How to not be a Jerk when Traveling in Poor Countries

Or; Nomadic Matt Needs to Check his Privilege

Have you ever witnessed a tourist haggling vigorously with a local over what amounts to a few bucks – or worse, five cents? I’ve seen this. Literally – five cents.

If you’ve traveled in poor countries, I’ll bet you have, too. Haggling becomes a game for tourists, but when we play, we sometimes lose sight of the actual person we’re speaking to, who relies on selling her goods and for whom a few bucks means a whole lot more than it does for any of us. Keep in mind, also, that people know how much money we spend to travel. They understand that our flights to India alone probably cost more than many of them make in an entire year. There are a lot of ugly forces that come into play to make this happen, but it’s something we need to be aware of. If your first thought is “how dare he try to rip me off?!” rather than “what sort of sick factors come into play that make his currency so worthless? What systems even make it possible for me to travel to foreign countries and live like a king on $20 a day?” then you need to seriously reassess your priorities. And maybe not even travel in the first place.

People sometimes think haggling is the way to do things in every single poor country. We wouldn’t dream of walking into a shop and pulling that in the United States, but for some reason people don’t seem to respect vendors in the global periphery one bit (I actually have a lot of guesses about the reasons here, but they’re ugly, and I’m mostly not going to touch on them in this article).

And then, sometimes, we have the audacity to get angry with people for not playing by our rules in their country. “How could she offer him a lower price than she gave me??” “How dare they publish a separate menu in Thai, with cheaper prices than the English menu??” If I had a dollar for how many times I’ve heard jerky tourists say things to this effect, I’d probably make as much as an average Thai person makes in a year. And that’s sort of messed up, right?

Nomadic Matt fell into this jerky trap when he wrote about his experiences in Vietnam. In an article that could have only been written by a privileged white male, he complained that people were mean to him, that he was constantly ripped off, that he hated the country and will never return. Many commenters came to chime in and express their hatred of Vietnam. When one commenter called Matt out on his racism, he provided this flippant response: “I’ll be sure to tell my Vietnamese friend back home I’m racist against her people. We will get a good laugh out of it.” This response came uncomfortably close to those people saying they can’t be racist/sexist/homophobic because they have black/female/gay friends. Actually, it was exactly the same, but not a single one of his readers called him out on it. Sadly, comments have been closed for a long time over there, so we’ll take our righteous rage to our own page.

I’m going to go through the comments to this article in order to provide advice on what not to do when traveling in poor countries:

1. Have some perspective. When a commenter asked Matt to reflect on the reality of his privilege as a wealthy white American whose forefathers fought in Vietnam, Matt responded:

“I don’t buy that. I didn’t bomb them. Should the Germans owe me because their grandfathers put Jews in camps? Germans today that they don’t bear that burden, it wasn’t them. They apologize and move on. Do young Australians have to bear the cross for what was done to the Aboriginals in the early 20th century when they had no control? I don’t believe that we bear the sins of our fathers.”

That’s fine and good, but we didn’t pop up out of nowhere. We’re the product of thousands of years of history, and we’re still living many of these processes now. A wealthy white American living in the south might not be responsible for his slaveholder ancestors, but if he’s still living on a plantation that those slaves maintained, he’s implicated; he’s benefitting, still to this day, from the oppressive acts of his ancestors – and so are we. Just the fact that Nomadic Matt can go to Vietnam and feel like a big king means that he is receiving a lot of benefits made possible by his imperialist forefathers. If you can’t recognize that and bear a little bit of personal responsibility, seriously, just stay home.

2. Don’t think you understand people’s motives when you’re willfully ignorant of the culture and the language.

“I don’t mind the scams- you find them all over the place. I just found the vietnamese a bit open and rude about it. Whereas in Thailand it’s a game, in Vietnam it was more like “HAHAHA I rip you off!””

This seems like a pretty bold statement to make for someone who (by his own admission) can’t speak the local language.

3. Don’t take one dude’s word as gospel just because he’s an expat.

“I was just going on what an expat who had lived their for 10 years told me. In fact, my beef with Vietnam has nothing to do with colonialism. It was about the poor attitude I saw while there. I don’t want to be treated like crap. Would you?”

Have you seen the way many expats live in poor countries? It’s sort of disgusting. There are expat neighborhoods with gated communities and fancy supermarkets that import all the fancy things they were accustomed to in their home countries. I’ve met many, many wonderful expats – but the most racist, sheltered people I’ve ever met in my life also happened to be expats, who came to a country lured by the prospect of living like kings, equipped with maids and pools and all the fancy aspirational things that would be difficult to afford back in their birth country. Just realize that this one man may have had some very good insights, but you can’t take what he says as gospel. I’ve met expats with 10 and 20 years in foreign countries who never even bothered to learn the local language. Just take a second and reflect on the level of privilege and shelter that this entails.

4. Don’t treat people like a homogenous entity. If you have that sort of disdainful attitude towards the people you meet, you’ll never understand where they’re coming from.

“The people always make or break a place and shape our interactions. People may go “but X is so great!” However, if people aren’t nice to you, it doesn’t matter. I won’t go back to Vietnam because the people were mean to me…and that is that!”

What I got from this statement: “na na na na boo boo”! All of us travelers hate it when people see all Americans as the same – let’s please not do it to Vietnamese. Especially if we’re willfully ignoring any other factors that come into play. If we insist on being bitter and denying any sort of responsibility for the systems that keep poor people poor, we have no business visiting their country anyways – in this way, I think it’s a good thing that Matt will never return to Vietnam. I don’t think he’s a positive presence in Vietnam, and he really ought to avoid the country. But if other, open-minded people wish to go to Vietnam, it would be a shame for them to let Matt’s subjective experience turn them off.

5. Check your privilege, and stop drawing out token minorities to justify your prejudices.

“I’ll be sure to tell my Vietnamese friend back home I’m racist against her people. We will get a good laugh out of it.”

I touched on this before, but it bears emphasis. You can be racist even if you have minority friends – and, actually, trotting out your minority friend as proof that you’re not racist sort of hurts your point. Please don’t do it. Your minority friends don’t exist in order to help you win points at the “being a good person” game.

6. Take opportunities to have real, serious discussions about important things – don’t just use mockery to brush off attempts at genuine dialogue.

“Wow. Just wow. I never knew thinking people in location X are rude makes you a racist. I’ve never been to India but I have heard that the sellers there can be very, very pushy. Are the people who say that racist too?”

No, not necessarily. But people who make sweeping generalizations without making any attempts to understand the processes that come into play to make vendors pushy or to make some Vietnamese people deeply resentful of arrogant westerners are, at the very least, willfully ignorant. And the ignorant part is okay – we’re all pretty ignorant about a lot of things, and this is a large part of why we travel. But the willful part is completely and totally inexcusable. Matt seems to relish his own ignorance and, given that he’s one of the most popular travel bloggers in the world, I think this is terrifying.

7. Recognize that your attitude will be the single biggest factor in your experience.

“I’ve found most Vietnamese have resentment towards most Westerners in general.”

I’ve met people way ruder than any of the big ol’ meanies that Matt encountered in Vietnam, (just going by his examples here) but I didn’t write off entire countries based on these encounters, nor did I take to the interwebs to express my displeasure. It’s okay to not like a place. It’s okay to not want to return to a place. It’s not okay to to refuse to recognize the role you’re playing and it’s not okay to deny your privilege and make examples out of your minority friends when people call you out.

I’m gonna go out on a limb here – based on my experience, most of the time when people were rude to me in poor countries, it was because I was behaving arrogantly, with no real understanding of the cultural context under which we were operating. I took these as lessons. Matt has refused to take his interactions as learning opportunities. I think that’s pretty dangerous and ugly behavior.

We opted not to include exploitative pictures of poor people in this article. Here’s my dog driving a car.


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