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The dark side of travelling

Thoughts from Asia on white-washing and prejudice

· Joey,Reflections

I've been pretty quiet on the blogging front for a while. I haven't blogged since I arrived in Taiwan, choosing to focus instead on spending time with Iris, our 3 year old nephew, the gym and an around-the-island tour with Iris' school friends. When I landed in Siem Reap to kick start my 2 month backpacking across South East Asia, the intention was to dedicate lots of time to reading, reflecting and writing.

I was struggling to decide what to post about. There is a half-written draft about travel tips in Cuba, which I thought would help those planning a trip there. There are also my notes from Morocco on racism / prejudice that I noticed on my travels and how that implanted in me a desire to educate ignorance around this topic wherever I'd encounter it. But it wasn't the right time for those writings to be born, it seemed, as I quickly lost momentum and to be honest interest in writing those posts, for now.

The trigger

Then, as I was procrastinating on Facebook just now, I came across a post on the Digital Nomads Around The World Facebook group. The original post was a woman asking whether it would be possible to live a digital nomad life on $2.5k with two young children. One of the replies caught my eye.

"Avoid western style capitals in countries like Japan, Korea, Singapore, since they are often expensive e.g. rents etc" - random white dude on Digital Nomads Around The World Facebook group

For some reason, this comment got me really riled up. Those of you that follow my personal Instagram account may have seen a short rant on one of my stories. Since when is Tokyo, Seoul and Singapore "western"? Does the guy mean economically developed? Modern conveniences? What does he actually mean?

It was a small throwaway description that was part of a larger reply which was actually probably quite helpful to the original post. My anger towards it seemed like an overreaction. And so I dug deeper into the anger, for when we get really angry about something, there's something to be learned. It felt like there was this reservoir of anger, passion or something that had been building up in my body for a while, and the man's unwitting comment just opened the floodgates.

Digging deeper

So what was underneath? What did I have a problem with? What did that man's comment represent?

I'm guessing in his mind, in that moment, "western" meant developed. To me it represented the appropriation of Asian culture. A continent seen through a white man's eyes, like so many other things in this world. (Yes, I'm aware that the white man language is probably not very politically sensitive either, but I can't think of a better way to phrase it - suggestions welcome!) I'd experienced it a lot since we left London for the last time in early October, and it had been an real eye opener for us.

For example, some see the haggling culture of say Morocco or South East Asia as the vendors trying to rip you off. But it's a rich tradition of coming to a price that is agreeable for both parties that has a much longer history than the recent influx of foreign visitors. (Okay, there are a lot of vendors who are trying to rip you off too.) And all the while they forget that the market haggling culture actually used to be part of their own countries until quite recently in history.

Just one another example. I was staying at a hostel in Siem Reap and there was this guest/volunteer who kept going on about how cheap the booze was. He was a nice guy, but he seemed mostly interested in drinking as much as possible, as often as possible, for as little as possible. He was from New Zealand, where a beer from the supermarket costs $4, so yes, you could understand his fondness for the price of booze. But that's all he seemed interested in after months of living in Siem Reap: consuming, consuming, consuming as much as possible for as little as possible. Asia was someplace to be drained for his own consumption, echoing the days of western colonialism.

(Related content: Here are a couple posts from an excellent blog commenting on the whiteness of the travel blogging community and unintentional prejudice.)

The dark side of digital nomadism?

I wonder if this is the dark side of the digital nomad community. Okay, I get that it's sensible to lower your overheads when starting off a business (or just living, in general) by moving to a low cost location. But sometimes it feels like people are moving just for that lower cost of living. So South East Asia and other digital nomad hubs around the world becomes a place that is cheap. Where the money will stretch further. And this immigrant community (I've recently decided not to use the term "expat") often ends up existing in a bubble that has little genuine interaction with the local community.

At the same hostel in Siem Reap, there were a group of travellers who were staying there relatively long term - more than a week. They'd wake up late after a night of partying, eat lunch at the hostel, have dinner at the hostel too after a day of lounging around by the pool and drink in the evenings at the hostel or go out to the infamous Pub Street in town. I once enquired as to why they didn't try the food around town to which they replied the food in town was expensive. This surprised me, as I'd been paying half of what they were for the same dishes at a few joints around town, one of them 2 doors down from the hostel. They continued to explain that Pub Street's restaurants cost at least $6-7 a dish. It was an example of a mini bubble, creating a white-washed and ignorant narrative in the process.

Okay, the rich immigrant community provides benefits to the locals of course, such as the influx of cash that they wouldn't have access to before. I'm not denying that there are positive aspects to the digital nomad life for all sides. It's just that we have to recognise the dangers and examine what harmful actions and attitudes we may be guilty of.

We are all guilty of prejudice

I notice now that I was (am?) guilty of the same thing. I chose the countries that I'm travelling through because it fit my budget. I didn't care so much about the culture of the place and neglected reaching out to the local community in order to exchange cultures and genuine connection. When I first found out that massages were $8-10 for a mid-range place, I was delighted and made the most of it in Siem Reap. I'm looking forward to $3 massages in Thailand! I would also be lying if I say I didn't make assumptions about travellers and tourists based on where they are from.

Of course, the local people of the countries I'd been to are guilty of something similar. How often white-skinned people are seen under a generic blanket of "westerners" (Americans and Aussies seem to get their own label in most places though, I've noticed). How sometimes they are viewed as walking wallets. Or in Morocco where solo-travelling women were the target of vulgar comments and wolf-whistling, as they are considered by the locals to be promiscuous. Of how I'm always supposed to be happy and smile when they say "gangnam style" or do the slitty eyes things when they guess I'm Korean (I have small eyes).

So now I have to find some way of tying up this blog post so that I can go to bed. I'll leave it with a few questions:

1. What are some ways that we can respectfully embrace digital nomadism, taking advantage of the difference in living costs but not letting that become the sole driver?

2. How can we challenge the often white-washed worldviews of the digital nomad and travelling communities?

3. How can we break down the prejudices that we all have against each other and learn to appreciate each other's cultures

Please leave your thoughts below.

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