Growing up, I spent all of my free time (and time that wasn’t supposed to be free time) reading. I took out stacks of books from the library every week, and my favorites almost always took me to other places and times. Books about England, Italy, Uganda, China… To me, these countries seemed so much more fascinating than my own, and I often wished that I had been born somewhere interesting.
As I read and learned more, my interest in other countries morphed into viewing other countries as morally and culturally superior. I felt that the United States was materialistic, individualistic, and boring, and I often talked about how, when I was old enough, I would just “run away and live in Africa or something.” The rest of the world became this romantic place where countries had their priorities right, where I could live in a close-knit community and wear elaborate dresses and herd goats up the mountains and then take a siesta before getting ready for a tribal dance by firelight.
My junior year of college, I had the opportunity to go on a school-sponsored immersion trip to Uganda. I was ecstatic for the opportunity to travel, but as I prepared for the trip, I felt a strange internal tug-of-war. Voices of my culture whispered to me, “Oh, those Africans. It’s a good thing you’re going there to help them. They really need it.” My childhood whispered back, “No! That’s not true! They’re actually way better than me. I’m sure their lives are a lot more meaningful and important than mine.”
I thought for a while that my romanticization of other cultures was a bizarre fixation unique to me. As I began to study the genre of travel writing, however, I quickly realized that this was not true, that my bizarre fixations are often a part of larger trends. I had learned about Othering before, the process by which people or societies distinguish other people or societies as being different, usually in a negative way, from themselves. It was a surprise, however, to read about laudatory othering. In this less famous process, the Other becomes a positive figure, a romanticized caricature that seems more redeemable than the narrator’s own society. This contrast with the narrator’s own society is actually a telling part of the process: often in laudatory othering, the Other serves as a projection of the values that the traveler thinks are missing from his or her own culture. So when someone is unsatisfied with their own culture (as I was), that person may then be tempted to take all of the things they find wanting in their own society and project them onto another society.
This phenomenon helped me better understand another mental maneuver that also happens to be my biggest pet peeve in the entire world. Illustration: A Westerner, generally middle to upper class, visits a poorer country on a mission trip, comes back and says, “They had nothing, but they were just so happy!”
Whenever I hear people say this, I have a violent urge to scream in their face, “They are not happy because they are poor!”
And then I would calmly clear my throat and continue. “If they seemed happier, it may have been because of a greater sense of community, or it may have been because you were guests and everyone tries to look happy when they have guests. Not having food or shelter does not make someone happier. Rich people are both happy and sad, and poor people are both happy and sad.”
At first, I thought the “but they’re so happy!” tendency was just a naive misunderstanding that way too many people in my acquaintance happened to fall victim to. As I realized later, however, this tendency may actually be a psychological desire to explain away the pain suffered by that community. By focusing on the apparent happiness of that community, we may find it easier to ignore the way that we ourselves are implicated in the structures of poverty that cause the community to live the way they are living.
Sometimes, when I tried to write about the people I met in Uganda, I would be tempted to describe them in the most positive light I possibly could, in an attempt to battle all of the societal messages that suggest Africans are a lesser, more helpless sort of human. I would have to stop myself, forcing myself to remember that painting people in rosy colors is not going to help them. The best, most honest thing I can do is to focus on complexity, on showing the multifaceted nature of everyone I met (as far as I was able to witness it), and on my imperfect attempts to understand myself and my relations to others. No country is perfect, no person is perfect, and it doesn’t help anyone to pretend that they are.
A fuller account of my immersion in Uganda can be found here.