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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The purity of tourism


Look at the photo above, taken this afternoon on Shanghai's 上海 Nanjing Road 南京路, the street on which my workplace is located. You don't need to look too closely to see there are outlets for Gucci and Ralph Lauren, not to mention a Daliesque melting watch statue, all examples of pernicious foreign influences. In fact, the section of Nanjing Road where I work is lined with expensive boutiques selling name-brand Western consumer goods. Why do I consider these a threat, you may ask? I don't, actually. But apparently others do, judging by a recent exchange I've been a part of on Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree forum.

It all started with an innocent-enough post on the Taiwan branch posing the question "Why do backpackers rarely go to Taiwan?". Various suggestions were offered, with my own contribution noting that the majority of Western visitors I encountered while living in Taiwan were there because they had family or friends teaching English on the island, and suggesting that one reason for Taiwan being off the radar of so many backpackers (as well as more well-heeled travelers) might be because the tourism authorities haven't done a very good job promoting Formosa to the non-Chinese speaking world. A mild debate ensued, but in general the tone has been pretty low-key.

For me, however, one comment stood out that needed to be addressed. Let's call the person who made it "Julie_L", because that's the name she used. Julie wrote how she enjoyed visiting Taiwan, and is planning her second trip there, and concluded by noting:

What I do like is to visit countries that haven't been altered by tourism... We all admit that Taiwan does have an image problem. But so did Syria when I went there in 1998, Burma when I visited in 2008, and Ethiopia in 1997. So there is hope for Taiwan yet - things can change! But I will personally be happy if it doesn't change. They're wealthy enough without the extra $$$ that tourism brings, and better off without the countless problems it brings.  

A couple of problems were immediately apparent, like comparing Taiwan with the likes of Syria and Burma. I chose, however, to focus on the ignorance behind the observation that Taiwan has somehow not been altered by tourism. Ever since the government switched to a five-day workweek sometime around 2001/2002 (including the schools), with the private sector following suit, Taiwan's leisure industry has boomed. Deserted, forlorn places such as Sanyi's 三義 Shengxing Train Station 勝興車站 now groan every weekend and national holiday under the weight of the tour buses and the sightseers, and the souvenir stores and snack stands that have sprung up to serve their needs. Throw in the visitors from neighboring countries like Japan and the growing number of Chinese tourists, and relatively well-known sightseeing spots like the National Palace Museum 國立故宮博物院 and Taroko Gorge太鲁阁国家公园  have been, well...altered, as I pointed out in my reply to Julie_L:

Just because Taiwan doesn't attract large numbers of visitors from Western countries doesn't mean the country hasn't been altered by tourism. Taiwan has a thriving domestic tourism industry, in addition to the great number of tourists from other Asian countries, including Japan, South Korea and Singapore. And, of course, there is the growing number of Chinese traveling to Taiwan for sightseeing. Compared to how things were when I made my first visit there in 1999 (and later took up residence), Taiwan has, in fact, been greatly altered by tourism. 

There was another aspect to Julie_L's post that I chose not to comment on, but it's been a while since I've ranted about something on this blog, so here I go. There are two types of Western travelers that bother me. The first I've written about here before: the kind of person who appoints him or herself to be the sole interpreter of their chosen foreign locale to the outside (read Western) world. To do so, they have no choice but to reduce everything to an exotic cliche, because the family and friends back home don't want to hear how the locals in some far off foreign land are just like them. And they get upset when others have different interpretations of the same culture, because the country's only big enough for one interpreter. 

The other traveler I don't think I've mentioned before, but I'm sure you're familiar with the type - they're the ones who travel to less-developed lands and become upset when they discover the locals are driving cars, watching satellite TV and using air conditioners and refrigerators in their homes. Their once-idyllic, poverty-stricken lives have become more comfortable as their standards of living have increased, but this bothers certain travelers like our Australian friend Julie (as she identified herself on her profile), who seem to have been hoping to witness poverty and shortened lifespans. So they go on and on about how Western influences are "ruining" traditional societies, and look for poorer countries to get their voyeuristic thrills (and always with the comforting thought that home in their OECD country is just a plane ride away). Nonetheless, I chose not to address this in the reply I posted on Thorn Tree.

Julie's reply only seemed to confirm my initial thoughts:

...OK, how's this "What I do like is to visit countries that haven't been altered by 'Western' tourism."

To which I retorted:

...What difference does it make whether a place has been altered by tourists from Western countries or by tourists from non-Western countries? Isn't the fact that it has been altered in the first place enough?

At this point, someone else chimed in and observed that in Thailand, the influence of Western visitors was very apparent in the form of "beer bars,pizza places etc etc.", and noting that probably wouldn't be the case if the only tourists were those from China. I've yet to go to Thailand, but from what I've seen and heard, I can imagine all the negative effects from mass-market Western tourism have had on Thailand's popular tourist spots, and I can sympathize with the disappointment some travelers may feel. Still, as I pointed out in my reply:

It has only been in recent years that significant numbers of tourists from other Asian countries, in particular China, have been venturing into neighboring countries, so the effect isn't as obvious yet. Also, Northeast Asian visitors often travel in large groups and tend to stay together in certain hotels and resorts, and as a result have less interaction with local businesses compared to Western tourists.
On the other hand, if you visit Hawaii, Guam or Saipan, the influence of Asian tourism (Japanese, Korean and Chinese) is probably very evident. 

At this point, our friend Julie_L decided to show her true colors, so to speak:

...you are very pedantic, and I can see that everything I say will be 'picked apart' by you. However, let me put this simply for you ...

I am a white person. I am not Asian. When I visit Asia, I like to visit Asia. I do not like to visit Pizza Hut and McDonald's or Disneyland. I cannot tell whether the people at attractions in Taiwan are from Taiwan or mainland China. All I know is that the people enjoying the attractions are from nearby geographically and are mostly ethnically Chinese. And they are enjoying the place just like I am. And they have not westernised it. They may have modernised it, but the influence is reasonably local.

OK, I admit I can be very pedantic at times, but Julie's words need to be "picked apart". In Julie's view, East is East and West is West...you know the rest. Basically, when Julie travels to Asia, she wants a culturally pure experience - no McDonalds or Disneyland etc - despite the fact these so-called symbols of "Westernization" have been accepted into the local cultures much in the same way that sushi restaurants and Chinatowns are part of the landscape in most Western cities. Julie can't distinguish one Asian from another, but that doesn't matter - as long as they aren't white or trying to "act white", Julie can enjoy her exotic Asian adventure.

I'm reminded of something I used to experience quite often while living in Japan and Taiwan - the "gaijin stare". I'm referring to those times when walking down a street, you encounter another Westerner approaching in the opposite direction. Some people would acknowledge your presence, while others would ignore you, but there was always a certain kind of person who would cast a cold, hard glance in your direction, a look that seemed to say "How dare you intrude upon my exotic, foreign experience!" Julie_L strikes me as one of those people. I was tempted to write back and ask her how she felt about Asians wearing blue jeans, or listening to Lady Gaga, or playing baseball or basketball, or if traveling in Australia she avoids sushi bars, but someone else replied to her last post very quickly. 

Actually, said person left two comments basically pointing out how ridiculous her observations were. To wit:

Cultures have always exchanged ideas and occasionally they keep one...
 
It seems kind of odd to declare that one set of cultural exchanges is "good" and the other set is "bad," based on whether they came from East or West. Perhaps Western countries should adopt a moratorium on adopting anything from the East. Of course then we'd be left without black pepper, paper money, fuel efficient vehicles etc. etc.. 

"Westernizing" the East does not ruin it, and neither does "Easternizing" the West. Most travelers enjoy cultural exchange...

By that logic when Asian people travel to the US their trip is partially ruined by the fact that we have adopted parts of Asian culture.

So unless Julie_L posts another comment directly addressed to something I've said, I'm basically done with this thread. 

If I were feeling pedantic, however, I might post something like this:

In the area where I work in Shanghai, there is an Isetan department store, a Family Mart convenience store, a Yoshinoya beef bowl restaurant, a Curry House Coco and a Uniqlo clothing outlet. All of these businesses are Japanese. I was wondering, Julie_L, what you would make of this situation. After all, they are hardly traditional parts of Chinese culture, yet they're not exactly "Western", either. Is the fact that these shops come from another Asian country and not from "the West" what you mean when you wrote earlier about "the local influence of modernization"?




4 comments:

  1. hi Jim. i've see that stare before. it's just like you said - your existence ruins the fantasy that what the other guy is doing, is unique and "special." Michael Turton and i have discussed this at length. Thailand is known for this problem, what with all the farangs who now live there with a Thai wife, and think it's unique.

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    1. I use to see it a lot in Tokyo, and I always found it odd, because in such a huge, cosmopolitan city, wouldn't you expect to see a lot of expats? If someone wants that "special experience", why don't they move into the countryside?

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    2. I should also point out that so far I haven't gotten that "look" yet here in Shanghai. Probably because there are just so many expats in this city. That, and the fact that they're no doubt here to make money, and not to experience an exotic China fantasy life.

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  2. "other traveler I don't think I've mentioned before, but I'm sure you're familiar with the type - they're the ones who travel to less-developed lands and become upset when they discover the locals are driving cars, watching satellite TV and using air conditioners and refrigerators in their homes. Their once-idyllic, poverty-stricken lives have become more comfortable as their standards of living have increased, but this bothers certain travelers like our Australian friend Julie (as she identified herself on her profile), who seem to have been hoping to witness poverty and shortened lifespans. So they go on and on about how Western influences are "ruining" traditional societies, and look for poorer countries to get their voyeuristic thrills (and always with the comforting thought that home in their OECD country is just a plane ride away)"

    I will say as a Canadian (of Chinese descent) who has never been to Asia yet (and I'm past 50 :)), there is the tendency to romanticize Asia. I wasn't particularily interested in trying any Italian food when I was in Denmark, but we ended up out of desperation after looking around for real Danish food at a reasonable price. (You have to understand my partner is of German descent, raised on German cooking and baking in Canada. So we do have some interest in traditional dishes.) It didn't spoil our trip, but made it puzzling for us to even understand what Danish food was all about...beyond just herring, some breads, etc.

    Whenever I read about the travel experience of accommodation by Westerners with a hill tribe family, etc....I cringe. I know they need the money, but when reading where the family ends up sleeping...I dunno: Do I need the memory of poverty of my own family with 6 children in Ontario in 1 bedroom apartment before my father found our first (dilapidated) house after so much money?

    I'd rather have a pleasant meal and leave the family in privacy.

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