Destination UniMelb22 September 2017
Chinese tourists were a meme before memes existed.
In our cultural context, the term has been distanced from its literal meaning – a travelling person who happens to be Chinese – and is now used to signify a plethora of phenomena such as selfie sticks, photos with peace signs and cavalier tour groups – all of which are more often than not coded derisively.
Googling the term produces headlines like ‘Top 10 most embarrassing Chinese tourists of 2016’ and ‘Have the Chinese replaced Americans As The Worst Tourists in the World?’ (thanks Vice). This derogatory attitude inevitably manifests on campus with the University of Melbourne being a popular tourist site. It is evident through the occasional meme on UniMelb confessions or offhand references in casual conversation.
To be fair, most ‘kinds’ of tourists cop a fair amount of ridicule. But the concept of the ‘Chinese tourist’ seems to attract an especially pernicious kind of mockery, that is underscored by an additional level of racism revolving around complaints about bad English and cultural eccentricity.
This attitude towards ‘Chinese tourists’ can be interpreted as revelatory of subconscious assumptions of cultural hierarchies and anxieties about competing privileges.
On an obvious level, being a tourist is inherently entrenched in privilege. To be a tourist, you essentially need money and spare time. Perhaps less noticeably, a tourist also needs political freedom – the right to cross borders at a whim is a luxury which many don’t possess. Take for instance, Trump’s ‘Muslim ban’, which left many American residents unable to leave their country for fear of not being able to return. Given these conditions, tourism is inherently a hierarchical process where the tourist has agency and is positioned as an observer of the locals who are objectified.
Additionally, there is also the attached cultural esteem. In the Western world, the precedent to tourism as it exists today was the ‘Grand Tour’, a trip around Europe undertaken by wealthy, upper class young men as a rite of passage and education. Touring equated to broadening the mind, becoming cultured and gaining knowledge.
This hierarchy of privilege is complicated when manifested on campus at the University of Melbourne. The University is an institution which models itself after a European tradition of social elitism and power. Its purpose is to produce educated and cosmopolitan citizens for a globalising world. The presence of tourists on campus challenges the anticipated social hierarchy which the university attempts to cultivate.
Perhaps it seems particularly heinous for a tourist to objectify us, when our education implicitly aims to position us as the cultured observer. To become the attraction for the tourist challenges our assumptions of who has power, autonomy and mobility.
Our response to the ‘Chinese tourist’ is doubly indicative of both the fear of being ‘othered’ and of class anxiety. The response to Chinese tourists can be framed through historic Western perceptions of the East as an exotic curiosity and through contemporary values of multiculturalism which often positions non-Western cultures as products for Western enjoyment and consumption.
The ‘Chinese tourist’ subverts these cultural assumptions by instead positioning us as the intriguing spectacle. An aspect of the ridicule of tourists then perhaps stems from our discomfort at the realisation that in the moment, we become the ‘other’.
We also frequently fall back on cultural and social superiority as a line of defence against the gaze of the ‘Chinese tourist’. Any article about Chinese tourists in recent years hasn’t neglected to mention the nation’s increasing wealth and growing middle class.
This observation is typically used to explain the perceived bad behaviour of Chinese tourists, through the justification that while they have amassed financial capital, they have yet to develop the manners and culture to be tourists the ‘right way’. Complaints about large groups on tour busses, the supposedly incessant need to take photos, rude behaviour, or ‘wealth without class’ imply there is a ‘correct’ or more cultured way to be a tourist.
For many university students, the ‘right way’ takes the form of overseas intensives, exchange programs where we learn new languages and become enlightened or ‘voluntourism’ trips where you ‘live like the locals’. These are implied to be superior ways to travel and on campus are juxtaposed against the superficial photo taking and tour groups with colour coordinated flags.
While it’s certainly reasonable to expect (all) tourists to be respectful, our derision towards Chinese tourists is misguided. When we respond by making judgements about ‘cultured’ behaviour and the more meaningful ‘right’ way to travel, we reiterate these social hierarchies. And when we ridicule or express disdain for this new, aspirational middle class, we reveal our own desire to be higher up on the social chain.
So on one hand, we should be critical of the privileges and power dynamics inherent to tourism, especially on occasions when we become the tourist. Yet on the other hand, perhaps the influx of tourists on campus is a good thing.
The brief moment of discomfort when we find ourselves in the middle of somebody’s holiday snapshot, as we’re rushing to class in John Medley West, is a momentary disruption to our understanding of how the world is ordered and our place within it.
When we make memes of Chinese tourists, we’re not so much highlighting their ridiculousness as we are revealing our own anxiety and insecurity that we may not be the centre of the world.