No Innocent DanceThe Casual Imperialism of the American Tourist

A Guna woman selling molas in Panama City (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Morocco instantly felt like home. It wasn’t just the dusty streets, narrow alleys, and chaotic bazaars — the people felt like home, too. During a tour in the desert, Moroccans excitedly paraded me around the campsite, introducing me to other Indians who blazed and offered me chai as we stood on cold winter sand. Indian movies are popular in Morocco, as evidenced by the 15-feet-tall Shah Rukh Khan poster I saw plastered to the side of a building and how many people at the campsite turned to me with their hands joined together as the DJ played a song with a dhol-like beat and Hindi words littered through.

At the souk in Marrakech, I bought a soft-lime green djellaba, a North African robe with cut out holes instead of pockets “to hide your purchases,” the salesman said to me. “You shouldn’t show off your wealth.” I nodded. We desis are also afraid of the evil eye. One day, my white friend and I were lazily spending an afternoon in the souk perusing wares when he stopped to buy something to add to another friend’s “collection” of world instruments. He looked to me for help, and I jumped in like some sort of Brown whisperer. I argued with the instrument seller until they’d sliced the price down by almost half — cinching the deal when I threw a flute lacquered in white and green into the mix.

The man eyed me as he wrapped up the instruments in newspaper. “Are you Indian?” he asked. I said yes, though it has been a few years since I’ve felt like I can really shirk off the “American” label. He was thrilled. He pointed at my friend’s camera and urged him to take a photo of us. “Because I want to remember the time I sold to an Indian,” he said. “You all are so hard to sell to.” My friend never sent that photo, and I never learned how to play that flute. It remains on a shelf, covered with dust, propped up by the number of times I’ve told this story.

Haggling, as I did in Morocco, used to feel like a vigorous interaction with culture. It’s construed as an “innocent dance,” especially by Western travelers. You give some, you lose some, you try to walk away, you get walked back. Countless backpacking sites even give tips to gap-year kids and people “sick” with wanderlust on how to get the best deal while sticking to their budget. People warn you about not getting “ripped off” while ignoring that America has largely ripped off the rest of the world through oil wars and excess consumption. A cultural obsession with getting the best “deal” is the basis for Western capitalism. It is unheeding of power differentials and eliminates empathy. We talk about fair trade, but lack the principle to recognize fairness. People on inane “Eat, Pray, Love” voyages are so entrenched in self-serving hedonism that they fail to recognize that nearly half the world lives on less than $2.50 a day.

American tourists treat people who create items for discretionary pleasure as laborers. In this sense, every Western tourist is a capitalist, exploiting the world with every step of their beaded thong sandal. On a recent trip to Mexico, I made a vendor at Chichen Itza visibly tear up as he sold me two silver pendants as souvenirs for my roommates. I had greatly haggled him down—maybe too much. He packed up his wares in many bundles and loaded them into a hand cart before manually pulling down the “poor” highway, a highway I didn’t know existed as I drove off in a Volkswagen. Did I really need to haggle for an extra $5 that could’ve been used to feed a family in rural Mexico? When I Google “cost of living rural Mexico” to really see how far $5 could go, I see a bunch of sites calculating the cost of living for “expats.” Even our understanding of how far a dollar goes is part of a larger exploitative scheme.

As I drove away from the pyramids in an expensive imported rental, I thought about why an American who can average a handsome income compared to the many parts of the world would find it so natural to withhold that extra $5 while visiting a country so negatively impacted by NAFTA? But the kind of generosity that would encourage me to consider brutal demand-and-supply configurations, like purchasing power and international trade agreements, didn’t come naturally.

American tourists treat people who create items for discretionary pleasure as laborers. In this sense, every Western tourist is a capitalist, exploiting the world with every step of their beaded thong sandal.

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There comes a time when the damage of imperialism—especially the American variety—becomes visible. Maybe it’s when you upset a vendor after needless haggling, or eat a throwaway, lavish meal while making eye contact with someone who might not be able to afford to eat at the same restaurant. In the hands of the less-sympathetic, this luck of the draw is internalized as innate worth: An American passport is naturally more powerful, so they naturally deserve unfettered entree to a country’s soil. Less-sympathetic travelers take culture, consume it with irreverent, undifferentiated pleasure, and relegate difference in circumstances not to grand international turmoil or resource hoarding, but to the familiar “you didn’t work hard enough” ideology.

So how do you play that stark difference between buying a leather bag you don’t need in countries you traipse around in ludicrous “local” clothing while vendors look to earn enough money for their next meal? Is a fair price the price you would pay back home? Is a fair price what you think the local laborer deserves? If the price back home is within your means, why wouldn’t you pay it? While the burden of “ethical consumption”— if there can be such a thing when there’s unequal wealth distribution and unfair labor practices—often falls on the shoulders of the individual consumer rather than industries or systems, I hope we can move toward a more ethical travel ethos. I hope we focus on the humanization of every person we come across and practice empathy. The ethical buyer should ask: What if our roles were reversed? What would I hope would happen in these exchanges?

I think back to Morocco. It’s bright and the air is crisp and a little pungent. I watch the sinewy, dark backs of the tanners—and I don’t mean the white people who lay on beaches in their strappy, audaciously sexy swimsuits, but brown people, the people tanning leather in a pocket of Fes. We’re standing on a balcony, staring at small pools of dyes that if you squint at enough, look like a stained glass mosaic. “You get to look at the whole process,” says the leather salesman, inviting me and this white family into “partaking” in the culture. “So authentic.”

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by Aditi Natasha Kini
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Aditi Natasha Kini is a writer, multimedia artist and curator. She experiments with memory through intersectional feminism, gender and collective knowledges. She holds a B.A. in psychology and writing, and an M.A.L.S., from Wesleyan University.