Saturday, July 30, 2011

Slummin' it.

Last night while at work, I got into a conversation with a woman that seriously pissed me off. I had to control my face, rein it back into neutral until she left.

I'm a librarian. She asked for my help ordering a book in about Goa and Mumbai, as it turns out she is going to stay in Mumbai for three weeks in November. The other librarian asked her for more details about her trip. Turns out:
*She was going to rent a flat in Mumbai with a colleague's mother who grew up there, and she has become friends with.
*The friend's family is very affluent over there.
*She didn't want to experience the affluence of India, she wanted to see the "culture."
*She was super excited about visiting the slums of Mumbai, to 'really get in there and see the culture of Mumbai.' That was the main attraction of going to India. The slums.

So while she was talking about the slums, the other librarian said, "Well, that will be something to look forward to." The lady gushed about yes it was, then left. Which made me think...


Fuck you lady. For real. It's such a decadent, arrogant western attitude to think that visiting a poverty stricken area makes for an exciting vacation. Let's go gawk at the poor lower caste! Do you honestly think that going there for three weeks can help you experience what it's truly like to grow up there, every minute of every day, knowing your chances of getting out are pretty fucking slim? Do you even know what the caste system is?!

It drives me crazy. People see Slum Dog Millionaire and rush off to go see it in real life. They romanticize the idea of poverty, of the noble savage, of any other variation of a fairy tale where the down trodden are where you will find the culture, instead of finding heartache, hopelessness and disease. They romanticize it to the point where they go on tours of dangerous areas; where they will go and tour the areas as if they're an exhibit, and as though that isn't not only horrifically invasive, but tacky as hell. People like to think that if you go to the poorest of a place, that that's where the true culture will be found, and yield the best time of your life, not unlike Rose's experience with the Irish on the Titanic movie.

It's possible to experience a place without gawking at people, and making an exhibition of their lives. Culture doesn't come from poverty. Culture comes from every aspect of a people, and it's also arrogant to dismiss out of hand the "affluent" side of their lives, just because you saw a goddamned movie and want to slum it for the experience.

I get wanting to stay off the beaten path when traveling, but shit. Why would you want to experience someone else's poverty? Is that going to make you a better person? Can't you feel for someone WITHOUT being in their shoes? Can you not have empathy without having to assimilate the worst of a country? Isn't that a bit unbalanced? You can't visit the worst of a country and think you know it's people. You can't visit the poorest region and say you know it's life. Limiting yourself to such an obtuse experience is cheating yourself of the experience. You're cheating the culture of a people you claim to want to know, because you're only meeting one face in the family.


  1. This reminds me of a saying I heard in a university class one time "Joyfully participating in the sorrows of the world". My reaction to that: FUCK YOU!!!! I appreciate your blog post A LOT!!!!

  2. I don't even know how people can go through poverty stricken areas in Mexico on the way to their resort. It doesn't seem to bother them at all.

  3. That lady would have said "oh shit, I've just stood in some poo"