January 26, 2006
Pico Iyer on sexual geography
Here's a little excerpt from A Sense of Place, edited by Michael Shapiro.
You'll notice how noted travel writer Pico Iyer observes a worldwide dating war and the legitimacy of people finding "outsiders" attractive. This is a central theme of my forthcoming book, Romance on the Road.
Shapiro: Your work made me rethink some of my perceptions. When I was in Thailand, I saw these svelte, delicate Thai girls-and they were girls; somewere sixteen or younger-with these large, somewhat boorish, lager-bellied Germans. And I thought, These girls have to tolerate these gruff is. One thing that appeals to me about your work is that you try not to judge, but rather approach the world with beginner's mind.
Pico Iyer: That's a lovely phrase, thank you. Foreignness is an intoxicant. As when we're drunk, we don't know how much it's our true selves coming out and how much it's the drink speaking through us. And so I think those young Thai women walking through the street with the large German
men wouldn't be able to say how much they're attracted by what the German men represent or how much by something else. The first thing I noticed when I traveled around Southeast Asia, when I talked, say, to the young women who worked in the bars in Thailand, was that they had nothing good to say about Thai men. And when I went to Bali, young Balinese girls had nothing good to say about Balinese men. And I don't think that means that the Thai and Balinese men are inherently worse than any others. I think it goes back to what I was saying a minute ago: when we see people from our own community we're particularly sensitive to all the things that are wrong with them. When we see people from another community we're alive to what's refreshing about them.
I travel in search of ambiguity. To me, the beauty of travel comes in dissolving one's judgments. When I sit inside my house in Santa Barbara I'll think about a couple in Thailand and decide that the German is an imperialist who's corrupting this sweet and relatively impoverished society. And the beauty of going to Thailand is quickly to have to throw out all those notions, and to see a reality that's much more human and complex and to some extent unfathomable.
Pico's closing phrase bears repeating: "a reality that's much more human and complex and to some extent unfathomable." I spoke a while back at the UMBC Geography Department, and the audience was remarkably receptive to the notion of travel romance as a means of one-on-one economic development, rather than as a horrible instance of exploitation or corruption.