Every now and then, I become aware of how insulated I can be in my comfortable North American life; and how this “comfort zone” can, if I’m not careful, actually inhibit me from seeing clearly beyond my national and personal borders.
As a travel journalist, I consider this a classic “physician heal thyself” predicament.
As recorders of world events (and human history), we who have undertaken to tell our travel stories to the world are in a privileged but ethically complex situation. As we strive to produce our travel narratives and to present “a true account” in all its hues and shades, we find ourselves — international observers — both outside looking in and, at the same time, passionate about telling our stories from the most grassroots perspective that we can, that is, from the inside.
An impossible task? Can one really be in two places at one time? Of two separate mindsets? Strangely enough, I have discovered that it is not only possible, but desirable; and that this is what I believe enlightens us as travel journalists. A recent media trip to Malaysia is my case in point.
In 2007 Malaysia celebrated its 50th year of nationhood; a significant event in that country’s complex, multidimensional history.
In terms of where my next travel assignment will come from, I like to do my homework and to do a little armchair travelling in advance. This involves doing the kind of research the Internet has made so much more expedient. Where possible, I like to read the literature of the destination, and above all I like to dialogue with my fellow travel journalists who have already been there.
What usually emerges from this are key themes, especially those that have universal implications. Once I have a good understanding of these themes, I also understand how and why I will continue to build a relationship with the destination’s representatives. This was certainly the case with Malaysia. Timing and fortuitous events also played a role; while I was developing that relationship over a period of two years, Malaysia was also preparing for its upcoming major presence on the world stage in 2007.
And so that professional relationship came to fruition when I applied for and was accepted on a very content-rich media trip. My Malaysian sojourn, however, turned out be a challenge on many levels.
Where to begin in Malaysia
For any of you who have visited Malaysia I am probably “preaching to the choir,” but, quite simply put, Malaysia is a cornucopia of cultural experiences.
It is also a travel writer’s “dream destination” because it offers so much material in a relatively small space. Initially, however, it can be somewhat overwhelming aesthetically, topographically, and conceptually especially.
Where does one begin? How can you “tell the story” of Malaysia while communicating the essence of this young nation? And if you are coming from a European or North American background especially or writing for those markets, how do you transcend your or your readers quite normal ethnocentric “baggage” in terms of Asia, Southeast Asia, or perhaps more correctly, the New Asia. This, in a nutshell, is Malaysia.
The product of a colonial background (one might ask who is not, in one way or another), Malaysia is an intensely multicultural society; consisting primarily of three ethic groups: Malays, Indians, and Chinese.
Now given that I live in what is probably the most multicultural city on the North American continent (Toronto), the multicultural theme and focal point would seem like the perfect point of departure for me in “interpreting” Malaysia to my audience.
However, I discovered in Malaysia that their experience of multiculturalism was not exactly what Canadians have experienced. In Canada, we learned throughout our brief moment in time as a nation, to live in a society that is, as we say here, composed of “two solitudes” — French and English.
However, in the 20th and 21st centuries that all changed rapidly and we became, unlike the great melting pot of the United States, what has been referred to as a “vertical mosaic.”
Malaysia is also a mosaic, but from what I experienced the three solitudes still make up a distinct and delineated socio-cultural-political framework. Now the last adjective in that equation, political, is what poses the greatest challenge for a travel writer. I believe it is safe to say that as journalists, we do not involve ourselves in the politics of nations or destinations we report on. But what if the politics of the destination impacts on us? What if political events in the destination are, in fact, an unavoidable part of the story? This is what I experienced in Malaysia.
As I moved throughout this stunningly beautiful country, from one cultural experience to another — a thrilling Deepavali Festival, breathtaking Mosques and an exquisite Islamic Art Museum, elegant Buddhist temples, and the shrine-like home of Dr. Sun Yat-sen in Penang, and I could go on and on — I became aware of how the three principal cultures co-exist, cooperate, but in the final analysis remain in some respects three solitudes.
As wonderful as Malaysia is, it is not Disneyland.
While I was in Kuala Lumpur, there was a banned major public demonstration in support of electoral reform. Police responded to the demonstration with tear gas and water cannons. A second demonstration in support of minority rights occurred shortly after my return to Canada, with the same response.
The “tensions” between the cultural groups are real — although no obvious threat to prudent travellers as far as I could see — and they are the result of historical circumstances. When Malaysia gained independence from Britain in 1957, there was the inevitable re-balancing and rebuilding of Malaysian society in which the principal ethnic groups reclaimed and redefined their positions.
What emerged was indeed a renewed multicultural nation, but not in the terms that most Canadians would recognize it. My awareness of this critical 50-year nation-building also led me to examine the democratic process in Malaysia as opposed to that in my own country. Critics would say that Malaysia has been a one-party state since independence and they would question therefore the nature of its democracy. For me, these issues were inseparable from my understanding of Malaysian society today.
A shifting worldview
I suppose that the principal challenge for the travel writer visiting Malaysia, or anywhere for that matter, is in the inevitable altering or refreshing of one’s worldview. And as cultural anthropologists (yes we are that as well), we know that we see human society through our own lens. Our global perceptions are shaped by a framework of ideas and beliefs through which we as individuals and as cultures interpret the world and interact with it. And that’s OK, as long as we are aware of it. But it does mean that we are confronted with challenges if we want to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
In the Introduction to her very scholarly, in-depth, and critical book The Global Politics of Contemporary Travel Writing, Queen’s University (Belfast) Lecturer Debbie Lisle comments, “Historically, travel writing participated in the international realm of disseminating the goals of Empire…. I am particularly interested in how contemporary travel writing is addressing its colonial legacy by engaging — or not engaging — with wider intellectual and cultural debates about global politics.”
I think it is safe to say that FIJET members understand the implications of global politics on the travel and tourism industry; and from dialogues I have had with members of this association, I am also aware of how much we value our role as impartial intermediaries in our travel and tourism sector of the geopolitical realm.
But, to quote Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, “One of the truest tests of integrity is its blunt refusal to be compromised.”