You’re a tourist? You must be very rich

Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh

We were being dragged around yet another Chinese craft workshop and saw a lady making a beautiful embroidered picture. When we stopped to admire her work the owner quickly switched to salesman mode and told us it could be packaged and sold to us for only $80. We had nowhere to pack this, no inclination to buy it, and more than that no spare $80 in our budget for an unexpected purchase like this. When the news was conveyed to the lady via our interpreter/guide, she looked despondent and said something along the lines of “I’m sorry you don’t like it”.

For many years I didn’t understand the significance of this episode. As two travelling youngsters we had explained to our guide that $80 was a lot of money for us; that we had a tight budget, and that we had scrimped and saved to be able to come all the way to China. When he asked about our earnings and his eyes lit up at our reply we were quick to point out the cost of our mortgage, the price of food, clothing, fuel, taxes etc. “We’re not rich” was our message. We might earn a lot by Chinese standards but the cost of living is so high at home that much of that money goes on basic unavoidable expenses.

In the 15 years since our trip to China I’ve seen many others make the same argument, playing down our wealth when visiting countries where the majority of people live hand to mouth and have no bank account or possibility of saving. It’s done with the best of intentions, usually to try and correct the perception of a local person of their infinite wealth.

But I realise that on the most simple level we did live in a completely different world to that woman in the Chinese workshop. She didn’t need to know anything about our income or living costs to make her mind up that we were incredibly rich. We were there, and that was enough!

On our recent travels in Laos and Cambodia, most of those we spoke to had never left their borders and had only travelled to another city in their country to sort out important administration. A trip overseas was out of the question for two reasons: one is money of course, but the other is the basic concept of leisure time. The idea of having five weeks paid annual leave (or even the American 10 days) is a true luxury and any time off in the week is usually spent on family business. A day out to the nearest river or beach is often a major treat.

So when we arrive, travelling through their country for no reason other than our own desire to be there, it is this freedom to travel that gives away our wealth before any thought of finances. The fact that, in the case of our visit to China, we were young twentysomethings, makes this assumption so much stronger.

So now, when we travel to the poorer parts of Asia or Africa we no longer protest our financial modesty. We accept that assumptions will be made, that our ability to travel around the world because we want to will mark us out as priveleged. Starting off with that mindset might even allow us to interact with people in a more honest and respectful manner as a result.

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Freelance travel writer

10 Responses to “You’re a tourist? You must be very rich”

  1. hmm, interesting – certainly an experience i’ve shared. feel this particularly keenly when i’m traveling for work and staying at some stupid huge and expensive hotel in southeast asia. you’re right though – it’s pretty laughable to suggest that “you’re not rich” in comparison to some of the people you meet – and it’s always good to keep that firmly in mind.

    June 7, 2010 at 9:14 am
  2. Rich is relative, when you earn $ 10 a day, someone earning $100 looks rich, the fact that their expenses are higher is immaterial to the bloke earning $10.00

    June 7, 2010 at 9:37 am
  3. You make such good points!!! I’ve been guilty of pulling the poor traveller card, though more recently the poor ESL teacher!!! I still always get taken aback when I’m shopping with my Chinese friends and even with their bargaining skills they can’t get the price down as low as they would get bcos the sales person insists that I’m a rich foreigner and therefore should pay more!!! But it’s so true that it really is a privilege to travel, even if your a poor backpacker, of course you look wealthy there’s no point denying it!

    June 7, 2010 at 10:21 am
  4. I also wonder what it must look like from the perspective of someone who lives on a few dollars a day out of necessity, seeing young Western backpackers — people from a much more affluent part of the world — trying to do the same out of choice.

    The world’s a funny place.

    June 7, 2010 at 10:37 am
  5. It was interesting to read how your thoughts evolved. I guess travel does make us see our own world differently.

    June 8, 2010 at 7:22 am
  6. All foreigners in China are rich, no matter how much money they really have. I lived in one of the richest cities in China and the people all thought I was wealthy, even though I was working as an ESL teacher. This was the perception from people who owned multiple apartments in the city (and there was no way I could even afford one).

    June 8, 2010 at 1:37 pm
  7. Thanks to all for sharing your experiences and thoughts on this topic. As Matt suggests, the fact that you are western is enough to mark you out as rich, regardless of your actual financial status. There’s nothing we can do in the short term to correct this perception.
    I like your point Rudi about how backpackers are perceived; they are assumed to be very wealthy yet shun the luxuries on offer and attempt to live on a couple of dollars a day. Must seem odd…

    June 8, 2010 at 4:39 pm
  8. There is a difference between wealth and privilege. Rich is a relative term.
    Someone living in NYC making $150/day having a non-extravagant but comfortable lifestyle with the ability to travel occasionally is certainly not rich by local standards, but is privileged as compared to lesser developed parts of the world.
    Someone in Bangalore, India making $30/day is relatively rich. However, this person may not have the same privileges, i.e. the passport to travel the world as (visa) freely as a western country, and an international exchange that converts that wealth to strong rate abroad.
    We’ve had many interesting conversations during our travels, particularly in India where so many speak excellent English and have the desire to work in the west. The TV perception of wealth in the west and particularly the US is not the reality that most anyone who is from there can attest to. Many young people studying technology in India were hoping to get a job in the US and their eyes lit up with glee at the thought that this could earn them $50,000+/year. To them this seemed like endless riches, as it might to many people in the US it should be noted. However, when we explained the reality of a $50K salary living in NYC, SF or … it became clear that this could certainly be a comfortable life that would allow them to send money back to their family in India. However, it would not make them RICH, or at least fulfill their perception of rich in the US. “Doesn’t everyone there have a giant house and several sports cars, along with a few beautiful women always hanging around.”
    That said, merely having the ability to travel IS a privilege. We don’t have to be rich in order to save a bit of money to travel, sometimes for an extended time, particularly in the overland backpacking meccas of Asia. I had the great privilege of backpacking around Asia for nearly 4 years in the late 90’s and all I needed to do was save less than $15,000. That’s less than the price of a new car. Not necessarily an easy sum to save, but certainly manageable for most anyone in the west with a passion, desire and a goal. However, that is our privilege as this amount is not a reality to most people living in Asia.

    June 8, 2010 at 5:20 pm
  9. At the hotel bar in Phnom Penh the barmaid told me she made $14 USD per month. After leaving I gave her a $1.00 tip. She looked at it and asked what it was for. With that reaction I knew she did not get many tips. I saw her leave the bar at 10pm. Next morning I was waiting outside the hotel waiting for my bus to Saigon she came in to work at 7am. She told me she worked 6 days a week.
    Even if we are not rich and cannot afford an $80.00 trinket in China, we are privileged to not only travel, but to have the free time to enjoy life when not traveling.

    June 9, 2010 at 8:20 pm
  10. Thanks again for the valuable comments. I agree that there is a clear difference between wealth and privelege – although I reckon in many parts of the world, our privelege is equated with an assumed wealth, whatever the reality.
    Similar experience to you in PP, Ted. My wife and I went for a massage at the end of a day hiking, and the girl who gave my massage actually spoke a little English. I was able to understand that she was working here for 10 hours a day so that she could afford to study a hairdressing course for 7 hours a day; and she worked there 7 days a week. What sort of perception about our wealth is going to result from that when we come in, relaxed and able to spend our leisure time and money in this way…

    June 10, 2010 at 6:00 pm
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