Notes on interracial and (post)colonial traveling

Some interracial couples may have some misgivings about traveling abroad together, particularly to places that are reputed to be intolerant – Saudi Arabia, Dubai and a host of other predominantly Muslim countries are quick to come up as examples. I can kind of understand why. The ghost of anti-miscegenation laws, racism, and the effects of migrant sex work and pornography (I know, Muslim countries don’t necessarily have these issues, all at once) have a role to play in society’s ugly perception of interracial relationships, but I don’t think couples have that much too worry about as long as they stay respectful of the places and peoples they visit.

But while traveling in my own country Malaysia as one half of an interracial couple who is female and of darker skin tone, I was struck by the patriarchal attitudes and imperialist nostalgia/longing that exist at the heart of tourism.

Some things I noticed:

1.Everybody ignores me. In shops, restaurants, and hotels, I become invisible. Unless I open my mouth no one is going to give me a second look much less acknowledge my presence. Perhaps as a woman I am viewed as the insignificant, meek and mute half. And perhaps as a local, a native, I am unimportant and someone not worth to impress. But it’s also likely that I am often viewed as the gold-digging Asian stereotype, but without the mini skirt and platform shoes. Crudely put, the White man is viewed as the one with the money, making him a worthwhile object of attention and reverence.

2.“Good afternoon, Sir!”, “Can I help you, Sir?”,”Yes, Sir!”. Going to places with my boyfriend and being greeted with “Hello, Sir” and “Good afternoon, Sir” makes my blood boil. Never would the complimenting “Ms”, “Madam” or even “Ma’am” be accorded to someone like me (See 1). Again, the White man is revered as a most valuable and esteemed customer, adding a kind of prestige to the establishment, “See, a white tourist has walked into my shop, he must have been reading Lonely Planet. How my heart swells with pride.”

3.We started seeing ourselves as “squirm-inducing” subjects. Being a product of conquest and racism, specific combinations of heterosexual couplings (Older, larger, White man/Younger, smaller-built, Asian woman) have mushroomed across the post-colonial, developing world. Southeast Asia sees no shortage of this classic combination. And so it doesn’t help that in Malaysia, local women are meant and made to be fetishised. Airline companies built their image upon the looks and curves of their female flight attendants (Malaysia Airlines and Air Asia, I’m talking to you), who are the first in line to welcome visitors from abroad (“Before you feast your eyes on the beauty of our country, feast your eyes on our women first!”). Which brings to me the trickier issue of coming to terms with being complicit in perpetuating the myths about women of “the Orient”. Ourselves fitting the stereotype, looking at other interracial couples like us can be a discomforting experience.

4.Many tourists depend on imperialist nostalgia to inform their interest in the places they visit (yes, sometimes former colonised subjects, too). English cottages, once homes of British officials of yore, which have been opened to the public as hotels and restaurants in hilltop destinations in Malaysia recreate the delights of colonial high-living, are obvious examples of such places. Coined by anthropologist Renato Rosaldo, imperialist nostalgia is defined as longing for the culture that their colonial ancestors have destroyed while at the same time making racial domination seem innocent and pure. In Yogyakarta, it came as hardly a coincidence that the Dutch represented a significant proportion of tourists from Europe. However, compared to Singapore and Malaysia, traces of Indonesia’s colonial past appear to be have been greatly diminished. Other than the odd word in public spaces that can be recognised as Dutch, colonial memories exist in more subtle ways. So I wondered what was drawing many visitors from Holland to Indonesia?

Traveling is a privileged act of observing and of vicariously experiencing the lives of others. Once a preserve of the elite few, travel has become democratised to allow the rest of the world to wield the power of the gaze, brush against the Other and come out unscathed, and be a conquerer of the unbeaten path. But what of travelers who are self-conscious of how their presence impact on the observed? Macon D’s blog Stuff White People Do catalogues some thought-provoking writings along these themes. But what about the power-relations that impact on non-White tourists? I have to admit, my thoughts on this are still pretty undeveloped, so comments would be most appreciated.

7 thoughts on “Notes on interracial and (post)colonial traveling

  1. As a Malaysian working and living in Indonesia, I enjoy blending in with the locals and not having to be subjected to the HELLO MISSSTERS that my other white colleagues/friends get when they walk around in town with me. And I know that they get irritated with that after a while.😉 Plus, prices double when you’re with a white person and magically are reduced when you’re by yourself.

    To be honest, I think all that ‘reverence’ or whatever is pretty superficial. When it comes down to it, the locals are more inclined to be open and sharing with people who appear more similar to them in terms of culture, language etc. So there’s good and bad, and I don’t get upset when I’m not treated as a white.

    What irritates me is when white expats look at me and doubt me (because my predecessor was the typical white alpha male) but I think deep down they feel threatened because Asia is changing – we have the same education as these white expats PLUS we either speak the language and/or very familiar and sensitive to Asian culture, etc.. so the quality of western expats better step up from those who can’t find jobs/screws in their home countries and end up here. /tongueincheek😉

    • To be honest, I think all that ‘reverence’ or whatever is pretty superficial. When it comes down to it, the locals are more inclined to be open and sharing with people who appear more similar to them in terms of culture, language etc.

      Very true, and I agree with that. I suppose the best part about being non-White and a tourist is being able to haggle my way out to a great bargain. Why? The general idea of Asian tourists being less well-off than White ones.

  2. Power relations that impact non-whites…. where? In non-white spaces, or white spaces?

    When I was travelling in Morocco, passing through the markets, we would have the local boys shout out to us, “Konnichiwa!!!” because we were East Asians (and you know, us pale-skinned Asians are invariably some form of Japanese…).

    In Italy, (does that count as white or non-white space? :D) we stuck to our own tour group with English-speaking tour guides. When we were out on our own, my mum caught a pickpocket trying to pick her bag and scolded him loudly on the subway train (no one batted an eyelash) and everyone behaved like it was business as usual. I understand that pickpockets are fairly common, and they of course would target tourists.

    When touring in England, who knows, my dad and I have never had any problems being a tourist in the white spaces of England and Australia. My dad may have a tourist smile, but he doesn’t carry himself like a tourist. It probably helps that we speak flawless English.

    I think in order to properly compare, I’d have to travel with a white person. =D

    I’ve got some other thoughts on this too, in particular the idea that if you’re a “Third Worlder” who can afford to go overseas, the class privilege one gets may mitigate any racial marginalization which may occur, but I will also have to get back to you on it.

    • Years ago, hen I was on a trip organised by my music school to England, there was this stupid white kid who thought we were all Mongolians. Mind you, we were usually quite polite and generally agreeable about cultural ‘misunderstandings’, but that pissed us right off. This was more than 10 years ago, before the huge boom of immigration. Now, you can hardly hear anyone speaking in English in London, so I don’t think I would have much of a problem blending right in.

      But in places where tourists are a relative rarity, being non-White might pose as a small problem (i.e. racism) or simply a curiosity for locals. And yes, being a tourist and non-White does make us quite different in that we’re not in foreign country looking for work but rather doing the privileged thing of past explorers and travelers in a foreign, sometimes exotic land – once the preserve of white men under the patronage of royalty.

  3. Why should my pink skin give me VIP status? The cultural imperialism of ‘whiteness’ is so far-reaching that it is not perpetuated just by white people. Twice this summer, while waiting in a queue at an airport, I was ushered by officials past those ahead of me (the officials and fellow queuers were people of colour in both instances). The first time this happened I was tired and flustered, and went ahead. The second time, I’m glad I had the presence of mind to look the official in the eye and say ‘These people are ahead of me!’ I am privileged to experience this positive racism, which is flattering if a bit more expensive, but it’s still racism.

    Another blog on travelling while white is http://stuffwhitepeopledo.blogspot.com/2009/08/go-on-racially-trouble-free-vacations.html.

  4. hey cycads, here through the link wilderness… interesting post!

    Your experiences match up with what I’ve observed and experienced as half of an interracial couple in SE Asia. Husband always gets addressed first, I’m looked past. The catch is, I’m white and my husband is Asian. I think sexism goes deeper than skin color🙂 Then, when I handle the interaction, because my English is better than his, they keep looking at him while I’m talking to them!

    It also amuses me to be consistently taken for Russian, until I open my mouth. Cos we all know Russians are the only white girls who hang with Asian men!

    But beyond these points, we look at our tourism from the economic angle. The countries we’ve visited depend on tourism in a big way. They want our money, and we want their beaches, sunshine, and high-quality resort service. Getting paid here and now is more important to them than whether we’re stomping on their post-colonial sensitivities. And we don’t mind paying tourist prices, either… we’re paying them to keep their beaches and nature pristine! With that out of the way, we do enjoy the post-colonial frisson of “look how far the world has come since…” We’re Japanese and American, so everywhere we go in SE Asia is somewhere that our grandfathers were killing each other over. And isn’t it really amazing that just a few decades on, we can be sipping beer on the battlefields, while the locals mint money at the entrance gates? Let’s hear it for humanity, say I😀

  5. @ Jane,

    Wow, that’s really interesting! Thanks for commenting! Like I said towards the end of my post, some thoughts about this whole interracial/postcolonial travel have been swimming in my head but not quite well-founded until I hear stories from other people with similar experiences.

    It also amuses me to be consistently taken for Russian, until I open my mouth. Cos we all know Russians are the only white girls who hang with Asian men!

    That’s pretty unsettling because I have been mistaken for being Thai. I can see that these assumptions are linked with the general view of the sex industry/tourism😦

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