Wednesday, 5 April 2006

The Amazing Race 9, Episode 5

Segesta (Italy) - Catania (Italy) - Siracusa (Italy)

Leaving the “pit stop” in Sicily at the start of this week’s episode of The Amazing Race , Jeremy and Eric are surprised that the driver of the first passing car they flag down stops and helps them with directions. In the USA, they say, “In the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere, they’d be afraid of us.”

Later, in broad daylight on a busy city street in Catania, Ray can’t get anyone to help him with directions. “Maybe you should ask them,” he tells Yolanda. “They’re afraid of me.”

Who was right? Perhaps both teams were. Your mileage as a visitor may vary depending on who you are, who local people think you are, and how you act. The most obvious difference here, of course, is that Ray and Yolanda are African-American, and Jeremy and Eric are white. But in addition, Ray seems to get frustrated and angry, and those feelings often (not always) communicate themselves across languages and cultures, even to people who don’t understand your words or questions.

The racers’ different experiences and perceptions point to a common problem for both writers and readers of guidebooks. Suppose that you are writing a guidebook like the one we saw Barry and Fran consulting for directions, and you want to tell your readers about Sicilians’ attitudes toward visitors or foreigners. What would you say?

As in the USA, the answer might vary greatly depending on the race, nationality, or ethnicity (as perceived, accurately or not, by local people, and as categorized in local terms) of the visitors in question. Visitors from Mexico, visitors from China, visitors from Nigeria, and visitors from France typically get a very different reception in the USA. The same goes for people pigeon-holed at first glance as “African” or “Asian” in Europe, regardless of whether they have passports identifying them as citizens of the USA (or, for that matter, Italy or the European Union).

Yet guidebooks routinely talk about how “local people” relate to “foreigners” or “visitors”. Which local people do they mean, in a diverse country? Indian Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs will have different reactions if you eat beef or pork, or greet them Hindu-style with “Namaste”, Muslim-style with “Salaam”, or in Sikh fashion with “Sat Sri Akaal”. And which foreigners are we talking about? Foreigners of what race? What perceived ethnicity? Speaking what language?

There’s a special set of issues for foreigners and visitors who are taken (at least at first) for being “local”, as I discuss in The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World :

Second-and third-generation immigrants, or first-generation immigrants who left the land of their birth as infants, face special problems of cultural adjustment and understanding in “returning” to their parents’ or grandparents’ homelands…. If they are returning to a place where they look like the locals, and perhaps speak the language, they may be held to a higher standard of cultural conformity, while travelers whose race and/or speech makes them stand out as foreigners, on the other hand, are usually tolerated in violating many local norms, on the generous assumption that as ignorant foreigners they don’t know any better.

The same thing can happen to people who aren’t local, but who are mistaken for locals. My partner, for example, is of eastern European Jewish ancestry, but when she’s not with me she’s often taken for being Persian or from somewhere else in Central or West Asia. On the commuter trains in what’s now officially Mumbai (then still called Bombay), she rode in the “Ladies’ Carriage” to escape some of the crowding and a lot of the “eve-teasing” (sexual harassment such as groping and pinches from men in crowds). On one occasion, the women around her got quite annoyed when she didn’t respond to their questions in Hindi — they thought she was “putting on airs” by pretending to speak only English! Only after one of them who spoke a little English asked her where she was from, and translated to the others that she was an American (and not a “Non-Resident Indian” or person of Indian ancestry), did the rest recover their usual friendliness.

I’m obviously white, and throughout Asia I’ve been immediately recognized as a foreigner. (Although I’m often taken for an expatriate rather than a foreign tourist, and I’m sometimes mistaken for a Hajji because of my long, naturally henna-colored beard.) In South Africa last year, I had the novel experience of being assumed to be a local, with the additional burden of being assumed to part of a specific local ethnic community.

After they fled the area of Hazebrouck, France in the 17th century, following the St. Bartholemew’s Day pogrom against Protestants ordered by the Catholic king, one branch of the Hasbrouck family emigrated to the Dutch colonies in America at the same time that the Haasbroek branch of the family emigrated to the Dutch colonies in South Africa. My father, like his forefathers for the last 300 years, was raised in the Dutch Reformed Church in America.

Despite the different spelling, my name was widely recognized as an old familiar name of the South African Huguenot community. Huguenots have a special place in Afrikaner ideology as the only other significant immigrant group to South Africa to assimilate into the Afrikaans-speaking, Dutch Reformed community. I look like a Huguenot, even to what in South Africa was taken for a “Voortrekker” beard. And unlike many white English-speaking foreigners who identify automatically with English-speaking, rather than Afrikaner, South Africans, it was the Afrikaner farmers who reminded me most of my father’s family and their values.

But that isn’t my church, I’m not South African, I speak no Dutch or Afrikaans, and those aren’t my values — it’s precisely because I never adopted them that my father disowned and disinherited me, shortly before his unexpected death. It was odd and sometimes difficult, but a useful learning experience, to have people of all races, English-speaking and Afrikaner, project onto me a set of assumptions about who I was, how I thought, and how I saw them, based on what local subculture they (mistakenly) thought I belonged to.

If someone I’ve never met asks me on the telephone, “Are Indonesians friendly to foreigners?”, my answer is that it depends on what you look like. Most Indonesians, like most people anywhere in the world, are friendly and welcoming to most visitors and foreigners. But if you appear to be Chinese, people’s reactions to you will be shaped by the generations-old class divide within Indonesia between the relatively wealthy and economically powerful “overseas” Chinese minority and the other “indigenous” ethnic groups. In Bandung, when I tried to use one of my two phrases of pidgin Mandarin to say “Hello” to an obviously Chinese shopkeeper, they cringed visibly and motioned me to be quiet. Not because of my miserable pronunciation, but because they were afraid of what might happen to them again, as happened to many ethnic Chinese in Indonesia in 1965, if they were identified as Chinese rather than as “properly” assimilated Indonesians.

My publisher (commendably, and I think unusually for a guidebook publisher) has guidelines for avoiding biased language in their books. Avoiding biased perspectives is a different and more difficult task. I try to write for a diverse audience, and I’ve been helped by the diversity of editors of different editions of my books: women and men, white and black, gay and straight. But there’s a fine line between useful generalizations and unfair stereotypes, especially when word and page counts are so limited as to create constant editorial and financial pressure for (over)simplification. In discussions with fellow travel writers, editors, and publishers, I’ve discovered that some think it’s their role to explain a destination to a readership with particular demographic attributes, while others are loath to make assumptions about their readers’ gender, race, nationality, ethnicity, religion, or other characteristics — even if those factors might greatly affect their experience. There’s a further debate between those who advocate “objectivity” and those who think we are all, inevitably, biased, and that all we can hope for its full disclosure of our perspective, so that our readers can take it into account.

My books are sold around the world, with a larger percentage of their sales outside the USA than is the case for almost any of my publishers’ other travel books. So I try to explain things in ways that will make sense to people from a range of backgrounds, and to point out where different people are likely to have different experiences. But if there’s one thing I conclude from my experiences and travels, it’s that no one can fully understand what anything looks like through someone else’s eyes. That’s why, when I travel, I prefer a guidebook by a single author with an identifiable perspective to a guidebook written by a committee or team, especially if — as is usual — it’s impossible to identify which author or editor, with what point of view, is responsible for which specific passages in the book.

Link | Posted by Edward on Wednesday, 5 April 2006, 23:59 (11:59 PM)
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