Sustainable Travelling

My life as the local foreigner (part 7)


Four years ago, I started a love affair with solo travelling. From my first rocky night in Kathmandu to the ceaseless bustle of Shanghai’s streets, I became obsessed with the question of how to live as a local in a foreign place. Often walking the fine line between a tourist and a foreigner, I did not want to be seen as an outsider, but rather a local who also happened to be foreign. The pursuit of being a local foreigner, someone who immersed themselves in a new culture for a lengthy amount of time, has taught me what it means to travel in a sustainable manner. Sustainability in travelling has come to mean a symbiotic relationship built on respect between locals and foreigners that was so often lost when money was the primary language. Throughout my travels, I strived to balance out my interests with that of locals, and learned to take as much as I could give. I recognized that were was plenty of potential to harm despite the positive monetary and cultural exchange. So the question for me still remains even after my third time living abroad: How do we as travel in a way that benefits both us and the locals in a fair way, and prevent a tourism atmosphere that is solely focused on exploiting the other party?

My Experiences

Travelling was an activity that I grew up knowing all too well. My parents and I went abroad almost every year from the age of 2 to 14 — UK, Canada, Australia, and Japan were just some of the places I had already visited by the age of 8. Although my travels as an adult seemed like a natural transition from my childhood travels, the kind of travelling could not be any more different. When I was younger, travelling as a part of a privileged family from Hong Kong, I often viewed cultures from a glass box, protected from any of the negatives. We were bussed from place to place, only taking in the country’s most famous sites and tastes. In many cases, travel was used as an excuse to consume. As a teenager, I could not understand my parents’ mindset, but it all began to make sense once I started working.

For most people, especially in East Asia, vacation was an extremely rare treat that occurred maybe once or twice a year. The mentality of working adults was to get the most out of their time away from work, whether it was shopping, sightseeing, or eating, because it was one of the few instances a year that they had a moment to enjoy themselves without feeling pressured for time. I recently spent my first vacation hours as a working adult on almost 3 weeks on the west coast of Japan. Prior to this vacation, I had grown accustomed to living in one place for extended periods of time, and the shift from being a local foreigner to being a tourist made me realize how my mindset changed with the change in purpose. As a tourist who had only a few days in any one place, I found myself less interested in wanting to be a part of local culture and more focused on my own needs. Rather than treating the people I met as friends, I often saw them as simply means of providing services. They in turn, only saw me as a flashing dollar sign.

Demanding Fair Treatment

As a tourist, the discriminatory treatment I experienced the most often was the “tourist tax.” No matter the service, be it food or transportation, the initial price was always at least 2–5 times more expensive than the price set for locals. When I first encountered this practice, I accepted it because I understood that many of the people that were charging these prices lived in or close to poverty. As someone who made a living wage in the US, I could afford to pay these prices, something the vendors understood as well. Their justification for charging tourists higher prices was that if they could afford to travel, they could afford the higher prices. More importantly, tourists were unlikely to be repeat customers, and so even if they were unhappy about the price or the quality of the product, there was unlikely to be any repercussions. Was it justifiable for locals to charge outsiders because they were a wealthy, transient population? Regardless of the ethics, I always felt that the tax created a barrier between the locals and I. It was their way of saying that they knew I was an outsider and that the only relationship between us would be that of business.

After my first experiences with the tax, I started negotiating whenever I knew for certain I was being overcharged for a service. I haggled because I did not feel as if it were fair to be treated differently; but in the process of negotiating, I unexpectedly realized that locals respected me more for bargaining even though it meant that they would earn less. By taking the time to bargain, I showed them that I was interested in more than just purchasing the service and being on my way. I was also interested in their culture and their individual story. The one complaint that many shopkeepers and hosts repeatedly expressed was that tourists rarely seemed interested in anything but themselves. In response to the indifference of these temporary visitors, locals found little incentive to open themselves up to meaningful conversation.

My experience almost always confirmed that if the tourist took the first step in showing an interest in the native culture and people, even if through bargaining, locals would respond in kind. My bargaining has often led to some interesting conversations I would not have had otherwise.

This past month, I went to buy glasses at International Glasses City in Shanghai, a kind of marketplace for cheap eyewear. The first thing I did when I found a pair of glasses that I liked was to, of course, bargain down the price. In the process of negotiating, I realized that the owner was Korean, and we ended up talking for over half an hour in a mix of broken Chinese and Korean. Perhaps my willingness to understand her and to speak in languages she understood humanized me, and she ended up slashing the price even further than what we had agreed upon earlier. Not only did we have a successful business transaction, we also made a meaningful connection as human beings.

I wonder what it would be like if locals started treating tourists more like locals by charging them the regular price. Would it create a more friendly tourism atmosphere that would foster more meaningful connections and repeat business? I want that to be true, because that has always been the case for me, but what would the effect on local families be? Could families afford to live or to lift themselves out of poverty if they charged everyone the same price for everyone? These were questions that hung heavy on my mind even while I negotiated the price of my new glasses in Shanghai.

Understanding Local Customs

In the many places I’ve travelled to in recent years, what set me apart from many other travellers was that I tended to live in one place for a number of months and as a result, was a more culturally sensitive traveller with a decent grasp of the local language. The locals appreciated that I had even a basic knowledge of their locals and customs, and as a result, made an extra effort to make me feel at home. Their comfort allowed me to reciprocate in kind, which transformed into a productive cycle of cultural exchange. Not only was I able to learn a tremendous amount of information that locals seldomly shared with outsiders, I was able to share my culture and experiences with them as well. It was in this way that I was able to make many lasting friendships despite language and geographical barriers.

Being sensitive to local customs and making an effort to integrate seemed like such a basic prerequisite to being a good traveller, but I came to realize that the concept was much more nuanced than simply questioning “should or should not.”

I had seen it before with exchange students back in University: groups of Japanese students who only spoke Japanese with their compatriots or the Korean students who still could not speak English comfortably after studying in the United States for several years. Despite my critical tone, I understood their plight.

Although I studied Japanese and lived in Korea for almost half a year, I was not fluent in either languages. Part of the problem was that I had not put in much effort in studying. I had gotten by with what little I knew and could not find the proper motivation to go beyond what was comfortable. Natives often made the excuse for me that I was a foreigner and that any level of language fluency was already impressive. I often praised the foreign students I taught even though they never improved from the day they first arrived, because that seemed like the “right” thing to do. I did not want to discourage them from learning English and interacting with fellow students.

The other issue I realized when I looked at myself, was that it was embarrassing to make mistakes among people my age. I wanted to show others what I was capable of, and I could only do that when I was in my own element. It was this selfish thinking of mine and perhaps of other travellers that has undoubtedly contributed to the idea of foreigners not being able to adapt well to their adopted countries.

Learning a new language and being able to act the part of a local is no easy task, but it does not mean we should stop improving just because we as foreigners can live comfortably with the bare minimum. As a guest in a foreign country, being able to speak the language and following the customs are just basic forms of respect regardless of the length of the stay.

Being a Respectful Photographer

Photography has always been a powerful tool to reveal beauty in the world and has been my tool of choice when connecting with locals. Candid photos of urban places and of rural, farming families were my subjects of choice, which has resulted in some ethical dilemmas. As a photographer interested in local customs, I admit to have taken images of locals with and without their expressed consent in pursuit of a candid shot. Although I never took images of locals if they disapproved, and always deleted photos if they asked, it made me realize how repeated attempts by photographers could create tension between the locals and tourists. The act of photography is aggressive, turning everyone and everything into an involuntary show. Whenever it was possible, I tried to ask if I could take a picture first and showed the local the image afterwards in order to show them what inspired me in that moment. Although not everyone agreed to be photographed, those who did approve seemed to be at least amused by what they saw as very ordinary.

Short-term travellers have always found it hard to photograph respectfully. For the perfect shot, people would treat locals as if they were on display instead of people going about their everyday lives and take photos without restraint. As “different” and “exotic” as locals seemed, they were people with rights. I have witnessed on more than one occasion in which a tourist kept snapping pictures even after a local asked the tourist to stop. Although the opposing parties did not share a language, the intent was obvious. We as travellers crave the “perfect shot” to display to our followers, though it must be done in a way that treats the locals as fellow human beings and their personal space as sacred time.

Another question I’ve faced as a photographer was whether or not I was contributing to an unhealthy image of a place. Although people often believed photography to be a reproduction of reality, it was far from the truth. Every time I created an image, it was extensively edited to suit my needs. They were coloured by my ideas of the place, motivated by fantasy and the desire to create a compelling image. When I published photos of my time in Korea, people messaged me, wanting to visit the farmers with which I worked. They saw the happy families and smiling children, but what they did not see was my struggles to communicate and the hard labour I had to endure in the process of capturing those photos. What if someone went to the farm and were let down by the expectations created by my images?

Although no one has yet to express such disappointment towards my work specifically, the glamourization of foreign places by photographers, driven by social media, made me think about the impact of my own work.

The positive response to my photos reminded me to be aware of the ideas I perpetuated with my photos and that it had the possibility to do damage. Photos had to ability to shape the perspective of a place, and my responsibility went beyond creating something beautiful to producing work that was also socially and culturally aware. As photographers, we should be aware of the effects our work has on our subjects and on the people viewing them in order to minimize potential harm. It is the least we could do in return for our subjects’ cooperation.

Supporting Local Institutions and Locals

When I travelled with my parents, I rarely had a sense I was deeply ingrained in the local culture; we comfortably ate in restaurants and stayed in hotels. For many trips, we were taken from one tourist spot to another to sample the local fare from tourist-oriented institutions. While I was sure our consumption contributed to the local economy in some way, I realized in these past few years that our method of tourism must have contributed to a decline in the local economy as well. By supporting restaurants and shops that catered to tourists, we undoubtedly caused the rent in the area to increase, forcing places frequented by locals to close down and move. Not all consumption benefited the economy equally.

Realizing this a few years ago, I made it a priority to eat as locally as possible so as to contribute to long-standing, neighbourhood establishments. I asked locals where they liked to eat and sought out restaurants favoured by taxi drivers, delivery workers, and policemen. Because these places so rarely got foreign customers, it was always difficult at first to convey what I wanted to eat, but the experiences never disappointing. In Korea, I had the most delicious, local breakfast in Busan: pan-fried mackerel, various local side dishes, fermented soybean soup, and a heap of rice for about $5 USD. In China, I had a cafeteria-style lunch for about $4 USD. In Japan, I had the most fulfilling and unique bowl of ramen for $4 USD after standing in the rain and snow for over an hour. The locals were always amused and confused as to why I had chosen such an unexpected place to eat as a tourist, and as a result, we were always able to hold meaningful conversations. Not only was I able to have delicious meals and hopefully gave the locals a more positive image of foreigners, I contributed to the existing neighbourhood fabric.

Since 2008, Airbnb has been a crucial thread weaving together existing neighbourhoods and curious foreigners driven by a desire to #liveauthentic. In my three years of using the service, Airbnb has connected me to locals all over the world and has shown me a more intimate view of neighbourhoods and cultures than I could have ever found on my own. I was able to make lifelong connections with locals and to show them that not all foreigners were rude and uninterested in their culture. Talking to a number of my hosts, I also realized the good that Airbnb did them and their local economy. Airbnb gave hosts the ability to revive old buildings in their neighbourhoods and opened up their community to a host of other cultures that they would have not otherwise been able to see. My host in South Korea told me that “Airbnb was like going on vacation [in the comforts of] home.” But the experience has not been positive for everybody.

Local residents in countries usually known for their lack of diversity have complained about rude foreigners and their uninitiated ways ruining the neighbourhood. Airbnb differed from hotels in that the neighbourhoods in which they existed were primarily residential, making tourists a much more visceral problem. Another facet to the issue was that many Airbnb listings were no longer inhabited by their owners. A growing number of hotels and guest houses have been built out of existing homes for the sole purpose of being rented out on Airbnb in addition to homeowners renting out their properties full-time. Although some of the listings have helped blighted neighbourhoods by bringing in previously inexistent commerce, the sharing economy had the potential to change the structure of a neighbourhood. Not everyone welcomed the change, and that was understandable.

Now when I look for places to visit or to stay, I ask myself whether I am contributing to the destruction of a neighbourhood or if I am helping to revive an economy. Even if the answer is not always clear, as travellers with the power to change the physical and spiritual constitution of a place, we have the responsibility to at least question the impact of our decisions.

Final Thoughts

Although travelling is still a privileged activity, people have found it easier than ever to become a tourist or expatriate. Airlines and travel-related businesses as well as the sharing economy have made it financially feasible to explore on a budget, and the internet has made it easier for people to find and to share their wealth of knowledge on various places and cultures. This lowered barrier-to-entry is great news to those with #wanderlust and to the tourism economy, but beneath the glamour are issues that travel writers hardly write about for fear of tarnishing the shine of being a globetrotter.

As guests in a foreign land, we not only have the ability to gain new experiences, we also have the ability to share our culture and knowledge with locals. Travelling is a wonderful activity that can benefit everyone involved but also possesses the possibility to injure. When we are not cognizant of the impacts of our actions, we risk hurting the local economy, becoming a nuisance to the local fabric, and contributing to a negative perception of foreigners. Even something that at first glance seems like a positive action can become a seed for negative change if we do not think beyond the present moment.

Tourism is a fast-changing cultural phenomenon that although has had a long history, still has a long way to go in weaving together its many participants in an ecosystem that benefits everyone. If we are to preserve cultures while celebrating our new-found relationships, we need to start thinking of ourselves as global citizens and of the world as our own. Even if we do not share the same citizenship, we need to be conscious of the impact of our actions as travellers, tourists, or expatriates on the local economy, culture, and people.

Only then can travelling be a sustainable practice.


Part 7/7 of My life as the local foreigner, a series of photo essays exploring my time working abroad in China. To keep up to date on my latest adventures, follow me on Instagram.