“You should see the Japanese tourists when they come here,” our host says, pointing at the chairs set up in a circle in the red dirt. “They’ve never seen a campfire before! They’re going, ‘Aw…’ and stickin’ their hands in and burnin’ themselves! I have to make a rule: no Japanese beyond this line.”
This story, I guess, is being told as a joke. Clearly there is no person on Earth who would stick their hand in a campfire just to test it out, but the gag here is that a Japanese tourist would. Cos, you know, they’re Japanese. Geddit?
We’re sitting around said campfire right now at a dinner in the Northern Territory, a stockmans’ meal set up to show tourists the way the drovers used to live in the bush. All of the food is cooked on a campfire. We have billy tea, and damper, and kangaroo sausages.
And we have the gratuitous disparaging of Asian tourists.
The mythical Japanese have been the butt of a few jokes tonight. They’ve been doing all sorts of comical things: falling over on their way to the toilet, crying at the idea of people eating kangaroos, swinging the billy and hitting themselves in the head.
It’s a fairly cheap joke. The idea is Asian tourists are silly. They dress funny, they talk funny, and they don’t understand Australia. They’re an easy target, a group of people who are so obviously different from everyone else gathered under the stars tonight that it’s OK for us to laugh at them. Hilarious.
The saddest part about this little skit is that it’s not exactly limited to the Northern Territory. In fact this attitude is not even limited to Australia. Over the last few years I’ve noticed a growing distaste for Asian tourists around the world, not so much among travellers, but among professionals in the tourism industry whose livelihoods often depend on the arrival of those same visitors.
I travelled through a western European country recently – one I don’t want to name, because it will only fuel stereotypes about them – and heard constant derision of Asian tourists from the people whose job it was to cater to them.
People would tell jokes and then assure me, “Don’t worry, I wouldn’t say that to one of our Chinese guests. But you get it.” They’d talk glumly about how the tourism industry used to be a lot more fun 10 years ago when it was only laidback Western tourists arriving. They’d complain about Asians taking photos, as if an American or an Australian would never pull out their iPhone and snap away.
I was being shown around a hostel by a local tourism rep who caught sight of a Chinese tourist eating a bowl of noodles and said to me, openly and loudly, “Spaghetti for breakfast? Urgh!”.
Even the locals in this place were quick to criticise. I had plenty of people, unprompted, complaining to me about the influx of Asians, about their grocery stores that were now full of people who looked different, about Chinese tour groups who didn’t understand the local culture
And in Africa recently, a similar thing. Distrust or dislike. Wildlife guides complaining about the Asian travellers who disobeyed rules in the game parks, who stayed in lodges set up just for them, who used guides who only spoke their language. As if they act completely differently to the rest of us.
The face of global tourism is changing. As the Chinese middle class continues to boom, as travellers from countries such as Malaysia, Singapore and Korea, plus the likes of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, begin to journey further from home, the traditional markets are altering. And yet some people, including travel industry professionals, seem to have a hard time coming to grips with that.
I don’t get it. Sure, Asian tourists look different to Western travellers. They dress differently – sometimes fairly flamboyantly – they sound different, and their approach to the travel experience is sometimes different.
But they’re out there for the same reason everyone else is: to see the world and enjoy themselves. And the public disparaging of a certain group of travellers, even if it’s supposedly done in jest, is a bad look for anyone, let alone people who work in the industry.
I don’t want to bond with someone over our shared disgust at “spaghetti for breakfast”. I love noodle soup. I don’t want to shake my head at the tour groups who refuse to adjust to local norms. How many of us have been on Contiki?
And I don’t want to be expected to chuckle at the idea of those silly Japanese putting their hands in a campfire because they’ve apparently never seen one before. We’re better than that.
See also: Australia – land of the idiot
The story Asian tourist stereotypes: Making cheap jokes about Asians is not funny, Australia first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.