Monday, April 9, 2012

Searching for Authenticity

Several years ago I read an article in the Boston Globe travel section called "True Blarney" by writer Kirsten Giebutowski.  She had visited Ireland and expressed frustration at not being able to find an authentic part of the country.  "[S]omehow every cup of tea I had," she writes, "every scone, fish-and-chips meal, and Guinness, however pleasant, seemed a cliche."  Her one souvenir was a small rock she found on a walk through County Clare.  This rock allowed her to feel connected to the Irish landscape — the one part of the country she felt wasn't trying to live up to the images tourists wanted.

My attitude toward Giebutowski’s article hasn’t changed significantly since 2006.  I still think that when you are clearly not local, the people who live in the places you visit will treat you as a tourist.  They may play up the parts of their area or culture they think are most attractive to foreigners.  If you are in Ireland, they may rave about Guinness.  In France, they may serve you expensive coffees while pointing you towards the Eiffel Tower.  (For my favorite heartbreaking story of searching for authenticity in France, watch the “14th Arrondissement” film of Paris Je t’aime.)  In Cambodia, they may offer to drive you to the Killing Fields (that offer got unsettling real fast).  It will be more of a challenge to seek out an authentic-feeling experience because you are clearly not local.  This doesn’t mean it’s impossible, and it shouldn’t necessarily cheapen the experiences you do have. 

Two of many market stalls selling similar dresses.
While traveling in Cambodia, though, I have shared some of Giebutowski’s frustrations.  Siem Reap is a huge tourist hub.  Most restaurants feature Khmer food along with western favorites in an attempt to appeal to a large audience.  Bars offer cheap drink specials and buckets of liquor for the partying backpacker crowd.  There are multiple wildly lit night markets selling Cambodian goods along with massages and food.  It's a really fun town with a lot to do and see. However, while I have been eating authentic Cambodian food and seeing ancient temples, I have been primarily interacting with westerners at my hostel or Cambodians who work in the service industry.  I don’t agree with travelers who think that you haven’t truly experienced a place unless you are friends with locals, but at the same time it is easy to feel caught up in a tourist bubble.

Cambodian barbeque - definitely something to try if you're here!
At the markets, many stalls sell identical products.  As I looked for a purse, a specific style caught my eye, but it was sold in dozens of different stalls.  I had waited to buy a bag in Cambodia so I could find one that felt unique and authentic.  Though the one I chose is made in Cambodia, seeing so many others in the same style made it feel mass-produced and common.  (I have also bonded with two different guys who bought wallets of the same material.)  When I leave Cambodia, my purse will look more unusual and will be a practical souvenir, but as I wander through the market I still find myself hesitating to buy anything else.  I seem to be looking for something that may not exist – something that says “Cambodia” without being the same as a hundred other products.

Elephant Brand recycled bags at two market stalls
My experiences traveling through Siem Reap have forced me to wonder about authenticity and the purpose of travel in an increasingly globalized world.  What makes a truly authentic experience?  Is it related to the local culture, or is it the modern experience you can find in popular cities?  Do you travel to see what local people do today, or do you want to see the versions of themselves and their country that they present to the world?  Does a cultural icon become cliché through overuse or outdated with changing times?

I'm sure there are complicated debates about the true meaning of "authenticity," and I'll leave those to my friends who majored in philosophy.  In this post, at least, I think of "authentic" as a cultural production, event, or experience that feels unadulterated by tourist-directed marketing.  What do you think?  I'm curious to hear!

What do you look for when you travel?
What kind of experience are you hoping for?


  1. I know what you mean. I cannot say that I'm necessarily well-traveled, but from my experiences in Asia, it's definitely a noticeable difference between what locals treat each other and tourists. Being Asian but born in America, my tourist-ness doesn't often show up so quickly; I can almost pass for a local, at least for long enough for the others to figure out I'm not.

    I do agree with you that "authenticity", however it's defined, is going to be harder and harder to find in a globalized world. I've seen too much of Anthony Bourdain to deny that. The sound of clicking shutters now penetrates even the most remote of villages as tourists search for ever-more-authentic (whatever that means again) scenes-- Scenes of life untarnished by the influence of catering to the outside-crowd, perhaps(?). It seems that globalization and westernization are seeming to be one and a same, which to some extent is a bit unfortunate, but at the same time, seems inevitable; I think that since the opening of Japan by Perry in the 19th century, and maybe even further back to the days of imperial expansion, the West has been spreading its ideals more and more.

    It may all boil down to a fundamental difference in ideology... I"m no expert, but I feel that the eastern cultures I'm familiar with are more content to be proud of who they are, and feel no need to make others like them. Perhaps it boils down to the ideals and philosophies that originated here, versus those that began more in the West... I don't know. It's an interesting phenomenon though.

    Glad to hear you had a great time! I hope to travel a lot some day!

    1. Thank you for such a thoughtful response Kevin! It has been interesting to see how much of western (especially American) culture is here in Cambodia. I think you're right - it is going to be difficult for people to preserve traditional cultures when it's so easy to see and blend external cultures. Definitely something interesting to watch! Thanks again for reading and commenting!