Sunday, 30 January 2011

A small rant about authenticity

I like Singapore.

I know not everyone does. Some don't like big cities, or prefer beaches. No harm in that.

But one of the most common things I hear from Singapore's detractors is the claim that it's "not the real Asia".

That attitude makes me want to smack them.

Because a lot of the time, what they really seem to mean is: "It's not poor enough for me, not different enough from what I'm used to, so I don't feel brave (and superior to the people back home) in coming here."

Bit harsh?

Ask yourself that person pictures when they say "the real Asia" and you'll probably get a litany of cliches:
- Farmers in conical hats, standing knee deep in a rice paddy. Maybe a water buffalo pulling a plow.
- Tin roof shacks and open-air wet markets (probably with flies trying to land on everything).
- Old ladies washing their brightly-coloured saris or dishes in the river.
- Wizenned, tiny women who are 65 but look 110.
- Young men transporting giant loads of lumber on the back of motorcycles.

What do all those images have in common?


The young man is using the motorbike to carry lumber because there isn't the money to buy a truck. Chances are the woman is washing clothes in the river, making her hands red and worn, because she can't afford a Maytag washing machine.

People are the same the world over; we all want exactly the same things. Good health. Enough money to provide a decent standard of living for our families. The potential to give our children more opportunities for the future than we might have had ourselves. This idea that the signs of obvious poverty are somehow more "authentically Asian" is about as arrogant and patronising as the idea of "the noble savage" was.

Singapore (or KL, or Bangkok) is immediately familiar to us Westerners, with its shopping malls, towering glass skyscrappers, freeways and metro system. These cities may not provide the sense of personal superiority that the tourist is looking for ("I'm better than my neighbour who went to Spain on his holiday because I went to the third world and hung out with the tribesmen"). But make no mistake: it's just as "real" as the rice paddy is. Those are real Asians living in the city, getting on with their real lives, their real jobs, and raising their real families.

And the Westerners who think otherwise can go do something real impossible to themselves.

No comments:

Post a Comment