In April of 2015, I went to China as part of the Asiabound Creative Writing cultural exchange, with eight other BCA students (and one awesome teacher). We spent an amazing ten days travelling from Guangzhou to Zhuhai, Jiabgmen and Yangshuo. We met with creative writing students at Sun Yat Sen university and ate delicious food in dodgy-looking road-side restaurants and put our lives in the bus driver’s hands in braving the insanity that is Chinese traffic. It was undoubtedly an exercise in exploration; in exploring ourselves, our friendships, and of course, exploring another culture, one so removed from our own.
But one thing I kept finding on this trip was the way enterprising individuals were always popping up to sell you something. From religious trinkets to jewelry, chopsticks and calligraphy sets, knock-off purses and novelty lighters, to a thousand different kinds of hand-painted fans; markets are everywhere and they’re all just dying for your money. Of course, this isn’t something unique to China. Shopping is probably on the itinerary for any traveler, regardless of the destination. But in all the places I’ve traveled, around Europe and America, I’ve never seen just so many sales pitches as I did in China.
Not that you can blame them. Tourism is a big industry for many economies, and all these people are just trying to make an honest living. There’s nothing wrong with that. Memories are great, and it’s not a holiday if you don’t have several hundred selfies to upload to Facebook to your jealous friends, but many of us would find it hard to walk away without at least a few keepsakes of our adventures. So we can hardly blame people for providing us with those endless magnets and mini statues and glow-in-the-dark orbs; it’s just simple supply and demand. But some people are looking at what exactly all those commercialization is doing to tourism.
In 2002 Robert Shepard wrote a paper called the ‘Commodification, Culture and Tourism’, in which he notes “while tourism may promote a renewed interest in traditional arts and social practices among local craftsmen and others, tourist purchases are fueled by a desire to possess a mark, rather than any genuine interest in local cultural traditions or beliefs”. Here he talks about culture being reduced to trinkets and experiences, which tourists will buy without necessarily embracing or learning about the meaning behind them. It’s as thoughtless as getting a tattoo of a Chinese or Japanese character without knowing what it means (it probably means “Soup”).
Exploring another country promises to let you experience something you might not get back home. But this isn’t always the same as experiencing what it’s like to actually live there. After all, even here most of us don’t own a boomerang or go surfing every day or cuddle koalas; yet this is what we sell to tourists as “Australian”. There’s a definite disconnect between what we, who live here, experience, and what we market to outsiders. But that’s not to say the marketed version isn’t still legitimate. We do in fact have koalas anyone can cuddle (at the appropriate wildlife parks. Don’t touch the wild ones; they have chlamydia.), and you could go surfing every day, if you live near a beach and love the water that much. They’re still aspects of our culture, just not the sum total of it.
And ultimately this is what we need to keep in mind in our own overseas explorations. Yes, Chinese people do eat with chopsticks and have pandas and produce some amazing calligraphy art, but they’re also much more than that, just like everyone else.
First published in Empire Times, Issue 42.7