Western vs. Foreign Lands 

Our travel readings for the coming week each share a theme concerning “the other.” We learn how Western perception, and the growing sense of dominance which accompanies such a perception, affects the structure of foreign lands and their peoples.

Though I’m set to discuss Mr. Nhem’s Genocide Camera, I enjoyed Ashes to Ashes the most. The introduction paragraphs for the four readings are attention-grabbing and telling of the stories to come. Ashes to Ashes begins in an anecdotal manner. I can perfectly visualize the older gentleman screaming at the narrator from his door. These six sentences set up the Western-foreign divide which will guide the reading. This divide is simultaneously presented through Seatia Nararyna himself. He is yelling at the narrator, causing him to “[start] to shake,” yet he’s speaking to him about bliss (Farley 106). The situation appears quite paradoxical, but ultimately demonstrates the West’s inability to deal with death. Farley describes the typical Western style in which “friends of the family” of a recently deceased individual would “quickly and quietly [drift] away” (107). The given response is quite the opposite of Nararyna, as the older gentleman confronts and awaits death with ease. We have come to pre-judge India and its population, expecting to come across “techie call-center employees” or “kitschy souvenir shops” if we were to visit (Farley 109). There is similarly an othering of religions we cannot understand. Particularly relevant to the South (religious liberty bills, etc.), many Westerners are quick to judge based on one’s religion or lack thereof. Yet there are individuals throughout India, considered untouchables, who have dedicated their lives to their beliefs. Despite their place within the class system, the narrator uses the terms “epicenter” and “core” when mentioning them (Farley 108). They may be of lower class, but they are the functioning pieces of the religious system which defines Varanasi.

I found a similar instance of bliss within Tales of Trash. America prides itself on its democracy, yet we’re quick to blame one politician or another when anything even semi-bad takes place on Western soil. Here’s an area in Cairo where citizens aren’t explicitly told to do this job or that, but they’re working towards the common good of the people on their own accord. When detailing Sayyid’s position as garbageman, Hessler explains, “As a whole, Cairo’s waste-collection system is surprisingly functional, considering that it’s largely informal” (128). The West portrays itself as superior, yet how do we measure up to places such as Egypt where people like Sayyid work without feeling as if they’re owed something? Tales of Trash reminds us to find the beauty we often ignore in our commodity obsessed lives. Even within Mr. Nhem’s Genocide Camera, it seems the narrator is placing American significance above all else: “All he needed was investors, he told me. This was my opportunity, he said. They could advertise me as, “the American partner Lauren”; I could display my nations flag, along with a sign that said I supported the museum” (Quinn 222). It’s almost as if the narrator feels an American partner will bring prestige to the museum deal which runs out of “a portable office in a dirt lot in northern Cambodia” (Quinn 222). Quinn criticizes the privatization of the genocide tours, yet considers investment into the museum to be a beneficial opportunity.

I’m not claiming the authors themselves are biased or purposefully representing these different regions in a negative light. If anything, I find the discussion of certain stereotypes only adds to the readings. The authors shed light on the realities we rarely pay attention to due to our Western eye.

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3 thoughts on “Western vs. Foreign Lands 

  1. I noticed the practice of othering in these pieces too, and more so than in the book we just finished, Blue Highways. I was particularly aware of it in Busch’s piece as he visited Iraq for a second time. It’s interesting how easily some people can escape this practice while others don’t even notice they’re doing it.

  2. I think this is why I valued Tales of the Trash because Hessler decided to let Sayyid and his experiences tell the story whereas, in Ashes to Ashes, Farley takes the forefront and projects his comparisons of American vs. Indian cultures on paper instead of just letting things happen.

  3. Thanks for the thoughtful assessment of how these pieces reflect on the West from an off-center perspective. Great point about the untouchables being associated with the core/center rather than a periphery.

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