Opinion

Anya Schiffrin

A Chinese view of Savannah

Anya Schiffrin
Apr 19, 2012 15:51 UTC

A recent New York Times story about high-end U.S. retailers like Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman and Tiffany marketing directly to wealthy Chinese visitors reminded me of some of the extreme Chinese shopping I’ve witnessed in Europe. Stopping in the Zurich airport branch of Sprungli on my way home from Davos, I saw a Chinese man (who spoke no English at all) spend $900 on Swiss chocolates. Offered a free taste by a saleslady as a courtesy for buying so much stuff, he waved it off. Apparently he was not actually a chocolate lover but just buying gifts for some lucky friends. On the tube in London I saw Chinese women en route to Heathrow with the most enormous Louis Vuitton shopping bags and clocked the resentful glances of their fellow passengers. It reminded me of how Americans abroad used to be rich and universally loathed.

While Chinese tourists in the 1 percent may be living large, for those in the 99 percent travel is often less luxurious. Evan Osnos’s clever piece in the New Yorker last year described his trip on a tour bus with a group of Chinese rushing through Europe and eating Chinese food. A Chinese friend once admitted to me that she regretted missing out on Italian food during an organized tour through Italy; in Peru a tour guide told me that the Chinese were famous for bringing their own food. Clearly there is an opportunity here for a canny tour operator, and based on my last weekend in Savannah I’d like to suggest that Charleston, Savannah and New Orleans be added to the list of must-sees for the nouveau Chinese tourism market.

After my trip to India with my parents last November went off mostly without a hitch, I was ready to travel with other people’s parents. So when my young friend Dandan announced that her mom – who teaches at the Shanghai Maritime Engineering College – would be making a maiden voyage to the U.S. in time for Dandan’s graduation from Columbia, I invited them both on a girly weekend I had planned with Nguyen To Hong Kong (another Columbia student I spend a lot of time with) as a last treat before the two young women graduate and leave the U.S.

The ladies took an energetic approach to Savannah sightseeing, and we went through the guidebook at a rapid pace. No stone was left unturned, including the carriage tour of the stately, tree-lined squares, the tours of the old houses and the torpid alligators in tanks at the Crab Shack (too lazy to even open their mouths to eat the “treats” offered by tourists).

Adding to the amusement was the homespun commentary provided by Dandan’s mother and translated by Dandan as her mother does not speak English. (Dandan’s mom is named Hong, but is no relation to Hong Kong.) Hong’s name means red, and her sister was named “blue.” “My parents have no imagination,” Hong said, explaining that her enterprising sister changed her name to “intelligence.”

The limits of happiness

Anya Schiffrin
Apr 3, 2012 18:19 UTC

Despite being a cynical New Yorker, I was charmed by Bhutan on a visit there a couple of years ago. The beauty of the unspoiled scenery, the rhododendrons in bloom, the mountains and the monasteries — all were uplifting. The quiet intelligence and the thoughtfulness of the people we met were inspiring. Bhutan is  a country of  traditions and pride in local culture. Visiting the villages we saw astounding feats of archery, which is the national sport, and we took long walks with a local guide who also happens to be a serious cyclist and has helped spread mountain biking throughout the country. One scene stayed with me: Walking to a monastery one day we passed a man sitting on a mountainside doing embroidery as he looked out over a dramatic view of cliffs and mountains covered with trees. With him was a friend who peered over the embroiderer’s shoulder as he stitched. We went for a long walk, and when we came back a few hours later, the two were still there embroidering and watching.

Peace and quiet and the time for leisure must surely be part of what makes people happy, and the Bhutanese have become famous for popularizing the concept of gross national happiness (GNH), which is a favorite cause of the current prime minister. The Sarkozy commission (which my husband co-chaired) also worked on the subject and in 2009 issued a report that provided a framework for how to think about going beyond gross domestic product and how to measure success in a broader way.

The Bhutanese are out in full force this week for a conference on happiness. There was an all-day meeting organized by Jeffrey Sachs at Columbia University on Sunday, and on Monday diplomats from all over the world met at the United Nations to discuss what constitutes happiness and how it can best be measured and promoted. The star of the morning was Costa Rica’s president, who spoke about the country’s conservation laws and the need to protect the environment. It was also agreed that altruism, compassion, social life, feelings of belonging, political stability and good health are essential to happiness. The Bhutanese spoke of the importance of community and their program of introducing meditation into schools to promote contemplation, concentration and quiet reflection.

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