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Why are Westerners ‘begpacking’ in Southeast Asia?

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‘Begpacking’, a phenomenon in which Western tourists beg or busk their way around developing nations, is becoming more common. @QbIx08/Twitter

Why are Westerners ‘begpacking’ in Southeast Asia?

As I write this, I am contemplating the amount of money I will have to spend to apply for a visa to the US.

First, I need to set aside $200, or roughly 10,000 pesos, just to file my application. Before that, I will need to shell out another couple of thousand pesos to cover round-trip transportation fees – the ticket I need to show as proof that, indeed, I have no intention of coming to America to live there or, worse, steal precious jobs from Americans.

As an independent researcher focusing on conflict and legacies of resistance, I feel the irony of my current predicament.

I am slated to be in Hawaii in November to sit on a panel and discuss Gina Apostol’s Insurrecto. The book is an interrogation of Philippine-American history, and it raises precisely the question of who gets to tell our history for us.

In the academic communities outside of the Philippines, there is a hunger to hear about our stories in the margins, and some of the finest minds in Europe who have come to work here know that their research would not be possible without a strong local network of fellow practitioners. Yet, I am already convinced that perhaps I will need to defer this invitation. The costs are too much to bear.

The issue is not just financial. Applying for a visa is a nerve-racking process of paying a huge amount of money for a decision that never guarantees to be in your favour. Never mind that I have traveled, or that I have carved out a space for myself in my country where I know my skills are best suited. As scholars from the Third World, we bear the anxiety of having to prove that we are worthy of this ticket into an international stage where our issues in the global south always remain relevant.

To add to the complexity, I happen to be a single woman with no children to bind me to this place. In the logic of immigration officers and fellow Filipinos alike, the expectation seems to be that leaving these islands is a bid for marriage, a way out of our sordid little country.

On the basis alone of my being unattached and single, I am most likely to be denied entry. What, then, of all this intellectual labour?

Of course, in gut realities, what the mind can think is no match for what the hands can make. But still, where does that leave me and the countless other Filipino women in the academe who fight not only for our ideas to take root in this country, but also to flourish in the world?

For this reason, I reacted quite negatively to a question posed by Melbourne-based journalist Max Walden on Twitter: “Has anybody here been begpacking in Southeast Asia? Or are you Southeast Asian and have feelings about begpackers?”

Feelings. Feelings in immense quantities, but for the sake of the uninitiated, “begpacking” refers to the practice by Western travelers of coming penniless to regions like Southeast Asia (where the cost of living may be cheaper) and begging to fund their travels.

Mind you, unlike my sorry Philippine passport that requires me to submit bank documents proving that I won’t go broke in Europe, these Western passport holders require no visas to travel to our countries, and yet have the gall to beg along with our poor — not to eke out a living, but to experience the luxury of travel.

To Walden, I said that begpacking insults us — not just the poor or the scholar with little capital in her pouch – but all Filipinos alike.

Imagine the lengths we take to open our doors to tourists and extend arms and legs as part of our culture of hospitality to make outsiders feel at home. In the shanties of urban Manila and the farmhouses scattered across all the islands of our country, I have seen how those with the least in life manage to make room for me in the table.

There is a spirit of giving that animates our people and reminds me of what we are at our best. But in the same vein, there is the “gahaman,” the greedy in our society who think legacy-building is about buying out as many people as possible and stamping their names on everything.

As for the “begpackers,” how dare they parade themselves as needy in a context where poverty really means living in subhuman conditions. If the adventure they seek is the immersion with the poor to make them feel #blessed, then let us also condemn them, as we do our poor, to the abyss of irrelevance.

Let us show them the best of our indifference and the luxury of our privilege, so they go home forever jarred by the experience of having had their dignity stripped off them. After all, this is the “authentic” way to be poor in this country.

Nash Tysmans is a writer, teacher and community worker from the Philippines.

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