Is this authentic?

Elephant pants, elephant camps & white dreads: navigating nuance in a globalized Southeast Asia

There’s something of a epidemic among tourists and travelers in glorifying “authentic” elements in cultures different than their own. It’s natural (and healthy, I think) to seek authenticity in life, but the discovery will always be more of a subjective impression than an actual qualifier. Each time we deem something “authentic,” it comes with hundreds of subconscious qualifications, entirely based on our own limited knowledge of the history and space.

What makes a monument authentic — if it’s preserved in its original state, or if it ages naturally, with time?

Is the “real” Thai culture lying somewhere in the countryside, surrounded by water buffalo and subsistence farming? What makes that lifestyle more authentic than working at a fast food chain in Bangkok? As is true in most tourist destinations, that which is untouched by the forces of globalization tends to gain this title of “authentic” more so than, say, a statue of Ronald McDonald greeting you with a wai (see Exhibit A).

mcdonals

That seems to makes sense, aesthetically, but why should it? Globalization is shuffling things around in ways that are often ethically confusing, but does that means this change is inherently inauthentic, and necessarily damaging?

I should say now that I’m truly sorry for the amount of rhetorical questions in this post — it’s just because I don’t have any of the answers.

The word “globalization” is a floating signifier in itself — it really means nothing other than something becoming international. In the context of imperialism and colonization and neoliberal exploitation, the word weighs heavy with negative connotation. Global interaction and exchange can also be seen as increasing understanding, as building empathy, as decreasing the significance of an “other” — an “us” and a “them” — in a perfect world.

The negative effects of global expansion have silenced thousands of cultures and exploited vulnerable communities, but globalization doesn’t make the lives of individuals inauthentic.


Take The Starbucks Effect™ for instance. Between its WiFi accessibility and diminished language barrier, Starbucks has to be the easiest, most consistent space to work and study on this trip. Yet sitting down in an Seattle-themed, air-conditioned cafe and sipping on an Americano in the heart of a bustling Asian metropolis is also one of the quickest ways to feel guilty.

Despite being the farthest away from Seattle than ever before in my life, I’ve spent more time in Starbucks over the past 6 months than I could ever have predicted. I can hear what you’re thinking (or at least what my incessant subconscious has been thinking since the first time i entered an Asian Starbucks in Kyoto, Japan): it’s not an authentic experience.

Fair, but why is that?

In Thailand, there is a definitive stereotype of the “authentic lifestyle.” It’s rural, it has rice paddy fields and water buffalo, and it definitely doesn’t have Starbucks.

When we imagine “authentic” tourism, we might juxtapose it with the embarrassing scene of loud White Americans abroad, wearing Hawaiian shirts and sandals, engaging in choreographed performances of mass tourism. “Alternative” tourists are largely touring “alternatively” just to avoid becoming this image. However, Thai people are very much tuned in to the more recent cringe-worthy trends among new-wave tourists; my host mom recently saw a white woman in elephant pants and pointed out that these are “the symbol of the foreigner.” I can’t even get started on white dreads, of which I’ve seen more in the past month than a whole year in San Diego (and that’s saying a lot).

There’s no right way to be a tourist, or a student abroad for that matter. But there are some obvious flaws in the nature of Thai tourism which romanticizes traditional forms of rural rice farming, or rural life in general. Despite the agricultural efforts to modernize farming and alleviate poverty in Thailand, foreign tourists continue to equate the poorest lifestyles with the most authentic lifestyles. This mentality locks rural Thai people into an archaic performance, as the tourism market demands the traditional over the modern. (This article about the agrarian myth gives more context if you’re interested.)

Tradition matters, but not when it is demanded and constructed by white tourists.

The authentic elephant encounter is a topic of debate among Thailand’s tourists which grows more heated every day. Or at least each time a sensationalized FaceBook video goes viral.

In truth, elephants have no place to exist in Thailand anymore. All of the forests have been developed, and all of the rural spaces have been cultivated. Aside from Thai zoos, most of which are not up to a healthy par when it comes to enclosure size, elephants have to live in elephant camps — there’s nowhere else for them to go. Yet tourists who “did their research” protest these camps for being unethical. Until an “ethical elephant camp” pops up, of course, and tourists flock.


These thoughts are all fairly scattered, but so are the effects of globalization and development. World Heritage Sites feel like an apt metaphor which helps to tie all of these ideas together; when a location is deemed culturally significant enough, it is protected by international treaties. These spaces are then preserved, and pickled in a way. Tourism increases, and the site is made into a Site.

I’ve been lucky enough to visit many of these UNESCO sites over the past few months of traveling, from tulou homes in Southern China, to Mughal architecture in Agra. I always appreciate the accessibility of these monuments, but it’s hard to help but wonder what they would be like if nobody decided to protect them — if they just existed. Without international intervention, without reinforcements and preservation, without tourism.

Well, I certainly would have never visited these sites if that was the case, so maybe I’m being hypocritical. But what is the grand point of locking monuments into any given spot in history? Is this preservation a form of authenticity?

I leave you with another metaphor — food for thought, if you will: if authenticity is a byproduct of preservation, then pickles are the new cucumbers.

And I end this post way more confused than when I started it.

2 Comments

  1. Matt G

    Does this mean I have to throw away my elephant pants?

    In all seriousness, I think that one way to conceptualize “authenticity” is to locate the agency in decisions about one’s own identity. With the forces of globalization that agency is stripped away. People are made to adapt to new circumstances brought about by their role in the global economy. An “authentic” expression of self, maybe, is choice made by an individual to adopt (or not adopt) certain practices because that is what they want to do, not because it is what is required by circumstances. Authenticity comes from within, not from the dictates of others.

    When tourists come in seeking an authentic experience they are inherently shaping that very experience trough their presence there. Its almost like that phenomena in physics where the very act of observation changes the outcome of an event. Foreigners are not familiar with an area and therefore will only know the really popular attractions there, and once an experience becomes popular enough to attract tourists, then that attraction is shaped in a reciprocal fashion by the tourist’s visit. Some people realize this and try to see different things accordingly, things that do not attract many outsiders who shape the event with their presence – things that remain “authentic”. I have no idea whether or not they succeed in this.

    Unfortunately the nature of our current society means that authenticity is a commodity of ever increasing scarcity. Developing networks of interdependence strip the agency to authentic practices as we are all subsumed into the global economy. No idea where I was going with this, just wanted to share some thoughts your post made me think.

    Like

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