I’m tired of hearing people say a given city isn’t the “real” insert-developing-nation-of-your-choice. Stop it. It isn’t true.
If I said, “I only went to New York, but that’s not the realAmerica,” you would laugh at me, right? Because New York is America, its only a piece of it, but its American. If I said I visited the Great Plains, New Orleans, or Portland, you’d say the same thing. You might say, I had an incomplete view of the US, but you wouldn’t say any of those places are not “America.” So, why do people insist on saying that Phenom Penh isn’t the “real” Cambodia, or that Luang Prabang isn’t the “real” Laos, or that Port Vila isn’t the “real” Vanuatu?
I’ve heard this statement over and over, both in living and working in Vanuatu and while traveling. Most recently, I read an article about Luang Prabang (where we are at the moment). The writer said this isn’t the “real” Laos, because it is full of tourists. Here, tourism is an up-and-coming industry. Luang Prabang and Vientiane are the latest cities to make the informal Places To Go list for SE Asia. Saying that this isn’t the “real” Laos, is saying that all of the people who live and work here are not Lao, that their lifestyle is not Lao and that the industry they are working to grow and support is not Lao. Which is fundamentally untrue. They are Lao people, living in Laos, thus they are the “real” Laos. It is a city based on culture, religion and tourism. If I must put labels on it, I would argue that this is the “new” Laos, the Laos that the Lao people are working to build now.
I’ve noticed that when people refer to the “real” country, they mean the places where poverty is most apparent. They mean ripped clothes, manual labor and overcrowding. They mean cultural experiences that aren’t Western. They mean the place that looks like a National Geographic magazine or a save the starving children ad.
In Vanuatu, people said the “real” Vanuatu is land diving, or kastomdance. They pointed to men wearing penis sheaths to work in the garden or women in grass skirts weaving mats as being “real.” And all of those are Vanuatu. They are a piece of the culture and that cultural history is something that Vanuatu is grappling with today. But Vanuatu is not just that. It is a nation where 50% of the population is under the age of 25 and where the generation in school is predicted to be educated for almost twice as many years as their parents. It is a nation discovering cell phones and 3G internet and using both to expand their tourism opportunities.
When someone says, “This is the real place,” it reflects more on their expectations of what they wanted to see. For myself, I am not interested in my own expectations. I can examine my own expectations in the privacy of my head. I am traveling to experience the country, to see the tourist sights and the workers in the fields. I want to see what was before and what it is becoming through the eyes of the people who live and work in the country. To me, the real Laos is as much the coconut madeleines I ate at the night market as the noodle soup I had for dinner.
Countries and cultures are not static, they are not simple things to be summed up in a few photos or a weekend experience. People are complex. People can both follow tradition and adapt to change. Countries are made up of people, and are every bit as complex as those people. The “real” country is what you see before you, not what you’ve made up in your mind that it should be.