Travel, Humanitarianism, and Becoming American in Africa, Chapter 6: ‘How do they know I am American?’ Travel and the Discovery of Home

Mathers, K. (2010). “Chapter 6: ‘How Do They Know I Am American?’ Travel And The Discovery Of Home.” In Travel, humanitarianism, and becoming American in Africa. Palgrave Macmillan, 137-154.

In this chapter, Mathers attends to “the ways American travelers respond to the reverse gaze of South Africans that marked them as American” (138). Mathers notes the gaze as a fundamental trope that has been employed in both historical and contemporary travel writing and tourism theory. While Mathers analyzes the social exchange and reflexive responses of her participants, our class discussion brought to the fore the notion of her representation of her participants, the consumerist aspects of social exchange, and her particular focus as exclusionary to important issues in South Africa, such as poaching. In this way, Mathers’ representation of her participants invokes classic cross-cultural positions, but at the same time, her constructions do not fulfill the holistic view that anthropological representations should endeavor to meet.

Part of the problem is perhaps owing to how Mathers dealt with her pool of participants. As we get to know them better in her ethnographic descriptions, we can understand that they are all going through their own rite of passage, learning aspects about their national, ethnic, gendered, and racial identities. Their conclusions about their positions as American travelers in South Africa and to political ideology show us stark contrasts of how certain American values are internalized and expressed via confidential conversations, diary entries, and so on. This draws some parallels between anthropological and tourist reflexivity, which Mathers touched on in Chapter 1, but lacks substantial elaboration. That is, Mathers seems to have spent much of her time taking ethnographic notes on her participants’ internal struggles and how they reflected on their self, rather than analyzing their expressions or actions to certain situations.

Another problem is Mathers’ lack of elaboration with key theoretical concepts that she raises. For example, on the notion of boundaries, Mathers seems to be unaware of Fredrick Barth’s (1969) seminal work, Ethnic Groups and Boundaries, which speaks of boundaries (of ethnicity). This work has subsequently been refined by many scholars to highlight the identity within boundaries as distinct, but also in a state of perpetual change or negotiation. This is not a sort of ‘fluidity’ of identity as much as friction caused by two borders inhabiting the same space. For identities to be ‘fluid’, I would argue that the flow must be unrestrained, or find a way around any obstacles, as one might imagine the way water flows around and over rocks in a river.

Mathers’ interpretation of this exchange is quite different, marked by the tourist gaze. Mathers describes this as problematic exchanges of negotiating (internal and external) terms of identity. She describes social actors as they attempt to reach a certain destination or pass as locals, and limits her results as ethnographic data that stops at her cross-cultural comparison. Both situations are less prone to demonstrating the attempt to embody local identities but, instead, show how the American tourists manage to create more space within the boundaries of their ‘bubble’, exacerbating a sense of distance between different cultural attitudes to foreign encounters. This is not to say that the American students made ‘enemies’ or created antagonistic situations per se, but even the tiny victories of amicable exchanges seem to be hollow in the greater face of national identity, a force that Mathers describes as quite out of the Americans students’ scope of understanding.

However, many other passages are drawn short by Mathers’ scattered attention to a plethora of issues and concepts: identities (markers of gender, race, nationality, class, politics, etc.), flows, space, time, home, embodiment, privilege, and wealth. Rather than deciding on how to draw together these issues and theoretical concepts into a solid ethnographic position that speaks to what the gaze represents, Mathers opts to unfairly focus on the shortcomings of her participants, casting them as liminal victims to their own ignorance or lack of wisdom. I am not saying Mathers has done this intentionally. Rather, she has failed to speak to the disparity between concepts of wealth in the form of mobility in tourism and travel, instead opting for her cross-cultural notes, with slight mention to other scholarly works.

Or, as another example, she has failed to bring out what it means to be “black” in the social and historical context of contemporary South Africa in the process of Americanization as a form of globalism. Instead, she speaks to pop cultural references such as Oprah or Chris Rock, which give weak links to the influence American black identities have on South African people and culture. In the voice of Sheryll Wilson, Mathers quotes, “part of Oprah’s success lies in her ability to conflate media icon with self and in making her audience believe that the person they see on television is Oprah Winfrey herself” (187). This potentially gives us more than a simple criticism of the damage wrought by popular celebrities. What I imagine Mathers could have expanded on are ideas around the influence that role and status play in the construction of American ideals and identities embodied in young travelers, coming from America, which create a rolling snowball effect that manifests within the gaze itself. Thus, the practice of gazing in an American way could have attended to notions of space and boundary as a reflexive rite of passage to the construction of identity in American tourists.

Furthermore, the influence, or ‘flow’, of American media in America is a force to contend with and worth in-depth analysis, especially in light of its effects on South African citizens. The surprise that Mathers’ students felt at its popularity overseas, as exemplified via the television show, 90210, show us a disconnect between popular and material cultural knowledge and nation-state identities. While Mathers’ description of Maria in Chapter 5 is telling of American positions on ethnic and national identity, she does not continue to build upon this, as the title of Chapter 6, ‘How Do They Know I Am American?’ Travel And The Discovery Of Home (138) seems to suggest. That is, situating ‘home’ through the gaze as influenced by travel, media, and the nation-state could have drawn together some elucidating points on how Western colonialism is subtly practiced through expectations and the consuming aspects of American travel experiences. Mathers touches on this idea, noting that “tourism or travel is often defined by the collection of stamps in one’s passport” (138), but again, falls short in expanding on this notion.

While Mathers’ ethnographic accounts are interesting, she clearly has taken on many tasks in order to fulfill the requirements of her book. Still, the lack of drawing together her ideas in a tighter conceptual frame leaves us scratching our heads as to how she comfortably reaches some of the conclusions at the end of the book.



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