Instead of reading for class...

... I've been reading a good old travelogue, like those which sustained my interest for a few years, when I first discovered the Travel Essays section of the bookstore, until I realized that mostly, that shelf does not have new releases very often, and I had read all the best ones already. The rest, I would pick through, but to this day, I have that shelf mostly memorized by its titles and the colors of the spines. (I'm not kidding.) But I hadn't looked at it in a while, and so recently I checked back on it, and found a new publication. Susan Jane Gilman's memoir and travelogue of her travels in China, Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven was there, in which she divulges the post-college culture and travel shock that she and her college buddy received when they headed off to China in 1986--then basically still a closed state, for all intents and purposes, and relatively untraveled by the modern American. I immediately loved her candid, honest descriptions of the way travel on your own, for the first time, really feels. ("Not at all triumphant.")

I read two chapters while sitting in the bookstore, ignoring the books I should have been using to do research for summer classes. Of course, as soon as I need to read about Cuba, I want to read about China. But Gilman's narrative has been absolutely engaging, and very funny.

I wanted to share one bit, that rings so true, on the hubris, the adventure-seeking, and the irony behind The Backpacker. That timeless first-world traveler who seeks the true thrills in life. She muses on this very thought (an irony I think about often) while describing the bar scene she has found in Beijing. After three weeks of travel through southern China, Gilman and her friend arrive in Beijing and head out on their first night to toast the kind strangers who have helped them during the day, when their bicycles broke down a number of times while traversing the city. To celebrate, they wind up at the same bar as many of the other backpackers in the city, all of whom begin a story-telling competition to determine, without actually saying so, who is the most hardcore, who has traveled in the worst conditions, so as to win some sort of invented (but totally real, to them) honor among the crowd.

Soon we were all vying to establish our backpacker' street cred, to prove how intrepidly we'd been traveling, how much discomfort we'd incurred at how little expense. The irony of this was wholly lost on us. We were too young and myopic to recognize the perversity of a logic that equates voluntary deprivation with authentic experience. We thought that by wearing burlap pajamas, contracting intestinal parasites, and opting to ride in third class with "the people," we were somehow being less Western and more Asian. It never seemed to occur to us that only privileged Westerners travel to developing countries in the first place, then use them as playgrounds and laboratories for their own enrichment. Only privileged Westerners consider it a badge of honor to forsake modern amenities for a two-dollar-a-night roach-infested guesthouse. Only privileged Westerners sit around drinking beers at prices the natives can't afford while sentimentalizing the nation's lower standard of living and adopting it as a lifestyle.

The Asians we were seeing, of course, didn't live famished agrarian lives due to some sort of Eastern spirituality or enlightenment. Give most of the world's population our money and opportunity, and they weren't going slumming at all. They were booking a Club Med vacation in Cancun and drinking a mai tai.

Granted, it was good, even admirable, that we young backpackers at least attempted to break through the barriers of culture and class to experience firsthand how people in Southeast Asia really lived. But we were kidding ourselves in thinking that we were somehow transcending our Western privileges by doing this.

She gets exactly at some of the complicated feelings I have about being a Westerner traveling in developing countries. All the same, I find them far more interesting than places like France or Greece. (Not dissing those places, by any means.) I just find so much irony in the whole thing, escaping lives we are so lucky to have, to feel something real. But then, I am so fortunate to have been given a life, a nationality, that allows me to explore far beyond my borders. So, I need to use this blessing, right? Being careful not to Orientalize anyone I encounter, along the way.

On travelogues, and the winding road to ending up where you intended

There was a time, several years ago, when I rarely left the travel essay section of a bookstore. I suspect it began around the time I starting subscribing to National Geographic, and I discovered the art of writing about travel. Reporting on what you ate every day or which monuments you visited is not of value to anyone but yourself really, but telling a story--perhaps the story of a place, or person, or group of people, added depth to your own experience and created a product you could present to others. This is what the journalists who report on culture and history do in that magazine, combining things we inherently find exciting with stories and movements in the modern day that we would not otherwise know about; indeed, this is what makes all great journalism. But somehow this magazine does it best. (Oh and, they occasionally have pretty pictures alongside the stories. Only the most enigmatic produced by any news outlet in the world. That helps too.) I was hooked.

I felt a rush knowing that there are people whose job this is. There are people who get sent off to report on what's happening in some country or another. Sometimes these people wrote other things, and they usually wound up in the "travel essays" section of any bookstore; so that's where I wound up as well, for about two years. I read maybe a dozen or two of the books on those shelves, not picky about where they took me: France, Vietnam, the Inca Road, India, China, Indonesia, Russia, Cuba. After that though, I began to notice that there were hardly any new books added; the section hardly changed at all, month after month. Not only did I have it memorized, I think I still recognize many of the authors and titles just the same today. The shelf was sufficiently exhausted--it's not a very large section, after all. And beyond the titles I'd already read, the rest kind of bored me: not enough adventure or history, too much "we went here, then here" kind of writing. Or, in fact, too much history or adventure; the trick with good travel writing lies in the perfect balance between all three parts.

This is exactly around the time I was beginning to realize I hated being a Spanish major in college, and that I did not love learning Spanish. (I want to learn it, and intend to pick it up again, but to devote thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours and earn my degree in it overwhelmingly seemed like a bad choice for me.) And my reading interests were forced beyond the travel section. Towards history, and the same wondrous exploration of the world, but through a different outlet and with a few more analytical, argumentative, and research skills.

Travelogues are plagued with weak writing and sometimes less than accurate historical information and context; however, some of the very best travelogues I've read were written by people who also happen to be historians. (One is Rory Stewart.) It's funny how I saw that elusive job--vaguely that of a person who knows a few things and took a trip and wrote about what they saw there, and then turn that into either an article, a book, or both--and then took several direction changes in my interests, studies, and career path, and wound up arguably in a better position to someday write that article or travelogue than I ever would have achieved trying to "make it as a writer." Looking at it from this end, the things that intrigued me most about cultural diversity, interaction across cultures, linguistics, history, fashion and textiles, political issues, and geography are all still there, and are far more useful to me now than I could have conceived when I first sat on the floor in the corner of a bookstore and read a Karin Muller book.