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Eat, Travel, Oppress: Travel Discourse and Imperialist Nostalgia

September 18th, 2012     by Raisa Bhuiyan     Comments

In an inspiration-intended to-do list aptly titled “25 things to do before you’re 25,” I read the following suggestion,

16. Identify your fears and instead of letting them dictate your every move, find and talk to people who have overcome them. Don’t settle for experiencing .000002% of what the world has to offer because you’re afraid of getting on a plane.

I thought it was imperative to bold the second sentence of that suggestion for two main reasons. The first is that it implies that formative life experiences can only be found by travelling outside of one’s geographical borders. And the second is that it assumes that anyone can get on a plane at any time they desire to travel without much hassle.

While this particular suggestion may have been written with intention of encouraging readers to identify and reconcile their personal life pains, the privileged language used is exclusive and ignorant of the complex, multifaceted realities experienced by poor, racialized peoples in our communities - many for whom the idea of travel often has more negative connotations.

The self-obsessed language through which travel and travelling is typically talked about in our culture is rooted in an imperialist mode of thinking that sustains itself through othering poor people of colour. In fact, the ways of talking about travel have made it so that travellers going on vacations for fun, or trips to help others, do so in manners and behaviours that are strikingly similar to the trips that European colonizers took centuries ago when they first came to “civilize” the rest of the world.

In this light, travel discourse is directly perpetuating colonial ways of thinking: it markets travelling as an apolitical, carefree, schism-free and fluffy experience, unaccountable to historical and present violence caused by ongoing colonization. It ignores the reality that the actions of global powers are the main causes of the poverty and oppression in travel destination countries. We need new ways of talking about travel that does not equate gaining personal fulfillment at the expense of poor people, Indigenous people and people of colour.

flickr user hmdavid

I used to watch a lot of TV as a kid, and if there was one overused storyline that repetitively happened across the board to characters in cartoons, comedies, animes and vampire-slayer serials, it was that whenever a character felt stressed out or in need of a change of scene, they would go to Hawaii. Hawaii in the popular imagination seemed to function as a space where people with lots of money could go to run away from their boring problems at home, relax and do all the tourist-y things that people with money do when they are on vacation. In the movie, “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”, Kristen Bell’s character Sarah Marshall even says about Hawaii:

Yeah, it’s nice, but I think for like a week, tops. Any more than that and I know that I’d go crazy, because I think that Hawaii is a place to escape for people who can’t deal with the real world.”

Travelling to Hawaii is so deep fried with connotations of exotified escape from mundane life to the point that words like “paradise,” “discover” and “heaven” have come to be synonymous with it. Such a marketed idea of travelling to Hawaii is problematic, to say the least, because of how it has come to inform the general idea of travelling for many a wandering soul.

flickr user darkfocus2

It seems that the conventional definition of travel and travelling is no longer one in which someone moves from one location to another, but rather an adventurous journey that one undertakes to explore, “discover” and “learn new things.” The traveler by this definition can be characterized as someone who has enough security and privilege to move about in relatively unconstrained ways. As well, talking and writing about travel experiences can be a source of prestige, power and knowledge.

Remember when school would start again, and the first thing your teacher would ask is what you did over the summer? How many times would you hear someone talk about a trip they took to x and y country during that summer? And with how much unadulterated awe did your teacher and classmates respond with?

Even just observing the exchanges that take place during a the sharing of a travel story is enough to see just how much folks are obsessed with talking about travel. But not the violent, precarious kinds of travel that bell hooks says are experienced by enforced migrant workers, displaced Indigenous people, immigrants, people who are enslaved or the homeless, but a kind of travel that is hell-bent on procuring emotional, mental and physical affirmation for travellers at the expense of poor people.

In her memoir Eat, Pray, Love, writer Elizabeth Gilbert documented a year-long paid trip to countries like Italy, India and Bali, that she took to get over her bitter divorce, become more in touch with a newfound spirituality and practise emotional self-care. Blogger Dustin Rowles describes one moment in the memoir where Gilbert uses the plight of a poor Balinese family to show her friends in the United States how much personal betterment she has achieved:

There’s a scene in Eat, Pray, Love that’s typical of this white, bourgeois bullshit, where Elizabeth sends an email to all of her American friends to guilt them into sending a poor family some money to buy a house as a birthday present to her. Noble? Perhaps, if it weren’t so motherfucking transparent that the gesture is less about helping out this family than it is about celebrating her goddamn selflessness. I know people like this – I suspect most of you know people like this. People who manage to work their good deeds into virtually every conversation, the same way that gym obsessed person will work his morning work-out routine into all of his conversations. Like we’re the goddamn beneficiaries of their good health.

In my opinion, Gilbert’s use of the poor Balinese family as a barometer to indicate how much of a “good” person she has become seems to be in line with a trend popularized by Oprah Winfrey, who, in the late 90s, began documenting her travels to countries like South Africa and establishing projects like the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls. While Oprah is certainly not the only famous person to travel with the missionary-explorer attitude in mind, her particular encounters are noteworthy because of how she began presenting her travels as a spectacle, all the while exotifying and promoting dangerous cliches and stereotypes of the people she encountered.

For instance, in her latest feature, “Oprah’s Next Chapter: India,” as writer Vivek Gupta describes, Oprah travelled to India for two weeks to “see what the big deal was about” only to effortlessly reduce Indian social structures, problems, traditions and class conflict to short, fast, nuance-lacking video clips that are easy to digest. Throughout the whole documentary, Oprah is in constant awe of everything she sees to the point that the viewer is left wondering whether Oprah is just making those funny faces and emoting to such a thermonuclear degree to impose the idea of “look at me doing great, exotic exciting things, everyone!” Gupta adds:

Throughout her travels in India, Oprah merely performs her savior persona and shrieks superlatives such as “This is the craziest-ass thing that ever happened to me.” While bidding the Hedge family farewell in the Colaba slums, she looks directly into the camera and smiles for a second while tossing the second Hedge girl in the air and giving her wet Oprah kisses. As she reflects on her horse-driven carriage ride with Rajasthani royalty in Jaipur, she says, “To this day, my favorite shot is my head thrown back, going “Whoaaaa!’” Needless to say, Oprah is a genius at satisfying the sentimental needs of the camera.

flickr user sweet_bettie67

Such conventional ways of talking about travel, whether it be framed as the escape from the mundane, a source of prestige, power and knowledge, or a spectacle in itself, exotifies and fetishizizes poor people, while simultaneously gaining personal fulfillment off of their backs.

Poor people are complex, human beings. They are not freezie pops that you can just suck the sweet insides out of and throw the plastic wrapper away. bell hooks takes this assertion a step further by remarking that for some individuals, clinging to the conventional sense of travel allows them to remains fascinated by imperialism. In his essay titled “Culture and Truth,” Renato Rosaldo refers to conventional travel discourse as a form of imperialist nostalgia, wherein people claiming to be politically progressive end up participating and enjoying the elegance of manners that dictate relations of dominance and subordination between the races.

In sum, conventional travel discourse emerges from systematic power dynamics in Western cultures that don’t want you to see how much everyone is being subdued by a capitalist system that sustains itself by feeding off of the contemporary deployment of colonialism, imperialism and other intersecting oppressions. Simply put, we do not yet know how to travel without exoticizing, without thinking we are better than the “natives” or thinking the “natives” need our help and saving.

Some basic ways to destabilize conventional travel discourse include observing and being a witness to one’s own privilege whilst travelling and taking the time to learn about the political and social history of the country you are visiting. If on a trip with an organization that’s working on a project in a country, taking the time to learn about the efforts of local groups to remedy the issue that your project is trying to address is always a good start. Or even something practical like purposely exotifying Western culture in an effort to expose the canon through which non-Western cultures have been exotified, like has done is a fun, easy way to destabilize conventional travel discourse.

Happy Destabilizing!

Tags: race and racism

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