Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Race Diary: Randomish Thoughts on Race


About to embark on a trip to Costa Rica, I feel a mix of eagerness and dread. Eagerness to bask in warm weather and stimulate my vitamin D factory, see my daughter who is meeting me there from her current home in Martinique, and take yoga classes with my friend and teacher extraordinaire, Carolyn Christie. And dread, coming into a developing nation as a tourist and all that implies.

Yes, I know Costa Rica loves its tourists and depends on them to keep their economy going. Costa Rica pioneers the concept of ecotourism, which supposedly helps the environment instead of harms it. But I still feel conflicted.

Maybe it’s because I grew up in Hawaii, where locals cultivated a love/hate relationship with tourists, who fueled the economy, yet made residents feel sort of like servants. Behind their backs, we made fun of their easily-burned skin and their big cameras, because we knew we had to be polite to their faces. After all, we were colonized people. Hawaii had lost its independence and the white people on the island felt like the bosses.

I don’t know if I can go to Costa Rica and not be that obnoxious tourist that the locals have to revolve around. All over the internet are beautiful bed and breakfast inns owned by white people, just like white people who came and dominated Hawaii. When levels of privilege are so disparate, what is my role as a visitor?

When Americans visit France and complain about the unfriendly French, the subtext is: why aren’t they catering to my needs, including my need to speak English? Why aren’t they being obsequious? Instead they act as our equals, or even superiors. How dare they?

I was telling friends at my food co-op about my upcoming trip to Costa Rica, noting that I wanted to learn at least a bit of Spanish to get around. “Oh no, you don’t have to do that,” they said. In other words, the center doesn’t have to cater to the periphery. Their response indicated that the Costa Ricans revolve around me, not the other way around.

It’s disingenuous for me to pretend to shed my privilege as I travel to a developing nation. I can hide a little behind my ethnicity and perhaps not stand out as much as a white person, but I will always have economic privilege. I’m too old and middle class for couch surfing and youth hostels, but at the same time, dislike the wasteful extravagance of resorts and hotels. That is, I’m too self-conscious to be slumming or exploiting. In my mind, I identify with the native workers. In reality, I’m a privileged interloper.

In the end, I didn’t have enough time to teach myself Spanish. I booked a b and b in a woman’s home for $20/night. Then I will move on to a small resort on the coast for an Iyengar yoga retreat. I am still torn, as only the highly privileged can be. This is the true cost of vitamin D, and the old story of the colder climates needing the resources of the warmer climates.

2 comments:

Virginia said...

Well, if you come stay in a b&b or resort in my neck of the woods (Woodstock, NY), you can feel like you're exploiting the poor white local working class people who work for the rich people (of any race) from NYC. Would that make you feel better? Of course, if people stop vacationing here entirely, a lot more people would be out of jobs than already are...

peggy hong said...

it's true that economic disparities exist everywhere, and that our economic system depends on these disparities. when race is layered on top of class it becomes even more fraught. in this nation impossible to separate race from class--interwoven issues going back to genocide of native americans and slavery. but if we all refuse to participate in the system--true--more harm done--in the short term. will we evolve toward more equitable economics? how will we shape a new system? we've had more just policies in the recent past--better wages, labor laws etc in the 70s.