For some Chinese, wildness has been lost in translation

By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist

Who wouldn’t be thrilled to see a Yellowstone grizzly mama and two cubs?

The travelers in three cars ahead of me were ecstatic as they triggered a bear jam that would grow to a mile long. Spontaneously, they poured from their rental cars, leaving doors ajar and vehicles abandoned kittywampus.

Cameras at the ready, the 12 occupants ran straight toward the sow that had been strolling with her brood along the Gibbon River. Alarmed at the humans’ menacing approach, the now-frantic mother bruin barked a command to her offspring sending them scurrying across the water to the far bank.

The Chinese observers, unaware of the peril they placed themselves in, stood just 30 yards away from the agitated, teeth-gnashing parent. On this day, owed to the griz’s obliging temperament, all would be well that ended well, but it could’ve gone badly.

In recent years, there have been rising numbers of such incidents involving Chinese tourists and their behavior is the problem that many park officials are talking about behind the scenes but are reluctant to discuss publicly.

Last summer, I received insight from Aixia Feng, a Chinese doctoral student, who was serving as an intern in Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks. Ms. Feng was joined in our conversation by Megan Kohli, Grand Teton’s youth, outreach and volunteer program manager, who has spent time in China.

With 1.3 billion inhabitants, China is the most populous nation on earth. In unprecedented numbers, a juggernaut of Chinese tourists is arriving in the U.S., likely to set another record in our region this summer.

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, the volume of Chinese travelers is forecast to increase nearly two fold by 2019. The Wyoming Travel and Tourism Office in Cheyenne is making a special concerted effort to lure not only more Chinese to the state but also travelers from the large emerging markets of South Korea and India.

While it’s never smart to generalize, Feng and Kohli note that Chinese travelers have passions for nature the same as any tourists but collectively they’ve been accustomed to think differently about wildlife and wildlands than Americans have.

Many wilderness-caliber parks in China are off limits to the masses. Where people do intersect with animals, it is often assumed that those critters are tamed, have been trained to perform for snacks, or pose little hazard to the person trying to engage their attention.

Many visitors also do not fully understand, until told, the incredible fragility of park resources such as geothermal features and vegetation.

When urban Chinese used to crowded conditions come to a region like Greater Yellowstone, the concept of spatial separation is hard to articulate. “The language and cultural gaps seems obvious, but we cannot overstate them,” Kohli says.

To prevent visitors from wandering too close to grizzlies and bison, Grand Teton and Yellowstone rangers have been using a technique of saying “Hellooo, hellooo” to Chinese visitors and invoking the equivalent of a sports time-out sign with their arms to tell them to stop. Humorous or not, it has proved effective though aggressive visitor behavior has been demonstrated in other ways.

While some American tourists may find it rude to see Chinese appearing to cut in front at scenic overlooks, in gift shops and grocery stories, they’re not doing it out of maliciousness, Feng says.

In China, there are often too many people queuing in line for service, which creates a free-for-all in trying to get the attention of clerks.

Similarly, it is customary to barter over the costs of goods and never accept the marked prices. It wears on some of the business folk in Greater Yellowstone that they are constantly asked by Chinese shoppers to discount merchandise, but it’s just the Chinese trying to protect themselves from being overcharged, Kohli says.

“This place [Greater Yellowstone] is so pretty and inspiring. I am surprised at how quiet it is. In China it is difficult to get away from the sounds and impacts of so many people,” Feng said, ruminating on the things she finds exceptional about the Northern Rockies, and what is missing from the lives of most Chinese.

Kohli shares something else. “We [Americans] have a totally different perspective in how we think of the backcountry and wilderness. If we were told not to go into the backcountry because it’s too dangerous, our response would be, ‘Who are you to tell me?’ The Chinese accept being told no. We often take for granted that the level of individualism accepted and celebrated in our culture is unique.”

New West columnist Todd Wilkinson is author of “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek, An Intimate Portrait of 399, the Most Famous Bear of Greater Yellowstone” featuring photos by Thomas Mangelsen and only available at Mangelsen is featured in the current issue of Mountain Outlaw magazine, now on newsstands.