What is the nature of tourism? How does it contribute to globalization? What are the politics of being a Western expatriate in Asia? This intro lays down the general premise of Road Rash.
The other day in China I saw the classic stereotype of tourists. They wore the uniform: sunglasses, tacky Hawaiian T-shirts, short pants, and the omnipresent camera hanging around their necks like a noose. They were photographing themselves while standing in front of a sign. I wondered if their motive was to have a photo to prove where they had been or to have a picture to remember where they once were.
Later these photos could be placed together in a photo album. Perhaps displayed in a perfectly linear fashion that could be easily explained to whatever, willing or unwilling, audience had been elected to view the picture book as if it was a family home movie. This is our father feeding a deer, this is our mother pointing at a temple in the background, and this is the picture of our whole family in front of a road sign. Perhaps these tourists are creative with the scrapbook, adding captions or cutting up photos to make a mosaic bombardment of images.Memories can be anchored in photographs and pinned into a photo album.
These scrapbooks are, for the second-hand viewer, the palimpsest of the global village. Somebody else’s travel experiences are superimposed over a viewer’s perception of the world. Photographs also pinpoint events for future reference. Although I am humored by the photographic choices of many tourists, I too point my camera at some of the same sites as a sort of place marker. Unlike photographs, however, memories by themselves are illusive. Memories can’t be linearly rolled back onto a spool for quick development. They fester and ferment over time and they are contaminated by future events and past stereotype. The memories of western tourists in Asia are woven with their country’s history of colonialism, former wars, political conflicts, present-day economic relations, and globalization. The fabric of tourism is consistently moving and changing. Nonetheless, the emerging tapestry feeds the perception of those who continue to view it later –much like a scrapbook of photo images.
While living in Asia I also noticed a primary difference in cultural tastes for photography. Asians tend to love photos that crowd everybody together with an important landmark in the background. Although western tourists often do the same, there is sometimes a strong desire to wait until nobody is in the frame before snapping the shutter open (creating an effect that they have blazed new and unexplored territory). While showing my photos to adult Korean students they sometimes commented that I must have been lonely without somebody to include in the photo. While showing the same pictures earlier to my Hungarian students at Berzenyi Daniel College, they often complained that bystanders blocked out the sites. In both cases, photographs bored students when they reminded them of their own culture. Hungarians had no interest in photos of churches from the Czech Republic and Koreans did not care much about photos of Chinese temples. They wanted to escape into a more exotic world, not to tour in reflection of their own lives. However, the world that one can’t escape, I would argue, is perhaps the most important part of one’s tourism experience. Culture obviously shapes photographic choices, but how does it affect memory and experience? I would be curious to learn what Asian tourists remember from the west, and what emotional and cultural luggage they pack with them from home?
Viewing photographs or travelogues is a vicarious tourist experience. In the second hand viewing of photos, combined with oral narratives, the audience is cognitively transported to another part of the world like a second-hand tourist. I became conscious of this after my camera broke and I lacked the funds to replace it. I started to tour with an eye to what might not be captured via lens. With the medium of writing I tried to substitute a visual image with text. My tourist scrapbook of field notes was originally comprised of e-mails, thumbnail sketches, and random scribbling on whatever paper could be found at the impromptu moment. While teaching English in Korea, I started to gather this material together in book form before it was all lost or polluted by faulty memory. The writing evolved as I made the transition from a tourist to an expatriate.
This book is much like a photo album that I have dragged out so that others may view my experiences. In a cynical sense, this material is like a photo that rubs in the fact that I have experienced something that others have not (like the popular 1970s T-shirt: My family went to Hawaii and all I got was this lousy T-shirt). However, this book is designed with education in mind. This book attempts to analyze tourism and to explore the role of expatriate communities in Asia. From this information others may define their personal standpoint as a tourist, and engage in ways that can have more positive impact in world communities. I hope to raise westerners’ consciousness to their complex roles as tourists in an emerging global village. Travel is a privilege that others can’t financially afford. Its global and historic significance should not be taken for granted.
Tourism impacts each individual in various ways and the impetus that triggers travel is different with each person depending on their life situation. Put simply, each tourist does a different dance in the global village. Individuals tour for purposes such as economics, recreation, business, health, religion, and education. Tourists also differ in behavior patterns, dress codes, financial habits, and in their interactions with local communities. Furthermore, tourism flows in both directions; Asians travel to western countries just as we temporarily migrant into theirs. It is this cross-cultural pollination that truly gives birth to the global village.
It is difficult to judge a good or bad tourist because there isn’t a clearly defined template that outlines a specific tourist ethic. Each individual makes his or her own decisions about how to behave in a foreign country. Likewise, a good or bad tourist experience is subject to debate. What is a disaster at the time can later cause much delight to recollect. Retrospection can also make small details appear more important than the actual tourist sites originally sought out in the first place. For example, the facial configurations of elderly Chinese men overshadowed the panoramas inside the Forbidden City in Beijing, the Turkish vendors who sold lamb kabobs in Budapest drowned out my memories of viewing the Hungarian parliament building, and Dracula’s castle in Romania took a backseat to a Gypsy vendor who sold exotic goat cheese wrapped in pine bark.
One can’t pre-select a memory or experience. Tourist memories ebb and wane through time as if they have a mind of their own. Memories act like a biological organism sometimes, as if they parasitically controlled tourists’ movements for their own benefit. Ultimately, it is not the tourist site that becomes important to remember, but the process along the way.
My idea is to place these writings into the framework of the global village. Like photographs, these essays attempt to document the construction of a global village as westerners collide among themselves while on the symbolic dance floors of a third (but not necessarily third world) country. What interests me is the interactions among tourists from different western nations, and how they relate to each other in a mutually foreign country. I am also intrigued by how westerners interact with local communities in Asia. This project should not be mistaken for a travel guide to Asia. I prefer to think of it as an anti-guidebook. This book deliberately avoids making recommendations for hotels and restaurant, it seldom discusses tour sites with any detail, and I rarely analyze local communities (let them do it themselves for a change). Many sections take place while still on route via train, bus, or airplane. It is more accurate to label this manuscript a “tourism” of western tourists.
To use the photo motif one last time, this written snapshot is pointed directly at western tourists and expatriate communities in Asia. While some westerners maneuver their cameras to avoid capturing bystanders in the frame, and tourists sometimes collectively pretend not to notice each other during their wanderings, these essays emphasize the tourists within the “tourist” site. Each story contains a tourist spotting. If you pay attention while reading each narrative you can spot a quick glimpse of a tourist, like a surprised deer, sprinting over a hill away from view. In these brief moments are snapshots of a foreigner’s encounters with other foreigners in a strange land.
Tourism is part of the globalization process, therefore this book explores globalization as reflected by western tourists and expatriate communities in Asia. The main focus is on both how westerners behave with local communities while overseas and how they interact with other tourists during their journeys. The backdrop of this book is Asia only because this is where I was living while putting the material together. I believe that similar results would also have been reflected in Africa, Latin America, or the Mid-East.
This book, in itself, is an example of globalization. It was written across more than seven foreign countries. I could not afford a personal computer. My sole attempt to buy one in Korea resulted in my having to seek legal action, under a foreign system of law, due to the defective product that was intentionally hoisted onto another foreign “megook”. Access to “legitimate” computer software in English was also difficult to find overseas. Thus, the majority of my field notes were originally written in the form of e-mail and sent to various locations in Asia, Europe, Russia, and North America. Revisions were made after receiving prompt feedback via e-mail from tourists, locals, and other interested parties. Internet access can be found everywhere. I found Internet cafes in the scorching heat of the Thar Desert, in high elevations in the Himalayan Mountains, in democratically repressive countries such as China, and in small villages of Lao and Cambodia. Computers and the Internet are omnipresent in the global village, although there are still gaps because many can’t afford to use them.
On the rare occasions when I was able to borrow a computer for a few days, I discovered that I could operate them despite the pirated foreign-language software and bilingual keyboards. I wrote this book in multi-language programs designed for Korean, Japanese, Thai, Chinese, Hindi, and Hungarian citizens. More importantly, each foreign computer could read my disc. Other than some problems with formatting and viruses, one single computer disc was able to travel the world to find itself compatible with computers in many different countries. With the knowledge of a few commands and the use of computer icons, I could communicate internationally regardless of what primary language was used by the computer.
The process of communicating with other tourists and local communities also illustrates globalization. The unifying factor among many tourists in Asia is the English language. Esperanto aside, English was somehow elected, without formal vote, as the chosen language of the global village. Tourists from diverse countries find themselves lapsing into English as a way to communicate overseas. I have witnessed it in odd combinations: a French tourist resorts to fragmented English when speaking to another European from Germany; an Indian tourist embraces his second language of English to ask a Japanese tourist a question; a Slovakian lapses into English while conducting business with a Lao hotel clerk. English has become the mother tongue of the global village. For many travelers, such as myself, English has become my tool that allows me to travel. I am one of the thousands of native English teachers in Asia today. I finance my travel by teaching English and have lived for years overseas with this form of employment.
My communication with the human participants of this research, however, was a lot more complicated than just having the ability to speak the same language. The method of involving participants in my research was limited by the nature of tourism. The majority of tourists only vacation for a week or two. The contacts made in the excitement of travel promptly vanish after the tourist returns home and the spell is broken. Thus, it proved difficult to procure contacts for an extended period of time. I wanted to capture tourists in the element of spontaneous travel rather than wait for them to analyze their ideas afterward. In result, my encounters with other tourists tended to be fleeting, self-referential, and developed out of randomness. Most tourists travel to relax or to have fun, so it is a burden to have a researcher tag along asking questions. When possible I would join tourists for a few days but the majority of interviews and experiences were ethereal.
Likewise, the relationship made between the tourist and a local is also short or unbalanced. Locals usually interact with tourists in the role of a servant in the hospitality industry (receptionist, porter, wait staff) or by small-scale business transactions (vendor, tout, driver, guide). My initial encounters with local communities were limited by time and they often contained the hidden agenda of business. Many local participants, being involved with the tourism industry, tended to steer my interviews toward my buying a souvenir or making a cash contribution. Other locals responded too politely due to cultural habit or the desire to make me happy. I tried to break the ice by speaking in their native tongue whenever possible, however most dialogue was conducted in English. Many locals might not have been able to articulate their sentiments in the way they wanted to. I found closer relationships in educational institutes with students, employers, and teaching colleagues. They also were clearly aware that I would move to a different city in a short period of time. There was an inescapable politic to the exchange of information. I was only scratching the surface of interaction.
My work in India also had some drawbacks relating to my standpoint as a researcher. For example, the dynamics of wealth and poverty struck a personal nerve. Belonging to the “working poor” category in the United States I had a difficult time with locals’ relatively accurate perception that I was wealthy. I was also surprised at my inability to relate to the level of poverty experienced by some of my local participants. I felt torn because I felt both wealthy and poor at the same time. I never realized what class background that I most fit into. Poverty can be illusive because it is always easy to find someone with less money than your self. Even while penniless and living in a parked car in the United States, I felt privileged in comparison to homeless families that slept on concrete sidewalks. In result, my journey through India was especially marked with personal conflicts that I couldn’t escape from.
Another limitation was based on ethics. There isn’t any one ethical standard that leads tourists. The nature of tourism is to seek escape from reality back home, not to adhere to a new set of laws and responsibilities. For example, in India it is quite common for tourists to openly smoke hashish while it is still illegal to purchase in their homeland. I refrained from this practice for the past three years while living overseas, and I would never have considered smoking recreational drugs while in Eastern Europe, Northeast Asia, or Thailand. However, I was forced to reexamine this choice once in India and Cambodia. Many tourists use the consumption of cannabis as a common bond and social lubricant. It is a tool to gain trust with strangers, and my refusal to participate would have been suspect. It can be argued that my observations have been tainted by hypocrisy. Especially, when it is understood that I traveled with tourists that were trafficking drugs to pay for their tourism. Although this criticism is legitimate, I maintain that it would not have been possible to document this behavior if I hadn’t gained trust via the ritual of passing a pipe. Ultimately, this experience leads back to the question: what responsibilities do tourists have in the global village?
One final limitation was finding information about tourism while living overseas. Excluding the Internet, literature written in English can be difficult to find and the academic material is often outdated. My bookstore searches turned up many travelogues, guidebooks, and phrasebooks. I found books that taught foreign students English phrases for tourism jobs, but I was unable to find published scholarly information about tourist behavior or patterns of travel. Unfortunately, this drawback has not been remedied in the United States either. On returning to the United States, I was surprised by the lack of dialogue about tourism. I attended several major travel conferences only to be disappointed that agendas only explored ticket prices, package tours, and lists of historic sites and hotels. There are few accessible statistics that measure the rate or describe the patterns of western tourists overseas. There was even less material that directly explored tourists themselves. Even though most travel agents work in the industry they could not lead me to crucial resources. In result of the aforementioned limitations my research tends to be autobiographical and based on my own personal observations.
Regardless of these difficulties, while living as an expatriate overseas I am confounded by the impact of my native tongue, English, and the preponderance of westerners to behave in predictable ways. As a foreign worker, ethnographer, and tourist I began to see behavior patterns emerge. This research has been a way for me to document tourism in Asia and to understand how it is evolving. However, this book illustrates only one globetrotter’s thoughts about travel. Readers may have a very different interpretation of my experiences. Nevertheless, the outcome hopefully provokes westerners to dialogue about their international/domestic impact as tourists. The contents help readers gain insight about human nature and their capacity, as tourists, to connect in different situations. From this discussion we can more honestly translate our participation in the rapidly evolving global village.