I recently just arrived on the island of Taiwan. It became immediately clear that I stood out like a sore thumb. The city where I arrived, Taichung, clearly doesn’t see many Western tourists. So far, I’ve noticed only a few other Westerners so it does make it hard to blend in. This experience has drawn me back to ponder a question that pops up in my head from time to time:
Which is better as a traveller, fitting in or standing out?
The question seems to pop up in places where I know that on first appearances, I’m an outsider. As someone with Anglo heritage in Australia it’s not something I encounter much. It does happen a little in Europe, but nothing like in Asia or the Americas. In these places, especially those with very little multiculturalism, tourists stand out a mile away.
Now, while I posed it as a question, you’re often not given a choice in the matter. It highly depends on circumstances as to whether you can blend in or not. I’d say another factor is your experience with travel, as adapting to a new place is a skill you learn to develop as you go. But putting that aside, I thought it would be interesting to examine the benefits to travellers of both fitting in and standing out.
In Europe I’ve generally strived to remain blended in, which is usually easier than say Asia, at least from a racial standpoint. Of course, carrying a camera everywhere is a bit of a calling card, but it’s probably my only one. I try to avoid doing things like unfolding a large map to broadcast that I don’t know where I am, or other obvious tourist behaviour. What I try to do is mirror the behaviour of locals around me and, if I can, figure out why things are done the way they are.
I like to think that blending in means you’ve shown you understand the cultural and social rules and cues; at a superficial level you get how things work. It’s often a moment of pride when I can navigate an interaction without tipping them off that I don’t speak the language, or getting asked for directions by disoriented locals. These uplifting situations indicate that I’ve developed some understanding of local life and don’t come across as an obvious outsider, even if I still feel like one.
Safety and Security
Of course there are safety benefits with blending in as a tourist as well. It seems like a basic part of anthropology/sociology is that outsiders are treated differently. As a tourist this can sometimes be a bad thing, putting your safety or security at risk. It can make you more likely to be the target of scams, theft and other criminal activities. Less serious but still irritating are hawkers and merchants looking to take advantage of your fat tourist wallet. Like my times in Vietnam and Morocco, it’s a reminder that you clearly don’t belong and they know it.
Like other crimes, standing out can also mean women are targeted for harassment or sexual assault. Please note, that if the above sounds like victim blaming, that is most definitely not my intent.
I don’t know whether it’s to do with getting older or simply being more experienced, but I find myself caring less about standing out and being noticed. Whereas I felt uncomfortable with it years ago in Vietnam say, I’ve come to like it in places like Malaysia. Perhaps that’s because people in Malaysia often speak English, hurdling the language barrier, and have chosen to reach out as a result. From the two guys on a motorcycle that shouted “Welcome to Malacca” as they grinned and waved riding past, to people chatting to me on local buses and even offering lifts; the attention I garnered in Malaysia for standing out there was really positive.
And that’s the thing. In the same way that people can look to exploit an outsider, they’re just as likely to be more generous offering help and assistance. They’re often more likely to take pity on a lost or confused foreigner than someone they think should know better, in my experience. Whether it’s getting help with a translation, an explanation or directions, I find going into “helpless tourist” mode the easiest way to get assistance in some places.
It may feel better to feign understanding as they explain in rapid fire Portuguese but if you don’t understand the guidance then it’s pretty useless isn’t it? A dose of humility is generally the best way to get help anyway.
So… Which is Better?
In the end, I don’t think there’s one right answer. For me at least, I like to blend in when I can, but also know that standing out has its uses too. I’ve come to accept that there are places where it’s near impossible to fit in, but I’ll still try. On the flip side, I’ve grown to understand that being seen as an outsider isn’t always a bad thing. As I said, no one right answer, just an opportunity for me to ramble on.
Which do you prefer when you travel? Trying to blend into your new destination or stand apart? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.