White People Discovering Themselves in Brown Places: Problems in Development work, Tourism, and “Eat, Pray, Love”

Despite my access to the internet, I spend much of my quality reading time on dated print media. The stuff that winds up in my African mailbox–newspaper clippings, leftover magazines from someone’s office reception area–is dated yet beloved. Thus my embarrassed excitement upon finding a full-page color advertisement in the New York Times: a bold image of Julia Roberts sitting on a park bench eating gelato, with the words, “EAT PRAY LOVE.” My mom had sent me a copy of the entire newspaper from a random Sunday in August. Touching the large cumbersome pages, clumsily re-folding each section, made me feel like I was acting out a typical American Sunday activity, albeit one from weeks past. Seeing that the long-awaited “Eat Pray Love” movie was finally out reminded me not only of the existence of movie theaters, but belatedly, of that unexpectedly controversial book and the multitude of ways audiences reacted to it.

Having resisted for years the craze around Elizabeth Gilbert’s book “Eat, Pray, Love,” (in a confusing effort at updating, the book title uses commas, but the movie title doesn’t) I finally read it here in Senegal. I was won over by the section on Italy, likely due to its lengthy descriptions on love, pizza, and pasta. I found Gilbert’s writing style overly informal yet likeable; her capacity for charm and humor was evident. Plus, I suppose the start of any book about self-improvement, from descriptions of a rough divorce to botched love to embarking on a faraway journey, is bound to be exciting and poignant.

But oh, the disappointment upon wading through the India and Indonesia sections, with their yoga-rific language and cultural blunders. In the chapter on life in the ashram, Gilbert’s composition was sloppy and often resorted to the FREQUENT USE OF CAPITAL LETTERS, as if realizations about HAPPINESS are better conveyed by FORCE than by articulate writing. Her year-long journey of independent growth seemed cheapened by her eventual love affair with a Brazilian. What a bitter punch-line to an otherwise uplifting book about going it alone: the story ends happily only once you’re safely in the arms of another man. Though countless people have tried to recreate their own versions of Gilbert’s expedition, I doubt most of us can finance our own self-discovery tour with a book we have yet to write, and settle down conveniently with a Latin lover once the novelty of traveling solo is over.

On Salon.com, Sandip Roy writes on “The New Colonialism of ‘Eat, Pray, Love.'” I loved Roy’s piece and I encourage you to read it. He writes, “It’s not Gilbert’s fault but I have an instinctive reflex reaction to books about white people discovering themselves in brown places.” While he mostly ignores the Italy section for his article, Roy points out that Gilbert spent most of her time in India and Indonesia with expats, whose personal histories are made out to be complicated, while the locals in her book, whose lives are made to seem simple, figure in only specific roles: “Language teacher. Hangover healer. Dispenser of fortune cookie-style wisdom… They are there [merely] as the means to her self-discovery. After that is done, it’s time to book the next flight.”

Roy wonders whether the colonialism of centuries past wasn’t more honest in its brazen quest for gold, cotton, and laborers. Today’s tourism of places like south/east Asia (in part inspired by books like Gilbert’s), Roy warns, may be just as colonialist but more insidious: hordes of seekers on a “journey” to “find themselves,” mining the experience for its book-writing potential, taking what they can, then leaving.

Nothing reinforced Gilbert’s ignorant visitor status more than when she enlisted friends and family back home to raise $18,000 to buy a house for a Balinese woman who she had just recently met. This urge to play Santa Claus for a needy soul is a common mistake that Westerners (including development agencies) in developing countries make. It is unsustainable and re-creates a pattern of dependency, and is often an act of instant self-gratification on the part of the Westerner, rather than being responsible and well thought-out. Disappointingly, Roy missed the point in saying, “To be fair, Elizabeth Gilbert does help her single mom Balinese healer build herself a house.” Instead, Roy should have used this instance as further evidence that Gilbert’s shameless attempts to feel good about herself were misguided.

I, too, have a precipitate mistrust of stories about “white people discovering themselves in brown places.” The colonialist criticism is one I had while reading “Eat, Pray, Love,” and one that also surfaces while living and writing my life here in Senegal. Most Peace Corps volunteers seem to take it for granted that we are “not hurting anyone” by being here and that we are “fully integrated with our communities,” thereby erasing any traces of touristic or anthropological exploitation. But to what extent are we like “Eat, Pray, Love” self-discovery junkies, doing “development work” and writing about our experiences in unknowingly colonialist ways?

Chinua Achebe wrote a famous indictment of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” for being colonialist despite purporting to be anti-colonialist. Achebe argued that Conrad’s portrayal of a European at the center, with Africans and the African landscape as one-dimensional instruments to further the self-critical thinking of the colonial protagonist. Achebe wrote, “…there is a perverse kind of arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the breakup of one petty European mind.” In the Peace Corps case, we might say, “Africa as mere backdrop for the growth of one petty American mind.” (This is a quote I previously brought up during a debate in the comments section of my post “Stranger in the City.”)

Even if the only concrete positive outcome of my service is that I have grown into a more mature, responsible global citizen, does it mean that the African factor of my experience (the people, the culture, the environment) is being utilized ultimately to service…my mind, myself, my blog? How is that O.K.?

This problem, of course, only arises because I do write about my experience. The act of writing, of trying to essentialize things with words, exposes those ideas to scrutiny by others. If Elizabeth Gilbert were just some white lady who went to an ashram in India and never wrote about her experience, we wouldn’t be having a conversation about her semi-colonialist actions today. She could disappear into the marketplaces of Asia, anonymous and uninterrogated, with her experience solely as her personal property.

But then that wouldn’t be interesting, would it? Everyone undergoing a transformative experience (as I feel I am doing now) ought to find some way to sit back and make sense of it. I do it by writing, and I think it is also my responsibility as an educated individual to be hyper self-critical of why I’m here and how I communicate my experience to others. It’s easy to bash “Eat, Pray, Love,” for all the ways it is aggravating and problematic, but at the same time, I’m glad she wrote it. She has a right to. Her pain was real, and we all have different ways of working through our baggage, whether or not they include checking that baggage and flying far, far away. Many people have benefitted spiritually from reading about Gilbert’s journey, and that has value in and of itself.

I remember a debate in college once where a visiting Moroccan professor was discussing with my class the exploitative undertones of an anthropological book about Morocco we read. The class basically came to the conclusion that any book by a Westerner about a developing country is bound to be problematic; the power dynamic is inevitable. The trick to doing it right is to be as honest as possible, both about one’s thoughts, but also about the larger context in which it is set.

I have thought a lot about how I blog about my experience here, trying to make it faithful to the local Senegalese who have informed my experience, and also interesting and relevant to readers in the States. I know that prolonged descriptions of my work, or what I did today, or what my host sister Fatou is like, does not make for interesting reading. Instead of trying to accurately portray my life in Senegal, my writing is about my reflections on, and my reactions to, my life in Senegal. It is, yes, ultimately about me, because “me” is what I know.

The more time you spend in a place, learning its local language and quietly finding out how you function there, the less possible it is to reduce your experience to brash characterizations of it being “imperialist,” or, on the other end of the spectrum, “virtuous.” It is neither of these things, yet so many other things in between. In addition, the longer you spend somewhere, the more your life there becomes, simply, normal life. You have your boring days, your happy days, your lists of errands, your phone calls to make. Grand epiphanies about the colonialist implications of your actions don’t just happen. It takes a lot of effort to extract profound meaning out of a day trying to get the mold out of your Klean Kanteen.

Writing in an abstract way about my own writing is giving even me a headache. Since you have been fighting the urge to fall asleep by now, go take a nap. Later on I will publish Part II of this series, where I will continue my thoughts. Part II: White Knights in Brown Places: Development Agencies: Lessons from being on the ground. (There:were:too:many:colons:in:that:title.)

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4 thoughts on “White People Discovering Themselves in Brown Places: Problems in Development work, Tourism, and “Eat, Pray, Love”

  1. As I read this, many things go through my head and many trigger points, such as Chinua Achebe’s criticism of Heart of Darkness and the “white people discovering themselves in brown places” phrase. I would even go so far as to say “White people discovering themselves in places of color” period. When one looks at the criticisms of Gilbert’s book, it is practically expected. Though I have not yet read the book or seen the movie, I have watched a couple video interviews of her on the web. I can’t judge her from these, but from what you’ve written, I can say it is pretty much commonplace for most westerners to take any foreign experience as an “experience” and a “self-discovery” time in space. It’s natural, I suppose. And I hope this does not come off insulting at all. No one talks of the fact that in western places, people of color are often socially pressured to hide themselves and their primary culture because of the pressure to assimilate. For whites in a foreign land, it is self-discovery and colonial but for people of color, it is hiding of the self and a new form of social slavery (which seems like such a harsh word, but it is an inevitable force that must be received in order to receive a social sense of well being in a western place). And keep in mind that what I’m saying here is not that people of color completely forget or obliterate their culture or true sense of self, but it is outwardly so for most professional and social settings (i.e. the workplace, school, etc.) in order to receive the status quo. I mean look at the fact that most African Americans don’t wear their natural afro or hair as much anymore but get straigtening perms and weave instead. and skin lightening creams, exotifying their own beauty for it to be called “beauty,” etc. etc….and your other entry touches on this lightly. I hope all of this is making sense. I feel like I’m jabbering and repeating myself. And this is such a long comment. Sorry.
    Can’t wait to meet you in Kolda. I’m currently in Dakar for some more training but we must hang out and talk once I get into the beautiful setting that is Kolda. okay, have a good night!

    P.S. Achebe also writes about the post-colonial experience of being a Nigerian who has fully assimilated to the western lifestyle and the displacement of self and identity when back in Nigeria. I forget what it’s called. I’ll let you know when I remember the title of the article.

    1. It’s surprisingly very 2010. We have internet (not always very fast) and can use bit torrent to download movies, tv shows, etc.

  2. “The more time you spend in a place, learning its local language and quietly finding out how you function there, the less possible it is to reduce your experience to brash characterizations of it being “imperialist,” or, on the other end of the spectrum, “virtuous.” It is neither of these things, yet so many other things in between.”

    This is something I’ve been wrestling with as well, from the summer I spent teaching English in Cambodia to the semester studying in Palestine. What categories should we begin to create then? And what are the consequences of not being able to articulate the spectrum between the colonial and the saintly?

    Maybe one solution is to correct anyone who seeks to define an experience as virtuous. It’s uncomfortable, but perhaps better than hearing how “wonderful it is that you’re doing these things for those people.”

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