Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Selling Culture

After a few months of aimlessness, I landed a position that takes me to Germany's lovely Neuschwanstein Castle several times a week. But before we get to the castle, there's a stop in the nearby town of Tegelberg for a bike ride and lunch. 

Having decided to stay in the restaurant to catch up on some work instead of joining the group on the bike ride, I noticed something. When the guests are eating lunch, the radio plays German pop music staples. But today, Recking Ball was on. The tour guide told me that he asked them to play German music during lunch to provide the visiting tourists with a "true German experience".

When we travel as tourists, we often think the things we see are representative of the culture we are visiting. At least I do. But the music switch made me question how much of what we see is simply provided for the tourist's gaze versus practices in which the residents engage in as part of their everyday activities. 

When I took the preceding picture in Vietnam, I assumed that the dance was performed solely for the benefit of the visiting backpackers who decided to go a little off the beaten trail. But I failed to make the same assumption concerning the music the restaurant decided to play. I guess the menu, which consists of spaghetti bolognese and club sandwiches, should have been a clue. 

If you decide to move to a country, you have a greater possibility of gaining access to the "authentic" experience of the location. But that's no guarantee since the definition of authentic is so hard to pin down. I.e., when discussing my love of dirndls with my friend, she argued that real Germans don't wear them. And the ones that do are most likely people that I'm far too cool to associate with, e.g., dude bros and the equivalent of sorority girls. However, my tatted & pierced roommate with a hot pink stripe in her hair has several and she is as far from a sorority girl that you can get. 

Perhaps the idea is not to look for the authentic, but to understand what authentic means to the culture you are visiting. This approach allows room for several definitions of authentic and provides a richer picture. 

Or maybe I'm just over analyzing the whole thing and trying to put my ethnology degree to good use.

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