Monday, 17 May 2010

"Dear Joanne the Tour Guide, from Dean" (No.19)

I'm Back Baby!

Been a while since I did this, been on holiday. Back now, and to celebrate, here's another Science letter. But it's not from 'the Anthropomorphic Personification of Science', as they usually are. This one is actually from me, Dean. And I am actually sending it to the person(s) concerned, as I think it's important.

To preface this, I've just returned from a holiday to Malaysia. Some of my time was spent in Georgetown, Penang (lovely place by the way, you should go if you haven't already). One of the things my wife and I visited while there was the mansion of Cheong Fatt Tze. A splendid building, an architectural achievement and lasting monument to the great man that was Cheong Fatt Tze.

I found myself taking issue with our tour guide though. Nothing personal, she seemed perfectly nice, but for someone giving a tour of a historic building she came out with some bizarre stuff which seemed to have nothing to do with what her primary function was. I didn't say anything at the time, for reasons which will become obvious, but I think the following needs to be said.

"Dear Joanne the tour guide.

Hello. Hope you're well. My wife and I visited the Cheong Fatt Tze mansion on May the 4th, which is sometimes referred to as Star Wars Day by people who are under the impression that Jedis always speak with a pronounced lisp.

I doubt you remember us, what with you having only fleeting encounters hundreds of people every week, all of whom are very keen to spend an hour wandering around someone else's house. But just in case, this was the 11am tour and I was the only Caucasian present under the age of 50. Facially I was the one who resembled a cross between Dilbert and a tennis ball, and whenever you mentioned that Penang is a former British Colony I said 'Sorry about that'.

I remember that your name is either Joanne (or Joanna) because you made a joke about how you share the same name as a famous Chinese person. I, an ignorant Westerner, had no idea who you were referring to, all I knew was that the thrust of the joke was that you weren't her. But, for all I knew, you could have been (as a performer, I also sometimes just hang around in public places myself hoping to get recognised, which is one of the reasons I was on this tour). So I'm sorry I didn't laugh at your joke. I also didn't laugh the second time you made the joke when more people joined the group, even though I was more familiar with the famous Joanne person by this point, but that familiarity was only from the first time you said the joke, so not sure that really counts.

The tour itself was fine, maybe a bit long in the heat, but that's hardly your fault. If I choose to go to a country where stepping outdoors provides a sensation similar to that of being beaten up by a very hot ghost, that's my problem. However, some of the things you said really irked me, and here's why.

Firstly, as it's a 19th century Chinese-style mansion, I understand that there will be a lot of mysticism and symbolism, but I have to ask, are you sure so many things mean 'money' in Chinese culture? Every Chinese person I've known or encountered has had a formidable work ethic, so I was surprised to hear they apparently rely on so much mystical stuff to bring them financial fortune. Some of the things you told us that were incorporated in the design of the mansion as they represented 'money' included flowing water, air currents, living on a slope and, bizarrely, Pineapples.

I'm not going to question the logic behind these beliefs, because I worry that there probably isn't any. You may argue that the man who incorporated all these things into his home was exceedingly wealthy so it must be true, but then he had to be loaded in order to build a mansion to such specific designs in the first place. But, I'm not one to dismiss things without even considering them, and that's why I bought a pineapple on the way home and left it in the bathroom with the tap running and the air con on. Unfortunately, I forgot about my little experiment when we went out for the evening, so I ended up flooding the bathroom and we lost our security deposit. So I guess it does affect the flow of money in a way, although I'm sure this would also have happened without the pineapple.

Another thing, the central room is supposed to be Feng-Shui perfect, you say. My wife had actually been to the mansion before, and like you said would happen, she says felt a certain tingling sensation at the spot where the 'energies converge'. She didn't know that was what that spot was meant to be beforehand either. I trust my wife on this as she is very clever and has no need to lie to me, and was quite intrigued about visiting this same spot.

I was a bit surprised, then, to find that this supposed hot spot was filled with large plants. If it works, why do that? Unless the plants somehow benefit from these magic rays? I guess the plants could be susceptible to the same energies as people, but who cares? How do you expect to get postitive testimonials from a Yucca? But my admittedly limited understanding of how Feng-shui works leads me to believe that it is vitally important not to obstruct the flow of energies, or 'chi' as you put it (although whenever I hear that word I mentally substitute the word 'cheese' in its place, which makes life far more amusing, e.g. "the flow of cheese is vital for good health", or "calm down, you're throwing off my cheese", hours of fun).

Just a casual question, but wouldn't half a dozen massive stone plant pots obstruct the 'chi'? I originally would have assumed that it has radiation-like properties and therefore limited interaction with solid objects, but then apparently it can be disrupted by things like clashing colours and a harsh tone of voice, I can't help but think it's a bit fragile? And while I appreciate what you were trying to do to reassure us, telling us that dozens of leading Feng-Shui experts all agreed that there was high energy levels in that one spot doesn't really convince me. Whenever I think of a 'Feng Shui expert', I can't help but recall the person who said they didn't like Twilight films because 'real vampires don't sparkle'. I never realised you could have such definitive knowledge of the defining aspect of non-existent things. Shows what I know, I suppose.

Far be it form me to suggest that people whose livelihood depends on Feng-shui would all agree it has tangible effects, but I can't be convinced by their views. However, if a hundred postmen or glass-blowers had agreed there was a tangible energy in that spot, then we'd be on to something.

But these are just some minor concerns. My main issue with your tour is as follows.

Remember the bit when you were talking about the importance of balance, and suddenly asked 'Can you cure cancer?' (I assume you meant 'you' as in 'anyone', as if you meant 'you' as in myself or other members of the group, that's a bit of an alarming question to suddenly drop into an explanation of the pottery recycling techniques used in 19th century China). The question itself was startling enough, and it was a bit disconcerting how you got annoyed when nobody gave clear answer (for reference, unless people in the group are highly qualified oncologists, the answer is 'no'), but I think your follow up really crossed a line. Just for clarity, you said;

"Yes, you can cure cancer. I can cure cancer, with 4 months of properly balanced diet. If I were to control your diet for 4 months, your cancer will be gone".

Seriously, what response did you expect to get from this? Hopefully, it was 'extremely awkward silence', because that's what you got.

Given the size of the tour group and the prevalence of cancer, it's pretty much certain that several people will know close friends/family or will themselves have had to deal with cancer. How exactly do you think they'd react to your extraordinary claim? A bemused slap on the forehead and a chuckle at their own foolishness? "Who'd have thought? Grandma went through 5 years of debilitating chemo, when all she needed to do was eat a specific amount of chickpeas for 4 months! She'd be laughing about this if she was still alive"

I'm sure you believe what you say, but I think there are two possibilities that underlie your claim, and these need to be assessed.

Possibility 1: You genuinely believe what you are claiming, but have no actual basis for it beyond your faith in the power of Feng-Shui and balance. You won't be the first person to think like this, and you're far from the worst, but still, it's a bit insulting isn't it? Effectively telling the people who have had to deal with cancer that they were wrong to put their trust in professionals from the world of medicine? Why trust the experts when an increased alfalfa intake will sort you out? Idiots!
In seriousness, even if you were correct, that's still annoying. If someone is standing on the side of the road next to a car with a knackered engine, they probably aren't going to appreciate someone pulling up and telling them this wouldn't have happened if they used pixie juice instead of oil, or something like that. But what you said was worse because instead of a busted engine it's the body of a dead loved one.

Possibility 2: You're claims have a sound basis in evidence, meaning you've actually successfully treated a statistically significant number of people and cured them of cancer using nothing but a sustained period where you control the portions/content of their meals. Although this would give more credibility to your claims, this possibility is actually worse than the first one. It suggests that, despite the fact that you've made a discovery that has eluded the worlds medical community for decades and would undoubtedly relieve the suffering of millions, you've chosen to remain working as a tour guide? I would have thought that possessing the cure for cancer would mean you were ethically obligated to share it with as many people as possible, and I don't think announcing it apropos of nothing to a bunch of sweat-soaked tourists is really sufficient. You may disagree though, and there's not much I can do about that.

Just to summarise all my rambling, I would advise you to not keep making this outlandish and offensive claim. I assume you mention it every time you do a tour? Has anyone questioned you about it yet? I did think about saying something at the time, but given the diverse nature of the tour group I figured the sight of a pasty white British man with an incomprehensible accent berating a small Malaysian woman would just reinforce too many negative stereotypes. So I didn't.

Of course, if this was the first and/or only time you've claimed to be able to cure cancer, what was it about our group that suggested 'malignant tumours' to you?

Please don't think this is a personal attack, but the tour experience was somewhat soured for me by your worrying claims. I agree that Cheong Fatt Tze was an incredible figure and an inspiration to everyone. However, I imagine he was probably so successful partly because he didn't listen to wild claims by people who had no idea what they were talking about. Just a thought.

All the best

Dr. Dean Burnett

e-mail: humourology (at)
twitter: @garwboy

1 comment:

Jenny said...

Hilarious! And, it sounds, well deserved. My guess is that no one has questioned her before, and most definitely not in such a funny way. I wonder, though, if she'll be able to appreciate it?

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