Ask Pajiba (Almost) Anything: When White Guilt Gets In The Way Of A Good Vacation
Before we dig into today’s well-meaning humblebrag of a question (in a good way!), I just wanted to share a bit of free advice with the poor publicist who had to corral this Gemma Collins person during this excruciating interview about her new advice book:
All magazine interviews should be conducted this way and published verbatim when the celeb in question acts like an arse 😂 pic.twitter.com/y9NQZ4Sx2U— Mike P Williams 🌹 (@Mike_P_Williams) June 26, 2018
It’s nearly impossible to rein in someone who is that painfully oblivious and nasty. Even if you did brief her ahead of time about the fact that not many copies of her book were sent out to press, she clearly wouldn’t have remembered — hell, she didn’t even manage to keep that in mind over the course of this single interview! But since she apparently has written a book, which supposedly contains advice, prepping her to be able to drop even a single nugget of wisdom would have been good. And also to maybe not admit her entire “inspo” was just to rip-off Kim Kardashian.
To the outlet that published this interview in full — including that “Has this girl been briefed?” pull-quote — I applaud you. I needed that today. And to all our beloved Pajibbers & Pajackoffs who come to “Ask Pajiba (Almost) Anything” every week, let’s have a virtual group hug. No matter how weird the questions get or useless our tips are, at least we’re not engaged in reality TV diva advicing. I’m choosing to believe that what we’re doing here is balancing her book out on some cosmic, karmic level. Just… let me have this vague feeling of purpose, please.
[Reminder: You too can help us tip these scales away from Gemma by sending your life questions to [email protected]! Though if you ask about how to be a diva, I guarantee you won’t like my response…]
But back to the task at hand! This week we’ve got a question from a sensitive, educated person who just wants to go on vacation without all that pesky “acknowledging the history of genocide” getting in the way. FAIR!
I’m sort of hesitant to ask this, since it feels like such a cliché of a “First World/Rich People” problem. Anyway, this fall, during my vacation to SE Asia, I’ll be spending a few days in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Do I have a moral obligation to visit The Cheung Ek Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum?
I understand how critical it is to bear witness to history - especially our darkest and most horrifying chapters. I am familiar with what happened to the Cambodian people during the Khmer Rouge regime - including some first-hand accounts from a Cambodian tour guide I met in Siem Reap two years ago, who talked to me a little bit about his mother and father’s separate disappearances.
I am hesitant to visit for a couple of reasons, the first being the more selfish of the two: I know I will find myself overwhelmed by the visit. Even thinking about the enormity of what happened in Cambodia fills me with despair. I had to leave the Holocaust Museum in DC after visiting “Remember the Children: Daniel’s Story” because I wasn’t able to do anything but cry and cry and cry. I made it through the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City last year - though I needed a rather long break after visiting an exhibition about journalists killed during the Vietnam War that displayed, in many instances, the last photograph they took before being killed.
So, yes, I say to myself, this is all true, I have a very difficult time with these subjects - but it makes me feel like a whiney and privileged interloper, who doesn’t want to have my vacation spoiled by having to come face-to-face with the history of a country I’m visiting. “Why talk about unpleasant things? I’m just here to enjoy myself!” is the underlying feeling and I don’t want to be that person - despite the fact that one of the things I love (and TBH, probably really need) about my annual trips abroad is that I get to spend a couple of weeks away from the daily despair that is part-and-parcel of living in Trump’s America.
The second reason is somewhat more practical: tourist visits to the Killing Fields have increased substantially over the last couple of years. There have been issues with graffiti and other damage to the physical exhibits - and I know from my own experiences, there are likely to be tourists who are here not to learn or to bear witness, but because visiting the site is another box to be ticked on a bucket list (ugh). So, there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to exacerbate over-tourism - and I also don’t want to be filled with rage when I see clueless visitors behaving like jerks.
So, I guess the simpler question is, can I still think of myself as a vaguely good (or at least generally not actively horrible) person if I don’t visit the Killing Fields?
A Privileged Westerner Who’s Trying to Not Be a Jerk
I feel this question HARD, because I too often feel a bit guilty about not checking out every local memorial or monument when I travel. Granted — that’s mostly because I only travel to eat things, not to do or see stuff, but the point is I’ve wondered if I’m a terrible person on occasion (both generally and in this specific context). And the fact that you’re even worried about this means you’re on the right track. But the good news is, per the overwhelming opinion of the Overlords: you don’t have to visit the Killing Fields or other sites of historical atrocities in order to be a good person. You just have to not be an asshole tourist.
The fact is that it sounds like you’re already more knowledgeable about the region you’re traveling to than many tourists are, so you’ve done your homework. Ignorance is never the solution, but there are many ways to learn about history that don’t always require visiting monuments or museums. You can brush up on history in your own time, but if you’ve taken the days off and booked the tickets and saved for this trip, then it’s ok to spend it with all the new people and sights and foods you’re there to experience. One of the many ways to honor the past is to understand and appreciate the present: the people and the culture that survived and developed because of all that painful history.
Frequently, I’ve come to regret things I’ve said. This, from 2001, is not one of those times: pic.twitter.com/1NiHlupJkL— Anthony Bourdain (@Bourdain) February 5, 2018
And it’s OK to be honest about your goals for your vacation. It’s ok to want to relax and escape your own personal hellscape without immersing yourself in another one, just like it’s ok to not want to be an emotional wreck in public. If engaging with the history of Cambodia will trigger you, then do it privately. Besides, if you step outside of this lingering feeling of white guilt, you might realize that the people of Cambodia aren’t necessarily looking for visitors to come to them out of sorrow or pity. Being a respectful visitor encompasses a lot of things. It’s how you comport yourself, whether you’re at a bar or at a memorial site. Try and learn a bit of the language rather than forcing English on everyone. Open yourself to new experiences. Talk, and listen, and eat, and wrap yourself up in lives that aren’t your own, and ask the people you meet for recommendations. Go off the beaten path and support some local establishments. And most importantly — spend your money freely.
BEING A GOOD TOURIST IS ABOUT SPENDING YOUR MONEY AND NOT BEING A PAIN IN THE ASS WHILE DOING SO. I’m sure the jerks who take selfies at the Killing Fields are annoying, but I’m also sure that the tourists who treat Cambodia as a playground, or laugh at any customs that seem strange to them or act disgusted at new foods without trying them are just as annoying — if not more so. So if you want to be a respectful visitor, lead by example. Don’t give the locals another reason to curse the Privileged Westerners. And if that means you have the urge to go to those museums and monuments specifically to lead by example — to shoot dirty looks at the people taking selfies or being rude, then go nuts. You do you. But make sure what you’re doing is what you WANT to be doing, because if you do everything out of a sense of guilt then you’ll just feel bad twice over: bad because you’ve immersed yourself in painful history, and bad because you’re doing it out of a sense of obligation, when you’d really rather be at the beach.
Your compassion and concern are commendable, but at the end of the trip, whether you have put in time crying publicly at any of these museums or not, Cambodia’s history will still be real. Your presence won’t suddenly validate their past. All you can do is cement some memories of the present and take them home with you, to tell your friends. Then encourage them to visit, with their wallets, and contribute to the local economy.
Seriously, being a tourist is one of the few times when your worth literally does come down to what’s in your wallet. So spend dat money and be respectful and inquisitive and adventurous and have some fucking fun — and eat some crazy good food while you’re at it. And no, I’m totally not sitting here getting jealous of your exciting vacation plans…
Header courtesy of Getty Images: “A woman prays in front of skulls at the Choeung Ek memorial in Phnom Penh on May 20, 2018. - Cambodians observed the annual ‘Day of Anger’ against genocidal Khmer Rouge regime that ruled the country from 1975-79. (Photo by TANG CHHIN Sothy / AFP)”