In a previous article, The Most Important Question to Ask Before You Travel, I posed the question: “What do you want to learn?” If your answer involves learning about the people and culture of the country currently hosting you at the moment, then you and I both face a common dilemma: Is our experience “authentic?”
First let’s turn the question inward. As I’m an American, that means responding to the question: What is the “real” America? Is it what one sees in movies? Is it small snippets of capitalism sprouting wings and planting themselves overseas? I’ve shocked the majority of Europeans I’ve met when I’ve claimed that Belgian fries are comparable to the fare in quality American steakhouses. The reaction I receive is: “Really? What do you think good fries are, McDonalds?” An American living in Europe will at some point find himself having to answer for American food and culture (and unfortunately politics).
It’s understandable. When someone visits America, do they prefer to see big New York skyscrapers and Texan rodeo? Or the everyday suburban existence of residents bustling through shopping malls and along highways? I would argue that the best trip is a mix of both. After all, the past places considerable weight on the enduring culture and habits of a people.
For some travelers, as discussed in this NY Times article, the spirit of travel is captured by seeing something “different,” as if that is akin to something “special.” Why do we value methodically preserved historical districts and “traditional” cuisine? To experience the unique culture of that society? Ancient structures and traditional aestheticism are beautiful, special, essential aspects of every country. Yet, by focusing too much on experiencing the former, we bypass the uniqueness that is the everyday lives of that society’s residents.
Let’s alter the question a little bit: What do we want to experience when we travel?
For me, its the reality of the country in the present. The beauty and power of tradition in Kyoto is considerable, but it’s more likely that on an average day more locals visit Aeon Mall than Kiyomizu Temple. Seeing only the old, or “traditional,” side of a city or country would be akin to visiting a ghost town, or perhaps more gently, an open-air museum. For the attuned traveler, observing and interacting with the minds, habits, and trials of the average citizen in a bar in downtown Warsaw can be just as rewarding and educational as visiting that seven hundred year old church in Ghent.
The group of high schoolers who let me hold their pet snake in Taiwan, the homeless man who led me to a mystifying WWI-era cemetery in Poland, the older couple who invited me into their house for tea in Japan, the Syrian refugee who shared stories of his life in Turkey, the woman who drove me around her city after helping me find supper in South Korea – these are my fondest memories because they opened up to me a side of the people, city, and country which is not found in a guidebook, or even on a blog. They are non-replicable person-to-person experiences.
Is then an “authentic” trip one in which a traveler talks like a local, eats like a local, and lives like a local? Perhaps that’s not necessary. From my time living in Japan and Poland, I’ve come to the conclusion that the more you put yourself out there, the more the world opens up to you in return. The more closed off you are to different experiences, new ideas, and foreign languages, the stranger the world seems. The Doors put it better than I when they said, “people are strange when you’re a stranger.”
Just as we may view immigrants or foreigners with a suspicious eye when they come to our country, so may we be viewed with apprehension when we travel without consideration of local customs, people, and language.
Big Tourism – and I use “big” in the same way as Big Tobacco and Big Business – tells us we can experience a society – condensing an ages-old, multi-faceted, irreplaceable culture – by capturing an iconic photograph or purchasing a stereotypical souvenir. Contrarily, tourism of that caliber makes of us caricatures of the societies we represent.
The best teachers learn from their students, even as they teach. Accordingly, the travelers who try to learn about the societies they visit – not only see, do, and eat their way around each destination – will enable their own cultures to flow forth. If both parties are able to view the “other” as a person, then true understanding – on the individual and global level – will be achieved.