Now that the fever towards the book and the movie has died down, hopefully, I feel it is safe to explain why I cannot bring myself to pick up this ever-popular book. And really, it is not like there were not a pile of books in my house waiting for me to finish, and that War and Peace I for some inexplicable reason requested two Christmases ago is still staring at me accusingly every time I scurry past the bookshelf.
Simply stated: I am tired. How come the dark-skinned, exotic, “mystic” in the third world never spouts any wisdom for me? Or women who look like me? I want an easy piece of wisdom that would help me reach my A-HA moment at the snap of a finger. Or at least get me a hot piece of ass like Javier Bardem goddammit!
I’ll let someone a lot more eloquent summarize the inner struggle I feel whenever I come across scenarios as portrayed in Eat Pray Love.
[These movies that rely on such a trope] don’t teach you anything new about Asia or the Middle East. They rely instead on the stereotype that the East is someplace timeless, otherworldly, incomprehensible, waiting to be discovered by Westerners in search of self.
Now, nobody’s protesting Eat Pray Love, or saying that you should. After all, it’s kinder, gentler and subtler than Aladdin.
But it operates with the same Orientalist repertoire. It may not warrant protest, but its proximity to Orientalist tropes should make you think twice.
There is also something quite personal: Elizabeth Gilbert’s Bali is different from the one I visited. In 1992. Or 1991. I’ve only retained very fuzzy memories of my trip to Bali. In all honesty, after all these years, they could only be fairly categorized as impressions by now.
I was very tanned and therefore I was constantly mistaken as one of the locals by the Western tourists (since NO locals would have mistaken me as one of their own. We don’t all look alike. By “we” I mean “Asians”…) The locals however did mistake me for someone from the Indonesian mainland since quite a significant* percentage of Indonesians were (are) of Chinese descent. My friend who has much paler complexion however was mistaken for Japanese. It suffices to say that all this made an excellent Comedy of Errors in which we were constantly propositioned by men of different races and national origins, and in which men, as I was surprised to find out, expected us to be grateful for the attention. Some more than the others…
Of course Bali was (is) gorgeous and spectacular as every single tourism brochure says it is. And I am not saying that it is different from any other region that relies on tourism for the majority of its revenue. What I remember most, however, and you all know I am crazy so please feel free to ignore what I have to say and stay with the tourism brochures and/or Gilbert’s book, was…
Disclaimer: My father was a tour guide and a travel agent, my mother, a hotel maid. I have always felt ambivalent towards tourism and therefore my perspectives when traveling are always “unnecessarily” skewed.
My impressions from my trip probably had more to do with who I was than the actual locale. It is highly likely that I would have felt the same way towards some other popular tourist destination…
The vendors, mostly children, swarming the van our local tour guides drove us around in, calling out, “One dollar. One dollar.”
Our determination to bargain the price down as we were instructed so we were not taken for fools.
The shame I felt afterwards when I remembered how little one dollar meant to me in comparison.
The cottage we stayed in which was located in the midst of a local village an hour or so away from the main tourist area.
People’s stares and curious expressions because they could not easily identify me and thus conveniently label me when our local tour guides showed us around (and off?) to their friends and families.
One guy from the village decided to climb up the coconut tree to procure fresh coconuts for us and was ridiculed mercilessly by his friends for trying to impress the ladies. We all had a good laugh.
The sight of women bathing on the side of the road which was as natural as the stream that ran along the road.**
The disappearance of familiarity exhibited by our local tour guides with whom I thought we had become friends as soon as we arrived in the “city”.
The puzzlement at our friends’ refusal to join us for lunch in the city. And further puzzlement at their decision to say “Yes” to the same restaurant but “No” to the same table.
Their apparent discomfort when we were approaching the fancy upscale hotel in which a Taiwanese tour guide we met on our flight to Bali managed to finagle a room for us.
Their abrupt decision to not help us carry our suitcases into the hotel. Their sudden movement to take out our luggages and leave them by the van as the hotel bellboys materialized. Our failure to say a proper goodbye with our extended hands that were not taken as they quickly got into the van and drove off as if to say, “We don’t belong here.”
My inability to enjoy the fancy surroundings as what happened outside the hotel kept on being reenacted inside my overactive brains.
The casual comment by the Taiwanese tour guide about how easy it was to access the red light district: someone would come pick you up on a moped. My being surprised and immediately not-so-surprised. My sadness as I remembered what it was like in the village less than an hour away.
The two young Japanese men who offered to videotape my friend and me and focused the entire minute on breasts and asses.***
My much, much later realization that there was (is) a “myth” of the prevalence of gigolos in Bali. My remembering the smirks when we were paraded around, and my attempt to dismiss it.
My first encounter with Westerners (other than bars and pubs in Taipei) and my not-so-positive impressions of the loud, obnoxious, drunk males late at night on the “strip”.
My first experience of being mistaken for a “local” and the complexity it entailed when trying to get a vendor to serve us in a night market populated by Western tourists.
My first suspicion that there was something off about how I was treated by “foreigners” even before I learned of colonialism, globalization, Orientalism and the fact that “exotic” does not just apply to flowers and animals.
It could be that I am simply jealous. I am jealous of Gilbert’s privileged freedom to be oblivious.
* By “Significant” I mean the classic case of 1% of people controlling N% of the wealth which has resulted in conflicts and outright violence in the recent past.
** I struggled with whether to include this since I worry that this may further add to the stereotype of exoticism. But it serves as a stark contrast to what I witnessed later in the city and therefore I’ve made the conscious decision to include it, despite the potential downside.
*** Yes. We were naive idiots.