Monday, August 23, 2010

the tourist gaze

Orhan Pamuk writes in Other Colors: “There are two ways of looking at cities. The first is that of the tourist, the newly arrived foreigner who looks at the buildings, monuments, avenues, and skylines from outside. There is also the inside view, the city of rooms in which we have slept, of corridors and cinemas and old classrooms, the city made up of the smells and lights and colors of our most cherished memories (69).”

The French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy is such a tourist. In the Atlantic Magazine he writes about Los Angeles: “what must be true for a city to be legible? […I]t has to have a center. But Los Angeles has no center. It has districts, neighborhoods, even cities within the city, each of which has a center of some sort. But one center, one unique site as a point of reference […] nothing like that exist in Los Angeles […]. Los Angeles is, I fear, a city about which one can predict with some certainty that it will die.” Lévy behaves like a tourist; a tourist looking for the fictional city of movies and literature, the fictional city of nineteenth century Europe. This Eurocentric tourist gaze, though, overlooks that a multi-centered city is still a city.

Orhan Pamuk claims that there are two views on the city: the outside and the inside view. But isn’t a third – a middle – position possible? A position taken up by someone who isn’t really on the outside and not really – or not yet – on the inside. A position taken up by someone who goes back and forth. Beck calls such a person a place polygamist – even if this person is not a frequent traveler, even if this person doesn’t collect air miles. After all, not every person residing outside her or his country of origin – in the sense of birth place – is a tourist. Indeed, a tourist stays on the outside to gaze merely at surfaces, and the same can be said of most expats.

After so many years in Indonesia in Indonesia, I’m obviously – at least in my own eyes – no longer a tourist, and I like to claim an in-between position. For me, the city of Bandung has by now many personal memories for I have traveled its streets countless times. I feel at home here, even if I’m still seen as an outsider. Bandung has nested underneath my skin – the dust, the dirt, the heat, the jams, the noise – the thrills for me, the urban junkie.

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