Friday, June 15, 2007

Tourists

Despite the fact that this exact brand of chocolate-covered macadamia nuts are now commonly available in Japan, they are still the most popular souvenir to pass out to coworkers and friends when returning from a trip to Hawaii.

Amongst the plethora of oft-uttered anti-American statements people enjoy bandying about is the assertion that, when they travel abroad, they seek out American food and the most crass pursuits and sightseeing spots. Generally speaking, the idea is Americans seek to spend time abroad much in the same way that they spend time at home rather than immerse themselves in the local culture.

Few people pause to consider whether or not these behaviors are confined to Americans since hating and bashing the U.S. is so in vogue. There's not much incentive to consider whether such behaviors apply to all Americans or that they may actually be present in tourists from other countries as well.

One of my students who I affectionately (and anonymously) refer to as "Little Old Man" (LOM) spent the last 8 days or so in Hawaii. LOM is retired and spends his time in Japan doing a few part-time jobs but his main passion is, unsurprisingly, golf. What did he do in Hawaii? He played golf. What did he eat in Hawaii? He ate Japanese food. I asked him if the food in the Japanese restaurants in Hawaii was different from that in Japan and he said it was "very good" and was "the same". He added that it "wasn't American food". He stayed in a suite which he rents as part of a timeshare that caters to Japanese tourists. Other than that, he went shopping.

If what I'm saying comes across as critical of my student's behavior, then I'm not expressing myself well. I don't have a problem with how he chose to spend his time in Hawaii but I do have a problem with the hypocrisy of people who focus their attention like lasers on Americans and ascribe all sorts of uniquely awful behavior to them without reflecting on the behavior of people from all cultures.

It's human nature to both seek out similarity and novelty. We seek similarity because it represents safety and security. Novelty is sought out of curiosity but only in small doses. This makes sense from a survival perspective as those who were too adventurous were more likely to sample the poison fruit or blunder into the lion's den and be devoured. Those who never sampled anything new may have starved to death when they didn't brave tasting new sources of food or move when the environmental changes made life inhospitable.

Perhaps some people are better about fighting their natural impulses or have stronger curiosity or possibly they have enough a sufficiently varied life experience to have a broader base to draw upon when considering what they can safely sample or where they can securely venture. At any rate, it's important not to judge others by how they choose to enjoy themselves or live their lives just because you may make different choices in their shoes.

4 comments:

tornados28 said...

The average world traveler tends to stick to the familiar, however, I wouldn't be surprised if a higher percentage of American world travelers tend to be more adventuresome and seek to experience the actuall culture of another country more than world travelers from other countries, especially Japan.

I think it absolutely is hypocritical of Japanese to make that statement about American travelers becuase I really feel Japanese traveler are probably less adventuresome.

Anonymous said...

I'm traveling to Asia in a couple weeks and I have NO PLAN AT ALL to eat "western" food or enjoy "western type" pursuits. Not all Americans are narrow-minded, lazy and unafraid to immerse themselves in foreign/native culture when traveling. I was the same when I was in Europe a decade ago. With the exception of ONE trip to McDonald's in Rome (because I was curious and because I thought it would be cool to have a beer with a Big Mac, which you can do there) I never ate anything but the local food. In fact, I have been making notes and marking up my guidebook for my trip to Asia so I can visit specifically the parts that are the most "native", traditional, unique and what I consider to be very cool.

One suggestion that seems to NEVER occur to natives when foreigners visit is the idea that maybe--just maybe--if they would be a little more welcoming and encouraging, foreigners would be more than happy to pursue some of the more native foods and spectacles. I would challenge any native of any country that instead of complaining that Americans are close-minded in foreign countries, that those same natives would try to be more hospitable for their part. I think they would find Americans to be very, very excited to try new things if a native would lend a helping and warm hand.

That said, you are right--it is very popular to bash Americans right now and it needs to stop. Especially over trivial things that aren't hurting anyone else.

Great post, Shari!

-K-

Miko said...

I posted something similar on my blog recently, too.

Shari said...

Hi, Miko, and thanks for your comment. Your blog is great. I'm reading it now. :-)