Legacy 9: On Traveling Blind (or, “The Sex Life of Stereotypes”)

[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
Dates: 1998-present
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

A Mexico of the Mind?

A Mexico of the Mind?

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.)

Photos: blind distortion by bashed; mexican puppets by abhijit

12 thoughts on “Legacy 9: On Traveling Blind (or, “The Sex Life of Stereotypes”)”

  1. I’ve been lucky enough to stay in people’s homes a couple of times I’ve traveled outside of the US. I think it’s rather fun to “live someone else’s life” for a little bit. I realize that we all carry stereotypes with us, consciously or unconsciously, but I hope that I don’t carry them back with me!

    btw, I have a weird personal challenge when I travel: to shop in a grocery store in every country. Rather fun 😉

  2. Oops, forgot to mention this:

    There’s an opportunity every two years for me to go on a trip to Costa Rica to stay with a family who speaks nothing but Spanish. I’m taking that opportunity soon (there’s also talk of a couple of costarriqueñitos coming here, and I’ll do that too if I can). A friend and former teacher of mine went on the trip a couple years ago and enjoyed it so immensely that even though he had approximately a Spanish I-II education when he started when he got off the plane he was wondering why the people who greeted him were speaking English.


    /gradster(1)/s last blog post..My First Foray Into Politics

  3. Funny you should say that, because I have a series of blogs I wrote during my trip in Dominican Republic that I’ve deemed the lost files of DR, since I just started blogging all over again while I got back to US. Anyways, in it, I detail how, in the resorts, I felt like a stranger in my own homeland. A huge population of people from Germany, Ireland, Scotland, England, France, and every other Western European country you can name practically make these 4-star resorts home, staying for 2 weeks and contemplating their returns in a few months.

    All this is happening while, surrounding the area, are poverty-stricken homes of the people of Dominican Republic, people starving and stealing just to get by for the day. Even inside these resorts, there are people who never take a day off, and have no choice if they want their family to survive. Imagine having to work from 6am – 12pm every single day with little to no breaks with all the degradation of little brats throwing spitballs at your performances and older men and women who have more than enough money to forget their manners at the serving places there.

    And all this is happening in Dominican! As soon as I left the resorts and back to where my mother grew up in Santo Domingo, things changed for us. You never saw anything resembling White people nor did you see anyone take things for granted. People worked hard just to get a chance to shower. And kids rarely acted up because if they did, WACK! And of course, these are the places the “servants” at the resorts come back home to. You rarely see them at home until the weekend or if you stay up long enough to see their headlights come home.

    Then again, who wants to see the reality of a country when they can get a caricature? It’s just more comfortable.

    joses last blog post..All For Naught

  4. Totally true, I think, except when we are given the time to get to know the place we are visiting.
    Example: 22 years (can it be?) ago when I was the cook/deckhand/stewardess on a 75′ private sailboat that was based in Antigua, my first impressions were negative and stereotypical. Chickens and goats in the road, dusty and dry, money that looked and felt like the play money from elementary school. Why would people come here to visit? I wondered. It took about two weeks and I was hooked. I fell in love with the chicken and goats and dust and most of all the people. And I learned my lesson about traveleing. I learned that it makes no sense to go where the tourists go or to eat what the tourists eat. The boat took me as far as (then) Yugoslavia (now Croatia and Bosnia) where I learned about food shortages, Tito, and lamb all ways.
    Once, in Portugal, Sam and I met our innkeeper in the fish market. Our host was horrified that we would see this side of his beautiful city (Sintra) but my husband and I could not have been happier pointing and buying.
    We use this travel strategy here in the United States as well. Why eat at Applebee’s when you can eat Drake’s Bay Oyster stew?
    I just returned from South Dakota, a place that many people in Chicago make jokes about, and I’m sure that many folks driving through bought a Corn Palace shot glass and kept going. Feels like home to me.

    Kate Tabors last blog post..Reading, today

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