NPF: EXOTICISM

Posted in No Politics Friday on October 24th, 2014 by Ed

Anyone who does a substantial amount of traveling in the continental US can tell you that there is a depressing sameness to the vast majority of this country. The background scenery changes, but 99% of the country is a collage of strip malls, gas stations, and chain restaurants that make it almost impossible to determine where you are. It would be fun to blindfold a few willing contestants, take them to some random small-to-medium city, and have them take their best guess at the location. How many people could actually tell Akron from Amarillo?

Since I travel either to see scenery or friends, this bothers me only on the existential level – the vague sense of unease that our culture is losing any sense of regional identity as it is replaced by the blandest kind of conformity. Most Americans have made uneasy peace with the fact that Indiana looks like Kansas looks like Alabama and frankly there's not a whole lot of local color. When we travel internationally, though, we definitely want to feel like we've traveled internationally. We want that shit to look foreign, son. That's why we feel so outraged when the internet reminds us, for example, that the Pyramids at Giza are within spitting distance of a KFC / Pizza Hut. We don't want to see air conditioned chain restaurants; we want our trip to Egypt to be a romantic adventure in the desert, perhaps involving us mounting a camel at some point and interacting with The Natives. Noble Savages or whatnot. Well, it turns out that the Natives in Cairo, a city of about 10 million, drive the same car you do to a job that probably pays better than yours and spend most of their time in public the same way Americans do, which is to say staring at their phones.

I don't think Americans are unique in this respect; I believe that people from all over the world travel with the expectation of seeing something "exotic" and appropriately foreign. When we visit Paris we want to see scenes that come straight from 1960s Hollywood Paris. We want Africa to be one endless safari dotted with nomadic spear-wielding hunters. In Rome or Venice (a city essentially preserved as a museum for foreign tourists) we expect romance and artistic splendor to fill the air (instead of, you know, pollution). And everywhere we expect the local inhabitants to be charming and filled to the brim with quirks and character.

The most "foreign" place I've ever been is not terribly exciting – some of the less populated areas of Brazil. At first I have to admit that I was a bit surprised at how different-but-not-that-different from the US it was. It's hard to fly 6000 miles and encounter an Olive Garden without getting a bit of that "I didn't come here to see this shit" resentment. And the more I thought about it, I accepted the fact that there are KFCs all over Brazil for the same reason there are KFCs all over the USA: because people want to eat there. As much as I hate seeing the absolute worst parts of mass produced American culture infecting the rest of the world, it's the worst kind of snobbery to get upset at Egyptians for liking Pizza Hut because it somehow diminishes the Exotic-ness of our travels. The world is not a movie set designed for our personal enrichment. It would be great if people in other countries told McDonald's to piss off because McDonald's is terrible, but not because it ruins my fantasy image of what Paris should look like.