It often seems the highest compliment a travel experience can get is, “ohhh, how authentic.” Authenticity is the lauded stamp supposedly verifying the traveler has really made contact with another culture.
And yet, when Kenya’s Masaai hide their microwaves to dance for tourists, and a traditional Chinese tea ceremony filled with wide-eyed Europeans is more authentic than a KFC packed to the gills with Chinese families, what, really, is authenticity?
To me, it seems the authentic is often nostalgia for a simple and idealized way of life that most travelers have never experienced, and want to believe will never change. The authentic is the fixed, the traditional, the pre-modern, and most frequently, the poor.
This illustrates the first rule of seeing other cultures as they really are, by first traveling inward.