Why do you travel? To see the world and discover new places? To meet people and learn about other cultures? To escape from the stress of day to day life?
There are so many reasons to love living a life of travel and even more ways in which seeing the world can be incredibly fulfilling. And while lots of us are becoming more aware of our responsibilities to the environment and to ethical tourism, I recently realised there’s one aspect we don’t talk about – our responsibility as travellers after we’ve come home.
A little story…
If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know I recently spent two weeks in China. It’s been over a decade since I was last in the country, and I found it really rewarding to be able to play tourist there for the first time, especially since I had very little memory left from previous years I’d spent there.
We based the majority of our stay in Xi’an where we ate and explored to our heart’s content for 10 days, before travelling onto Beijing for a few nights prior to our flight home.
As big fans of street food, we decided to seek out what the capital had to offer on our first evening in the city and wandered into Wangfujing (Beijing’s commercial centre) in search of the ‘famous’ snack food street that even the guidebooks recommended.
It was through the slow-moving crowd by the entrance, at the very first stall that I saw it – scorpions threaded onto wooden sticks, being sold as food. My stomach dropped. And not because I pictured eating them, or even because they were clearly still alive. I felt that sinking feeling because of what I was really seeing – the Asian stereotype.
Although I’ve not visited China in more than ten years, I grew up there and lived there until I was 8. My family are Chinese and my parents regularly cook traditional food from recipes passed down to them from their parents. I’ve eaten in countless restaurants in the country, both at upmarket establishments and among the locals. And yet it was here, on this popular street food spot in the capital city, where I saw insects being sold as food for the first time ever in my life.
I watched as groups of western travellers gathered around with gaping faces, while local people walked straight past, and I felt a great deal of sadness contemplating the reality of what I was seeing. These items were being sold because it’s what these tourists came here expecting to see: crazy Asian food. Vendors were selling it to get eyes on their stall so visitors could live out their preconceptions, and go home with exciting tales of how they once went to China and ate a scorpion.
I wanted to shake them and tell them that locals didn’t eat this. I wanted to explain to them what traditional food really was. But of course, I couldn’t. All I could do was recognise the vicious cycle of bullshit tourism I was witnessing, and choose not to partake.
The sad truth is this type of tourism will probably only get worse as travel becomes more accessible, and it made me realise how we should start to take more responsibility as travellers – to be conscious of not projecting our own perceptions onto the places and communities we visit, to be conscious of what we’re really seeing, and more importantly, to be conscious of how we paint the places we’ve been to when we share our experiences when we come home.
Not everyone likes to travel or to go out of their comfort zones, and that’s OK. But sometimes as a result of that, some people can carry misconceptions about other countries and cultures based only on what they’ve been told – by friends, colleagues, or sometimes worst of all, by the media. I think it’s our responsibility as travellers who’ve experienced it first hand to accurately share our accounts to help others to dispel, question, or indeed validate these notions.
In case it wasn’t already abundantly clear, I’m very passionate about combating racism (and many other types of inequalities), and while I don’t believe travel is the main solution to fixing that, I do believe we can help others who hold stereotypes to become more conscious of their biases, by being more conscious as travellers ourselves.
Imagine how you would feel if your city, country or culture was constantly misrepresented and reduced to negative stereotypes, while your neighbours had to resort to fulfilling these biases in order to make the money they desperately needed from tourism. If you can’t imagine that happening to you, then now might be a good time to consider your own privilege.
Please understand that I’m not suggesting we should only highlight the positive parts of our travel experiences, or even to talk only about those that go against the stereotype. I’m not even suggesting that we should avoid all touristy experiences altogether. We just need to be conscious that what we share is a true reflection, one that’s based on what’s actually authentic, while learning to recognise those that aren’t.
I will tell people that I saw scorpions being sold as food in Beijing, but I will also tell them how these were novelty items offered mainly for tourists. I will tell people that although I can’t say nobody in the country would ever eat that, it’s not something I’ve ever encountered before, nor have I ever seen a Chinese person to eat. I will tell people that some actual ‘weird’ Chinese food includes chicken feet, duck blood, and tripe, but I’ll also try to open up a conversation about how this differs from black pudding, pork scratchings, or sausages in some westerner’s diets.
I will not bring any preconceptions I might hold with me on the road, and try to question the authenticity of what I see when discovering new places. I will take responsibility to learn and share only what’s true, and strive to be a better, more conscious traveller.
Will you join me?