On “Authenticity”

Sihanoukville, Cambodia - Authentic or not, isn't this beautiful?

Sihanoukville, Cambodia – Authentic or not, isn’t this beautiful?

Most travelers bristle at the thought of being pegged a tourist.

Gasp! I’m not a tourist! I’m not like them,” most travelers will insist, pointing at fat Americans and drunk Australians with point-and-click cameras, posing awkwardly with ancient statues and famous monuments.

The importance of marking oneself a “traveler” is a nuance very few outside of the long-term travel circle understand. While travelers might visit the Mona Lisa, they’ll dismiss it as “overrated” and “much smaller in real life,” and then recommend a tiny gallery in the Andes as an example of “true art.” They’ll self-consciously visit the Taj Mahal – “Like, oh my god, I totally didn’t want to go, but I figured it was on my way to an ASH-RAM in Jodpur and I might as well check it out” – but then comment on how the chana masala in their three-star hotel wasn’t nearly as good as the one they bought from the side of the road in Mumbai. Even though it gave them diarrhea, it also infused within them everything they needed to know to immerse themselves in Indian culture – because isn’t India like, all about diarrhea?

I have to admit, as a long-term traveler, I fall victim to several of these traps. I avoid famous museums because I hate queues – and most traditional art, actually – and I actively stay away from crowds and anything that requires an entrance fee of more than ten euros (or the equivalent, accounting for currency strength). I skip world-famous discotheques, “must-see” bars, and stereotypical gondola rides. I don’t eat meat, which shrinks the pool of local delicacies I can enjoy, so I don’t understand when some people complain that their chicken tikka masala is too dry. Is chicken tikka masala supposed to be wet? Is it even really Indian?

Berlin, Germany - Street Market

Berlin, Germany – Street Market

This isn’t a new subject. Travel blogs everywhere write about the distinction between tourists and travelers, and what philosophies each embody. I like to think of myself as a traveler, because – as a social person – my primary interest is in how the people of that culture behave, but I nevertheless dip into my indulgent tourist self when joining the hordes at Prague’s Astronomical Clock or Berlin’s East Side Gallery. I’m sure the locals aren’t sitting around, watching time pass (literally) or making daily rounds to their favorite pieces – these are solely visitor activities.

To be honest: I’m never in a place for long enough to soak up the culture. I might get a peek, or a taste, or even an insider to pull me past the front gates and into the coveted secret world of the locals, but the only world I can even claim to “know” is the Bay Area. While I’m interested in linguistics, I don’t speak any other language fluently – both in grammar and in meaning. While I might respect a way of living, I don’t know the subtle mannerisms that underlie its strength. And while I might be genuinely, whole-heartedly interested in “going native,” I’ll always be an outsider in some regard. That’s not meant to be sad, but just reality – even if I moved, married, and settled into a different life, my past will always remain culturally distinct from the group I hope to assimilate into.

Valencia, Spain - A City of Unique Street Art

Valencia, Spain – A City of Unique Street Art

As I said earlier, I do consider myself a traveler, not a tourist. I’m interested in what makes that culture tick, and knowing that I will never understand it fully only adds to the number of questions I have about it. I’ve been born into an Indian family, with an extensive network still in India, yet I still experience massive culture shock every time I visit – and while I could attempt to fit in, it’s more important to me to understand why people do the things they do; I apply the same critical social eye that I see America with, and this sometimes pisses people off. But I recognize my foreign nature, and I hold back from judging things on their “authenticity,” because oftentimes I am frankly unsure of what is authentic.

This is the biggest problem I have with travelers whose itineraries boast of their off-the-beaten-path adventures and new-found indigenous friendships. Because they had a BeerLao with some fishermen on the Mekong, they feel like they’ve ascended some spiritual ladder of righteousness. They know these peoples’ struggle. Because they scootered out into the rice paddies of Phong Nga, they feel like they’ve seen the “real” Vietnam. Hoi An is like, so touristy.

The “real” ___ isn’t the poor, the indigent, the “less-developed” parts of the country – it’s the whole country. It’s every person and every product and every lesson learnt. As several commentators noted in Adventurous Kate’s admission that she “couldn’t stand Luang Prabang,” it’s not up to a foreigner to determine what is or isn’t authentic, and then assign value to each of these destinations accordingly. It’s the traveler’s responsibility to observe, to appreciate, and to respect what it is they came to see, regardless of whether the direction of development is in line with how the traveler believes it should be. Particularly coming from the Western mindset, there’s a sense of hubris that romanticizes anything “rural.” While “sophisticated” or “cosmopolitan” Americans decry the entire Mid-West for propagating the country hick stereotype, they are the same people gushing over the simple lives and the purported inner peace that they hope to find in exotic locations like Peru or Tibet or Nepal.

Luang Prabang, Laos - Happy New Year!

Luang Prabang, Laos – Happy New Year!

Reality check: “inner peace” isn’t a destination. And denying a culture progress in the name of misguided anti-globalization rhetoric isn’t going to do them any good, even if the privileged vainly wish for a respite from the lifestyle that we benefit from every day.

Certainly, there is something soul-crushing about the fact that fast-food chains and international clothing brands are replacing local products, and I do support a push-back against this type of corporate encroachment. But to say that the city has lost its authenticity – well, that would be to ignore the fact that the people in that city still remain different from those in other cities, and the composition of demographics, architecture, and culture all varies from place to place despite the best efforts of globalization.

As the Southeast Asian motto goes: “Same same, but different.” As travelers, not tourists, we have a responsibility to highlight the “different” but recognize the “same same,” because it is only through accepting all parts of a location – even those we might disagree with – that we can truly attempt to understand it.