Rant about the misuse and overuse of the word “authentic”

15 Jan

It’s something many travelers are used to. Brochures, neatly arranged in hostels, often in developing Asian countries, for tour companies, claiming to offer “authentic local tours of national park, complete with traditional local tribal ceremony and overnight stay”. Authentic is really is becoming one of my least favorite words. It’s overused in the restaurant industry too. In many US suburbs that I’ve set foot in, many restaurants can be found claiming to offer “authentic <nationality> cuisine”, with the word “authentic” written in a cursive or pseudo-eastern-calligraphy-like text font.

The word “authentic” is often used in a travel setting. I just don’t understand why people only use this particular word when they talk about a real cultural experience. But my rant goes deeper. What, exactly, is a real cultural experience? What makes something truly authentic?

First of all, just because a cultural tradition is labeled as “Authentic” on tourist brochures does not mean the majority of the locals participate in it. For many locals, if there’s anything labeled as “authentic” it’s a tourist trap that gives their town money, and not an “authentic experience” at all. There’s many examples of this. People in remote villages in Africa are taught that in order to please tourists, they must put on traditional tribal ceremonies, which they usually nowadays do for no other purpose than to please tourists.

Second, much of what is labeled as “authentic” are centuries-old traditions that are considered authentic than newer forms of culture, just because they are old. Here’s a classic example I like to give: I don’t like at all when I hear people say that Japanese Anime is not “authentic Japanese Culture”. Here’s the thing: Just because it’s not centuries old doesn’t mean it’s not a part of Japanese culture. Sure, not everyone in Japan watches anime, but it’s far more popular as a form of art there nowadays than traditional buddhist art. Also, just because it is modern doesn’t mean it’s all soulless corporate-dominated entertainment for kids. If you know where to look, there’s a lot of anime that’s very deep in messages about the human condition.

The other, far more prominent example has to do with modern influences from western countries. When tourists complain about McDonalds existing in foreign countries, saying it has “ruined their culture”, It’s upsetting because a tourist who visits a foreign country without having grown up and lived in it is in no place to say whether a culture is “ruined”. Their idea of “authenticity” exists solely in their imaginations, in 19th-century Orientalist paintings, and on the covers of their travel books. They see the “Old, authentic, pre-westernization society” and “new society”, not as being products of different times in that countries’ histories, but as being solely and completely different worlds.

If you really want an authentic cultural experience today, buy a house, get a job and work in a foreign country. That’s the only type of “authentic experience” there is, nowadays. Sad, but true. We must, as a global community, move on from romanticized notions of “Asia is a mystical land full of dragons and pandas” sorts of worldviews. Regional differences in wealth, economics, language, religion, and politics, will probably always exist, but individual traditions are dying out, being replaced, or in some cases, supplemented, by a more modern culture. We must still remember the old, and appreciate it in museums, but to view it as more “authentic” is really lame in my opinion.

In conclusion, I’d like travelers to make a resolution on something: try to view both the old and modern sides of a place, and not just go by traditional romanticized notions of other countries.

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