B A PARKER, HOST:
Hey, everyone. You're listening to CODE SWITCH. I'm B.A. Parker.
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PARKER: It's that time of year where travel is on everyone's minds. People are getting ready to visit family and friends, go home for the holidays, or maybe even take a nice end-of-year vacation somewhere warm. And that impulse to leave your surroundings and go explore the world is something that I really understand.
So I used to collect travel guides - the used ones that would only cost a buck in the back of my local library. And my mom's house is still filled with all of these guides, like "Frommer's Guide To Ireland" (ph), "Lonely Planet's Botswana And Namibia" (ph), "The Rough Guide To Thailand." I would look at a gorgeous evening photo of Wat Arun, the Buddhist temple in Bangkok, admiring the sunset and its lit-up praying, imagining myself in a rented sarong, stepping into the ordination hall. And then I'd go, huh - the steps kind of look like Chichen Itza. The pathway kind of looks like the National Mall. Those books allowed me to see the world, but they also kind of flattened it. Everything kind of looked like everything else. And I was inadvertently being taught that I was meant to consume all of these other cultures' beauty and that I should be centered in that beauty.
And now I have a passport that's never been stamped and an entire world that I'm hesitant to disturb. Traveling can feel exciting and expansive, but it can also feel arduous and indulgent. And tourism can feel gluttonous. And so I wanted to talk to someone who was pushing back on this idea that travel is just about the consumption of a country. Author Shahnaz Habib has a new book called "Airplane Mode: An Irreverent History Of Travel." It's a collection of essays about how people experience travel or, in some instances, don't.
SHAHNAZ HABIB: I came to travel like most people do - really believing in its potential as this amazing experience that's going to make me a better human being, and it's going to expand my horizons. And for a long, long time, I just sort of dreamed of being a travel writer. And then I realized that all the essays I was writing were actually about not traveling. It was about, you know, not going to France. Or it was about my father who hates to travel. Or it was about not being this intrepid, adventurous traveler that I sort of wanted to be and thought I should be. So I had all these essays, and I was writing about what it means to not be a good traveler.
PARKER: Shahnaz came to the U.S. as an immigrant from India and talks about the hurdles she went through to see the world like her Western counterparts. The most egregious example was the trip her and her husband were meant to take to Paris.
HABIB: So this was sometime in 2010, I think, and I was pregnant. And we were, like, oh, let's do one last trip before the baby comes. And he was like, let's go to Paris for, like, a week. We bought this ticket. And then it really dawned on us that we have to get all these documents in order for me to go to Paris. And we had cleared the green card interview and all that, so it was all approved. We were just waiting for this one document to come - my advance parole - because without it, I could not apply for a visa to go to France with my Indian passport. It was just months and months of waiting for this document to come. And it came a day too late, so we had to end up cancelling the whole ticket. And it made me just really think about, like, passport privilege...
HABIB: ...And what it means to have a passport with which you can just walk into another country, whereas, for some of us, that was not an option.
I now have a U.S. passport, and I have been able to travel the way my husband was always able to - just walk into a country knowing that this passport will just open doors. But it is a very bittersweet thing for me because I have had so many experiences of waiting for visas, waiting in visa lines, going through these humiliating visa interviews where they treat you as if you are guilty of, you know, this desire to immigrate or this desire to just become a burden on their society just for having had the audacity to want to travel to a country.
PARKER: Yeah. I mean, you talk a lot in the book about passportism (ph).
PARKER: But for our listeners, like, what is passportism? 'Cause I know that there are some people in, like - in these Western parts of the world that just - it's not clicking.
HABIB: Right. Yes. Well, so passportism, as I define it in the book, is discrimination against passports of a certain color. So it's just as we talk about discrimination based on the color of your skin. Certain passports - passports from third-world countries, mostly - come with a certain stigma. It's almost as if that passport, unlike passports of rich Western countries - those passports are a bit suspect. And it applies for immigration, but it also applies for tourism because there is this extensive visa requirement if you have a passport that doesn't have the same kind of power as a Western passport.
And I sort of think of it as almost a caste hierarchy because there are varying ranges of power that a passport has depending on how many doors it can open, depending on how many countries have visa-free travel for a specific passport. So most passports from countries from the Global South do not have the power of opening up visa-free travel. So that's one of the first signs of passportism. And obviously, it has much larger implications for immigration - for the way we talk about who gets to be a migrant and who gets to be an expat, who gets to be a traveler and who gets to stay home, basically, and not have the opportunity or access to the world.
PARKER: Can you talk about the decision to become a U.S. citizen and giving up your Indian passport? 'Cause I believe you call your citizenship, like, quote, "like a gift to a bully?"
PARKER: Tell me about that.
HABIB: So I have such complicated feelings about this to this day. And in fact, yesterday, I was talking to a couple of friends about this interview, and they said, oh, you're actually going to go and talk about taking a U.S. passport? We thought this was a secret that nobody was allowed to talk about.
HABIB: We thought you did not want this acknowledged ever. And this is true. When I got my U.S. passport, I told my husband, don't come with me to the naturalization ceremony. Don't, you know, send out an email. I don't want - this is not something I'm doing because I want to be a U.S. citizen. It's more - I just want the powers that come with this random piece of document that is so powerful. So I have really complicated feelings about having to give up my Indian citizenship and having to take on this document just for the privilege of travel - just for the privilege of being able to move through the world freely.
It is a complicated time to have an Indian citizenship, too, because there is a super right-wing government in India that has really amped up discrimination against Muslims. So it was - this was kind of beginning when I started going through the process of becoming a U.S. citizen. So in a way, I feel like it was a gamble for me that kind of paid off weirdly because all I wanted was the power to travel freely through the world. But in a way, what I gained was something that many Indian Muslims are now considering - leaving the country. And so in a way, I feel like I made this choice, which turned out, in retrospect, to be a really good choice in terms of my status as an Indian Muslim. But it's not a right choice in terms of my affiliations. I still feel I am very much Indian. India is the country where I feel most at home, most comfortable. I want to have a relationship with that culture, that heritage, that part of me. So it's a really mixed experience for me in terms of what I gained and what I lost.
PARKER: One question that I had while reading the book is you really lean on the phrase third-world.
PARKER: And why was it important for you to use that phrasing?
HABIB: It's the phrase that came most naturally to me. I tried my best to write developing world and Global South. And, you know, at work, developing countries is a term I use a lot.
HABIB: And I hate it. Every time I use that word, I just feel like this is such a lie. It's not the developing world. It's the exploited world. There's a reason why that world is developing and this world is developed. The other thing that bothers me about developing countries or developing world is that it has this very linear model of development, right? So the idea is there is a goal point, which is developed. And what counts as developed? It's industrialized. It is carbon-dependent. And that's not great for our future as a planet. In fact, the kind of low-carbon, low-industrialized economies that we see in the Global South more now should actually be our future. So in a way, this linear model of development is actually a false idea of progress - a false idea of development.
So coming back to your question about the third world...
PARKER: No, yeah.
HABIB: ...Now that I've gotten out all my angst about developing countries...
PARKER: (Laughter) Yeah, you're like, this colonized rubric needs to go. I got you. I got you.
HABIB: (Laughter) Exactly. But I just love the words third world. It's the phrase I use, you know, when I'm talking to other fellow people of color, that comes most naturally to my lips when talking about this common diasporic experience. And I think it's a very poetic phrase. I think it's a phrase that really captures a certain marginal perspective. And I find that people who have grown up in the third world, like me...
HABIB: ...Have that quirky, sideways glance at the first world.
PARKER: Whereas, like, a Westerner is like, you can't say third world. That's not nice (laughter).
PARKER: Oh, boy. You talk - OK. You talk about something I've been thinking about all week - or all last week. You talk about not feeling entitled to the world. What do you mean by that? 'Cause then I was like, wait, do I feel entitled to the world? And a part of me was like, a little bit...
PARKER: ...A little bit.
HABIB: Yeah. This was a feeling that I encountered a lot when I was in Turkey, traveling on my own, possibly for the first time. You know, in Turkey, I felt like this was the first time that I set out on, like, a backpacker trail with a "Lonely Planet," and I felt there was a difference between me and other people whom I encountered on the backpacker trail and how easily they were able to just accept the fact that there was a trail through the world and that they could travel that trail very freely, just taking what they need from each place and even just this sense of, you know, the comfort they felt with this idea of travel itself - whereas, for me, you know, I had just gone through a bunch of visa troubles and just got a new U.S. visa after several years of not being able to travel at all, including not being able to travel back to India to see my family. And so it was so new to me - this ability to just get out and see the world. So I did not feel entitled to it. I did not - and I also didn't want to feel entitled to it. I wanted to feel the discomfort of not feeling that the entire world is just laid at my feet for me to travel through. Yeah.
PARKER: No, I understand that because - look, again, and I haven't traveled that often. I had - I got permission to say this if I wanted to. I have a friend. She's a white woman. A couple of years ago, she was like, I'm going to travel continental Asia because I just left my job. I'm going to, like, travel the world.
PARKER: And it was just her by herself. She went to Mongolia. She went to Nepal. She went to China.
PARKER: She took all these pictures. She had, like, this renaissance. It was - she had the best time.
PARKER: But also, I was like, A, I don't know if I could do that. I don't have the confidence to do that. And, B, I just - it just never - I guess it never occurred to me that I could. 'Cause I had a friend - like, we're side by side, and, I'm like, oh, she can do this thing.
PARKER: But also as, like, a Black woman...
PARKER: ...Going out into, like, an unknowable land - for me, I don't know how that would go, which is fair, I think. But she had this liberty and this confidence...
PARKER: ...That I was really envious of. But also, just like - you can feel entitled to the world.
PARKER: And what of it?
HABIB: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, no, absolutely. And, you know, I'm married to a white man, and there are ways in which he feels entitled to the world that I can see the distinction when we talk, especially when we'd just met and we were talking about travel. We were talking about going somewhere together. I could see the difference in the way he talked and the way I talked. And, you know, I think I have, over the 13, 14 years of our marriage, sort of taken away some of his entitlement. I've helped him find his impostor syndrome.
PARKER: Good for you.
HABIB: Yeah (laughter). So, you know, just the other day, a friend and I were talking about Palestine and how terrible what's happening there is. And my friend had visited Palestine. And at some point, they said, someday we should go to Palestine together. And all they meant was it's a beautiful place.
HABIB: It's a very special place. But what I heard was, in the midst of a crisis where so many Palestinians don't even have freedom of movement, to be able to just say, someday we should go there together - it just struck me as a very bizarre note of entitlement - that feeling that, oh, yeah, we can go there whenever we want. We don't have to consider the blockade. We don't have to consider border crossings. We don't have to consider the airport security in Tel Aviv. Yeah. So it's not that I blame them for saying that, right?
HABIB: It's not that I think that no one should travel to Palestine because Palestinians have so many travel restrictions. It's just that there is a way in which the freedoms that you have - the powers and privileges that you have can make traveling somewhere seem so easy and so good and so necessary in ways that people who face travel restrictions cannot ever think of travel in the same terms.
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PARKER: Coming up, we ask if it's possible to be an ethical tourist.
HABIB: I definitely don't want to be saying, oh, don't travel. Travel is bad for you. I just want people to really question the context of their travel.
PARKER: Stay with us.
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PARKER: This is CODE SWITCH. I'm B.A. Parker. I spoke with author Shahnaz Habib about her new book, "Airplane Mode," and whether or not she felt entitled to the world as a tourist. In the book, she talks about her experiences attending mosques around the world, how they differ and how she finally felt accepted in one, but only because she was a tourist. I asked her to read for me.
From the top of 37 to the - you'll see it - to the stop at 38, if you could read.
HABIB: Of course.
(Reading) A man once chased me out of the 96th Street Mosque in New York, the city's biggest mosque, because I had wandered into the main room, which was only for men. In Kori Goa (ph) in India, at one of the oldest mosques in the country, the imam shut the door in my face. In Turkey, too, men's spaces and women's spaces were clearly separated in most mosques. However, in many of the grand Ottoman mosques in Istanbul, women's spaces were often artfully designed spaces built into the topography of the mosque. They were not afterthoughts or basements. I had arrived in these mosques as a tourist with a checklist of things to see. But the generosity of their soaring roofs, their soft carpets, offered freely to all who wanted to pray, reminded me how much I loved the fluidity between stillness and movement in Lamaze. I am no longer capable of praying in corridors and corners and basements while men monitor mosques like immigration officers. I don't want to be part of any mosque where women are treated like terrorists, our bodies like bombs waiting to go off. That night in Konya when Jenna Dabi (ph) invited me to join the circle of men, it was perhaps the first time in my life that men in a mosque made me feel welcome.
PARKER: How do you process that? How do you reconcile...
PARKER: ...That privilege also that, like, you're welcomed in the space while also you - like, you want to be there?
HABIB: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, I mean, that's always the complicated position in which you find yourself sometimes as a traveler or as a tourist. To be a tourist is to have access to experiences that people in those places may not have. In Turkey in that moment, for instance, I felt that I was being invited to join this group of men because I was a tourist, because I was not a woman from their community. So yes, it does open up those experiences, and you have to question - you know, instead of sort of thinking of it as a kind of right, as a kind of entitlement, you do have to question how you are not just this fly on the wall. You're not just like this local themselves. It doesn't mean that you're a local. You have changed that place. You've changed that moment by being there as a tourist.
PARKER: That's my concern. Like, I don't want to change anything.
PARKER: I just don't - I think I just don't want to get in the way, but I don't know if I am in the way. That's my assumption.
HABIB: Yeah. And it kind of goes back to this idea that we can - you know, there's this distinction - right? - that we make between tourism and travel.
PARKER: What is the distinction?
HABIB: Well, I guess I would say when people use the word tourist in a derogatory way, we think of tourists as the people who get in the way, the people who want the most surface-level experience.
HABIB: And then we think of travelers as people who are a bit more thoughtful, a bit more conscious, you know, people who want to perhaps go deeper into the travel experience. And for me, it's a very artificial distinction because you can think that you're a traveler and still be a tourist. So for me, it makes more sense to just embrace being a tourist...
HABIB: ...And know that you really - as a stranger in this place, you're really only going to have a surface-level experience, that thinking that you can have, like, this immensely deep experience and connection that other people traveling will not have just because you are such a thoughtful and smart person - I think that is one of the pitfalls of travel and tourism.
PARKER: That makes total sense. I mean, and I think your book does a great job at distilling that. There's this idea of, like, the religion of tourism, and I think I got that a lot - again, when I wasn't going anywhere - when I was younger, like, you know, travel young and travel often.
PARKER: And I was like, how? Where? When? Like, in what capacity? And then, like, all of these countries where tourism is the export and...
PARKER: ...When it comes to, like, this, religion of tourism...
PARKER: ...Is there an ethical way to even do it?
HABIB: I mean, it's an excellent question, and depending on the day, my answer changes. And I've tried all these different answers out on my own travels and on myself. There is my father's position, which is don't ever travel. And he's not doing it because of ethics. He's - he just hates travel. And there are lots of people I've met who are like, oh, I would never want to be a tourist somewhere. That's the worst. And it's a moral position against tourism. And some of them are motivated by the environmental pitfalls of tourism. And then there's also this idea that, yeah, by traveling you sort of expand your horizons, and it's good for the world. So I don't know. It really - for me, I know that it's very hard to stop traveling. I have family in other continents, so it's just a fait accompli. I'm just going to travel, right?
HABIB: And I'm also going to travel to other places. So for me, I really like the low moral ground where I travel, but I'm very conscious of the ethical and political questions surrounding travel, and I definitely don't want to be saying, oh, don't travel.
HABIB: Travel is bad for you. I just want people to really question the context of their travel, to really understand the political and power privileges surrounding travel.
HABIB: And just, I think, bringing that awareness to your travel I think will make you open up to the history of the places that you're traveling to in ways that go beyond little sidebars in guidebooks.
PARKER: What does the understanding of that privilege do? Like, why is that important? Because I think a large part of some of, like, my travel experiences is to think beyond the place and the people as entertainment.
PARKER: And I think my - always my concern about travel, about tourism, is that we're thinking of a place and a collection of people as our own Disney World. So, like, case in point, last year, I had to go to Hawaii - I had to go.
PARKER: I went to Hawaii. It was my cousin's birthday.
PARKER: And I interviewed an author.
PARKER: And - who had written a book and was basically like, tourists should not be coming to Hawaii. They're destroying the aquifer. It's like, it's terrible. And I was like, I'm so sorry, tickets already been bought. My mom is going to kill me. I'm so sorry.
PARKER: And then, like, I got there, felt awful the whole time.
PARKER: I just was being like I am complicit in this thing...
PARKER: ...And having all of that, but also making a decision in my mind that I will treat Hawaii as if I were a vampire and that, you know, like, a vampire's rule is you can't go into someone's home unless you're invited?
PARKER: I'm not going back unless someone is like, Parker, can you please come to Hawaii?
PARKER: We need you to, like...
PARKER: ...Report a story. And I'm like...
PARKER: ...Sure. I'm there.
PARKER: And so thinking of the place as some place to be additive or leave it alone.
HABIB: Yeah. Well, I'm, you know, I often think about how much the notion of customer service has changed the way we travel, right?
PARKER: How so?
HABIB: One of the things I understood through writing my book and researching is that when we traveled in - let's say in pre-1850, pre-the-modern-era, during the medieval times, travelers kind of had to throw themselves on the hospitality of the places they were traveling to, right? So there was a relationship there where the traveler, the person who came to this place, was at a disadvantage. They needed the place and the people on that place more than the people and the place needed them. Whereas the way we travel now, we have this sense of how tourism is good for these places, how we as tourists are, you know, helping, you know, pouring our dollars into the economy, how these places really desperately need our money. And so tourism has kind of changed the story about travel so that instead of us looking for hospitality, we feel like we're already sort of, like, saving these places that we travel to...
HABIB: ...And we're looking for customer service. It's become a very transactional experience, right?
HABIB: And when I think about being a better traveler, I want to think about our interactions with - this is another contested term - locals. And in so much of travel writing, the local is always a prop. And it's...
HABIB: ...A lot like what you were saying about your trip to Hawaii and how you want it to go beyond, like, this Disneyfication (ph) of travel, right?
HABIB: And if you look at a lot of the travel writing I read, I find that the traveler is the protagonist, and then all these locals, the people they meet, are just these props, and sometimes they don't speak English well. Sometimes they need your help. Sometimes they are just there to, like, make your paths smoother. People outside the United States are funny and smart and intelligent and great to talk to, and rarely do I see that reflected in travel writing. Rarely do I see travel writing where the characters that you meet on your travels are not just there to give you a better travel experience but are people with agency and intelligence and incredible perspectives on the world. So there's a way in which travel and travel writing kind of shrinks the places that we travel to into a kind of customer service experience, into a consumer experience. So that, I think, for me, is primarily what it would mean to change the framework around travel. And I don't know how to do that. Don't ask me, because...
PARKER: No. Like...
HABIB: ...That is so complicated.
PARKER: ...Tell me right now...
HABIB: I'm just...
PARKER: ...How do we fix it?
HABIB: ...A little human being. I know.
HABIB: You had - you know, you had a food writer here who was talking about how people get described as the Julia Child of...
HABIB: ...Chinese cooking, the Julia Child of Indian cooking...
HABIB: ...And how that vocabulary, that, itself, is so othering. And I was thinking - when I heard that I was thinking of how the Marshall Plan brought all these young, white Americans, all these Ivy League-educated Americans to Paris - right? - to France.
PARKER: All right. So OK. OK, so, like, now explanatory comma here - the Marshall Plan was basically America's aid to Western Europe after World War II, which included funneling a bunch of money into encouraging Americans to visit Europe as tourists.
HABIB: And Julia Child was one of those people. Julia - her husband was a diplomat.
HABIB: And before that, I think they spent time in China and Sri Lanka - I mean, two countries with great cuisines.
HABIB: But then the fact that it's French cooking that then takes the United States by storm, you have to see how the institutional framework of the Marshall Plan led to French cooking becoming this huge sensation in the U.S. through Julia Child. So there is this historic connection there that's invisible. When we see Julia Child, we don't see, like, this state conspiracy to make everyone go to France.
HABIB: The funding and all the institutional support that Paris tourism gets from the United States through its Marshall Plan - we don't see all that.
PARKER: Yeah. I don't know, Shahnaz. I think, again, it's a problem. I do now think it's a conspiracy. I didn't before.
PARKER: Yes. Yeah. So the holidays are coming up.
PARKER: And people are all about that travel.
PARKER: Do you want people to reconsider those expectations?
PARKER: About traveling for the holidays or just not at all, just, like - just be more conscientious and that's it.
HABIB: Yeah. One thing that I have tried to do when traveling at very busy times like holidays - and I actually think of summer travel as this annual migration for lots of immigrants from the U.S., U.K. and other Western countries towards the Global South, towards the Third World and, you know, Thanksgiving travel and holiday travel in December, these peak times as moments when we have to remember that we are, like, this huge herd of animals traveling. And we have to think of ourselves as not being in competition with everyone who's traveling.
And I do this all the time. I get into this mode where I'm like, oh, my God, I have to make sure I board first, and I have to make sure that I get the best seats, and I have to make sure that I get the cheapest fares. And I'm trying to think of that particular moment in travel, this holiday travel, as a time for solidarity with other travelers. And often that means maybe I can do something for a fellow traveler to make their travels a little easier instead of constantly thinking about just what I want to get out of this travel, and it makes my travel a much better experience too.
And often it's not possible. But, yeah, there is this way in which this idea of our travel being very special and travel being this, you know, customer service experience, this transaction experience, makes you think about travel as something that's very individualistic. And I want to have a sense of solidarity. I want to have a sense of what can I do to think of this as a moment of cooperation between all these people who are traveling? And often that means maybe I can do something for a fellow traveler to make their travels a little easier instead of constantly thinking about just what I want to get out of this travel. And it makes my travel a much better experience too.
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PARKER: And that's our show. You can follow us on Instagram @nprcodeswitch. If email is more your thing, ours is firstname.lastname@example.org. And subscribe to the podcast on the NPR app or wherever you get your podcasts.
Just wanted to give a quick shoutout to our CODE SWITCH+ listeners. We appreciate you and thank you for being a subscriber. Subscribing to CODE SWITCH+ means getting to listen to all of our episodes without any sponsor breaks. It also helps support our show, so if you love our work, please consider signing up at plus.npr.org/codeswitch.
Big shoutout out to the rest of the CODE SWITCH massive - Jess Kung, Xavier Lopez, Courtney Stein, Dalia Mortada, Veralyn Williams, Steve Drummond, Julia Carney, Gene Demby and Lori Lizarraga. I'm B.A. Parker. Hydrate.
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