I wrote a short article about tourists-natives dialectic several months ago that caused both agreement and vehement no-I-don’t-think-so replies from my readers. (Click here to read that article.) For somebody who grew up in a third world country like the Philippines, it is hard for me to grasp the rationale of spending 10,000 USD or roughly the average annual income of an employee working in the Makati Central Business District, the Philippines’s center of finance and commerce, one year of toil and dog-eats-dog working condition while competing in a rat race, for a two-week holiday in a foreign land. But for people in the West, Europe and America, and some upper one per cent of the population of third world countries, a vacation in the Maldives, Seychelles, Palawan, Ha Long Bay, Bhutan, or Nepal is not that hard to imagine.
This morning, waking up in the early winter month in Hanoi, I was dumbfounded when after I watched breaking news by BBC and an Indian TV station in Hindi about the seizing of Taj Mahal Hotel, the adjoining high-end restaurants for tourists, two hospitals and a subway station. The a line in the supporting articles of the video was written – “The terrorists randomly sprayed bullets to the train commuters” – as if spraying bullets is as light, as ordinary as the word spraying.
It was not the usual terrorist actions because British and American tourists were singled out. In one restaurant, an Italian man, after having answered the question of a man in bonnet that his nationality is Italian was left unharmed. As of press time, 101 people were reported dead; this number is expected to increase since the situation has not been contained after 24 hours since it started early morning of November 27.
According to analysts, this is a result of extremist Muslim separatists/fundamentalists movements in a predominantly Hindu Indian population.
Basically, events like this are manifestations of deeper and more fundamental conflict that exists between people of differing background. Although India prides itself for its pluralistic, multicultural society that exists in a symbiosis and tolerance, this event proves contrary to claim. However, I will focus on the more basic cause of this problem that is often ignored by political scientists because of its apparent simplicity.
I remember a week ago, a group of Australians who are on their way to Poland stayed in my friend’s house in Hanoi where I also stay. During the first night, as we were introducing ourselves to each other, a girl related that her grandfather used to live in Iloilo City in the Philippines and that she has visited the place and “like it a lot” especially Boracay for its white sand, sun, cool water; and I added a lot of tourists, which suddenly changed the tone of the conversation. Although it was not my intention to ruin her description of my place, but from that moment on, we both knew that the tourist-native dialectic existed between us.
Whenever I go to a new place or a foreign country, I try my best not to be conspicuous. Nonetheless, being brown and Asian mean not being seen at all. The way I speak and carry myself often betray my identity. Nevertheless, I try to avoid places often frequented by tourist, and I haggle just like any other natives of the place. But for most Caucasians, this is often not the case. I am not sure if they are aware of it but their actions orchestrated by the travel books they hold or in their backpacks and the forced ignorance and coyness which may appear ranging from cute to ridiculous. The natives on the other hand are left to compare their state to that of the well-off westerners who find excitement in their repetitive and trite lives.
In my early months here in Vietnam, we visited Tuyen Quang, a province in the north. We were with a Belgian friend who had with him the ubiquitous tourist camera. While visiting a small village of ethnic people, a scene almost hit me on how pervasive this dialectic is.
A girl, around fifteen was asked by her father, who is the leader of the village, to pose for pictures. The girl, probably tired of this routine she has to undergo every time a white man visits their place, disobeyed her father’s request. She was called by her father inside the house and after a moment she came out looking blank and posed almost subserviently in front of the camera. But I saw in her eyes the fury, if not hatred, of a human being used as a spectacle to behold and to be photographed by fellow human beings who happen to have whiter skin, an expensive camera, and can afford a trip that took half of the globe to travel.
I’ll clarify, however, that this is not an attack against Caucasian tourists. After all they also have to work hard to be able to afford a vacation in some impoverished and exotic countries. This trip allows them to escape from their own realities and to softly pat their egos and make them discover that lives are not as miserable as the lives of these dark, short, poor people who will do anything for their money.
One time, I was eating in Hoan Kiem District, a popular tourist area in Hanoi because of the famed Ho Guom. Outside the restaurant is a panorama of hushed battle existing between the tourist and the natives. Both parties do not want to fire the first bullet to the battle continues quietly. Three Caucasians passed by a woman carrying a ban rong, this is a pair of big baskets carried on the shoulder of a Veitnamese who which contain things for sale. One of them asked the woman if she could carry the baskets for pictures. The small Vietnamese woman agreed and smiled while she saw the girl who is almost twice her size unable to lift from the ground ban rong. The girl offered to pay the woman, she declined, carried her two baskets and left leaving the three taken aback probably because the woman did not accept the payment, as if everything should be paid for, as if the all natives want to milk them dry with their hard earned money.
Somebody is just waiting for the first bullet. And this morning, bullets were fired.