NPR on Cultural Tourism, Contact Zones and Hybridity

Last week I discussed one of my favorite pieces of postcolonial literature, Jamaica Kincaid’s “A Small Place”, which gives an up close and personal viewpoint of the harsh drawbacks the native Antiguans faced both during and after British colonial rule. Antigua may have gained its independence in 1981, but the impact of British colonization and cultural tourism will forever remain.

Cultural tourism is essentially “the use of a culture as an attraction for foreign tourists”. Although controversial, this marketing strategy is what supports many of the economies of postcolonial countries. Put simply, and to highlight a personal experience of mine, cultural tourism is when you’re on a road trip somewhere in the Southwest (Arizona, perhaps…) and you stop for lunch in a small café in Flagstaff and see a box of Navajo tea for sale, and you feel compelled to buy it; this is Arizona after all, it’s where the Navajo Indian reservations are. The moment you spot that Navajo tea for sale you’re made to feel that unless you buy it you aren’t really experiencing the Native American culture in Arizona. Unless there’s a piece of that culture that you can package, sell and distribute, you aren’t really experiencing it, so says cultural tourism.

Now let’s shift over to an article that NPR published this past weekend, called “Off the Menu: Realness Is A Matter of Taste” by Gene Demby. In this article, Demby discusses responses to “a new documentary on the spread of Asian-American cultures through the spread of Asian cuisine” and chefs “that are remixing their recipes for broader American appetites and consumption habits”. At the end of his article Demby awkwardly states:

“once any piece of culture moves into a different context, it is fundamentally changed, even when all the actual ingredients stay the same…When does a piece of culture become so far removed from its point of origin that it’s a different thing altogether?”

My issue is that Demby chose to end on a non-rhetorical question that can be answered immediately; in fact, the answer is in the question and it leads into a different discussion altogether. First, the contact zone, or geographical place in which two cultures meet (for example, the British encountering the native people of the island of Antigua in A Small Place), is where cultural hybridity begins. Cultural hybridity is the conscious and unconscious cultural exchange that takes place in the contact zone where two cultures meet. As soon as they come into contact the two cultures begin influencing one another. It starts right then and there. No piece of the culture has to be removed from its point of origin to be changed, it simply has to come into contact with another. The Antiguans existed on their own and their culture and practices changed with the arrival of the British colonizers. The British and the Antiguans influenced each other over time hence both cultures were changed from that point on. Therefore in response to Demby’s final question, it is not a matter of “when a piece of culture becomes so far removed from its point of origin” rather, it is a matter of when a piece of culture (and a piece really is all it takes) becomes intertwined with and adopted by others, it instantly becomes a product of cultural hybridity.

***

This post is a commentary response to NPR’s article “Off the Menu: Realness Is A Matter of Taste” by Gene Demby, published on March 14, 2015. Other sources used included:

Ashcroft, et. al. Post-Colonial Studies: The Key Concepts. Second Edition. Routledge. New York, NY. 2007.

Kincaid, Jamaica. A Small Place. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. New York, NY. 1988

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