Like a Local: Belonging and Non-Belonging as a Tourist

I started this blog with a note about belonging, and there’s nothing quite so good as traveling for making you think about where you do and do not belong. I’ve spent the past few weeks making a few trips around China and Europe, visiting family and friends in Beijing and Shanghai followed by a brief stint of postgrad eurotripping. I’m not going to go too in depth into any of the specific places I went, because I can’t imagine that my thoughts will be any more insightful or interesting than what you’ll find on your favourite travel blog. Instead I want to talk about how this traveling has gotten me thinking again what about what it means to belong, and how easy or difficult that can be (or should be).

Travelling gives you an interesting perspective on when you can say you belong to a place, because to some extent being a tourist should be the ultimate in non-belonging: there is literally no reason for you to have any claim to the place that you’re in, other than that you spent some amount of money to be there. It’s obviously a little more complicated in some cases: I don’t think I would entirely consider myself a tourist in Beijing, for instance, where the majority of my mother’s family lives and where I spend most of my time in my grandmother’s apartment testing the limits of my stomach’s capacity (more on this trip in a later post, hopefully). For other kinds of travelling, though, the actual ‘touring’ that being a tourist entails, there usually isn’t a particular reason for you to be in the place other than that it seemed like an interesting (and in my case, cheap) destination, likely one you haven’t seen before. There isn’t really a reason to feel like you belong.

Which is why I think it’s interesting that a lot of traveling that I’ve experienced involves trying to feel not like a tourist but like someone who is actually part of the place. You don’t want to just hang out in the tourist-y neighbourhoods, see the cultural sites, be surrounded by all the other travellers with their comfortable shoes and ‘Lonely Planet’ guides. You want to go where the locals go, feel like you know the place like someone who has lived there. You want the ‘authentic’ experience. Leaving aside whether that’s possible in a trip that lasts a few days, the question is whether you have any real right to feel that way. Why should we as tourists get to feel like we belong in a place that isn’t ours? How are we entitled to have the same or similar experiences as people who have chosen to make a life there, or who are growing up there? This is not to say that every place you visit needs to be unwelcoming or hostile (and, of course, a whole other side of this is how tourist destinations respond to visitors, how they make themselves more appealing and shape to the images of a place that tourists expect), but for tourists chasing authenticity and ‘local’ experiences, I think it’s important to remember how you actually fit – or don’t fit – into the fabric of the place you’re in.

The other side of this that deserves mentioning is the fact of who is actually doing this travelling, and how those identities affect how we understand where we belong. There’s a game that my friends and I sometimes play, being the over-educated, intensely-privileged, burdened-with-choice twenty-somethings that we are. Any place we spend some time in, we try to imagine if we’d be able to live there. The rules are pretty simple: you spend a few days walking around, going into fun looking cafes, ‘hidden gem’ restaurants and the occasional tourist site (to stay cultural) and then you decide if that’s a place you can spend the next 5, 10, 20 years of your life. To our credit, most of us know that the perspective we’re getting on any place we visit is pretty skewed, but that doesn’t totally wipe away the sense of entitlement that comes with this game, as it’s always played with the knowledge that wherever we want to be, we probably could have the means to get there and would be desirable enough to make some sort of living. These aren’t just daydreams, these are options, just as they are options for likely the majority of people who are able to make these (expensive, time-consuming) trips.

What does this have to do with belonging? To me, this illustrates that one thing that degrees of privilege provide is the ability to access spaces in places that you really have no reason having access to. The social and economic power that comes with the education I and my peers are receiving, as well as additional layers of privilege we might have mean that we can likely create spaces for ourselves, make ourselves belong, wherever we are: that’s not something that is a reality for the majority of people. And actually, it might be the recognition that this is not always the case for me, that there are privileges I lack that don’t let me be part of certain spaces (my race being the one I’ve spent the most time thinking about) that sparked the post at the beginning of this blog. Those who travel, and who do so recreationally and casually, are almost almost part of a select group of people who are used to feeling like they belong, wherever they are. So why shouldn’t they feel the same way in a foreign country? Why shouldn’t they be able to access ‘local’ experiences? If tourism does anything, it confirms for those who can engage in it that the world is a place that they can move freely in, that they have the right to be wherever they choose, and they can feel like they belong there. Which to me, is exactly what we need less of right now.

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