Being a Brown Backpacker in a Sea of White
I walk into a hostel in Italy and the common room is filled with people for the free dinner. I scan the room quickly. There is one other person of colour. I walk into a hostel in Thailand. I hang out in one of the most popular tourist destinations in Asia for five days and meet no other people of colour. I walk into a hostel in Macedonia and people look at me with intrusive curiosity that makes me feel embarrassed. Of course, I am the only person of colour.
I was 22, sunbaking on the islands of Thailand, when I realised that travel is different for white women and brown women. I am privileged in that I am a light-skinned brown woman; some people just think I have an envious, year-long tan. However, my skin colour is loaded with meaning because nationality, and by extension race, are central talking points in travel.
I have been the first Nepali person many travellers have told me that they have met, and they do not hesitate to project their cultural and racial stereotypes onto me. They are very excited, so I ask them if they want an autograph. They proceed to ask me ten thousand random questions about Nepal and are disappointed when I say that I am not from a tiny village in the Himalayas and that I did not have to walk hours on treacherous roads to get to school every day.
As the conversation continues and they learn that I have perfect English, that I am outspoken and inappropriate, and show no shame in partying and partaking in casual hook-ups, these strangers decide that I am not an accurate representation of my people. I have not lived up to the coloniser in their expectations of how Nepali people – as an entire population of 24 million – will look, speak and behave.
“Oh, you live in Australia, it all makes sense now. You’re not really Nepali then.”
To justify my racial identity, I must tell them I was born in Nepal and lived there for a decade in hopes that these facts will increase my Nepali-ness in their eyes.
Can you imagine a Dutch person ever battling such grilling and offensive critiques of their identity by strangers?
At other times, I meet backpackers and avoid revealing that I am Nepali, as it is less exhausting to carry the Australian label. In time, when something about race, culture, being Asian or being “other” comes up, my new friends shift uncomfortably to learn that I belong in this category. No one is used to seeing a brown backpacker in a sea of white.
Over 90 percent of the travellers I have met are white, and in the white-washed backpacker community the predominant conversations are as follow;
“I’ve done 51 countries so far. Oh, yeah, I did Africa two years ago. I’m planning to do Central America for six months now.”
Let’s examine this language, shall we? Because if racism can be a single word and misogyny can be a single word, then imperialism can certainly be one single word.
In case you are living under a rock or have never seen the daylight outside of the bars of Koh Phi Phi, we do not do countries. We are lucky enough to experience certain elements of them, immerse ourselves in the shallower pools of what defines a country. No country can ever be done when she is continuously being made without outline or destination.
I have observed that mainstream backpacking is colonial in mindset and many backpackers think of travel as conquest. Developing countries exist as beautiful packages of beaches, jungles and temples to be inhaled by white travellers for a breath of fresh air, before they return home to their privileged sanitary lives where poverty and inequality were the trendy things they did in Asia.
As a person of colour that is exotified, I see and feel the real danger in travel in the 21st century taking the form of consumption, being marketed and disseminated as conquest. I am lucky that my homeland was never colonised. I will never feel the lifelong pain – both ancestral and existing of erasure of identity, white-washing of culture and replacement of ritual with regulations.
For a white person to go travelling in countries that were colonised, and brag to their friends about “doing South America” – there is something politically very wrong there. This language of ‘doing’ hints at a much darker underlying assumption that non-western countries exist for Westerners to consume in whichever manner they prefer.
Backpackers search too hard for summative answers when they travel; answers about what a culture is, what a nationality believes in, how a country moves and exists. They take one small example and run with it to form an entire evaluation of a country. They shout their experience as the experience. Answers like that don’t come in four weeks when people dedicate a lifetime to understanding the complex and evolving socio-cultural makeup of countries.
Bragging about doing countries shows just how arrogant and ignorant white travellers can be; to see nothing wrong with claiming to understand a country in all its facets without critically examining anything deeper than their hostel community, motorcycle trip or the back alley of every bar in the city.
The reliance of most developing countries on tourism to sustain their economies means that often local people must commodify their cultures to be consumed by white people in neat palatable packages that do not cause discomfort. At the end of the day, money makes the world go round, and perhaps this non-violent form of conquest – where blood isn’t shed and dollar bills are brought in- isn’t so bad at all.
21st century colonialism is still evident in global movement, and it has infiltrated from politics to leisure. It looks different from what it did one hundred years ago but a Thai woman shooting ping-pong balls out of her vagina to a crowd of cheering Westerners is a result of white supremacy.
We can start a more positive narrative of travel that fully respects the land and the people we visit when we learn to reframe our experiences as immersion and education instead of as conquest to add to our list of achievements.