(answer: you can’t)
I just recently booked a round-trip ticket to Thailand with my boyfriend and I have started to have some serious feelings of discomfort surrounding the fact. It started when I began to look at different options for accommodations, of course, intending to utilize my “rewards points” on my Chase Sapphire credit card (motherfucker indicator #1) so that I would not have to pay for lodging. We started discussing general ideas about what we want to do and where we want to go. We don’t want to go to “touristy areas” we said. We want to avoid areas that are backpacker-centrals, want to “rent a bungalow for like $30 a night.” Cool, right? Sounds affordable, fun, delicious, and “exotic.” I should be nothing less than thrilled for this trip, and while I am thrilled to be able to spend some QT time with my boo, I am becoming less and less thrilled about being in Thailand as the hours and google search results go by.
The thing that makes me uncomfortable is the looming feeling of exploitation – in this case, me, the “traveler,” exploiting the culture and riches of Thailand for my own leisurely pleasure. I start to look into less “crowded” areas of Thailand we can visit, and thought to myself, why? Is it really my right to do so? After all, my boyfriend and I are tourists no matter how colorfully we like to try to disassociate ourselves from that “drunk white guy over there;” we are using our powerful European and American currencies to get our “vacay on a budget,” we are looking to live in unbridled relaxation and luxury in a land that is not ours to claim. How is it fair for me to think about sunny, peaceful beaches lined with coconut trees as my respite from my own daily struggles and worries when they are actually places that someone calls home, places where the daily struggles and worries of human life are still felt to the people that inhabit them?
I’ve lived in a tourist destination before – many of them in fact. People have asked me if I live in a hotel because I come from Las Vegas. But this is not why I am uncomfortable with my approaching unannounced arrival in a country that is full of humans just like myself. People come to Vegas from all over the world, but we as Las Vegans for the most part have the ability to leave Vegas and experience our own holidays (at least in the sense that we are located in a first-world country). The power dynamics at play when I can choose to go to a less “developed” country (whatever the fuck that means) because it is cheap for me – the fact that I can just google some starlit articles telling me the Top 10 Best “Unspoiled Islands” of the Thai Gulf – make me a fucking imperialist-ass, colonialist-ass motherfucker.
At the end of all the partying masked as youthful freedom and exotification masked as new experiences, there are people there – people who are picking up after all of our entitled hopes for ourselves, using their energy to feed our misguided fantasies. What about the people of Thailand? There is a reason why it is so cheap for me to visit this country, why my one USD equals 35 of their Bhat (33.76 at the moment to be exact); why simply by virtue of having come from a country with economic and political superpower I am granted the ability to live as royalty in a way that I have not worked for. The reasons behind that are the same reasons behind any of this sort of disparity, and believe me when I say that as a person of color my solidarity with my sisters and brothers around the world becomes a whole lot more problematic when I have the economic and citizenship privilege (amongst others) to back me up. Travel culture is colonialism. It doesn’t matter that Thailand as a country has “never been colonized.” The existing unequal relationship of power is more exploitative than any history book will ever be able to tell me otherwise.
So how do I travel and not be a motherfucker? Well, I can’t. It is fucked up that the “system” places me, places all of us, in a complex matrix of crisscrossing discourses and circumstances so that some of us are above others and others are below – and that we always embody both of these things at the same time in every moment. I must use the next few months of preparation I have to do my best to decolonize my being, to learn ways of making this trip as non-oppressive as possible, even in the wake of the fact that my very ability to do so is a privilege in itself. I will learn about the culture and politics in a way that is not overbearing. I will learn some of the language so that I may communicate with the local community in a way that hopefully my gestures and energy can show comes from only the most respectful of sentiments. I will try to understand what it means to show gratitude to a person who I am just alike and do my best to put that into practice, regardless of what my dollar or my passport tells. My feelings of discomfort will probably not go away, nor do I think they should. I am exercising extreme privilege in my decision to “escape” from my world by using another, and I must always be conscious of it if I intend to get the most out of this trip.