Day 10 (40%)
Life lessons from travelling
Instead of writing about the main attractions of Xi’an like Huashan or the Terracotta Army, I’d like to reflect on something lesser known: Legend of the Camel Bells, a newly aired show introduced to us by our tour guide. Our decision to see the show was almost completely impromptu, and the ticket prices definitely exceeded our proposed budget. However, it did not disappoint.
Legend of the Camel Bells is a show about life and its many flavors. It depicts over the course of an hour every facet of human existence: Lovers bid farewell and reunite; men leave their families to embark on grand adventures; volcanoes and snowstorms convey the awesome power of nature; a mother grieves for her lost son; tired miners find solace in the light of the Buddha.
The plot itself is paper-thin, and the dialogue appears quite cheesy at first. Yet on a closer look, it is precisely this “shallowness” that creates a sense of universality. Legend of the Camel Bells tells a quintessentially human story that transcends the narrow bounds of Tang Dynasty Chang’an. We all experience the sweetness of love, the thrill of adventure, the tragedy of loss. Thus, we emphathize with the struggles of the characters, which are played out on the stage with strong emotion through poignant music, dazzling dances, and colorful, evocative sets (including real camels!). At this point, the details of the plot become unimportant – what matters is the show’s pure, raw emotion and its broad, universal power, conveying what it means to be human.
At last, the show concludes with a stroke of sheer genius. The final scene depicts the splendid Tang Dynasty imperial court replete with elaborate costumes, grand performances by dancers and musicians, and a glorious profusion of gold and red. As the action ends, the performers spontaneously break into mass dance to a silly electronic beat:
At first sight, an abrupt and incongruous ending! Only after discussing with Yi Ming did I begin to appreciate its poetic beauty.
For all the melodrama of the previous scenes, the show ends with a refreshingly comical return to the basics of life – 哈哈哈！(* 哈哈哈 is Chinese for “hahaha”)
Safe, healthy, and happy, let us rejoice in song and dance – 哈哈哈！
Let us laugh in celebration of life, its hundred flavors, and the simple pleasures of ordinary existence – 哈哈哈！
An earnest, life-affirming, and heart-warming message. Truly a life well lived.
Thus far, the journey has made the message behind a favourite anthem of mine even clearer and dearer to me:
L’uomo verrà portato dalla sua creazione
Come gli uccelli, verso il cielo…
Riempendo l’universo di stupore e gloria.
Man will be lifted by his own creation,
Just like birds, towards the sky…
Filling the universe with wonder and glory.
Be humble. That is a life lesson I have learnt in the trip. It’s a lesson I know by repetition but Famen Temple allowed me to understand it better.
At Famen Temple, the guide said that the entrance of the underground palace, where the bone of the Buddha is stored, is small ( about the side of a 24 inch suitcase) so that the emperors have to crawl into the palace and kneel in order to get out. It showed that even emperors have to humble themselves in front of Buddha. The thought was particularly shocking to me as it was just so unexpected. When I tried imagining myself crawling through the same hole, I felt resistance to that thought of having to do it intentionally. I have not thought of myself as proud or conceited before, but I realise that I am not humble at all. It was a moment of learning for myself as I grow to realise how the simple concept of humbleness can be extremely difficult to achieve in reality.
It has been an intriguing experience traveling in China thus far, especially given my background as a Chinese Singaporean. In particular, traveling in Xi’an, renowned for its rich history, has stood out for me. Compared to my fellow travelers like Joe and Zi Gi, I know little about Chinese history beyond big names, some folk stories, and vague (and questionable) information from period dramas and movies. As such I found myself in an interesting position to question my identity here.
To Chinese nationals, I am clearly not a local – something about my demeanor and the way I dress just makes me (and my traveling counterparts) stand out not just as a tourist, but also as not a mainland Chinese. This fact is made even more obvious when I speak, whether in English or in my barely-there Mandarin. Yet, I do appear ethnically Chinese, which confuses many locals here. “Where are you from?” is a question we are often asked, followed by the remark that “You don’t look/speak like you’re from China” or the stunned exclamation that “Oh, you can speak Mandarin?!” when we reply to them in Mandarin.
This realization of the peculiarity of my identity as a Chinese Singaporean is made even more profound when, as I browsed through the Shaanxi History Museum, I found myself relating to the other foreigners in the museum – foreigners who did not appear ethnically Chinese: Like them (or at least I assume) I was reading the English descriptions and information, and like them (again I assume) I had little background of Chinese history. Yet, I knew that they likely saw me as a mainland Chinese and would express surprise if I started speaking in English. Furthermore, I felt a certain sense of pride – which I believe the other foreigners would not have felt as personally – as I learnt about the flourishing of the Tang Dynasty and how the Chinese were already so ahead of the times thousands of years ago.
As a result, I am neither here nor there, and my identity as a Chinese Singaporean, often something I take for granted as “normal” given the Chinese majority in Singapore, is something peculiar and unusual to everyone else here. It feels odd to be in this predicament, and I cannot help but question myself: Why do I feel a sense of pride upon learning about Chinese history? Yet how can I at the same time feel more distant from the Chinese tourists here than from the other foreign tourists? What does this say about me?
Thus, traveling is an eye-opening experience not only for me to see and understand others – it is also an experience for me to see myself in a different light, to inform me about who I am. Ultimately, traveling makes me constantly re-evaluate the things I think I know about myself and dig deeper into the hows and whys of my own identity; for often, what I notice about others says more about me than about them.