“Can a Trip Ever Be ‘Authentic’?”

“Our notion of places — which is to say the romances and images we project onto them — are always less current and subtle than the places themselves. That’s why we work to screen out the many shopping malls and signs for McAloo Tikki in Varanasi as we search for dead bodies near the ghats; it’s why my Kyoto-born wife, visiting the U.S., looks aghast when I take her to an authentic-seeming Vietnamese restaurant in Orange County or that Ethiopian market my friends in D.C. have been raving about.
 
She longs instead for Universal Studios, a ghost town that evokes the ‘‘macaroni Westerns’’ she grew up on, the ‘‘real America’’ as devoured by the world on ‘‘Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.’’ Cosmopolitan and refined as she is, she knows that travel is, deep down, about the real confirmation of very unreal dreams…
 
Yet these days that disconnect is even more acute because so many travelers have been everywhere (if only on-screen), which in turn means that reality — all that is unmediated and nonvirtual — holds a greater premium than ever. Today, we crave ‘‘realness’’ as never before, and in response, the travel industry is trying even harder to provide it. Expert guides take ever more pains to lead us to artisanal secrets in the local marketplace, and fancy restaurants claim to use only what has been grown in the fields nearby. Six-star hotels aspire to resemble the villages around them — though their guests may be comfortable only in proportion to the degree in which they fail…
 
To wish that it were otherwise — to hope that the Chinese everywoman you meet wants to live the same ‘‘unspoiled,’’ often imprisoning existence as her father, without the iPhones and Audis and frappuccinos that we find so indispensable — is to practice a kind of imaginative colonialism. Let the rest of the world remain picturesque and quaint — ‘‘authentically’’ undeveloped — so that we can come away with some killer selfies!”

This is still Western-gazey but it has useful thoughts and snark. I think there is a degree to which Americans feel that they are promised the world, and all the people and cultures within it, and that’s so weird and it’s such a good question: What are we looking for when we travel?

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