Problem Solving in Paradise

I spent the last week of November in Shangrila in northern Yunnan province.  Only a decade ago, Shangrila, then called Zhongdian, was a small Tibetan town situated in an alpine valley.  Then, in 2001, the government decided to develop the city and boost tourism by renaming the city “Shangrila,” thereby invoking the mystical utopia depicted in James Hilton’s 1933 novel The Lost Horizon. 

The government’s efforts have proved effective.  The county now has a population of over 130,000, and the reconstructed “old city” bustles with domestic and foreign tourists.  Yet besides the “old city” backpacker cafes, nearby monastery, and breath-shortening altitude, Shangrila is a surprisingly typical sprawling Chinese city.  The local population has a high percentage of Tibetans but also includes migrants from all over China who have come to take advantage of the city’s booming tourism industry.

I traveled to Shangrila to lead a week-long drama workshop for the East Tibetan Training Institute (ETTI).  ETTI offers pre-professional training for Tibetan and other ethnic minority youth from western China.  The school offers courses in tourism English, green technology, and business management to increase employment opportunities for students with limited educational backgrounds.  See http://www.etti.org.cn/ for more information.

For my five-day drama workshop, I decided to examine the topic of identity and status with the students.  I hoped that by better understanding how they negotiate status on a daily basis, students would feel empowered and better equipped to face conflict in the future.

We began the class with an examination of personal identity.  I asked students to list and then rank their various identities — such as “son” or “student” or “Tibetan” — in order of importance.  I thought the exercise would spark heated discussion.  In America, forcing someone to state whether they are first and foremost Catholic or Latino would likely stem a lengthy discussion.  Yet for the workshop participants, the issue was entirely conditional.  Without prompting, many of the students phrased their identities in terms of location, such as, “Abroad, I am Chinese.  In Kunming, I am a ‘Shangrila-er.’  At home, I am a son.” etc.  Many students listed “Chinese” or their family role at the top of the list, and students who included “Tibetan” as an identity usually ranked it somewhere below “Chinese.”

In the next session, we began to consider how identity interacts with social status.  Students where assigned a ranked social status and then improvised a given scenario.  In the scenes we played out in a crowded restaurant or hotel lobby, the students very quickly enacted how status is linked to social identity: the lower status actor chose to play the bellboy while the high status actor played the entitled guest.  What proved harder was demonstrating how, despite an assigned social position or job, one could still adjust one’s status to a certain degree.

In one telling scenario, a timid student played the role of a greeter in a hotel lobby.  She had in fact been assigned the highest status among the group of players, but she felt uncomfortable with an elevated position and had elected to downplay her role.  I asked her to play out the scenario again and see if, without changing her job at the hotel, she could raise her status.  She remained slouched by the door, smiling with uncertainty at clients as they passed by.  I picked a student to substitute for her and try to accomplish the same goal.  The student who volunteered offered an entirely different portrayal of a greeter – she talked animatedly with the guests, introducing them to the hotel and various lobby amenities.  The exercise encapsulated the complex interplay between an individual’s personality, assigned identity or role, and manner of playing out that role.  These three variables are crucial to how we perceive of ourselves and are ultimately able to achieve empowerment.

In the last few days of the workshop, we broke into small groups according to the identities the students ranked on the first class day.  Each group created a small scenario based on a conflict related to their chosen identity.  On the final day, we had a Forum Theatre performance where each group performed their scenarios and invited classmates and teachers to substitute for the protagonists and resolve the conflicts.  Many of the groups’ performances lead to exciting and unexpected solutions.  The “women” group performed a scene in which the male students refused to do their part in cleaning the classroom.  They ended up pulling me into the action as an authority figure to enforce the rules.  A fight between Han and Tibetan friends was resolved by a lengthy plea for peace and respect between the two ethnicities.  When a group performed a scene about a daughter who is unable to determine the path of her education because of her stubborn father, a teacher in the program stepped in to try to resolve the conflict.  After she was unable to convince the father, she confessed to the audience that when she was young she had faced the same situation.  “I was completely dependent on my parents and had no option but to follow their wishes and then study what I wanted to once I was an independent adult.”

It was one of those rare, spectacular moments when the theatrical reality and our own mirror each other so closely they are nearly undistinguishable.

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