How does one experience a culture in a week (or three)?


At the beginning of this summer I was promoted from the ever-fascinating job of “hostess” to the more challenging and lucrative job of “waitress.” In a city like Seattle, servers are a big deal. The bustle and over-populated charm of this big city draws people in and promises them a great time full of great service and great food and the people here must also be great because living somewhere this gorgeous must be great, great, great! It is therefore my sole purpose in life to take my small piece of the corporate pie and make it great, as well. People from all over the world sit in my section on those same booths and tell me the same stories about how they rode “The Ducks”, went to the Space Needle, and Pike Place.

FullSizeRender (1)For 40 hours a week, I smile and say “Yes, aren’t those things so great?” and pray silently that they stay downtown where we keep the tourists corralled so that we don’t accidentally step on them when they inevitably stop in the middle of the sidewalk to look at their GPS. I rarely tell them about all the things they’re missing when they ride around in their rental cars and focus only on their photo ops. They don’t care. They’re focused on “the Seattle experience,” not “experiencing Seattle.”

But, these tourists are the blood of the city during this time of year. Without them rushing around all summer, Seattle’s economy would flat-line. Low-level service workers, such as myself, rely on these people for our livelihoods. Despite my sarcasm, I don’t hate them in the slightest; they help me pay my bills and I’m grateful for that. My issue really is that they come to the city just to say that they did it. Rarely does anyone ask me what I do for fun or where to get the best latte. I want them to go home understanding how perfectly beautiful my city is but all they want is surface-value. Again, I don’t hate them. I feel bad for them.IMG_1423

As I read Dr. Segall’s Performing Democracy in Iraq and South Africa, I thought about how different a city looks between when you visit and when you live there. It’s hard because, like the Seattle tourists, you want to see the things everyone else has seen. You want to gape at the glories everyone has written about and make judgments about those things, for yourself. But, you aren’t really experiencing the culture the way the people who live there experience it.

Segall asks us in her book to notice what should be considered as “important signs to illuminate what is less noticed: gender locations, social contestation, and artistic revision (xvii).” These “three correctives” should help make navigating parts unknown a bit easier. When we leave for our trip, we should notice how men and women interact with each other in each setting. Gender roles are hotly debated anywhere you go, so observing interactions between men and women in other countries can allow us to understand their culture as they see it. We should not go somewhere else and expect or judge people based off of the roles they would normally play in our society. Instead of looking at them and thinking “wow, that’s an odd thing for a man/woman to do”, we should instead think, “hmm, how does this behavior work in this society?” By putting people in our little American boxes, we are making who they actually are invalid. Looking at a woman in a hijab and immediately assuming that she’s oppressed is like taking a bite of an orange and thinking “this apple tastes funny.” It just doesn’t make sense and we should be aware of that as we interact as visitors. We should also be wary of thinking that everyone has a political agenda or that everyone’s reasons for protest are the same. Many people can fight for the same thing and have different reasons as to why they are fighting. Also, just as there are people willing to talk all politics, there are many people who want to enjoy their lunch without some tourist girl asking them all about their political opinions. Lastly, to experience a culture we should be mindful of how the people within that culture see themselves and the events in their lives. The view our media gives us as outsiders is entirely different from the view of the people themselves. Artists such as painters, poets, writers, actors, and musicians all give a new side of the story and if we pay attention, we can understand them all a bit better.

All in all, the word “tourist” brings out mixed reactions from me. While I don’t hate tourists, I would hate to be called one and I hope that I can be myself and appropriately connect with other people while I visit their cities. Although, I’m sure some Spanish or Moroccan waitress will roll her eyes at me at some point.


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