Confessions of a Confused Cultural Consumer

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My name is Anna and I am a cultural consumer. I collect experiences and artesania like other people fill books with stamps. My dream: a (big) home filled with things from around the world. I envision myself greeting guests and then storytelling them around my home, my style and self represented through everything made by others. The right beaded earrings for every pair of shoes, a beautiful scarf that matches my eyes, compliments graciously received.
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At the first stop on our tour of the area surrounding Creel, in Mexico’s Copper Canyons, we all herd into a cave on the outskirts of town. This, we are informed, is the home of Doña Dominga and her family, Rarámuri Indigenous. They have lived here for generations and we can ask her anything we want about her lifestyle and please leave some coins in the donation basket at the entrance on your way out. Doña Dominga sits, smiles and tells us that she never wants to leave her cave. We glance around, admiring the beds made up on rock ledges. The couple next to me discusses how healthy and natural this lifestyle must be: woodstove and everything. As we head back to the van, another group pulls in for their cultural experience of the day.
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“Compra, compra, compra” chant the children at every weirdly shaped rock formation, waterfall or cultural site throughout the canyons. Snotty nosed, they hold up small hand-woven baskets and bracelets for our inspection and consumption. We return home with cameras full of photos and suitcases full of handicrafts, pieces of canyon culture to display, experiences and bargains to boast about over dinner.
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In Mampuján, people would stare in my window or stand at my open door for a long time, not saying anything. Eating raw carrot sticks, cooking pita bread, listening to different music, speaking in English on the phone, hanging Origami cranes from the ceiling: strange and mysterious things were always going on in my home. After reparations, I would walk down the street and people would take my picture with their new fancy smart phones. My normal was glaringly not normal at all in this tiny town.
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We sit in a van driving around Guatemala, exhausted. We have seen Indigenous communities on the brink of extinction and we have visited the Marlin Mine. Yet, we have also experienced the vibrancy of cultural recognition and revitalization. For many of the communities, the only way to remain strong is to recognize who they are; the art of promoting culture is also a strategy of protecting community and lifestyle. In many ways, it is a defense against northern culture that seeks to subjugate through resource control. As the North Americans reflect on the drive to the airport, we feel cultureless; because we are the dominant culture, we are never overtly faced with the task of defining and defending ourselves.

Instead, we feel a sense of shame for what we have witnessed. It is tempting to let other people’s identity become my identity, especially when that involves the opportunity to adopt a different version of history. In our binary thinking, it is always more desirable to be the victim rather than part of the victimizing group, especially because we now know the richness found in other places. We make a list of things we love about our home cultures: quilts, folk music, poutine- adaptations and adoptions from many different cultures and heritages.
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In Chihuahua, we debate taking a tour to visit the Mennonite colonies. The poster advertises a trip to a farm with the chance to view Mennonites working and wearing their traditional garb. The highlight comes at the end: a traditional lunch filled with Mennonite food. It seems odd to think of Mexicans and others travelling to eat watermelon and rollkuchen, to participate in some sort of staged version of a spinoff of my ethnic Mennonite background. When I tell some other Mennonite friends about the tour, they laugh and remark that Mennonites will do whatever they can to earn some money.

My name is Anna and I am culturally confused. I am not the only one curious about other people but I have the privilege that the majority do not have: to travel and consume without every really understanding where I am and what impact I am having on the world around me, to view other cultures as vehicles for my fulfillment. Yet, people are not simply victims or passive subjects, but rather actors who are always responding, interacting and creating change in the circumstances they inhabit. Exploitation and agency coexist, but my actions can still fuel a system that views others as objects for my consumption.

This post has no clear conclusion.

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