From my Daily Life piece today, on Mothers Day, advertising and button down shirts:
According to the Attenborough-esque documentary tidbits known as ‘ads’ screened in between television stories, a peculiar thing happens to women when they become mothers. Prior to having children, they were these sort of attractively superficial people with an overwhelming interest in frivolity. They craved the superior equestrian ability that tampons gave them, and enjoyed falling in love with handsome strangers over the mutual appreciation of instant coffee. They drank Diet Coke through straws and tittered with their friends about the Office Hunk who cleaned windows as a side project to international modeling. They knew the brazen confidence that could be harnessed through a bouncy hairdo or an effective deodorant or the technological miracle of a moisturising razor. When they weren’t having yoghurt parties in the park, they worried about what to feed their small dogs. Sometimes, they just liked to stand in the garden and spin. They were Fun, Vibrant and Free.
But were they happy? I put it to you that they were not. Because as everyone knows, women need only one thing to be truly content and that is to push a 7 pound cantaloupe out of their special area that they can then spend the rest of their lives protecting from germs, picking up from soccer practice and feeding porridge to. Girls can run on the beach in minuscule white bikinis to their hearts content - but surely such gay abandon is meaningless if there are no platters of KFC and hapless husbands to come home to at the end of the day?
Life can be very cruel sometimes, particularly when it comes to middle class white people and their admirable struggle to find somewhere exotic and worldly where they can just relax while enjoying some budget cocktails and the occasional Unique Cultural Experience™. Poor Carolyn Webb learned that the hard way this week when Fairfax published her thoughtful, well considered and entirely well researched travel piece on Bali, a place she opens by saying she’s never wanted to go to.
You know how it is. You work tirelessly all year round, saving enough pennies so you can board a budget airline to one of the cheap, tropical paradises dotted around Australia in the hope that you can just let it all hang out, catch some rays and for one brief moment forget how hard it is back home with a stable economy propping up your solid income. Of course, you don’t want to go to one of those shitholes like Bali or Thailand, because you know from fourth hand anecdotal experience that other people have been there and hated it, plus got bum sick in the first three days because the natives didn’t bother posting signs reminding them not to drink the tap water. Rude.
Unfortunately, all of the countries that are a bit more comfortably like ours (while still retaining a degree of clean, oriental charm) are too pricey to really count. Sure, Singapore serves a mean chili crab and the locals all have the decency to speak English – but that just makes it harder to barter with them. Ripping off streetside vendors in some banana republic is one thing, but decent Australians like you and I don’t feel comfortable bartering with people like us. It just seems oppressive somehow; like you’re taking advantage of someone or hiring a white maid. It’s a rock and a hard place, and it can keep people tossing on their posturepedics.
But evidently Webb’s lifelong aversion to Bali took an about turn this month when she decided to relax her stringent high standards and rough it in the luxury resort region of Ubud. There was a writers festival on, and I guess Webb likes books. Besides, travel is all about being open minded right? And despite the obvious drawbacks of a country like Bali – the accessibility, the opportunities to explore cultural diversity, its inability to be easily understood by people who’ve never been and don’t care to have their expectations challenged – Webb conceded there might be positives, and they might make up for Bali’s audacity to exist in the first place.
It’s a trap that sadly all too many trusting white people have fallen into in their quest to have a dirt cheap holiday experience while still discovering The Real Asia.
You may have heard of The Real Asia. Here, you’ll discover wonderfully exotic things like “temples, verdant rice fields and friendly people”, all of which will satisfy the superior white person cynicism to deliver some kind of epiphany about the transcendental properties of witnessing humble familial domesticity in the face of hardship.
Unfortunately, the Real Asia seems to have disappeared and buggered if I can find it. It used to be that you could stroll down dirt roads in a floaty skirt and a large hat marveling at the simplicity of the brown folk and the stalwart acceptance of their lot in life. I mean, if watching a group of children playing soccer with a broken stick as if it were a real toy doesn’t bring tears to your eyes then I don’t know what will. It’s inspiring, because it has that special ability to remind us as white people that, while we may have been too corrupted by technology and luxury to appreciate the simple pleasures of tilling rice fields, we can take lots of photographs of other people doing it to demonstrate to the folks back home just how culturally diverse and inquisitive we are.
But I don’t know. Somewhere along the way, the Real Asia disappeared and honest people like Webb have had to suffer the fall out of a plastic society erecting itself in its place. I mean, it’s so artificial now that it might as well be a hologram or a global social movement. It’s not even that they don’t speak English – they don’t even speak logic. When Webb (patiently) tried to explain to a motorbike tout that if she paid him a pre-arranged price to climb aboard his vehicle and travel from A to B at a sensible 30km/h, she would effectively be declaring herself a prostitute, he looked at her like she’d ‘just told him the sun was a balloon’! Brown people are funny.
And then there are all the souvenir shops and wooden cocks floating about the place. Back in the Real Asia, you could take long peaceful strolls through bucolic fields and contemplate the brave journey of self-discovery you’d embarked upon, scrolling away in your journal while leaning up against a tree. You could smile beatifically at the locals, who flitted around the edge of your existence just enough that you could establish a comprehensive sense of them but whose awe at your superiority ensured they maintained a respectable distance. If you were a man, you could embark on a deeply intense relationship with a beautiful woman who may not have shared your mother tongue but with whom your heart and genitals spoke fluent Love. For women, a gnarled old man would impart some wisdom upon them that would seem initially nonsensical, but whose meaning would later reveal itself at a key crossroads in their spiritual quest. This was Asia. This was Real.
Now it’s all sell, sell, sell as Webb so brutally discovered. It’s as if Asians – or the Balinese in this case – seem to think that they can exploit innocent western travelers by slowly and steadfastly chipping away at the integrity of white cultural traditions like bargain hunting and getting-away-from-it-all. What was once a beautiful cultural experience for westerners has been consumed by the voracious greed of the locals who have the audacity to try and make a quick buck at the expense of package tourists. Now you can’t even enjoy a $3 cocktail in peace without some grabby little Balinese person trying to get you to help them put food on their family’s table.
Listen. It’s all about respect. Westerners aren’t being respected and it’s as simple as that. How can the Balinese possibly hope for someone like Webb to visit them and coo over their cute little temples when they insist on making their presence so obviously felt? Surely it would make more sense for them to move quietly in the background, only scurrying out to pull back the mosquito nets or sensitively rub oil into feet stressed out from a hard day of strolling through cheap shops manned by respectfully subdued shopkeepers?
Carolyn Webb’s is just one of the many tragic stories to rise up out of the horrors of western tourism junkets to Asia. What we need is a movement to address the overwhelming corruption of developing nations when it comes to hosting rich, privileged westerners. I advocate a sit in, an international protest. Occupy Melbourne (Airport)! We shall not be overcome! SOLIDARITY!
And together, maybe, we can create real change. For white people.
For the record, I was at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival too. I spent a lot of time ‘being a prostitute’.