How to pass through the social gates of an isolated or remote community.
When you go into a remote or isolated community — a place where visitors rarely go, where the locals have an identity that is very distinct from your own, where you stick out as though under a spotlight — you are an intruder until you’re welcomed. To be welcomed, you need to break the ice, connect with the people, and find a social “in.” Doing so often means the difference between being embraced and being regarded as strange and, potentially, suspicious.
Imagine entering an isolated or remote community as passing through a gate. While there are often no physical barriers or guards blocking your way, you still need to request permission. Though doing so is often as easy as introducing yourself.
When I go into a remote or isolated community I know that I need to connect with someone as soon as possible. The longer I go without social engagement the more awkward obtaining it will be. Luckily, places that tend to have a strong social identity almost invariably have a vibrant in-the-streets culture. More often than not there will be people sitting around, talking to each other, hanging out in the streets. Going into these places feels uncomfortable. All eyes fall on you. You can hear the whispers and see the pointing. Groups of children may run away from you laughing or, sometimes, screaming out in terror. You are an invader, a barbarian, and everybody wants to know the same thing: “Who are you and what are you doing here?”
The faster you answer these questions the better.
Lurking around, trying to go unnoticed, or pretending to be inconspicuous may feel more comfortable, but it’s the last thing you should do. When you enter an isolated community, look for a way to introduce yourself as soon as you can.
Each community tends to have the same cast of characters: the guard dogs, the elders, the shopkeepers, the jokers, the loud fat ladies, impressionable youths, etc . . . Learn character type and let it guide you here — it’s the only thing you have to go off of. Look over the scene: Who’s looking at you? Who’s talking about you? Who’s interested in you? Who’s making eye contact? Are they smiling? Are they laughing? Do they look threatened?
Lock eyes with someone who appears friendly enough, nod, and smile. If they do the same walk up to them and start talking. Or look for someone doing something interesting and start a conversation about what they are doing. “Hello, what are you doing?” or “What’s that?” generally works very well as a conversation catalyst. Engage in a mutually interrogative dialogue. Ask questions, answer questions, show genuine interest in the people who take an interest in you. Don’t get squeamish if you attract a crowd. This is what you want. Do this well and you will generally be afforded the opportunity to answer the most important questions:
“Who are you and what are you doing here?”
So roll with it, make yourself a spectacle, give people something to gawk and laugh at — show that you’re just some amiable, curious foreigner who came to do XYZ. After this, your introduction to the community will be just about complete, word will spread about who you are and what you’re doing, and you will soon be free to do whatever it is you came to do without feeling like you’re sneaking around.
Now, how do you answer those questions? Who are you and what are you doing? It’s sometimes not as straight forward as it may seem.
When traveling to remote places, you need an identity and a reason for being. You need to show who you are and what you are doing. It’s the traveler’s job to make this process as easy as possible. It doesn’t really matter if you fit the role you claim or not, it just matters if it works. Roles and identities are passports, you use different ones depending on what borders you wish to cross.
The worst identity is often that of a traveler. When out in some remote place that outsiders don’t tend to visit, saying that you’re a tourist just doesn’t make any sense. Tourists go to tourist sites. It makes no sense for a tourist to be hanging out in the chengzhongcun on the outskirts of Chinese cities — there are no tourist sites there. If a foreigner came to my hometown and told me that he was “just traveling” I would think he was very odd, for sure, and I may not believe him. People don’t visit where I come from for recreation. It just doesn’t happen, there’s nothing there. You don’t get traveler points with the locals for going to some grungy working class residential zone claiming that you want to see the “real country” or something strange like. When introducing yourself to a community, trying to be unique is confusing — use a simple identity that makes sense.
Just about anywhere I go or anything I do can be rationalized by saying that I’m a photographer. I invariably have a camera hanging around my neck, and I’m always taking photos of people and things anyway. It makes sense, and it’s kind of true. It gives me an identity, and as for my “reason for being” I concoct some kind of assignment (“I’m taking photos of half built skyscrapers and the migrant workers who’re building them”). Oftentimes, I’m not lying — this is really what I do for a living.
“Who is that guy?”
“A photographer for some American magazine.”
“What is he doing here?”
“Taking pictures of that polluted river or something.”
If I want to interview people I tell them that I’m a writer. Again, it’s the truth, and it’s something that also makes sense. “I’m a writer for an American website and I’m doing a story on why your lake dried up.” It’s as simple as that: my introduction is then complete. I’m no longer some foreign stranger lurking around asking strange questions: I become some guy doing his job. That’s normal everywhere.
When traveling to remote places, you need an identity and a reason for being.
People without roles, without an established identity, who can’t be labeled in isolated or remote communities are unsettling, and will often find themselves viewed as suspicious at best, a danger at worst. Back home, we call these people creeps. Humans are animals that categorize our environments, unknown elements tend to provoke a feeling of insecurity. Stomping unannounced into a living sphere that people like you generally don’t go is a strange thing to do. Treat it that way, and give the people who live there the assurance that you are not a threat, that you’re just some benign wanderer who just happens to have something to do in their community, and allow them to say, “Oh, OK, that’s what he’s doing here.”
Next post: Vagabonding: It’s Not For Weaklings