A Masaai woman in traditional garb / Photo Marc Veraart
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.
1. Redefining Authenticity
This idea of authenticity often reinforces the same set of power relations travelers hope to undo: the control of dominant, technologically advanced, “modern” countries over more “primitive”, poor countries.
Why is it that “modern” countries are free to change, to grow wealthy, to develop, but other cultures and societies are supposed to exist in a permanent pre-modern condition, living in ignorant bliss uncontaminated by the influence of the outside world?
Are people only authentic when they’re poor? When they donÂ´t have access to the opportunities and choices that (significantly wealthier) travelers do?
How can we think about authenticity in a way that is not synonymous with poverty and unwavering obedience to tradition?
These are questions travelers need to ask in order to work for healthy, sustainable growth in the places they visit, and to escape this dichotomy of authentic, static, noble poverty vs. inauthentic wealth, growth, and change.
2. Challenging Personal Assumptions
“They may be poor, but theyÂ´re happy!” I cringe every time I hear this refrain.
I remember meeting an American professor in a Oaxacan café and telling him about the intense poverty in the Sierra Norte, where my husband is from. My husband’s brother had gone to the U.S at age seventeen and lived in a cave, working to support his parents and five brothers and sisters.
My husband’s parents both worked full time to pull in an income that could send only one child (my husband) to college. I said, “There are no opportunities in the Sierra”, and the professor replied, “Yes, but they are content, and opportunities is an American concept.”
An outrageous assumption: they donÂ´t really want opportunities, they live in graceful, natural, harmonious poverty. We may enjoy the opportunity to travel across Mexico, but they are happier eating tortillas and living in tin roof houses.
Such a nice, heartwarming thought coming from someone who has never faced poverty.
One of the hardest things as a traveler is to accept that the way you want to see a culture may be very different from the way local people see (and want to see) it.
Inner travel should be the effort to move beyond assumptions, to free oneself of easy explanations and answers that come from what one would like to believe, and not what is.
3. Across the class spectrum
I admit, I think the best places to eat are always the dumpling restaurants with two linoleum tables, a couple of stools, and a crate of beer in the corner.
I love morning taco stands, markets, and tiny restaurants packed elbow to elbow where one can eat for a buck and toast the guy at the next table.
But, sometimes, it’s worth it to pop into a McDo or the latest upscale fusion restaurant downtown: who’s there? What are they doing?
I went to McDo in Beijing for the first time at 3 a.m, just after a rock concert, to find it packed full of college students, asleep atop stacks of textbooks, with trays of tea and fries scattered around them.
It was a surprise peek at middle class Chinese culture; the up-and-coming cadres, doctors, and teachers snoozing under the golden arches.
Similarly, at an upscale Chinese restaurant (where I’d never have gone if the university where I taught hadn’t thrown a banquet) I saw Chinese who twenty years ago were in the full throes of the Cultural Revolution now eating Peking Duck and watching Imperial acrobatics, waited on by dainty young girls in red qipiaos.
This was an insight into modern China possible made possible by escaping the local dumpling joint. It is worth it to experience (if one’s budget affords) the whole class spectrum, to help jolt oneself awake to the past and future of a place, and to the complicated layers that compose it.
4. Witnessing Connections
“Made in China” takes on a whole new significance pulling into a Chinese factory town, with air so dense your eyes burn and a persistent cough claws at your throat.
Seeing people riding bikes under the gray haze of factory chemicals, seeing the grimness of life without sky or air, changes the way one thinks about all those familiar “Made in China” labels.
Similarly, knowing how much the average coffee farmer makes in Mexico or Colombia changes the way one thinks about the prices of an average pound of Mexican or Colombian coffee at home.
It is so easy to miss these connections; corporations and the media conspire to obscure them.
But travelers have the chance to connect their lives with the lives of people in the places they visit, to expose the injustice of these connections between rich and poor, developed and developing, and to potentially create sustainable, just connections in replace of exploitative ones.
5. Ways of Seeing
Coffee is not just coffee when it is a glass mug of Malay espresso and sweetened condensed milk, served on a sticky 85 degree day in a Kedai Kopi in Kota Kinabalu, Borneo, with a steaming bowl of lahksa.
It is a full-on sensory experience that yanks all those dormant parts of oneself, the parts that go plodding through the day to day in familiar places without really seeing, to life.
The best way to experience “inner travel,” the process of moving oneself out of a familiar mental space, is to take no detail for granted.
Every place, even Columbus, Ohio (which, having grown up there, I had always assumed was the most boring place on Earth) is full of quirks and smells and sights and sounds and local particularities.
It can all be travel, even the same day-to-day bus ride to work, even the park where you walk the dog every evening, even the landscapes that are so familiar you barely see them, if you peer through the eyes of a traveler.
How has inner travel helped you experience other cultures? Share your thoughts in the comments!