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Burgess Is Back

What he's learned about porn, planes and people.

Steve Burgess 2 Mar

Steve Burgess is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

He writes the Please Advise! column and other effluvia as required. He is a former CBC host and author of the 2011 book Who Killed Mom? from Greystone Books. He has won two National Magazine Awards and three Western Magazine Awards.

Raised on the Canadian Prairies, he has lived in Vancouver since 1988. Find him on Twitter @steveburgess1.

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There has been a lot of talk about Chinese web censorship lately. I'm here to tell you it's not all bad. While in a Shanghai Internet café, I attempted to read Vanessa Richmond's Tyee story about plastic surgery, a story illustrated with a photo of an artificially busty woman in some lingerie. Suddenly, the screen disappeared, replaced by a warning titled: "Porn Watch." Chinese web surfers are being protected from salacious Tyee content and I think that's great.

We could use a little of that around here. I'm back home now and shocked - shocked! -- to find out what's been happening in my absence. The day after my return, I eagerly turn to the Sun comics page and Rex Morgan, M.D. Rex is chatting with a grinning doctor who says, "I heard about your 'house call' last night! Good work!"

The final panel shows a blushing female receptionist. "Sorry, Dr. Morgan," she says. "I told a few people about last night."

So, now I can't leave the country for five weeks without Rex Morgan going all slutty on me. Perhaps I will remain in China where morals are still strong and the news is always good. The day I left, the headline in the China Daily read "Regulation of Internet in line with world norms; Chinese people can access the Internet freely."

You see? No problem.

I have certainly done my part to advance China's economic miracle. At Shanghai's Pudong Airport, I paid the equivalent of nine Canadian dollars for a double espresso. Thus, yet another helpful Chinese moral lesson -- stay away from drugs.

A long trip like this one is always difficult to process afterwards. There is too much information and experience crammed into too little time. Then home, where weeks can pass almost untroubled by incident, snoozing in front of the TV. Some balance would be nice. Perhaps a day in Sulawesi at a Torajan funeral, watching in horror as a water buffalo is slaughtered, followed by two days home in bed. A weekend at the Chatuchak Market in Bangkok, then Granville Island. A lovely meal of mee goreng in Singapore and the next day, the same dish at Kam's Place on Davie, just for comparison.

Post-voyage ablutions

Doesn't work that way, unfortunately. As a result, one returns from a long voyage with a slush pile of unprocessed imagery and sensation, some of which is excreted as waste. I drop a few nuggets here in summation:

Rush seating is a bad idea for airplanes. Waiting to board an Air Asia flight from Bangkok to Singapore, I managed to grab the front of the line. Behind me was a rather impatient Chinese man. He pushed. The flight attendants were standing around listlessly, clearly 10 minutes away from boarding, when the prodding began. "Go! Go!" said his hands to the small of my back. When pre-boarding of families with children began, he was beside himself -- pretty much where I was standing, in fact. He jabbed my spine and howled at the flight attendants, evidently livid that the kiddies were grabbing the window seats. But hey, I saved a few bucks on airfare.

When traveling, one must tread that fine line between misguided stereotyping and appreciation of genuine cultural differences. People may share the same dreams of contentment and happiness for their families, but no traveler can hang onto the illusion that folks are the same everywhere. If that were the case, the NHL would be a global phenomenon and we would have troops in Iraq.

So one is left to wonder -- why are Balinese people generally so sweet? Why are the people of Sulawesi so easygoing? A man I'd briefly chatted with on a bus to Toraja, proud father of five daughters, invited me to stay at his house. One day on the streets of Makassar, I was approached by a uniformed cop. "Hello!" she said. "Welcome! My name's Edna. What's yours?"

There are always exceptions -- assholes exist everywhere -- but distinct regional characteristics do exist. What shapes them?

Child-sized truths

One undeniable difference between Canada and Indonesia involves family. Canadians love their children as much as anyone. But in Bali and Sulawesi, society revolves around family relationships in a way that many Canadians would find difficult to bear. Virtually all Balinese names are based on birth order -- almost everyone is called Wayan, Made, Nyoman, or Kutut, indicating first, second, third, or fourth offspring. In Toraja, my guide Marcus mentioned that he will be identified at important gatherings not by his given name, but as Papa Esther -- father to his eldest daughter. Marcus asked why I had no wife and family. I chattered away with the usual North American clichés about not finding the right person, it's tough out there, etc. He nodded, but I could see he didn't really get it. Without family in Toraja, I would be adrift.

There is more curiosity about Canada than actual knowledge. Marcus asked me if we had elephants and grew rice. (I tried to impress him with descriptions of moose and grizzly. And wheat.) However, on Monday, February 13, Canada made the front page of the Jakarta Post. Election? Olympics? Nope -- Canadian race car driver Sean McIntosh had just won the Indonesian A1 Grand Prix.

So never mind the men's hockey thing. In Jakarta, we rule.

Steve Burgess, The Tyee's at-large culture critic, is living small again in Vancouver.  [Tyee]

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