21 September 2009
A Conversation on Authenticity
Over the past several years I’ve heard many a tourist talk about getting the “authentic” experience somewhere because there were a) not too many foreign tourists b) tons of locals who were so “real” or c) no guidebooks on the place, it was SO remote and “authentic.” I’ve decided I really don’t understand this concept of authenticity.
What does one mean by authentic to begin with? Does it mean that it’s just like it has always been? There’s no way for us to know if it is changed or not because we weren’t there “before” whatever “before” was, so it’s a futile point to argue. Plus, our presence as tourists, foreigners or just other people inherently changes the nature of a city, village, town, bar, etc. It is thus no longer “authentic” (again, whatever that means).
I think it has become a western notion of “real travel” to find somewhere that is truly “authentic” which seemingly now means “unchanged” or “non-western.” The irony is that our very ventures to these distant and far-off places in search of our own authenticity inherently de-authenticates them, further fueling a more uniform and arguably less interesting world. So then, what’s the solution? Stop traveling? Never. Tread lightly? Better. End the pursuit of “other,” accept your own role in affecting a place and a people and take it for what it is rather than what you want it to be? Perfect.
Take Shanghai and Beijing, for example. Numerous people talk of Beijing as more “real China.” While I’m not going to debate that argument, what I will say is how any of us have any clue as to what “real China” is. Did we live through thousands of years of dynastic rule followed by sixty years of communism followed by quite possibly the greatest societal “opening” in history? No. I think what we’re really saying is we want to see pigs on the back of motorbikes, total chaos in traffic patterns, street food outlets and mystical “Chinese” structures because it’s what we expect China to be. That attitude implies some level of dominance, which is the first thing to shed when you hit the road.
Rather than judging based on our own notion of what to expect, try to take it all in context. It’s not only more realistic, but more fulfilling in the end, as there is far less disappointment. Speaking of disappointment, I was so sad to hear they banned amplified sound in parks. It’s just “so China.”