Sunday, November 17, 2013

how you look to them


I hear the first fistful of food hit the wall. 

The sharp report of unidentifiable porridge against plaster shudders through the wood-latticed windows. It rings all the way out to the balcony that wraps around the traditional Chinese building we're in. We're here because we've been invited to an event-closing banquet -- now, that banquet is apparently airborne. I hear the sound, but I don't really believe it until I glance inside, just in time to see the second handful of lobbed porridge smack the wall beside the first. 

Most of the BASE jumpers have evacuated the small dining room for strategic positions outside, between the windows of this once-stately wooden restaurant, but a few are still crouched in ersatz foxholes between the tables, giggling like ten-year-olds.

I whip back into the safety behind the wooden shutters and blink in wonderment. We were invited here -- wined, dined and entertained by a government welcome so gregarious as to be almost startling. The regional sports department has covered our travel, put us up in comfortable hotels, fed us every meal and provided us with the best jumpin' bridge we could possibly have hoped for. 

Why are we coating their walls with porridge?

Our Chinese hosts stand among the conscientious objectors on the balcony, smiles flickering. In their position, I'd be hustling us right back to the bus. They, however, are bravely determined that the show must go on. 

We're shuffled downstairs, onto a covered deck that observes an outdoor stage. An autumn rain has begun in earnest, drenching the stage's concrete floor. Despite the downpour, several girls in ornate traditional costumes stream out from the building. Their painted faces smile earnestly at us as we swig muttonheadedly from a sea of beer bottles. Their headdresses, glinting with a swinging fringe of tinkling metal, flash colorfully under the stage lights as they file past us.

As they make their way to the stage, one jumper I know from the Valley reaches out, laughing, and smacks the last three on the back of the head as they process down the walkway. He's grinning. He's obviously pleased with the way it makes their metal headdresses shudder and jingle.

I cringe. Mortified.

Sure, we’re in the hinterlands of China – but this isn’t a cultural misunderstanding. It’s a systemic problem. BASE jumpers seem exempt themselves from all the rules: not just from the aspects of human behavior that imply subservience to a very un-BASE-jumperly social norm, but from the rules that govern basic human decency. Those rules keep underpaid restaurant staff – who had been previously riveted by your wild-eyed jocularity and torrent of your unfamiliar language – from silently hating you as they scrub your dinner off the walls and floor. Those rules prevent you from making teenage village girls cry a little bit while they dance, in the rain, for your enjoyment.


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