A reader who signed her email "K" writes,
I've been following your blog for a while, and I really appreciate your efforts to interrogate and deconstruct racism, racial identity and racial reflexes. Although a lot of the discussions in the comments are kind of over my head, I do diligently try to think about them in order to help me articulate racial incidents in my own everyday life. Just a bit of background -- I'm a mixed-race Asian who has lived in both America and the UK for the last nine years, and majored in English and related literatures as well as writing during university.
I have a white friend who I'm very fond of, and who is very interested in Arabic culture, as an evangelical Christian. As a Muslim myself, we're used to having clashes of opinion -- sometimes not pretty ones -- and so we are also used to working through these disagreements, agreeing to disagree, and doing so in a respectful manner (hopefully), although obviously the initial clash is always jarring and rife with emotion. She recently moved to Egypt, and this has brought to the forefront -- although I have always been aware of it -- the issue of authenticity, which always triggers a somewhat annoyed reaction in me. I was wondering if I was being too sensitive, or if I have other motivations for being annoyed, or if it genuinely is a reaction which others share.
While in America, I remember a time when she went to a Chinese restaurant and told me about it (she's always been interested in international cultures and cuisines), and mentioned, "It was so good, because it was 'authentic.'"
As someone who is half-Chinese (or of Chinese descent, if the "half" is too politically charged), I asked her, "What makes you think it was authentic?"
My own previous experience with Chinese food in America had led me to deduce, that, much like all franchises attempting to make international cuisines more appealing, said cuisine had been tweaked in order to suit local palates. Which didn't mean they were any less delicious, only that they were not necessarily traditionally Chinese.
She said, "Well, the waiters were all Asian, you know."
I attempted to interrogate this a little bit -- just because the waiters were all Asian, I argued, didn't mean that they were all Chinese, for one, or all from the same part of China, or had any more knowledge of Chinese cuisine than say a white chef who had trained in China under Chinese chefs. But she remained adamant that it was more authentic because "of course they would know more about it."
I left it at that, simply because I wasn't sure myself what I was trying to get at by that point. I suppose perhaps I was annoyed that she was passing judgement on authenticity when she simply didn't have the resources to determine that it WAS authentic? (Not that I did, either.)
So she likes to travel, and something that has always been important to her is fitting in to the local culture (I remember her being fully pleased that someone had remarked that her Russian accent held no American), and part of what encompasses that for her is not seeing any other tourists. It occurs to me that this is something that has come up on stuffwhitepeoplelike.com, but it wasn't fully unpacked, I believe. Recently she went to Jordan, and remarked that she wanted to see something off the beaten track, and that the guide delivered -- they went to see Bedouins, etc., and "only saw one other tourist the entire time."
This drove me crazy! And I'm not sure why!
Am I justified? Is it that she's treating the experience and "authenticity" as a commodity? Is it a sense of infiltration, of "ah, I have been accepted?"
Or am I being entirely ridiculous and simply seeing a smug obnoxiousness -- which, while irritating -- has no racial or imperial underpinnings (and which says more about my selfishness and pettiness than it does anything else)?