We were all sitting around the table, enjoying our drinks and appetizers, waiting for our food to arrive; a group of Europeans and North Americans, and one Ecuadorian.
“These are delicious! What are they?”
“Patacones. They’re green plantain bananas, sliced, fried twice, and salted.”
“Do you think I can find plantains back in Switzerland?”
“Not sure how common they are in Europe, but I know you can find them in the States if you know where to look.”
This is when the patronizing began. A nice girl decides to put in her 2 cents.
“Well you should really think twice about that. You know Ecuador produces the most banana exports in the world, and the poor farmers are out there working all day and maybe only earn a couple dollars. I mean, think about it! So you can eat this plantain, there is a poor man working so hard out in the fields and earning a few dollars. A few dollars! That’s, like, nothing! Imagine working all day for nothing! Think about his kids! So you really should feel sorry for these people and when you’re eating those bananas. I mean, just think about those poor poor people…”
The Ecuadorian at the dinner table sat there silently with a brittle looking smile on her mouth, and fire in her eyes.
If you don’t understand why this is so offensive, let me try and put it in perspective for you. The cast of Real Housewives of New York have invited themselves to your neighborhood for vacation, and you decide to take them out to dinner since they’re new in town. Ramona turns to LuAnn and says:
“Wow, I don’t know if you know this, but these people here are like, sooooooo poor. Did you know that they make so little that sometimes they have to like, only buy one car! And I heard that some of these poor poor people are only getting their kids, like, a few gifts for Christmas this year. Can you imagine! Ugh, that is so so sad. This Christmas you all should be thinking about the poor poor people in this town and their pathetic little kids, some of whom might actually be wearing their older siblings’ hand-me-downs to school this year.”
Luckily for you the Housewives aren’t going to come visit your house too often. But now imagine now that they did. Imagine if you lived somewhere beautiful where lots of tourists from wealthier countries liked to come and hang. So there are people who think and talk like that around you ALL THE TIME. They like to poke their heads in your windows so they can take a picture of the poor people in their poor people houses. And then when you read what they write online about your homeland, they’re crying about how sad and impoverished you are because you don’t have the kind of things that they have back at home, and how enriched they feel for having experienced your horrible way of life… while staying in their overpriced beach front hostel… for a whole week! And probably feeling really good about themselves and far more cultured than their friends back home because the experienced really opened their eyes to how crap your life is. Wow, don’t you just feel so great about that?!
If you are thinking, ‘no,’ at this point, good, and please remember that when you are visiting a foreign country that may be less developed than where you’re from. No one wants your pity. Let me repeat that. NO ONE WANTS YOUR F***ING PITY. It doesn’t matter where they’re from. It doesn’t matter how poor they are. No one wants some judgmental ass to show up and tell them how sorry for you they are.
So what can you do about it? If you are one of those people who go to visit a place for a couple weeks, and don’t try to learn the language, and only hang out with other travelers, and stay pretty much in and around your hostel, there is nothing really wrong with that in of itself. You are still bringing your tourism dollars, which is (theoretically) helping the local economy, which is then (theoretically) getting back to the people from said place. (Note the ‘theoretically’s, but that’s for another post, another day.)
If you are one of those kinds of travelers, it’s okay. Embrace it and have a great time. Sometimes that is the only kind of trip that is feasible if you are trying to see as many places as possible with a limited amount of time, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. But then, please do not pretend that you are anything other than that. If you do not even attempt to speak the language of the place you are visiting, than you are NOT communicating with any locals, and therefore you are NOT making any kind of real connection with any locals, so do NOT pretend you have any idea of what the lives of those locals really are.
If you are only hanging out with other travelers, that’s great. Travelers are fun, and you’ll probably have a lot in common since you both were drawn to travel to the same place. But please realize that what you are experiencing is the awesome travel culture in that country, you are NOT experiencing the culture of the actual people themselves, so do NOT pretend that you are.
If you want to take a picture of that little old woman in her cool traditional clothes sitting on her front step, wait a moment. Do you know her? Have you had a conversation with her before? Would you like it if some gawking tourist walking down your street at home pulled out their camera and started taking pictures of YOUR grandma while she was sitting on her deck trying to enjoy her crossword puzzle and glass Cabernet? If the answer to these questions is no, take a second and politely ask the woman if she minds you taking her photo. If you don’t know how to say that in her language, look it up for f*** sake, I mean Jesus Christ that’s what Google translator is for. Pull out your iPhone and write into your favorite translator app: “Excuse me for bothering you grandmother, but you and your home look so lovely right now in this lighting. Would it bother you terribly if I took a picture of you?”
If she says, “Of course you may! Aren’t you a sweet child,” how wonderful! You’ve made a good impression on her. You should try chatting with her, asking about her family, trying to get an awesome local recipe off her. Who knows, you may actually learn something. If she says, “No, hit the road you little creep!” this is also wonderful! You’ve just avoided being that jerk tourist who shoves their camera in the face of someone who doesn’t want their picture taken. This is a win/win situation for you.
And look, I know that girl on her banana rant had her heart in the right place. Hell, I’m sure I have been that girl on some banana rant more than once in my life. And I know I will do it again someday. Most people really are just trying to adopt some kind of empathetic global perspective. But one thing that I’ve learned and would like others to learn, is that when you express yourself like that, you really just sound like an a**hole. Just FYI.
Being a social aware, conscientious person, who appreciates the experiences of people other than you, does NOT mean being a pontificating know-it-all in a way that is actually insulting to the very people that you are claiming to care about. The next time you are thinking “Oh these poor people have so little,” think about what my chico said when I told him what I was writing about today.
“I live in this gorgeous country, with this amazing beach that is so beautiful that those people pay hundreds or maybe thousands of dollars just to have a little taste. I’m pretty sure that they are the pobrecitos.”