China Trip: The Ugly Tourists

The compulsion to photograph at every nook and cranny, in front of every engraved rock, on every bridge and under every weeping willow… It was frustrating, extremely frustrating, to see fellow students cam-whoring.

Taking a few photos as keepsake, that’s reasonable and expected. After all, we’re tourists. But is there really a need to take that many photos?

At the architecturally interesting Suzhou Museum, I heard something which drove me nutty.

This museum is designed by I.M. Pei, the same architect who did the glass pyramids in front of Paris's The Lourve.

“This museum is so boring,” one girl said. “Not as many stuff as the Shanghai museum.”

“Let’s find somewhere to cam-whore,” her equally bimbotic friend replied.

I was absolutely incensed. How could they behave that way? I hissed, “we’re in a Suzhou museum and, in all likelihood, surrounded by people from Suzhou. Be sensitive. Your inability to appreciate the intricacy, history and aesthetics of Chinese ceramics does not mean that these ceramics are boring. It means that you’re dull, shallow and silly. Please don’t pass off your inadequacy on others, even if they’re non-living pottery.”

They looked at me, at the crowd of tourists staring at them, and started to sob. Tears, a lot of tears.

Okay, that didn’t actually happen. I didn’t say what I was thinking and they didn’t cry. They went off happily to somewhere pretty to take ‘pretty’ photos of themselves. I still wish that I had said it though. My life is littered with wasted opportunities.

This episode reminds me of A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid. Her slim book explores the damage that tourism has done to Antigua, a Caribbean Island. Two particular paragraphs are of note:
An ugly thing, that is what you are when you become a tourist, an ugly empty thing, a stupid thing, a piece of rubbish pausing here and there to gaze at this and taste that, and it will never occur to you that the people who inhabit the place in which you have just paused cannot stand you, that behind their closed doors they laugh at your strangeness.

Every native of every place is a potential tourist, and every tourist is a native of somewhere. Every native everywhere lives a life of overwhelming and crushing banality and boredom and desperation and depression, and every deed, good and bad, is an attempt to forget this. Every native would like to find a way out, every native would like a rest, every native would like a tour. But some natives – most natives in the world – cannot go anywhere. They are too poor. They are too poor to go anywhere. They are too poor to escape the reality of their lives; and they are too poor to live properly in the place where they live, which is the very place you, the tourist, want to go -- so when the natives see you, the tourist, they envy you, they envy your ability to leave your own banality and boredom, they envy your ability to turn their own banality and boredom into a source of pleasure for yourself.
As tourists, we visit different places to enrich ourselves. We encounter events and experiences that would otherwise be inaccessible. We meet people that teach us lessons - sometimes covertly, sometimes overtly. We acquire paradigms and perspectives that would allow us to see the world in a different light. In short, tourism is an inherently self-centric activity.

This, however, does not grant us the freedom to behave in spectacularly ugly ways.

The Chinese national treasure: a gleaming tower inlaid with pearls and precious gems. The very masterpiece that those girls wanted to cam-whore in front of.