Some difficulties I have with ‘authentic’ and ‘traditional’

Some difficulties I have with ‘authentic’ and ‘traditional’

As a local slow traveler I must confess to being uneasy with descriptions of things as ‘authentic’ or ‘traditional’ when traveling.  How many times do you hear descriptions of an experience as ‘authentic’, of people having an ‘authentic’ culture and even (I don’t joke) ‘authentic’ souvenirs (as distinct to ‘traditional’ souvenirs I guess? Or ‘modern’ ones?)

There are a number of reasons I’m uncomfortable with the term.  First, if some experience is ‘authentic’, it means there are experiences that are ‘inauthentic’. But how can that be the case?  All experiences occur and therefore are ‘authentic’ to those who experience them.  The fact that some experiences fit a closer sense of our (travelers) expectation may make them closer to what we want to or expect to get from them, and what we want to see or experience, but this doesn’t make the experience any more authentic or inauthentic from the perspective of those who we interact with. It is in the context and in the interpretation of the experience.

This therefore raises the possibility that as travelers (remembering that almost by definition, we are outsiders), our search for an ‘authentic’ experience starts to impose our notions of authenticity onto other cultures. This can be very dangerous in the sense that the cultural exchange occurring between traveler and local begins to get defined by the outsider.  And for local people, do they try and become what the traveler expects rather than who they are and embracing what their culture is?  It’s not too many steps from this to interactions that are framed by some visit to a living anthropological museum.

To give an example, I remember someone telling me once about a trip they had been on.  They had paid to have a tour of a long house in a south-east Asian country, and he had paid to stay for one night there. His experience, as he described it, was both positive and negative – in fact it was both ‘authentic’ and ‘inauthentic’ according to his expectations.

It was positive because he was in the longhouse, he interacted with an extended family who cooked for him, provided local drinks and accommodation in a room.  He was able to observe and experience everyday life of the extended family for the time he was there.  The trip to the longhouse by boat was part of this construction of ‘authenticity’.  He took pictures of the family in their ‘traditional’ dress, cooking their ‘traditional’ food, using their ‘traditional’ methods, in their ‘traditional’ house.

It was negative because the family, for all this ‘traditional’ hospitality, wanted to sell him souvenirs, and this was not ‘authentic’.  They also asked for tips, again not ‘authentic’. The family had stepped out of the definition of authenticity that the traveler had brought to the interaction.

Secondly, the search for authenticity has embedded in it, I would suggest, an assumption that cultures are static things. This of course depends on how ‘authenticity’ is constructed, both by the traveler and the local. So when we search for a sense of authenticity, we may well be assuming that authenticity is there for our benefit as travelers (see the example above) and is somehow frozen in a view of what we want and expect. This is sometimnes called constructing ‘the other’ (that is, those who aren’t like ‘us’.  As soon as we do that, we start to impose a set of assumptions on living cultures and living people.

Of course, this is not always one-way.  I remember working in the buffer of a protected area in South Asia a few years ago, a park that was trying to attract ecotourists.  My concern was the park management’s concept of ecotourism was quite broadly defined – at the time, there was a big push by governments to have ecotourism implemented and, as with lots of things, when you push for a quick implementation you lose the reflection, the dialogues and critical discussions and the cooperation required to make things work well.  So I was a bit worried about that.

A village had just formed a dance/cultural entertainment group to entertain the ecotourists who were to come and I happened to be there during one of their early performances. There were a few people in the audience – perhaps 6 – and they were all westerners.

Group members began to dance, women dancing on their own, men dancing on their own.  There was a description of the dances by one of the group’s members, with the narrative focusing on harvests and long-life and good fortune.

Then, as the night reached its end, the men and the women danced together, and once that had finished, the dancers went and got members of the audience to dance with them. The narrative for this was one of tradition – that this dance was not often seen by outsiders, rarely performed beyond the confines of the small village and family networks within other villages.

And yet, they were dancing with members of the audience.

As you could imagine, there were cameras flashing during the night, but especially when the westerners were brought up on stage. My heart was very heavy.

Afterwards I spoke with some of the members of the group and asked them to describe their ideas for the dance group.  What they wanted to achieve was to both maintain their cultural traditions, and to also generate income for the village and for village facilities.  The group was set up as a cooperative and profits went to village enterprises rather than individual households.

I understood all this, but not about the dance with the audience.  I asked why, if the dance was so seldom done, so special, it was being performed with audience members.  The person I was discussing this with smiled and said ‘Brian, that’s just a story. It’s to keep the tourists happy. We just made it (the dance) up as we went along’.

I laughed at the thought that the audience members, happy in their notion of ‘authentic’ would be showing pictures of dancing that they were privileged to see – dancing that was seldom performed, and they happened to be able to see it.  They would have felt special and would have showed their images and constructed their own stories and narratives of this cultural exchange, not knowing that their stories were based in their own construction of their experience which in turn was heavily influenced by the dancers and their management of ‘authentic’ and ‘traditional’.

And for the dancers, they were dealing with authenticity on their own terms, rather than on the terms of the travelers. They knew what they wanted to achieve – improvements in village facilities.  They found a way to achieve it, and they recognised that they didn’t want or need to sell out their own cultural ideas, values, changes and aspirations, to the authenticity assumed by the tourists looking at ‘the other’. The dancers engaged with the complexities of this exchange, and did it on their own terms.

For me, this is an important story for local slow travel. We need to move well beyond notions of ‘other’ and notions of ‘tradition’ and ‘authenticity’.  As LoST travelers our aim is to recognise the dynamics of our interactions and to reflexively understand the assumptions of our interactions.  For us the focus is not on the journey or the interaction, but on the package of journey, interaction, ethics, assumptions, expectations (and how they’re formed) and our aims for our interactions.