I was backpacking Southeast Asia alone. I find it easier to observe and interact with other cultures alone for a couple reasons. Firstly, when you’re traveling with a group of friends from your own culture they tend to reinforce your culture’s world lens. They freak out about the bus you’re on driving across the orange lines, reinforcing your perception of normal driving, instead of allowing you to observe that the locals consider this normal. Secondly, a group makes you less approachable to others. Locals are less likely to talk with an entire group of people then just one or two of you. Thirdly, traveling alone, particularly without technology as I was, forces you to observe and contemplate your surroundings.
One of the most interesting concepts I observed was the perception of westerners held by locals. Most of my understanding of their views come from small observations such as seeing a facial expression on a local after a westerner left. These small observations are the origin of the majority of my understanding on the subject, but are difficult to talk about in a post. So instead I’ll talk about two experiences.
The first occurred was while I was in Hanoi, Vietnam. While I was on the bus to Hanoi (which was hit by a giant truck, I talk about that a little in this post) I had made friends with some Australian guys. They knew an American who was teaching English in Hanoi. This was great because we had a tour guide who could show us all of the coolest places and explain customs we might not have understood. I talked to him a lot about what the Vietnamese think of westerners. He said that they hated people wearing ripped clothes. They have a name for these types of travelers which translates to “filthy tourist.” There is a stereotype which this name stems from, which is the belief that westerners are informal in public. In Southeast Asia when you go out into public you wear clothes that are not torn, cover your body appropriately, and are cordial. So they find us to generally be a little rude.
The second experience was actually a sign that I read in Laos. It was a compilation of cartoon drawings of stereotypical Westerners meant to illustrate common actions that are considered rude there. The sign was meant to inform travelers how they should act to be polite. Unfortunately, I only took a picture of one of the drawing about wearing appropriate clothes in public, which I just talked about last paragraph, but here it is anyways:
Yes, the tourists are underdressed. But their body language is also interesting. They look self absorbed and loud. These are two feelings towards Westerners that I detected frequently. We can be quite loud, particularly for a culture where people have a stronger respect of shared space. We can be very direct and confrontational, particularly for a culture in which people are more cordial.
Of course, these are just generalizations. All generalizations are wrong.