When I set out to Shangri-La with ACE, I expected to learn more about the local culture. I knew I wouldn’t walk away an expert, or anything close to it, but I still hoped I would return with a better grasp of it. Through our engagement with local kids and community members in our daily camp, our exploration of the city, and our frequent lessons and research with our CERS leader Dr. Bill, I certainly learned a lot. But I found out that learning about a culture is not as simple as I first thought.
Culture is a broad term, and it encompasses countless forms of expression, which makes it hard to gain a deep understanding of any one “culture.” But what made it difficult to nail down, more than just the breadth or vagueness of the term, was the variance in our experiences. Residents of Shangri-La are a diverse group of people. There isn’t a single, neat experience to give a thorough understanding of a single, cohesive culture. Not only do practices and beliefs vary considerably from village to village, but they differ even from family to family. It’s easy, even, to think of China in broad strokes, as a unified and homogenous culture. But with one billion people and hundreds of minority groups, Chinese culture is mind-bogglingly complex.
Further, my ACE team and I had to grapple with changes over time. Culture is not constant. Daily life, beliefs, and values evolve with each generation. We explored a Shangri-La that is remarkably different from Shangri-La 50 years ago. Technology, different economic prospects, movement of populations, and new patterns of thought all contribute to shifts in culture. Becoming a domestic tourism hub has changed the appearance of the city and practices of many Shangri-La residents. The older culture has been preserved in some ways, threatened in others, or simply given a new face.
We witnessed this manifest in many ways. Some of the monasteries we visited in more tourist-heavy spots seemed to be commercialized. Dr. Bill explained how some of the display was for show – what tourists wanted to see – and didn’t carry the same religious meaning as other paintings, artifacts, or offerings. In town, we saw frequent signage with Tibetan script. Unlike monks and scholars, most locals can’t read or write Tibetan, only speaking their regional dialects. Again, we learned that this signage was initially an effort to increase the aesthetic appeal.
“I also learned that Chinese culture, like all cultures, is diverse and evolving.”
But some of the changes were certainly positive. New technology has allowed groups to digitally preserve traditional aspects of their respective sects of Buddhism, and the tourism boom has spread their beliefs to an unprecedented number of people. Global interconnectivity disseminates Shangri-La music and art. We also learned about how technology has helped evolve older practices to appeal to current generations – such as the interactive tashi gomang (a portable shrine).
Technological advancement has made easier the lives of millions and introduced them to worlds of innovation. But we also learned about how the connectivity may homogenize. Urbanizing and standardizing has left some traditional and ancient cultures to fade away. Nomads are returning to cities and villagers are adopting more and more attributes of Chinese lifestyles and language. Although the technology can help preserve culture in many ways, such as providing new avenues for record-keeping and widespread sharing, the rapidly changing way of life leaves the future of minority cultures uncertain.
So, what did I learn about Chinese culture? I learned a lot about their religion and beliefs, their food and dress, their architecture and daily life. But I also learned that their culture, like all cultures, is diverse and evolving.