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June 18, 2007

How Real Are Tourist "Cultural" Events?

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

One of the joys of overseas group tours is having the "opportunity" to fork out more cash for supplemental trips and "cultural" evenings. The latter might include a meal comprised of local specialties and a floor show featuring costumed folk dancers, musicians, singers and such.

I avoid this "cultural" stuff if possible.

Some of this has to do with eating habits: my agent tells me my ranking is 12th most fussy eater in the USA. (Lordy, I'm slipping. Must have been because I ate at Wild Ginger last month.)

What bothers me most is the other stuff, not the food. For reasons I won't go into, I have a strong aversion to folk-dancing and related activities.

Moreover, I suspect that nowadays most people in the country being visited do not dress, dance, etc. as portrayed in the floor shows. When I travel, I spend as much time as I can strolling streets and driving through the countryside. And when I do so, I almost never see locals as they appear in "cultural" events. (For what it's worth, I see local clothing most often in Bavaria.)

Or, consider this angle. Just what would an American "cultural" floor show include? Square dancing, for instance? Nah: only a tiny minority do that.

Overseas readers who have taken packaged USA tours: Do those tours offer "cultural" evenings? And if so, what goes on?



posted by Donald at June 18, 2007


On top of which, those Bavarians never wash the leather shorts they sit and sweat in. What a pong!

Posted by: ricpic on June 18, 2007 6:03 PM

For a remarkable contrast between a wonderfully lovely spot, and roll-on-death tedious folk "entertainment", I can recommend Madeira.

Posted by: dearieme on June 18, 2007 6:16 PM


I'm not an overseas reader -- maybe sometimes half seas over -- but an authentic package tour of the United States might include:

1. Disembarkation in New York. Orientation session conducted by people fluent in 40 languages, none of them English.

2. A visit to a "service area" on the New Jersey Turnpike. A special performance of the famous "What You Say?" ritual in which a Spanish-speaking customer tries to order a hamburger from a Pakistani server.

3. Six hours of The Shopping Mall Experience, traversing the entire ground plan from end to end, with rest stops in the food court.

4. A tour of Washington, including the Wax Museum diorama of the Oval Office with models of President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. The tour concludes with a visit to the House Office Building, including the actual refrigerator in which Rep. William Jefferson kept his stash o'cash.

5. A visit to the Museum of the Future, including the actual sombrero that will be worn as George W. Bush is crowned as Generalissimo Superior after declaring a national state of emergency on Jan. 8, 2009, because of "the state of crisis that exists because of the 200 million new immigrants living in the shadows, doing the jobs those, those, pardon me, Americans won't do."

Posted by: Rick Darby on June 18, 2007 6:30 PM

Your instincts seem very sound to me. I find the "folkloric costume show" sort of thing silly, embarrassing, and sad, and I often wonder what the performers in such things must think about their job. They're probably thinking that it pays, actually. . .

Posted by: Derek Lowe on June 18, 2007 9:40 PM

"Homesteaders" festival coming up in Valier this weekend. Ivan Doig to attend since he graduated from high school here fifty years ago. Then next month there's North American Indian Days with dance competitions every day and late into the night, all in "authentic" Hollywoodized pow-wow gear. Don't you guys have a rhubarb festival? Huckleberry festival? And what about the rodeo?

Donald, what's that little town just up the road from you that thinks it's "Little Bavaria" or Switzerland or something.

You gotta have a gimmick.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on June 18, 2007 11:38 PM

I've never in my life seen one of these performances. Sounds like I've been lucky!

Posted by: Lester Hunt on June 19, 2007 1:06 AM

Seems to me that I've read about Dutch tourists going on trips to Harlem, and to jazz clubs. Mall of America in MN gets a lot of tourism - both domestic and foreign.

Posted by: dave.s. on June 19, 2007 6:18 AM

Full disclosure: I've participated in the Ukrainian "folk dance", in full costume with fake poppies and satin ribbons' headgear.
I was 5 and in kindergarten!

Posted by: Tat on June 19, 2007 6:43 AM

When the Karaoke Queen and I visited Chichen Itza in Mexico, we were treated to one of those authentic cultural experiences during our dinner at a local cafe.

Some very pretty Mayan girls and boys did indeed perform traditional folk dances, even balancing beer bottles and serving trays on their heads while dancing.

The salsa was heavy with habaneros and within a day I suffered Montezuma's Revenge.

In my summer home in Woodstock, New York, we treat the tourists to genuine spectacles of hippie culture, including drum circles on the green. We have a guy who dresses up like Gandalf the wizard, only in rags, and poses on top of a brick wall for pictures with the day trippers. Tips are appreciated.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on June 19, 2007 7:56 AM

Donald -- I like Rick's ideas about American folk displays. I'll add: cruising the aisles at Circuit City; searching for a parking spot at the local big-box store; and watching TV while eating junk food. (Oh, maybe surfing the web while killing time at work too ...) I've actually thought of taking one of those tourist-visits to Harlem that Dave S. mentions myself -- it's not as though I'm going to explore Harlem without a chaperone ...

Tat -- We want photos!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 19, 2007 10:22 AM

I think passing out leis at the Hawaii airport, and the whole Hawaiian luau and the roast pig and hula dancers is very "cultural" tour-esque in Hawaii, and people seem to gobble it up. How many women "just walking around" or going to an office job in Hawaii are wearing bikini tops and an orchid behind their ear and grass skirts? Almost like people would feel a bit gypped if they didn't get all that when they want to magical Hawaii.

Posted by: annette on June 19, 2007 10:32 AM

I don't see anything wrong with such performances, and have enjoyed some myself. It's just theater. If you don't treat it like it's supposed represent the current culture of wherever you're visiting, then it can be fun. And most of the time, there is some historical and cultural truth going on. After all, where did those performances come from? Aren't the denizens of 2Blowhards supposed to be all in favor of tradition?

Posted by: the patriarch on June 19, 2007 10:41 AM

I too think what Rick proposes is hilarious, but not quite a floor-show event.

Annette's mention of Hawaii is nearer the mark I set. Of course one can quibble that Hawaiians were doing this gig for tourists who arrived by Matson liner back in Territorial days.

What I had in mind was more like what might happen is Ohio, say. Hmm. A special evening all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet at a Big Boy? Sounds like a start; but what would the floor show be?

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on June 19, 2007 10:53 AM

Well, in St. Louis, the "floor show" would be Chuck Berry doing "Johnny B. Goode" at the Duck Room, and people dressed up in costumes from "Meet Me In St. Louis" while eating ice cream cones and drinking iced tea. With miniature versions of The Arch and Cardinals baseball caps strewn around.

In Dallas, it would be a western rodeo with the theme song from the TV show playing.

In Chicago, it would be a replay of the Valentine's Day Massacre.

Posted by: annette on June 19, 2007 11:41 AM

Forgot to mention:

Saw some amazing Flamenco when we were in Seville. Now, Sevillanos don't go around Flamenco dancing all day long wearing wide-brimmed hats, but it is a legitimate part of their culture. Would something like that fall into the category of what you would avoid?

Posted by: the patriarch on June 19, 2007 12:18 PM

Having just returned from Hawaii and one of their luau shows, I have a few thoughts on these sorts of "folk" performances:

1) They employ artists who would otherwise likely be making a living by waiting tables or in short not practicing any aspects of their art for pay.

2) Using a criteria of 'realness' or authenticity is in a sense inappropriate/irrelevant to evaluating the experience. The first direct parallel that springs to mind would be to Disney's Epcot Center: you can still have a fabulous meal there without expecting it to be an "authentic" representation of the nation in question or its cuisine. If you can understand the appeal of Disneyfication, even if it's not your bag, you can see why people would attend folk/cultural performances that do not intend to be accurate representations of another culture.

3) Anyone expecting accuracy, authenticity, or some sort of experience of "the Other" from a tourist performance is very likely to be sorely disappointed. Anyone who attends with the tongue-in-cheek perspective that this is the way the locals poke fun at tourist expectations and make money off of them can have a grand old time with no hard feelings. I think it's interesting to reconsider who may be exploiting whom in this context.

Posted by: habeas on June 19, 2007 12:44 PM

"I think it's interesting to reconsider who may be exploiting whom in this context."

I'd say that's what bugs people who don't like these shows. They feel as if they are being had somehow. In a way, they are, but as you say, if you take as simply a theatrical performance, it's a win/win situation.

Posted by: the patriarch on June 19, 2007 3:16 PM

I've been to Boston and from time to time see people in 18th-century dress on the street.

I doubt they wear that at Harvard Law, Mass General, or MIT, but it keeps the tourists happy.

Posted by: SFG on June 20, 2007 3:33 PM

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