Subtle Diasporic Traits

Image Source: BBC

In posting the following memes, there was a discussion of whether I was obliged to ‘decode’ them for the ‘outsiders’. This left me in a complex position as the whole point of Subtle Asian Traits is that these experiences don’t need to be explained for the target audience (to be explored in greater depth below).

To put it succinctly, if not a bit crudely (my apologies) – if you don’t get it then it wasn’t made for you.

As of the beginning of June 2019 the Facebook group Subtle Asian Traits (SAT) has nearly 1.4 million members – one of many Subtle Traits groups inspired by the group Subtle Private School Traits (R.I.P.), it has taken news feeds by storm. Or at the very least, those belonging to the children of Asian diasporas. Created in September 2018 by a group of Melbourne friends who had met in Chinese school, it was merely meant to be a fun distraction from high school exams.

Ok, not to be lame, but this one actually made me laugh out loud. (Image Source: Yahoo)

SAT had humble beginnings: it was simply a small space to share jokes and memes that characterised the Asian-Australian experience; the “little things in our lives that no one talked about before” (Mao 2018), and most wouldn’t understand. Of course, the internet caught wind, and what had begun as a bit of fun instead tapped into something young, complicated and international. It has connected a borderless generation who are gradually coming into their own ethnic-national identity that is typically articulated as “too white to be asian but too asian to be white” (Lin 2018). There is a loneliness to being a diasporic Asian (not to mention a serious lack of representation), and with it comes a lack of belonging, to a nation or ethnic group (Wu and Yuan 2018). The constant bouncing between the culture of our heritage and that of the Western country we call home, and the struggles of being so ungrounded in place and culture is a complicated, exhausting experience to navigate or even articulate. For many SAT is a relief – “it’s a chance to belong for once without having to try” (Kwai 2018), nothing has to be explained, and for once another ‘insider‘ is putting words (or memes) to our experience. Finally, we have found a place that we can truly and unapologetically claim as our own.

This is not to imply that SAT is a perfect, safe multicultural haven. Not only is there a lack of representation of non-East Asians (specifically South Asians), but some critics argue that it perpetuates negative stereotypes (such as the ‘Tiger Mum’ and ‘Model Minority’), reinforces internalised racism and self-hate and makes joke of people’s own legitimate trauma and suffering (Mao 2018).

Anne Gu, co-founder, has responded to these criticisms, seeing the capacity to even express these negative experiences in the first place as “healing through humour” (Mao 2018), with the hope that people will come to have greater confidence and pride in their culture. The group aims to be as inclusive a space as possible, however it is ultimately dependent on the kind of posts people submit. (Image Source: Yahoo)

The idea of the ethnographic field as being “this town” or “this specific place” is becoming increasingly unraveled as space, both digital and physical, are redefined and people move with an increasing amount of frequency across the globe. Almost like an initiation rite in the anthropological academy, being able to understand and talk authoritatively about at least one place (and by extension being able to physically map/bound it) has traditionally been a key point of your academic identity (Kohn 2011). However anthropologists don’t study villages, they study in villages (Geertz 1973, p. 22) – “our real work is with people who happen to occupy a place in space… sometimes understanding [that] is not the most defining element of our encounter with them”. The community is not a static entity and cultural practices and identities are not bound to the ‘local’ (Coleman and Collins 2011). Rather than trying to fixate these communities in one moment of space and time, ’the field’ requires new ways of thinking as it it no longer (or ever was) a geographical location (Strauss 2000). Cultural capital constantly has to be reproduced, embodied and expressed through the individual, not by institutions or specific geographical locations (Coleman and Collins 2011).

It wouldn’t be a true SAT article without at least one boba meme (Source: KnowYourMeme)

For the majority of members of SAT, we have been brought up as hybrid children betwixt and between worlds – neither fully Asian nor fully Western – we have grown up living this experience of an unbounded and unmappable culture as our reality. Through SAT, we are finally getting a chance to articulate it and what it means (Wu and Yuan 2018) and in turn produce our own cultural capital.

Har gow slaps but go off (Image source: KnowYourMeme)

In an increasingly complex world, what a culture and what an ethnicity is is still being contested, and as anthropologists and ethnographers it can be difficult to do justice to that complexity. I think what SAT does is reveal a particular, increasingly prominent mode of cultural and ethnic experience that is not bounded by space or a singular ‘cultural’ distinction, but rather the in-between. These ideas aren’t new – people have always felt dislocated in culture and place through practices such as intermarriage. Rather the extent and breadth of them are becoming more fully realised outside academia. Through the global sphere of the Internet SAT has become a platform that has helped people explore their shared struggles and experiences in a safe space – a reminder that we’re not alone (Wu and Yuan 2018).

“We labeled the group [Facebook category] as ‘family,’ so that’s what the group’s purpose is, to allow people to feel like they all belong to something.” – Anne Gu, co-founder of SAT (Wu and Yuan 2018)

Banner Source


References:

Julia’s article on ‘The Field’

Coleman, S. and P. Collins  2011, Dislocating Anthropology?:  Bases of Longing and Belonging in the Analysis  of Contemporary Societies, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Cambridge.

Geertz, C 1973, The Interpretation of Cultures, Basic Books, New York.

Kohn, T.  2011, ‘New Ways to Frame an Answer to ‘Where did you do your fieldwork?”, in Coleman, S. and P. Collins (eds.)  Dislocating Anthropology: Bases of longing and belonging in the analysis of contemporary societies, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Cambridge, pp. 81-95.

Kwai, I 2018, ‘How ‘Subtle Asian Traits’ Became a Global Hit’, Article, New York Times, 11 Dec, viewed 7 June, <https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/11/world/australia/subtle-asian-traits-facebook-group.html&gt;

Lin, K 2018, ‘The Story of the Subtle Asian Traits Facebook GroupLin, Article, The New Yorker, 22 Dec, viewed 7 June, <https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/the-story-of-the-subtle-asian-traits-facebook-group&gt;

Mao, F 2018, ‘Subtle Asian Traits: When memes become a diaspora phenomenon’, Article, 19 Dec, BBC, viewed 7 June, <https://www.bbc.com/news/world-australia-46394931&gt;

Strauss, S. 2000,  ‘Locating Yoga: ethnography and transnational practice’, in Amit, V . (ed) Constructing the Field: Ethnographic Fieldwork in the Contemporary World, Routledge, London, pp. 162- 194.

Wu, N and Yuan, K 2018, ‘The Meme-ification of Asianness’, Article, The Atlantic, 27 Dec, viewed 7 June, <https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2018/12/the-asian-identity-according-to-subtle-asian-traits/579037/&gt;

And for a bit of pop culture:

If you want to smile (because we’re finally being represented in Hollywood): peruse through Fresh Off the Boat, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Always Be My Maybe, and Crazy, Rich Asians (probably not a shock to any Asians reading this). Abominable is coming out later this year; and Bao made us all cry last year, and although no other Sandra Oh role will ever be as iconic as Vice Principal Gupta in The Princess Diaries, Killing Eve gets pretty close.

And I know it’s cheesy, but it’s also iconic (I literally only got a Stan account to watch it): Bend it Like Beckham

One Day at a Time, although a show about a Cuban-American family living in LA, has never made me feel so ‘seen’ as a migrant (the queer representation, generational and cultural divides and family structure certainly help). It’ll make you laugh and cry your heart out.

The Astonishing Color of After is a wonderful coming-of-age novel. The Kiss Quotient is a sweet romance, and Ms. Marvel is great for all the superhero fans out there. The Wrath and the Dawn and An Ember in the Ashes are both beautiful fantasy novels, and Warcross is pure, fun sci-fi.

Holding Out For a Hero: Is Myth Just Spicy Ethnography?

The rise of Marvel’s domination over the box office doesn’t come as a particular surprise to me – we’ve always loved heroes. From Batman, to Indiana Jones, to Luke Skywalker, to Harry Potter, our history and literary canon is saturated with them.

But what is the enduring appeal of the heroic figure? Well, with a little bit of help from the ancient past, maybe anthropology can help answer that question.

The first heroes of the Western canon – Heracles, Odysseus, Achilles – they arguably aren’t so different from those that we know and love in fiction today.

That is, if you consider the ancient and mythic definition of the hero: exceptional humans who operate in a realm more closely connected with the divine than most mortals yet are still undeniably tethered to the human world (Posthumous, 2011).

They possess these god-like capacities and abilities, allowing them to achieve what we could only dream of, and yet they are ultimately always going to be hindered by their inherent humanity and all of the flaws and consequences that come alongside it. It’s not called an Achilles heel for nothing; but these characters are loveable because they’re so imperfect (Campbell 1988).

Operating within this arguably liminal space between the divine and mortals allows us to think beyond the limitations of mortality to ‘what if’ and ‘what could be’ with wide-eyed wonder, taking us out of the mundanity of our own lives and ascending to the realm of the gods. Yet these stories are still firmly rooted in questions of what it means to be human and flawed; to eternal struggles of good and evil, life and death, love and war. To me it is this interplay between the fantastical and the real that captures our attention and our love, and in the process better allows us to understand who we are.

Is this perspective ahistorical? Maybe, but why is so much tension devoted to which side, Light or Dark, people will fall in Star Wars? Why do superheroes always have flaws, whether they be physical (ie Kryptonite) or personal (ie Captain America: Civil War)? Why does Game of Thrones revolve around human politics instead of dragons?

More importantly however, what the hell does myth have to do with anthropology?

The meaning of hero myths is still widely debated. However, Joseph Campbell (1988) argues that “myths are the stories of our search through the ages for truth” (p.4). It is the experience of life, and the adventure of the hero that is the adventure of being alive (Campbell 1988).

In the way that myths can help us better understand who we are in our culturally-specific context, such is also the role of the anthropologist, and to me it’s foolish to assume that anthropology is restricted to the realm of the objective, ‘real’ world (Sarah touches upon this in her article on future worlds). As Geertz (1973, p.16) writes, ethnographic pieces “can properly be called fictions in the sense of ‘something made or fashioned’”; anthropological writings are themselves interpretations (See: Julia’s art vs science article).

“…Reality is not other than the stories told about it” (Rapport 1994, cited in Craith and Kockel 2014) and it is part of the human condition to create these stories – both anthropology and hero myths serve as a medium to do so. As such, they both suffer under the same flaw that their truths are inherently partial and incomplete, composed of blurred lines between reality and imagination. However, this is not “an opposition between truth and falsehood” (Craith and Kockel 2014, p.695), rather, it is a recognition of the human reality of both ethnographic work and hero myths and their aim to tell stories that “ring true” from a human perspective (Craith and Kockel 2014).

So why do we love superheroes? Well… I think because, like anthropology, the best stories, the best myths, the best superhero films, serve to tell of the human condition as they are inherently grounded in it; they just takes you out of the mundanity of your own life and into the magic of the liminal world, allowing you to believe otherwise.

Image Source: Wired


References:

Campbell, J 1988, The Power of Myth, Doubleday, New York.

Craith, M. N., and Kockel, U. 2014. ‘BLURRING THE BOUNDARIES BETWEEN LITERATURE AND ANTHROPOLOGY. A BRITISH PERSPECTIVE’, Ethnologie francaise, vol. 44, pp. 689-697.

Crespi, M 1990, ‘The Hero’s Journey: The World of Joseph Campbell’. American Anthropologist, vol. 92 , no. 4. pp. 1104

Geertz, C 1973. “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture,” in The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays, Basic Books, New York, pp. 3–30.

Posthumus, L. 2011, ‘Agents of transformation: the function of hybrid monsters’, Hybrid monsters in the Classical World: the nature and function of hybrid monsters in Greek mythology, MPhil (Ancient Studies) Thesis, University of Stellenbosch.

Sarah’s article on Future Worlds

My article on Liminality

Julia’s article on Art vs Science?

And for those who want a bit more myth in their life:

If you want to dive straight in to the original texts themselves, then consider: Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey; Euripides’ Medea, Hecuba and Trojan Women (my personal favourites); Aeschuylus’ Oresteia; Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Apuleius’ The Golden Ass (for the myth of Cupid and Psyche).

For slightly more digestible myths: Stephen Fry’s, Mythos and Heroes; Edith Hamilton’s Mythology

For a more fictionalised retelling: Madeleine Miller’s The Song of Achilles and Circe; and I know it’s middle grade, but The Percy Jackson series still has the best chaotic good demigod representation I’ve ever read (just don’t touch the films)

So What’s the Point of it All?

In one of our final seminars of undergrad last year, Monica (Minnegal, Associate Professor of Anthropology at UniMelb) turned to the class and asked: so what is the point of anthropology? What is its purpose? The most obvious answers were of course that the discipline allows you to walk in the shoes of others and understand how your world could also be an Other.

But, she said, those answers won’t change the world or put money on the table.

And in amongst all of the jokes along the lines of ‘an Arts degree won’t get you a job’ (untrue), and ’the social sciences are useless’ (who are they to determine the worth of a discipline?), what does anthropology, then, serve to teach you? Imogen has written about where anthropology can take you in a more practical sense, but what is the point of taking it as a major over something more “useful”? It’s an answer you will be constantly searching for throughout your time in the discipline, but to begin to find it, we need to strip anthropology down to its bare bones.

Anthropology and ethnography begin with a concern with sameness and difference; ethnocentrism and relativism; or the Other. This difference becomes the focus of study, yet it is simultaneously also grounded in an awareness of commonality on the basis of a shared humanity (Wardle & y Blasco 2006).

Many argue that anthropology has two main, if not contradictory, aims: to document and valorise the richness and diversity of human ways of life, and to expose, analyse and critique structures of human inequality; they are not always equally balanced (Robbins 2013).

David Graeber (2007), in the conclusion of his ethnography Lost People, analyses  the purpose of the anthropology and what he thinks it should achieve. He states that in his writing he tries to emphasise that we do inhabit the same world and sees no issue in subjectivity. To him the “desire to seem objective… has largely been responsible for creating the impression that the people we study are some exotic, alien, and ultimately unknowable Other” (Graeber 2007, p. 381). As an anthropologist and ethnographer, Graeber sees it as his duty to represent the people he studies in such a way that a reader “can recognise them as a human being who they might not know, but they could know” (Graeber 2007, p. 387). Anthropology to Graeber is ultimately a medium (however incomplete), that if utilised well is the best basis on which to build a broader sense of human commonality (Graeber 2007).

Part of determining the discipline’s worth then is on you, as intelligent adults who have come from and participate in a particular experience of this world and are more-likely-than-not just beginning to figure out who you want to be in it. How can anthropology and the skills it teaches you serve you for what you want to achieve in this life?

Anthropology is undeniably entangled with an unethical and dehumanising past that we as a discipline are still trying to navigate and work past. Nevertheless, the skills of anthropology are first and foremost best for working with people from all sorts of cultural backgrounds, and for negotiating and engaging with change and diversity.

How do you use those skills for good?

Well, that’s up to you to figure out.


References:

Graeber, D 2007, Lost People: Magic and the Legacy of Slavery in Madagascar, Indiana University Press, Bloomington.

Robbins, J 2013, ‘Beyond the suffering subject: toward an anthropology of the good’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological institute, vol. 19, pp. 447-462.

Wardle, H. and y Blasco P.G. 2006, How to Read Ethnography, Routledge, London.

See Also:

Imogen’s articles on Anthropology’s past; and where the discipline can take you

Earl, C 2017, ‘The researcher as cognitive activist and the mutually useful conversation’, Power Education, vol. 9, no. 2, pp. 129-144.

Scheper-Hughes, N 1995, ‘The Primacy of the Ethical: Propositions for a Militant Anthropology’, Current Anthropology, vol. 36, pp. 409–440.

Strang, V 2009, What Anthropologists Do, Berghahn Books, Oxford.

Things We Wish We Knew in First Year: Liminality

I have found some way to write about liminality at least once for every semester I’ve taken anthropology – I’m not planning on stopping now.

To my credit, it’s an attractive theory. There’s something rather magical about a space, a moment, or break before change, even when the reality is much more mundane.

Liminality is being at the threshold, where space and moments collide into something new altogether and reality feels altered; the ultimate result being some kind of change.

But for now, here’s a crash course.

Weddings, significant birthdays, graduations, wars, funerals, travel – these are all temporal (potentially) liminal experiences. These moments can also be grounded in places – seasides, airports, doorways, borders between nations, and prisons (Thomassen 2012). All points of transition, of change.

Theories surrounding the liminal state are attributed to two main writers: Arnold van Gennep and Victor Turner.

Van Gennep published The Rites of Passage in 1908, theorising the titular rituals as all the ceremonial patterns which accompany a passage from one situation to another or form one cosmic or social world to another (Van Gennep 1908). It is a marker of change in being, whether that be in status, time, or age, and signified in all sorts of ways, gifts, parties, eating special things, or making wishes. Van Gennep (1908) isolated three distinct rites: those of Separation, Transition, and Incorporation.

Separation takes the person (or people) from their “Known World” by breaking things apart, entering the liminal space/transitional period, until things are joined together once more through Incorporation (Van Gennep 1908). Take the example of a Western, heterosexual wedding: the bride is separated from her current state when her father walks her down the aisle, existing in an in-between state of being neither married nor unmarried until the proper rituals (putting a ring on, reciting vows) are complete. Thus everything is restored to how it was before, but with one key difference – the bride and groom are now married.

Rites of Passage was largely ignored until Victor Turner revisited it some 50 years later in The Forest of Symbols (1967), where he brought these ideas to the forefront of anthropology, emphasising the symbolic importance of the Liminal state and its necessity for social unity (see: Communitas). Described as being “betwixt and between”, it is anti-structure (see: Communitas – another important theme of liminality), and focused around experience and connections with other people outside of everyday life. This state thus provides people with freedom from their normal social confines and customs allowing them to express their creativity and be their true self (Turner 1967). It allows people to find out new things about themselves which otherwise would have remained unknown within the familiarity and routine of everyday life, and return to their Known World armed with this new knowledge (Harrison 2012).

However, due to its anti-structure nature, liminality is and should not be a desirable state of being, nor should it be celebrated. Spend too long in this space, creativity and freedom sour into boredom, imprisonment and a sense of exile and homelessness (Thomassen 2012). Thus everyone must inevitably reincorporate themselves back into their own society, and return to the concreteness and belonging of a lived space that has been refreshed because of experiences within the liminal state.

It’s at least a little bit magical right?

And to see it as anything but, well, where’s the fun in that?


References:

My Article on Communitas

Harrison, J 2006, ‘A Personalized Journey: Tourism and Individuality’, in V. Amit and N. Dyck (eds.), The Cultural Politics of Distinction, Pluto Press, London, pp. 110-130.

Thomassen, B 2012, ‘Revisiting Liminality’, in H. Andrews & L. Roberts (eds.) Liminal landscapes : travel, experience and spaces in-between, Routledge, London, pp. 21-35.

Turner, V 1967, The Forest of Symbols, Cornell University Press, Ithaca.

Van Gennep, A 1960, The Rites of Passage, trans. M. B. Vizedom & G. L. Kaffee, Psychology Press, Chicago.

Things We Wish We Knew in First Year: Communitas

The late Yale graduate Marina Keegan captured the world’s attention in 2012. First, when she died in a tragic car crash at 22, just five days after her graduation, and next, when her last essay for the Yale Daily News, The Opposite of Lonelinesswent viral. It writes, hopeful and glittering bright with youth:

“We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I could say that’s what I want in life…. It’s not quite love and it’s not quite community; it’s just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together. Who are on your team. When the check is paid and you stay at the table. When it’s four a.m. and no one goes to bed. That night with the guitar. That night we can’t remember. That time we did, we went, we saw, we laughed, we felt. The hats.

We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I’d say that’s how I feel at Yale. How I feel right now. Here. With all of you.” (Keegan 2012)

What she didn’t know was, at least in anthropology, we do.

It’s called Communitas.

A word tied to Victor Turner and his work on liminality, it is described as a mystical solidarity, or an egalitarian, non-rational bond that forms between people during the liminal state betwixt and between worlds that may not necessarily have been possible or conceivable outside that space. In fact, the state is often characterised by experiences of communitas.

So how does this happen?

Such is the anti-structure nature of liminality that status ‘dissolves’. The boundaries that previously held people apart socially in society, age, status/class, gender, kinship position are all gone and people are instead equal in terms of a shared humanity. It is a sharp contrast to the hierarchy of everyday life, yet it is the place where people can be one and create connections that would not have existed within the social structure of an everyday reality. “… Every normal action is involved in the rights and obligations that defines status and establishes ’social distance’ between men” (Turner 1967, p. 110), but in the liminal space, people are free to “be themselves” as they are released from their normal social confines and customs and no longer feel as if they have to “act” their role. 

However liminality cannot be maintained forever without some sort of social structure or order to stabilise it, thus, moments and periods such as these end, and things inevitably return to the categories to which they belong, but, thanks to communitas and the unlikely bonds that people have made in the process, they are not necessarily in the same form in which they left… Thus Turner emphasises the liminal state for social unity due to its capacity to bring people together, inducing solidarity and social order (Turner 1967). It is a way of renewal, and a vehicle for transition, social cohesion, and restabilising order in society.

Although Marina Keegan never discovered this word, I think she encapsulated its feeling rather beautifully – like human-made magic that brings us closer together in this messy, complicated world.

Image Source: Amazon


References:

My article on Liminality

Keegan, M 2012, ‘The Opposite of Loneliness’, Article, 27 May, Yale News, viewed 7 June, <https://yaledailynews.com/blog/2012/05/27/keegan-the-opposite-of-loneliness/&gt;.

Turner, V 1967, The Forest of Symbols, Cornell University Press, Ithaca.

See Also:

Lani’s article on Collective Effervescence – a similar, but slightly different experience

Olaveson, T 2001, “Collective Effervescence and Communitas: Processual Models of Ritual and Society in Emile Durkheim and Victor Turner”, Dialectical Anthropology, vol. 26, pp. 89-124.

A Not-so-Lonely Planet

I’m not Lonely Planet’s biggest fan.

Why? You ask.

Because in many ways they uphold the very same ideas that they supposedly seek to get rid of.

Mark Twain (n.d.) famously wrote: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts,” and Lonely Planet (LP) too believes travel can be a force for good, reducing cultural differences and inequalities. 

Travel can certainly be beneficial in many ways (Harrison 2006) – the world is beautiful and full of wonder and I won’t deny that. However as one of the biggest drivers of human mobility across the world, it does play a vital, and sometimes problematic role in “the process of identity formation, the making of place, and the perpetual invention of culture” (Salazar, 2014 p. 16)

Whilst I don’t necessarily disagree, my problem is that the notion that travel is the best way of getting rid of narrow-mindedness, is based upon the assumption that ‘foreign’ cultures are unknowable in the first place, and it is only by spending time with these Others that the traveller can accept their shared (albeit, diverse) humanity, rather than it being a given despite their perceived differences.

This process of inspiring change within the traveller is often founded on a binary between the self and an exotic Other, where the self travels to “’exotic’ third world destinations” that bear absolutely no similarity to the world the traveller has come from. LP features predominantly Western writers providing information for other Western travellers about ‘exotic’ (read: non-Western/alien) destinations with language that heavily emphasises the traditions and “Otherness” of the people they write about. By privileging the Western Orientalist voice over the local, it becomes a vaguely colonialist form of communication that only further marginalises people outside of the “Western world” – they are unable to create themselves, rather, they are whatever the writer shapes them into being.

Kuthodaw Pagoda, Mandalay

This is not just me as an anthropology student blowing things out of proportion; Soranat Tailanga’s (2014) research into the influence of English travel writings on the tourist’s conceptualisation of Thailand found that this medium is particularly powerful in influencing the tourist’s perception over a country and culture. Take the way LP writes about Myanmar (Burma), for example. A country in the exotic South East Asia, it is described as a place where “the traditional ways of Asia endure” (LP 2019), and exploring it can “often feel like you’ve stumbled into a living edition of the National Geographic, c 1910! For all the momentous recent changes, Myanmar remains at heart a rural nation of traditional values” (LP 2019). This language is quite problematic; particularly since you don’t find LP writing about the “traditional ways” of England, America or Australia. These Western places are not exotified, rather it is the charm of their cities and landscapes that provide the traveller with fulfilment rather than the people. An implication emerges, then, that exotic cultures, with their strange traditions and ways of life exist, are frozen in time, for tourist consumption and benefit.

An example of the aesthetically displeasing Mandalay

This idea of culture as static is only exacerbated when a city has the audacity to industrialise and the familiarity of it loses a city’s exotic, alien appeal. According to LP, Mandalay, Myanmar’s second largest city “will never win any beauty contests” (LP 2019) due to the “haphazard construction boom that was never about aesthetics. An ever-growing number of motorbikes and cars clog the roads, too, making for a sometimes smoggy city” (LP 2019); “beyond a functional grid, it doesn’t have a ton of immediate appeal” (LP 2017). Maybe this is just my subjective opinion, but I don’t think “foreign” cities exist to appeal to a tourist’s aesthetics, just as people in these places don’t live to aid the tourist in their process of self-discovery. Culture is not guarded by an Other, neither is it so inherently incomprehensible to the Western traveller that it is something that has to be experienced to be believed. Rather, the “culture” one seeks is more likely people just trying to live their own ordinary, startlingly familiar lives. Essentially, tourism elevates these cultures into something exotic and magical, where the people of this culture merely just see it as their boring, everyday life.

Singapore, with its melting pot of cultural influences, has long been dismissed as a sterile stopover (LP 2017) – likely due to the fact that it is clearly an industrialised nation, in many ways strikingly familiar to the Western gaze.

There are a lot of similarities that can be drawn between travel and ethnographic writing. Like anthropology, travelling involves “the human capacity to imagine or to enter into the imaginings of others” (Salazar, 2014 p. 1) for a particular audience, often to better understand and overcome inequalities in this world. However that also means that they are often complicit in upholding structures that silence and strip agency from the very same people they write about. The ethics of travel and representation are becoming increasingly complicated, both as a tourist and as an anthropologist, but it doesn’t take much to explore this world with a slightly more critical eye.

Banner Source: LP

(All other images are my own)


References:

Abbie’s Emic vs Etic article

Harrison, J 2006, ‘A Personalized Journey: Tourism and Individuality’, in V. Amit and N. Dyck (eds.), The Cultural Politics of Distinction, Pluto Press, London, pp. 110-130.

Imogen’s articles on Anthropology’s past and Ethnocentrism

Lonely Planet 2017, Introducing Mandalay, viewed 1 June 2017, <http://www.lonelyplanet.com/myanmar-burma/mandalay/introduction>

Lonely Planet 2019, Introducing Mandalay, viewed 7 June 2019, <http://www.lonelyplanet.com/myanmar-burma/mandalay/introduction>

Richmond, S 2019, Introducing Myanmar (Burma), viewed 7 June 2019, <http://www.lonelyplanet.com/myanmar-burma/introduction>

Lonely Planet 2017, Introducing Singapore, viewed 1 June 2017, <http://www.lonelyplanet.com/singapore>

Salazar, N.B., and Graburn, N.H.H., 2014, Tourism Imaginaries: Anthropological Approaches, Berghahn Books, New York.

Talianga, S 2014, ‘Thailand through travel writings in English: An evaluation and representation’, Kasetsart Journal of Social Sciences,  vol. 37, pp. 1-6.

Twain, M n.d. (orig. publ. 1869), The Innocents Abroad, Harper & Row, New York.

See Also:

Lani’s article on Eat, Pray, Love

Johnson, A.A. 2007, ‘Authenticity, Tourism, and Self-discovery in Thailand: Self-creation and the Discerning Gaze of Trekkers and Old Hands’, Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, vol. 22, no. 2, pp. 153-178

Kraft, S.E. 2007, ‘Religion and Spirituality in Lonely Planet’s India’, Religion, vol. 37, no.3, pp. 230-242.

Kravanja, B 2012, ‘On Conceptions of Paradise and the Tourist Spaces of Southern Sri Lanka’, Asian Ethnology, vol. 71, no. 2, pp. 179-205

Lisle, D 2008, ‘Humanitarian Travels: Ethical Communication in “Lonely Planet” Guidebooks’, Review of International Studies, vol. 34,  pp. 155-172