[In my Web Legacies Wrap-Up post, I said I'd decided against publishing the ninth and tenth "Culture Clip" pieces I wrote that summer in Spain a few years ago. I changed my mind. I didn't like the Vet piece, but readers seemed to, more than they did the ones I preferred over it (to which replied one cricket): Shirky's "publish, then filter" principle in action.
I'm equally unhappy with the piece below, but not so much because of the idea as of the writing, which just seems to miss. But in the spirit of Shirky, and of "fluff and fun," here it is anyway. Since the readership on this space is international, I'd be curious to hear any multi-cultural testimonies to the travel habits of your own countries. Are they similarly "blind"?]
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Artifact: International Boarding Passes
Elements of Culture: Ethics; Traditions; Surface Cultures
Am I the only person who has noticed how easy, perhaps even normal, it is for us to travel or live in other countries—and never see them? Or worse yet, to confirm in our travels our stereotypes of the places we visit, because . . . those stereotypes were what we looked for in the surface culture in the first place?
We go to China, for example, and choose to experience it how? By lodging in Western hotels and taking tours designed for herds of Western tourists.
And am I crazy, or are the locals at the tourist shops strangely savvy at knowing what stereotypes we Westerners hold about them? In Mexico, for example, you can find, at any tourist market, shop upon shop in which the merchants, who look as if they’d never seen or worn a sombrero in their life, sell dolls and puppets of Mexicans wearing nothing but sombreros!
The more I think about it, the more absurd it is:
1. I go to Mexico to explore a different culture;
2. I want a souvenir to commemorate that exploration;
3. My stereotype defines what is most distinctive or essential about Mexico;
4. so I buy a puppet in a sombrero playing mariachi (and looking faintly drunk?); that
5. doesn’t represent a single Mexican I’ve seen in Mexico (outside of the tourist restaurants that hire depressed Mexican musicians to dress like Disney Mexicans from an American’s childhood memories); but
6. must have some truth in it because why else would the Mexicans themselves sell them? when really
7. they sell them because that’s what these crazy Americans always get off the plane/out of the tourist bus and ask for; so
8. back goes the American to America with his drunk, sombrero-wearing mariachi-playing puppet, where
9. s/he puts it on the shelf to collect dust; and
10. show it to the kids/grandkids/neighbors/etc who
11. years later go to Mexico and
12. remember that damn puppet and
13. return to 3), above.
(–ad infinitum and ad-freaking-nauseum. I’ll never shop again.)