After spending a week with my Caribbean grandparents at their home in Saint Lucia, I returned to Yale in a shuttle with two elderly, tanned white women, a youngish white woman in glasses and our driver from Chad. The other passengers struck up polite conversation. The tan women had been to Cuba! The young woman lived in Puerto Rico! All parties bubbled with appreciation for the “beautiful cultures” and “exotic inhabitants” of the islands.
They mean well. And yet — “Puerto Rico has become so Americanized, it’s very sad,” laments the youngish woman. “Yes, I hope the Cuban people will delay development and keep their culture,” comes the response. Welcome to the ostensibly appreciative, dangerously clueless phenomenon of Liberals on Spring Break. The cult of politically uninformed “cultural appreciation” leads these well-meaning tourists to develop a sense of protective ownership over foreign identities and landscapes. It reduces nations to theme parks.
In the great menagerie of left-leaning vacationers, the Liberal on Spring Break is a common beast. Frequently spotted looking for a “really fresh coconut” or a beach “where only the locals go,” they relish authenticity just as they crave affordable hostels. It’s a problem. Although they are outsiders, they position themselves as arbiters of cultural authenticity. They judge the proper degree of development to be charming pre-capitalism — seeking a hermetic seal against foreign influence. And they mourn any deviation from their exotic fantasy, labeling it a sign of cultural decline.
Hence the women’s soulful tears over Cuba’s impending economic revitalization or the Puerto Rican tourist industry. The shuttle-women fetishize all things foreign and superficially traditional. Why should Cubans have roads? American tourists need Insta-worthy Old Havana pictures! Liberal Yale students often replicate these women’s mistakes by subscribing to the premise that experiencing other parts of the world is about appreciating inherently beautiful, inherently foreign “culture.”
Those of us at Yale who take ethnic studies courses develop an eye for change and outside influences in other cultures. Unfortunately, ethnic studies — like all academic disciplines — has limitations: It privileges culture, reducing Third World political and economic theory to mere context.
Yale students abroad perpetuate this problem. Either they fixate on the idea of eating “traditional” food and wearing “traditional” clothes or — if they’re more reflective — they might take issue with the label “traditional.” In the best-case scenario, the Liberal on Spring Break debates whether Puerto Rico has actually Americanized, and what “Americanization” or “Puerto Rican-ness” mean. But even then, she fails to recognize the factors that mediate the political and economic agency of the countries she visits, which ultimately shape her tourist experience. It never occurred to the women on my shuttle that the real tragedy of Puerto Rican “Americanization” — to the extent that it can be said to occur — is a legacy of imperialism, not her dashed fantasies of a suitably tropical vacation.
This possessiveness over foreign cultures gives well-meaning foreigners carte blanche to decree everything from social practices to environmental regulations all over the world. I’m not immune. In Saint Lucia, the leftist in me criticized foreign hotels for their economic exploitation of the island — until my Saint Lucian grandmother reminded me that hotels employ and that jobs are difficult to come by. Later, I was appalled when I heard that the Saint Lucian government was considering constructing an environmentally destructive dolphin theme park at Pigeon Point, a national landmark — but I didn’t know the complex socialist party politics behind the issue. As my mother reminded me snappishly, foreign countries have politics too.
What is the solution? The first step is to look beyond culture. Recall that the countries we visit are sovereign nations navigating self-determination and grappling with global economic forces. They are not relics. But more importantly, they are not two-dimensional victims of Western whims. Traveling to a foreign country as a tourist is all well and good. Expecting a tired fantasy is not.
Alejandra Padin-Dujon is a junior in Davenport College. Contact her at email@example.com .