On seeking the “authentic” in a travel destination

Yeah, I used to seek out the authentic in my travel destinations, but now I make a concerted effort not to. I don’t mean that I avoid the authentic, I just avoid the word itself; I try not create those kind of expectations for the place I’m visiting.

You hear it often, people who say they “want to see the authentic [insert country here]”. As though some parts of, say, China, are more real than others. I’m quite certain this is a mostly Western attitude, given that we tend to exotify the rest of the world, as though our culture is the boring baseline, the Normal, while every other culture is unusual, is exciting and Other.

We’ll visit China and bemoan the McDonald’s or Starbucks among the pagodas and Buddhist shrines. We assume these things have been foisted upon these poor defenseless cultures, Golden Arches and Green Mermaids as signs of Western imperialism. A Chinese restaurant in Montreal is diversity, a Tim Horton’s in Chengdu is colonialization. It’s as though we think other cultures would never actually choose diversity and variety in their consumer products, art, entertainment, design, that they must have been tricked into it by the wily marketers of Wall Street and Hollywood.

Imagine if we did this when visiting someone’s home:

“Oh, man, I’m so excited, I’m gonna go for dinner at Cheng’s home. He’s really Chinese, like born and raised there and everything, so it’s gonna be an authentic Chinese home and dinner and stuff. So excited.”

But then we get there:

“I was so disappointed. I mean, Cheng’s really Chinese, but he had a Sony television, and all his dishes were from Ikea, and there were art prints of North American landscapes on the walls, and he had an iPad, and he served French wine, and he didn’t even use chopsticks, and the whole time he had Italian opera playing in the background. Oh, and he and his wife didn’t even speak Chinese to each other. Wasn’t an authentic Chinese experience at all. Poor Cheng, he’s been totally brainwashed by the West.”

I don’t think any of us would exotify or trade on stereotypes that way when visiting a friend’s home, yet we do it when traveling all the god damn time.

The fact is, just as we view other cultures as different and exotic and even cool, they do the same to us. Where I was living in South Korea, American-style food was viewed as fancy, while I was told not to go to Pizza Hut with another guy if it would bother me to be thought of as gay, given that the Hut was the preferred romantic date spot in town. This may seem odd to us, but that’s because we view Pizza Hut as so uninteresting…so Normal.

Look, when Sarah Palin tried to say that rural America was the “Real America”, people took a fit, and rightly so—New York is no more or less authentically American than North Bend or San Francisco or Boise or Archer City—but then many of those same people who raged at Palin likely turned to their travel preparations, thinking, “Okay, well, I don’t wanna spend too much time in Beijing ’cause it’s way too touristy; I’m gonna head for the tiny villages, to the real China.”

I’m not saying there aren’t certain spots that cater primarily to tourists, of course, but we should be damned careful in our use of the word authentic when traveling, because it’s a spectacularly condescending point of view, not only to believe other nations and cultures are unable to make decisions for themselves regarding their own cultural growth and diversification, but that we deign to determine for ourselves what constitutes authenticity in another country!

One last example: a friend of mine once visited me in Montreal, her first time in the city. I wanted to show her my Montreal, what many of my friends might think of as the “real” Montreal, so I took her through the Plateau and we walked to the Mile End. She seemed to enjoy it, sure, but I could sense that she also seemed a bit confused. Then I took her to Old Montreal, with its cobblestone streets and quaint shops, and finally she grinned and said, “Ah, this is how I pictured Montreal.”

Now, she wasn’t wrong: Old Montreal isn’t any more or less authentic than the Plateau or the Mile End, but it is more popular with tourists and, honestly, is not a favorite neighborhood of many Montrealers I know. The point is simply that my friend had expectations for Montreal. This isn’t necessarily wrong, but it did shape her experience of the city. More importantly, though: what we think is authentic may not be what the locals think of as authentic. Our definition of authentic is based solely on expectations, and those expectations are almost certainly limited.

And people in those “exotic” countries know we think that way. I’ve read that some Amazonian tribes wear T-shirts and cargo shorts day to day, but throw these aside and don more “authentic” loincloths and tunics when they learn we tourists are headed their way, giving us exactly what we want, what is authentic to us rather than what is authentic to them. And we head home glowing, so happy to have seen authentic Amazonian villagers, without a single Western label in sight.

So, what do I try to do?

Well, for one, any time I find the word “authentic” creeping into my thought process regarding travel, I take a moment to examine exactly what I mean by that. Usually, I find that I’m basing myself on some stereotype—a lovely and positive one, maybe, but a stereotype nonetheless—born of expectations. So, I try to eliminate those expectations, to approach travel and destinations as openly as possible, accepting that there are some things I will like and some things I will like less—and that those things I like less may very well be some of the most authentic aspects of the destination.

And, yeah, I do a ton of research. I try to uncover what the locals like to see and do in any given city or town or area (which may include authentic but unappealing [to me] activities like watching football on a big screen in a pub); I try to find ways to explore the natural landscapes of a region in a fun and active (though not always authentic) way; but—most importantly, I think—I try not to “picture it”, I try to shut off the trailer I’ve created in my mind for a destination and allow that destination to define its own authenticity—which may include a Starbucks, a McDonald’s, and hordes of tourists.

And if I don’t like it, well, maybe I need to find somewhere less authentic to visit.