What Makes an Experience “Authentic”?

*Notice: Rant in Session*

Today in my Teaching ESL Program I was fuming. A classmate and I were engaged in a conversation where we discussed our experiences while in Vietnam. She and I had both been living in Ho Chi Minh City for about three weeks prior to meeting in our program. During our discussion, I mentioned how I had been staying in the Binh Thanh District. As I said this, my classmate pursed her lips and placed a hand on her hip before lightly scolding me about how I had robbed myself of a “properly authentic” Vietnamese experience because Binh Thanh is a more “Westernized” area of the city. I swear I must have had smoke billowing out of my ears due to the burning anguish I was feeling from her words. What I have to say is this: An experience is authentic simply because it was experienced.

Personally, I feel that it is actually quite harmful to designate any aspect of a cultural experience as either authentic or inauthentic. Vietnam is a culturally rich and truly breathtaking country. Whether you choose to experience Vietnam richly, staying solely at 5-star hotels and dining at only the finest restaurants, that is still part of the culture and it is valid and it is authentic. Just as it is still valid and authentic to backpack through the Vietnamese countryside staying solely in small, rustic villages. Luxury does not diminish quality culture. Besides, when we begin categorizing different aspects of a culture using arbitrary guidelines, especially as outsiders looking in, we are also categorizing whether the locals of the area are “local enough”. Divisive measurements of authenticity are toxic and rude, not only to each traveler’s individual experiences, but also to the very lifestyles of the people we travel to learn from.

Think deeply of how this type of language can affect other people. Traveling is such a remarkable experience, but it can also be insanely terrifying. Just because someone may have struggled more with stepping out of their own comfort zones than you did, does not take away from the unique authenticity of the experiences they were able to have. Traveling is not a competition, it’s a source of enrichment. As long as each traveler grows and learns something new through their experiences, I count that as a stellar success. Experiences of traveling should be praised and celebrated, not belittled because you deem yours as “more real” than someone else’s. That just makes you pretentious.  

In the end, please be mindful of your words, especially while traveling to cultures different from your own. I’m sure that my classmate meant no ill-will with the words that she used, but the implications weren’t necessary and were entirely dismissive to my experiences and the experiences of progress of the Vietnamese people. Again, you don’t get to decide if someone else’s experiences were authentic or not. Life doesn’t work that way. Experiences are authentic because they were experienced.

Vietnamese Dance Group
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