Monday, February 25, 2013

The Paternatourist

I'm not what you'd call a great big ol' fan of fast food. I'll have a burger from Five Guys every now and again, but if I find myself faced with a choice between a taco truck and a Burger King, burrito beats Whopper just as surely as rock beats scissors.

I moved to Klaipeda in late 2000 and lived there for close to a year. This was just shy of a decade after the collapse of the Moscow putsch, and anyone insufficiently old enough to recall the slaughter at the TV tower in Vilnius was still in short pants. It sort of bowls me over when I realize that there are now university graduates going merrily about their business in Lithuania who have never lived under a Communist regime. Their only knowledge of the Soviet system comes secondhand from family stories or history books. These people have come of age with the Golden Arches as part of the background scenery, not all that differently than me.

There are a few reactions I might have to seeing familiar brand names as a visitor.
  1. Typical day tourist.
    1. Familiar is good, I know what to expect when I go inside a KFC.
    2. But this is charmingly different, they serve beer here, and it's called a "Royale" with cheese.
  2. Expat with cred.
    1. Familiar is bad, these corporations are sapping the local culture.
    2. Exploitation.
  3. Economist
    1. Familiar is irrelevant, I'm a guest here and I don't have much local knowledge.
    2. Sneering (or worse) at voluntary transactions channels the worst sentiments of Victorian era colonialism: O alarum! These poor benighted savages don't know better than to resist the siren lure of a Big Mac, 'tis up to us civilized folk to stand up on their behalf. Expat please.
It's easy, oh so easy to fall in with the sophism of the (B) types. A desire for authenticity, for roughing it with local cultures underpins backpackery. To take this perfectly understandable urge to get out and experience something new and foreign and turn it into sentiments against the familiar is terribly selfish. Coca Cola isn't on grocer's shelves in Turkmenistan to cater to wayward Americans, it's there because there's a market for it. 

Turn the tables. Imagine how you'd feel if Japanese tourists started clucking their tongues at all the Toyotas they saw on the US Interstate highways and penned bestselling novels on the evils of exporting hegemonic Japanese culture to Yankees who aren't civilized enough to grasp that they're throwing away centuries of beautiful and precious national heritage by driving a Honda instead of a Buick. 

Is trade between foreign nationals and US businesses not euvoluntary? To what extent is the paternalistic sentiment of (B) types on American firms operating abroad rooted in genuine concern for the welfare of locals? Is it possible that there's an element of contempt in there towards the oblivious middle class American tour-bus day trippers? Are indigenous people incapable of rational economic calculus? I understand the tragedy that is modernity, we're all alienated from the soil and the bones of our ancestors, but this projected regret seems an awfully thin broth to feed the victims of cultural condescension. It's a pity to find a Taco Bell in Wenceslas Square, but it's also entirely possible that the world doesn't exist to cater to itinerant Americans seeking authentic travel experiences.

1 comment:

  1. I don't weep for my own sake when I see Taco Bell in Wenceslas square and hear Justin Bieber on the promenade speakers: I weep for humanity that it prefers such bland and flavorless fare.


Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?