Traveling: a very expensive and pretty picture book

Declaring “I like to travel” or admitting that your life’s ambition is to travel as much as time, money, and circumstance permit is a fairly safe, innocuous, and perhaps somewhat empty phrase. Empty because, truly, who would disagree? These days, who insists on being rooted in one place and remaining attached to one’s place of birth, at the risk sounding close-minded? As a result, those of us lucky enough to be in a privileged socio-economic class, have all become … cosmopolitan world-travelers.

However, I want to pause for a second and question the assumption underlying this common-place wisdom: namely, that traveling is about gaining new experiences, exploring the world, learning about other cultures, and understanding oneself in the process. I don’t think that is true actually. To be more precise, I do not think travel necessarily results in open-mindedness or an experience of “cultural difference”. It can be a life-changing experience. But often times is not. Instead of experiencing other cultures, the traveler will begin to recreate a microcosm of his previous existence back home (somewhat like a bird instinctively building a nest). He will surround himself or herself with other foreigners/ex-pats; mainly speak their own mother tongue (for familiarity, comfort and ease); and, begin to seek out the same forms of pleasure, night life, and experience they are already used to. In other words, they may have moved apartments, but all of the drab old furniture is exactly the same.

To be honest, none of the things I mentioned above are bad in and of themselves. For example, since I moved to Taiwan, I also hang out with other Americans; at times, I genuinely crave to eat a good, juicy hamburger and drink a Coca-Cola, in order to satisfy the nostalgia that permeates my life like a soft buzzing sound. My point is not to stop doing what you like to do and embrace an entirely new strange existence (which would be an impossible, foolish task). However, I am trying to point out a kind of accumulated insularity I sense everyday as I walk through Taiwan and watch other foreigners go about their lives. Some I have met have been here for years and barely speak any Chinese; they may even have a Taiwanese girlfriend or boyfriend, but utterly lack the inclination or the discipline to sit down and devote time to learning the language. Especially since English is still, at least for the time being, the language of soft power, globalized discourse, the neutral standard against which all else is differentiated and othered. In this case, traveling is merely about exploring the power and influence of one’s own culture.

Also, is encountering a new aesthetic (the smells, foods, different rhythms and groans of a new language, in the case of Chinese, the characters plastered everywhere) a form of difference? And by difference, I mean something that genuinely challenges and shifts the way we think about the world. The Facebook or Flickr Photo Album says this: Look at all of the beautiful places I’ve been to and seen (I am so cool)! Our pictures serve as badges, testifying to our courageous traveling spirit, when truth be told, they are more like a collection of dead, petrified butterflies pinned under glass. To put it simply: what kind of deeper understanding about existence is gained or opened up to by simply seeing beautiful landscapes? Again, please don’t think I am hypocritical. I relish the aesthetic pleasure of seeing mountain scapes, among other forms of natural and manmade beauty. However, what I am challenging, is the idea that this form spectatorship naturally makes us cosmopolitan, open-minded, and adventurous people.

Moreover, often what we are seeing and photographing is spectacle produced specifically for the gaze of the tourist/foreigner. I will never forget arriving in the grasslands of Inner Mongolia and being welcomed by a troupe of Inner Mongolians dressed in traditional costume, singing traditional songs. Later on in the evening I shared a cigarette with them and listened to them tell me about how boring it is to sing the same fucking song again and again; discuss where they were going to drink that night; who is dating who, etc.. Much more insightful to me than the spectacle of cultural authenticity was this group of ordinary, bored, young people, who reminded me of characters from Jia Zhangke’s “Unknown Pleasures.”

My point is that aesthetics needs to be combined with critical thought in order to bring about a shift in one’s being; traveling needs to be combined with an ethos of openness and attentiveness if it is to live up to its promise of providing new ways of understanding the world- if it is not simply to be a cocoon for the rich (relatively speaking), bored, and pampered.

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