the ugly tourist, by jamaica kincaid

December 5, 2011 § Leave a comment

(Got this from the 10th edition of my Norton Reader. Pretty deadly stuff, wouldn’t you say? The passage was followed by a battery of questions related to the essay’s style, word choice, grammatical construction, and how exactly those combine to create the essay’s effect (this being a reader that aims to teach writing). The short answer to that would probably go something like “LOTS OF PARENTHETICALS” + “judicious usage of laser-pointer second person POV” + “drawling, biting undertone smuggled in under the aegis of some nicey-nice phraseology” = “blood-drawing contempt”. On reconsideration it’s obvious that Kincaid’s larger target is the privilege/economic stratification  that underwrites and enables the functioning of all tourism industries. But her takedown is so resentful and belligerently pitched that it’s also somewhat troubling, and not in the way she intends. For example, it leaves no room for the existence of a more benign tourism – the obvious response being that not all tourism takes place in poor countries. For another – for another?

If a person wanted to escape the banality of their life and go somewhere else, does that make them “ugly”? Kincaid says yes. But I think an interesting thing to notice here is her usage of the word “ugly”. Notice that she doesn’t use another word in its place – “bad”. So it seems to me that the essay is a summary judgment of the system rather than a judgment of the tourist’s character, since everyone everywhere suffers the same everyday banality. After all, it’s not ugly that you want to escape your life and go on vacation – it’s ugly that you have the wherewithall – the economic means – to do so.)

The thing you have always suspected about yourself the minute you become a tourist is true: A tourist is an ugly human being. You are not an ugly person all the time; you are not an ugly person ordinarily; you are not an ugly person day to day. From day to day, you are a nice person. From day to day, all the people who are supposed to love you on the whole do. From day to day, as you walk down a busy street in the large and modern and prosperous city in which you work and live, dismayed, puzzled (a cliché, but only a cliché can explain you) at how alone you feel in this crowd, how awful it is to go unnoticed, how awful it is to go unloved, even as you are surrounded by more people than you could possibly get to know in a lifetime that lasted for millennia, and then out of the corner of your eye you see someone looking at you and absolute pleasure is written all over that person’s face, and then you realize that you are not as revolting a presence as you think you are (for that look just told you so).

And so, ordinarily, you are a nice person, an attractive person, a person capable of drawing to yourself the affection of other people (people just like you), a person at home in your own skin (sort of; I mean in a way; I mean, your dismay and puzzlement are natural to you, because people like you just seem to be like that and so many of the things people like you find admirable about yourselves–the things you think about, the things you think really define you–seem rooted in these feelings): a person at home in your own house (and all its nice house things), with its nice back yard (and its nice back-yard things), at home on your street, your church, in community activities, your job, at home with your family, your relatives, your friends–you are a whole person.

But one day, when you are sitting somewhere, alone in that crowd, and that awful feeling of displacedness comes over you, and really, as an ordinary person you are not well equipped to look too far inward and set yourself a right, because being ordinary is already so taxing, and being ordinary takes all you have out of you, and though the words “I must get away” do not actually pass across your lips, you make a leap from being that nice blob just sitting like a boob in your amniotic sac of the modern experience to being a person visiting heaps of death and ruin and feeling alive and inspired at the sight of it to being a person lying on some far away beach, your stilled body stinking and glistening in the sand, looking like something first forgotten, then remembered, then not important enough to go back for; to being a person marveling at the harmony (ordinarily, what you would say is the backwardness) and the union these other people (and they are other people) have with nature.

And you look at the things they can do with a piece of cloth, the things they fashion out of cheap, vulgarly colored (to you) twine, the way they squat down over a hole they have made in the ground, the hole itself is something to marvel at, and since you are being an ugly person this ugly but joyful thought will swell inside you: their ancestors were not clever in the way yours were, for then would it not be you who would be in harmony with nature and backwards in that charming way?

An ugly thing, that is what you are when you become a tourist, an ugly, empty thing, a stupid thing, a piece of rubbish pausing here and there to gaze at this and taste that, and it will never occur to you that the people who inhabit the place in which you have just passed cannot stand you, that behind their closed doors they laugh at your strangeness (you do not look the way they look); the physical sight of you does not please them; you have bad manners (it is their custom to eat their food with their hands; you try eating their way, you look silly; you try eating the way you always eat, you look silly); they do not like the way you speak (you have an accent); they collapse helpless from laughter, mimicking the way they imagine you must look as you carry out some everyday bodily function. They do not like you. They do not like me! That thought never actually occurs to you. Still you feel a little uneasy. Still, you feel a little foolish. Still, you feel a little out of place.

But the banality of your own life is very real to you; it drove you to this extreme, spending your days and your nights in the company of people who despise you, people you do not like really, people you would not want to have as your actual neighbor. And so you must devote yourself to puzzling out how much of what you are told is really, really true (Is ground-up bottle glass in peanut sauce really a delicacy around here, or will it do just what you think ground-up bottle glass will do? Is this rare, multicolored, snout-mouthed fish really an aphrodisiac, or will it cause you to fall asleep permanently?

Every native of every place is a potential tourist, and every tourist is a native of somewhere. Every native everywhere lives a life of overwhelming and crushing banality and boredom and desperation and depression, and every deed, good and bad, is an attempt to forget this. Every native would like to find a way out, every native would like a rest, and every native would like a tour. But some natives — most natives in the world — cannot go anywhere. They are too poor. They are too poor to go anywhere. They are too poor to escape the reality of their lives; and they are too poor to live properly in the place where they live, which is the very place you, the tourist, want to go — so when the natives see you, the tourist, they envy you, they envy your ability to leave your own banality and boredom, they envy your ability to turn their own banality and boredom into a source of pleasure for yourself.

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