World travel, backpacking culture, and tourism, in general, breeds a certain type. Take the guy sharing a sleeper on my train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. He is wearing Thai pants and has matted blonde hair, grown stringy past his shoulders. His eyes are kind, but shifty, casual, as if to say, “I’ve done this before, and I might be slight and vegetarian, but don’t mess with me.”
He carries books about world religions and talks about cultural difference, name-dropping cities, countries and world wonders he has seen, as though he has assimilated into each landscape and frame effortlessly. He even has tattoos written in different languages written up and down his arms. His dirty feet are halfway up the ladder to the sleeper when he makes it known to me that the swastikas painted on his blanket are a common symbol in Hindu art meaning “good fortune and luck” not having anything to do with the Nazis. Incidentally, I had this knowledge previously, but thanked him for the clarification, as though I had been examining his blanket in the first place.
The world citizen must blend in, anywhere he goes. And he makes his efforts known, not unlike a host of travelers I have met along the way. Casual references are made:
“Oh have you been to…?”
“…. is just amazing, you must go there if you are going through…”
“If you stop in…, don’t forget to…”
His gestures are calm, as if he just spent 10 years on a yoga retreat. Nothing can phase him, because, as he so fervently implies, he has seen it all.
I don’t mind the helpful travel hints, but I sense a constant justification, as if the experience alone should lend itself to some kind of accomplishment and self-worth; that braving the East gives purpose and entitlement to experience, not only in the world at large, but the lives we live at home.
There is a group of Westerners on a yoga retreat where I am staying in Chiang Mai who meet routinely at 7:00, 12:00, and 6:00 (their unbending meal hours). On several (accidental) occasions, I have endured conversations from a nearby table where they discuss the importance of Eastern medicine, detox, bodily cleansing, and massage. There is one American woman from Portland who talks louder than the rest and says things like, “I know not everyone is a vegetarian, so I cannot order for the table, I mean, I am not that controlling. Just because I care about my body doesn’t mean I can tell other people what to put into theirs.”
(Across the table, eyes roll)
In another conversation she mentions this anecdote: “My friend suggested that I read a book about entitlement. She said I had this attitude of ‘entitlement.’ I didn’t want to read it, but I like to evolve, so I did. I guess she was right. I think maybe I do travel with a sense of entitlement.”
My favorite line: “I like to evolve.” We come from all over the world, but everyone leaves wearing beaded bracelets and Thai pants. This must be her definition of evolution: trading in Versace for market pants she probably bartered down from 5 dollars. Bragging about how little we can live on a day, as if choice makes the whole thing fun.
I can’t deny, we are all tourists, and I am not immune. There is something sad about the emptiness of it all. I wonder, can we ever really connect through travel? I was walking through Bangkok in a highly populated tourist area, and everyone was sort of floating along blindly. Maybe the Westerners were mesmerized, but they seemed bored with their own attempts at the exotic, bored with their purchases, bored with escape.
Two girls sat and had their hair braided by Thai women, their eyes unfocused, staring into the market, their dirty sandals kicked off, their posture, deadened, like unused puppets. They were resting, feeling self-satisfied, paying pennies for what would turn out to be at least an hour’s work. They seem disinterested, as if they are somewhere distant, glazed over, probably thinking about how to cleverly update their Facebook status. Even here, things do not change so much.
We cannot help being Westerners in the East, but I question the form of tourism that so cheaply and carelessly rips off cultures and habits, making the experience as disposable as the unused coins we find at the bottom of our backpacks. I understand the, “When in Rome…,” concept, but really, this appropriation of minority Eastern cultures by the West seems to have gone awry, especially when none of us will ever really know what it is like to live on 8000 baht a month. Most of us travel on European, American, or Canadian passports, another advantage, which we cannot deny or trade, even with a smile.
That is the privilege isn’t it? The passport that brings knowledge, and the knowledge that comes from “experiencing” cultures and people like studying caged animals at the zoo, without stopping to think, they never can or will have the money or freedom to “study” us. I laugh at the Fodder’s headings in the travel books, “Meet Your Minorities!” and tour offers to “Eat With the Locals!” It is not that the locals don’t want to sell these commodities or that they don’t want you there, it’s that they don’t give a shit. And the “exchange” has nothing to do with culture.
On my last night in Chiang Mai, I wanted a picture with the hotel waiter, Sum Chai, a man we had grown close to over the course of three weeks. Though he didn’t speak much English, we learned his name, traded whiskey and cigarettes and learned about his family. We always asked him to sit down at our table, but he graciously bowed and always brought back the change that we intended for his tip. He finally began to understand when we shout, “We LOVE YOU Sum Chai!” He would laugh and shake his head, turning away, bashfully.
I have spent more time with this man than my own family in the past six months and I will probably always remember him, so I didn’t think it inappropriate to ask for his picture. I stand next to him, posing in a clichéd arm-around-the-shoulder-because-we’re-so-close-way, looking awkwardly large next to his feeble frame. The flash goes off. He stands still for a second, and then runs to the other side of the camera lens quickly, wanting to see the results in the window. When I look at the photo later, his posture is stiff, his eyes look empty and cold. He is not smiling. I feel bad, like maybe I scared him.
Later I showed the picture to a friend who has been living in Thailand for 5 years. His only response was: “Well, what was he supposed to do? How many pictures do you think he has had taken? Do you think he even owns a camera? Do you think he has a bunch of photos lying around the house of him posing with his own family?”
I instantly feel silly, withdrawn, and a bit naïve for trying to capture this brief encounter in a way, I now see as presumptuous and possibly insensitive. Similarly, I am sickened, while I watch the others from the boat to Laos, hover and snap digital photos of a woman and her children as they are begging for food: moments to remember, and then tuck into the files of our desktops we will label, “Thailand” or “Laos, January 2011.”
I was sitting with a kid from Burma while at a bar in Northern Thailand and he told me about being a refugee. He had seen his own parents slaughtered, then, he and his sister escaped, following the mass exodus, running until they reached a refugee camp. After living years on the border of Thailand, he was finally able to gain refugee status and immigrate to the United States. Now he is in college in Tucson and lives less than two blocks from my old apartment near the U of A. We laugh at the coincidence, though I am still shaken by the warfare story, one that he revealed so casually and seemed so far off from anything close to my own quaint, suburban childhood.
It was New Year’s Eve and he was in Thailand to visit and find some old family and friends. We both sat at the same bar and shared a large bottle of Chang. After the count down, and the clock struck midnight, we all raised our glasses and cheered.
In Thainglish (Thai-English) there is a ubiquitous expression “same same, but different” which basically translates into, “same thing, but different in some ways.” You will often hear this shortened into, “same same.”
As the minutes pass, the laughter dies down, with blurry vision, I watch this boy, who through his smiles, has seen so much. I think about “same same.” I think about “same same, but different.” Even though we are both in Thailand, at this moment, at this table, same 2011 new year, same hotel patio bar, it is still clear to me, in muted words and passing eyes, there is a difference: I am merely a tourist, and he, is trying to come home.