Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Discovering Lenses

Epeli Hau’ofa’s collection of short stories, Tales of the Tikongs, is a humorous and satirical look at native and cultural identity. It is the perfect book to discuss the nature of travel because a large part of it deals with the clashing of cultures or the dichotomy between “First World” and “Third World.” Oftentimes, Westerners travel to exotic or tropical locations that look beautiful in the postcards; but they really are not getting the full picture of the place they are visiting. Their resorts that keep all of the Western comforts simply an arm’s length away confine them. They are physically travelling but not mentally travelling because they are truly immersing themselves in the native culture.
            A particularly humorous and revealing chapter about the formation of native identity is “The Second Coming.” The chapter centers on Sailosi Atiu and his ascension to “Director of the Bureau.” Sailosi has no qualifications besides the fact that he has worked in every governmental department in Tiko. Once the inevitable occurs and Tiko has gained its independence Hau’ofa writes, “as was then fashionable in the heat of immediate post-independence nationalistic fervor, Sailosi moved quickly to purge himself of all pernicious imperial influences and embarked upon the restoration and preservation of his essential indigenous personality.” (Hau’ofa 50). The most important word in the above quote is “fashionable” because it connotes that Sailosi is just following the trend of other newly independent colonial countries and seeking to restore the “old ways” rather than creating an entirely new identity. The result of such a movement is the removal of aesthetic reminders of colonialism while still trying to cling to the comforts left in the colonial powers’ wake. For example, Hau’ofa notes that Sailosi changes his attire to “the national attire, varied with Tiki Togs, Afro-shirts, and other Third World clothes.” (50) However, Hau’ofa continues to demonstrate that Sailosi continues many of the “Western Traditions” such as subscriptions to Time and Playboy, his inherited station wagon, and dinner at the International Nightlight Hotel. (50). On the outside, it appears if Sailosi has re-embraced his native identity by wearing the traditional garments of his culture. But Hau’ofa reveals that his “transformation” is only clothing deep because he still clings to the western comforts to which he has become accustomed. In a way, Sailosi represents the traveler who clings to the comfort of his resort. Yes there are obvious benefits to staying in high-end resorts and of course it is very possible to enjoy your vacation on a private beach. However, the traveler also has the chance to undergo a form of mental travel by stepping outside of the resort and embracing the culture for what it is. There will obviously be differences and there will be some aspects of the culture that are off putting to the traveler. But the purpose of travel is to reveal to us that there are an infinite number of ways that humans can exist on this earth, and no one way is better than the other. Like Sailosi’s attire, it is up to the traveler to understand when they’re a being given a false image of a culture.

            As it is the traveler’s responsibility to learn the lenses through which a different culture views the world, it is also essential to understand their own lenses and to fix them if necessary. Martin Luther King discusses this in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. He calls people to understand the injustice that is happening in front of their faces. Of injustice he writes, “injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience” (King). Here, King makes a bold statement about the nature of humanity. He knows that exposing injustices to the public will be very uncomfortable for many people. However, this discomfort is the same source from which King draws hope because it proves that injustice inherently distresses humanity. Like the traveler, the social activist must remove his or her own lens when combatting injustice. Only when people understand that their lenses are harmful will they be able to be removed which is why MLK calls the white moderate to action. He faced the difficult task of fixing an entire cultural lens, which propagated injustice. The traveler and the activist must both learn their own cultural lenses as well as those of the people surrounding them.

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