Elena Becker traveled to Malaysia this past summer as part of our Southeast Asia field school initiative, supported by the Henry Luce Foundation. She made use of her summer research award to study representations of ethnicity for the tourist market. Here’s what she had to report about her research in Malaysian Borneo.
The man across the desk is nodding earnestly at me, and that’s a problem. It’s my fifth-to-last day in Kuching and he had just finished signing me up for a tour to visit the Sarawak Cultural Village when, while waiting for the receipt to print, he asked me what I was doing in Borneo. When I gave him the shorthand version (“I’m studying cultural authenticity at tourist sites”) he weighed in on it. “I think [the cultural village] is quite authentic” he said politely, intensifying the aforementioned head-nodding. “It represents the culture of Sarawak, and you can see the dances. Of course, it’s not as authentic as a longhouse, but it’s a good substitute if you don’t have time to visit one.” I was fully prepared for him to denounce this sort of cultural tourism in the same way that many others had – “it’s a façade,” or “it’s about the money” — and this gentle, albeit abrupt sidetracking of my expectations was a surprise. That said, the fact that it happened was nothing less than par for the course.
In my nearly six weeks in Malaysian Borneo (I returned right around the fourth of July) I had my mind changed again and again about what I was seeing, what I thought about it and what all these observations meant for my research. One guide told me that his wife (ethnically Bidayuh ) had been retaught her traditional dances so that she could perform them for tourists. As a result, she felt more connected to her history, and the tourism that had sparked it seemed to be a good thing. A week later I would learn in a nod-nod, wink-wink, off the record conversation that dancers at a particular cultural village were not hired with regard to their ethnicity, so that often Ibans would learn and perform dances that were traditionally Melanau, or a Bidayuh would play the part of a member of an Orang Ulu tribe. I would immediately recalculate, worrying about the ways in which tourism encouraged the commodification of indigeneity and identity loss. The findings that I thought would fall at my feet like a gift from anthropology gods remained hidden, peeking out from behind these sorts of contradictions, double negatives and non-answers.
Once I returned home, ending the fieldwork portion of this research and starting the sift through my data, the answers became a little clearer. I’m still working on a finding – that’s what the rest of the summer is reserved for – but with a little more perspective I’m realizing that the contradictions I encountered in the field are critical to the way I understand the answer to my research question. Rather than being limited to a particular pattern, staging in the tourism industry seems to be a complex web of factors that includes development, colonial stereotypes, expectations, money, politics and, yes, culture. Back in Tacoma now, I’m excited to keep trying to tie those threads together – after all, it will probably only take a week more before I stumble across another contradiction, and recalculate once again.
Great to hear your update, Elena. Good luck analytically navigating those contradictions!