The Search for Authenticity in Travel

“I want to see the real China.”

“Beijing and Shanghai are nice, but if you want to see the real China you need to go to Chicken-has-two-balls Village.”

“How many of these buildings are authentic? Because they don't look that old to me.”

It is the battle cry of the upwardly mobile international traveler: I HAVE the money, now show me the authenticity.

The search for the authentic travel experience requires unpacking more baggage than can fit in the overhead bin. Authenticity is elusive, hard to define, and our understanding depends much on our apprehension of equally slippery terms like ‘modernity’ and ‘tradition.’

In a piece published this week in the New York Time’s T Magazine, noted author and traveler Pico Iyer asks the question: “Can a trip ever be authentic?

It’s the heart, the very soul, of vacation travel — especially luxury travel — to serve up the atypical. Tour companies aspire to introduce us to what isn’t ordinary, to what can’t be found back home, to what is in fact as far from the everyday lives of locals as possible. When we settle into our $500-a-night suite in a Taj hotel, surrounded by oil lamps and bangled dancers, the room glittering with tiny mirrors, we couldn’t be further from the ‘‘real India’’ outside, which struggles to get by on $1 a day. Our backpacking kids scorn us for our distance from real life as they settle into a fleapit in Old Delhi, a ‘‘real India’’ compounded of bedbugs and stomach cramps and equally ‘‘authentic’’ travelers from Düsseldorf and Malmo.

It is a topic Iyer has explored many times before. In his first book, Video Night in Kathmandu, Iyer notes the “asymmetry” which exists in travel.

For often, the denizens of the place we call paradise long for nothing so much as news of that “real paradise” across the seas — the concrete metropolis of skyscrapers and burger joints…As tourists, we have reason to hope that the quaint anachronism we have discovered will always remain “unspoiled,” as fixed as a museum piece for our inspection. It is perilous, however, to assume that its inhabitants will long for the same. Indeed, a kind of imperial arrogance underlies the very assumption that the people of the developing world should be happier without the TVs and motorbikes we find so indispensable ourselves.

Iyer makes a good case that many travelers confuse authenticity with anachronism and thus miss the point of being in a particular locale: The opportunity to try and understand not just the touchstones of the past, but the lived experience of the present.

Last month, David Sze, research editor of the Huffington Post, also criticized the quest for authenticity in travel as being, in his mind, very nearly meaningless.

To wish that it were otherwise — to hope that the Chinese everywoman you meet wants to live the same ‘‘unspoiled,’’ often imprisoning existence as her father, without the iPhones and Audis and frappuccinos that we find so indispensable — is to practice a kind of imaginative colonialism. Let the rest of the world remain picturesque and quaint — ‘‘authentically’’ undeveloped — so that we can come away with some killer selfies!

It is, of course, not just about the selfies. The selfies are just a tangible reminder, sent via social media to friends and family back home, that the traveler has checked the appropriate box in the age of authentic travel. They are, as Sze writes:

A shiny label that the traveler pins on her experiences--a marker of Bourdieuian distinction, to prove that she is more knowledgeable, more adventurous, and more off-the-beaten track.

I agree with Iyer and Sze. “Authenticity” as a status marker in travel is a form of cultural imperialism. It assumes the traveler is more in the know than their friends, more "in touch" with the world, and, unspoken but often present in travel narratives, perhaps possessing even greater understanding of the places visited than the residents who live there.

In a piece I wrote last month on traveling in Yunnan, I remarked on how Chinese travelers in China and international visitors to China had very different understandings of “authenticity.”

Generally speaking, international travelers come to China to see it as it was (or as they think it was). They crave authenticity. The actual. The real. No matter if that actual or real is dirty, old, or in a state of decrepitude bordering on the structurally unsound. Chinese travelers prefer to see places as they should be or could be. They have little patience for dusty beams and broken stones. Many find gaudy reinterpretations of historical sites – and the shopping, dining and entertainment options which surround them – improvements on the original, and are genuinely puzzled as to why their foreign friends feel a photo of a rundown building or dusty alleyway is a better representation of China than a gleaming new historic site with a snack bar and souvenir stand.

It is comforting, at least, to learn that these anxieties are not new. In Carl Crow’s China 1921: The China Guide (an abridged version of which has been published by Camphor Press with an introduction by Paul French), Crow assures visitors to Republican-era China:

In foreign hotels and railways, the fringe of China that is accessible to foreigners is thoroughly modern, but with the acquisition of those conveniences for travelers, the country has lost none of its unique charm and remains as interesting and strange as it was to Europeans who more than five hundred years ago read Marco Polo’s amazing account of the land of the Great Khan.

As Iyer points out in his piece this week, authenticity comes in many forms: past, present, and future. This is not to deny the march of another kind of imperialism, the economic and commercial dominance of (mostly) Western multinational companies which have colonized consumers around the world, but neither does it have to assume that any engagement with the “modern” comes at the expense of the “authentic.”

The search by travelers for the “authentic” in countries eager to throw off the yoke of colonialism and poverty frequently runs into an even stronger force: a quest by the people of those countries for a modernity defined on their terms.