Socialising as I do with many people who have had opportunities to travel, conversations about different corners of the world come up frequently, and those conversations often make me deeply uncomfortable. One such example is the ‘the people are so beautiful!’ conversation, in which the residents of a given nation are described as gentle and kind and loving, so warm and welcoming. This creates a mental image for me of noble savages, of a simple, ‘pure’ society that isn’t, you know, troubled by the realities of the world for the rest of us; the old ‘First World Problems’ slang term strikes again.
Here’s the problem with this conversation, in my eyes: it’s a reminder that the traveler is an observer, and most of the people I know who travel are from colonial nations, with positions of power and privilege in their home societies (otherwise traveling would likely to be difficult). When you are a white, socially powerful person traveling overseas and you’re describing the people you meet in simplistic terms, you elide the reality of their lives and turn them into Disney sideshow attractions there for your entertainment, rather than human beings going about their daily lives.
The people who describe human beings in this way often have scores of pictures, including images obviously taken without consent that discomfited the subject. There seems to be a general idea that invasive photography as a tourist is not only permitted but encouraged, to document these ‘beautiful people’ in their ‘natural habitat.’ Their saris and salwar kameez, their yukata and other traditional dress, their strange and funny ways of cooking and farming and living! When people object to being photographed, tourists are offended, and they’re even angrier when people ask for compensation in exchange for a photograph, as though photographing someone is a right that should just be naturally extended. (And don’t even get me started with people who express outrage over not being allowed into certain spaces, with or without camera.)
I’m done with people who talk about the ‘beautiful people’ they encounter when they’re overseas. In this corner of California, it comes with all these weird uncomfortable gross hippy-dippy trappings of peace, love, and brown rice, but it also carries sinister colonialist overtones. It’s Eat, Pray, Love in a single phrase, a casual dismissal of an entire people and culture; these beautiful people are here to amuse visitors, not because they are people in their own right with individual lives and priorities.
People tell me I should visit such and such a place because ‘the people are so loving and gentle’ and I want to vomit a little inside. I want to visit places where I can be present as a conscientious visitor to learn more about a place, its history, and its people, where I can respect the people who live there, not treat them as fetish objects. I don’t want to travel to meet ‘noble savages,’ but to enhance my understanding of the world in a responsible way, not by exploiting people and their communities.
When I hear people described as ‘beautiful’ en masse like that, it gives me a little shiver. I know that the speaker isn’t talking about the individual beauty of a specific person (‘I met a beautiful girl in the supermarket today’), but an agglomerated mass of apparently indistinguishable blobs. It carries extra gross weight when people go on to add that they actually are referring to physical beauty, something I commonly hear from white men traveling in Asia who apparently don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying ‘Asian women are just so beautiful.’
(This is a statement that could be picked apart in so many ways that it would resemble a shredded couch after a herd of tigers had gone through by the time we were done with it.)
Responsible travel should not involve objectification. Which is not to deny that positive experiences happen while traveling, and it’s great to talk about those, but it’s possible to do so in a way that is not offensive. To say, for example ‘my homestay hosts were really nice and it was great to be able to experience home life for a few days,’ rather than ‘the people are just so beautiful and warm!’
Occupiers from the West have been traveling to ‘savage’ lands for centuries and writing back about the simple, ‘pure’ communities they find there; and, sometimes, bringing back specimens of those communities for public entertainment and lurid fascination. The fact that modern-day travelers cannot recognise the loaded and troubling history behind treating people this way still is a stark testimony to who writes the history, who dominates social attitudes, and who dictates how people interact with the world.
Who are ‘the people’? While you’re drooling over Indian women in saris at the produce market, are you paying attention to the women organizing against mining companies and Western intrusions in India? Are you paying attention to the women opposing tourism and fighting objectifying activities in their communities? Are you paying attention to the communities pleading for privacy and respect, rather than clumsy tourists everywhere? Because those are ‘the people’ too, and you don’t get to pick and choose the most appealing and affirming members of a society when deciding who represents it. You must instead accept the critical along with the welcoming, the angry along with the sweet, the righteously infuriated along with the abject and humiliated people you like to objectify even further with your poverty porn and tragedised tales of the ‘third world.’
The people are human beings. Not your playthings.