from Johannesburg as the occasional vuvuzela-groan wafted in from the street. So there I was, eating a burrito in China as two European soccer teams battled it out to a distinctly African soundtrack.

The standard response to cultural juxtapositions like this is to extol them as characteristic of our wonderfully vibrant emerging global civilisation. They’re supposed to represent the positive side of globalisation, as opposed to the negative side that involves factory workers being driven to suicide by the demands of faceless corporations. The juxtapositions can certainly be amusing and intriguing, but you have to wonder if we’re in the early stages of a fundamentally destructive process that will eventually turn the whole world into an incoherent, geographically homogeneous, and ultimately dishwater-dull blur of vuvuzelas, burritos and dragonboat races. The biggest Canadian cities have probably gone as far down this road as anywhere in the world, and to me it seems shallow to regard the change as entirely for the better.

I don’t want to see either burritos or vuvuzelas banned from the streets of Beijing, or anywhere else. But I’m rather glad that, for the moment at least, not all of China or even Beijing is a plausible setting for experiences like the one I had yesterday night. The Mexican restaurant is over in Sānlĭtún, the expatriate-friendly part of the city where most of the embassies (including Canada’s) are concentrated and where there are lots of establishments that cater to foreigners. Just a few blocks away, despite the near-universality of Western dress and the ubiquity of Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken, the evolving fabric of Chinese culture seems very much intact.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Shauna permalink
    June 17, 2010 3:23 pm

    Could you go into the negatives a bit more. I’m jumping to some conclusions here but after reading your work for as long as I have, I don’t think that would be wise. Are you worried that we will become so diverse that a country, city or town’s unique attributes won’t be preserved?

    • corsullivan permalink*
      June 21, 2010 8:57 pm

      Are you worried that we will become so diverse that a country, city or town’s unique attributes won’t be preserved?

      Yes, that’s basically what I was getting at. As people and ideas move among countries with increasing ease and freedom, diversity within countries should increase but diversity among countries should go down, just as a matter of logic. The Montreal of the future may contain an amazingly rich and complex mix of cultural elements, but that won’t seem so special if a substantially similar mix can also be found in Madrid, Moscow and Melbourne! Beyond that, I suspect that diversity (of almost any kind) within a society can detract from its coherence and sense of common purpose.

      The question of what to do about this, if anything, is tricky. Any society that attempts to wall itself off as completely as possible from outside influences is probably going to end up like North Korea, paranoid and miserable. If nothing else, cultures have always borrowed useful concepts from each other: where would we be, for example, without Arabic numerals? My point here is simply that the indiscriminate mingling of cultures on a global scale also has its downsides. Pushed to its logical conclusion, it becomes a bit like cutting up several paintings, grabbing a few bits at random from each one, and haphazardly assembling them into a composite. No doubt there will be some striking juxtapositions and interesting compound images in there – but it would be perverse to deny that something worthwhile had been lost in the process.

      Anyway, I’d be interested to hear what conclusions you were tempted to jump to when you read my original post!

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