Searching for Authenticity

Men sporting galoshes and long un-ashed cigarettes zip by me on their turret trucks and I half sit on a ledge to make room. As it turns out, I also half sit on a cutting board used to slaughter fish, leaving a perfect line of blood on the butt of my new khakis. I duck into a footpath to catch a glimpse of huge frozen tunas being cut with electric saws and almost knock over a Styrofoam box of unidentifiable, but presumably edible, inky sludge.

I am at Tsukiji, the largest fish market in the world, right in the heart of Tokyo. The average worker at the Tsukiji fish market regards me as a nuisance: a blond visitor impeding the speed of their work as they dart through skinny hallways. Yes, this is the real Japan, and they aren’t afraid to admit that I am not a part of it.


Plenty of tourists go abroad looking for nothing more than relaxation and natural beauty. These people are going to visit Saipan because the water is diamond-clear and the sand is white and fine.

But for a lot of us, I think, we go abroad in search of some kind of authentic experience, hoping to truly be a part of a foreign culture. We want to feel not what it is like to be a tourist there, but to live there and to breathe the air of the locals.

When I was in Krakow, Poland, I was convinced to go on the “Crazy Communist” tour of Nowa Huta, a city built on the outskirts of Krakow during the Soviet reign over the Eastern Bloc. It was meant to be the “perfect proletariat community,” a utopia for the workers. It is also where many of the uprisings against soviet rule in Poland began.

The “Crazy Communist” tour promised a ride in a Trabant, a visit to a real milk kitchen (a sort of cheap cafeteria prevalent in Poland), and a drink of vodka in a Communist apartment. This ended up just being a tour of a relatively poor area of Krakow. The apartment was one in which real people currently lived, and the milk kitchen was just a cheap café where people were eating. In fact, I had eaten at a milk kitchen the day before when I was hungry and needed a quick bite.

Never in my life have I felt more like a privileged, ugly American than when an old man eating lunch in his local diner moved over so there would be enough room for our tour group. I made eye contact with him as he moved; the look on his face was one not of disgust or anger, but surrender.

The clawing guilt I felt in that milk kitchen is a common experience among culture-seeking American tourists. How do you experience something authentic without jeopardizing that very authenticity? David Foster Wallace puts it well in a footnote in “Consider the Lobster,” describing what it means to be a late-date American tourist:

“(To be) alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit. It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience. It is to impose yourself on places that in all noneconomic ways would be better, realer, without you.”

This dilemma highlights the impossibility of pure objective observation or experience. It is, essentially, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle writ large. It is impossible to observe or experience a phenomenon, a culture, or a place without affecting it, without changing it in some way.

But the problem with Foster Wallace’s point (and granted it was just a footnote to an article about an entirely different subject, so I’ll cut him some slack) is that it presupposes some form of the real that existed before the tourist showed up. It ignores the fact that most places were in a constant state of change before the tourist was a presence (Can you define one era in the U.S. that was authentically “American” over any other time?). It’s true that a place may have been different before it was overrun with tourists, but in many places, for better or worse, the tourist is now part of the authentic landscape; the tourist is just one more change in a world that is always changing.

When in downtown Prague, the drunken American exchange students you are bound to run into are as real as anybody else. And when in Nowa Huta, the western tourists shelling out 40 dollars to revel in a the absurdities of Soviet idealism and take pictures of an old man in a milk kitchen says a hell of a lot about the geopolitical and socioeconomic state of modern Poland. To be clear, I do not necessarily believe the changes these tourists bring with them are positive, but they are, without a doubt, real.


A hub of the rich American ex-pat community in Tokyo is a place aptly named the Tokyo American Club. Here is a place where Americans can forget they are in Japan and have the comfort of being somewhere thoroughly American. It features a bowling alley, a diner where you can get milkshakes and cheeseburgers, and an English language video rental store. Plus, it’s full of Americans. As a child, I only got to go on the rare occasion I visited a friend whose parents had a membership. But, for me, it was Mecca.

I lived most of my life in Tokyo, yet for myriad reasons I will always be a tourist. This is largely my own fault. I spent a lot of my time there actively defining myself as an American. I would tell my parents I wanted to move back to California and be a “normal American boy,” which in my mind consisted of playing little league baseball, chasing ice-cream trucks, and running around in open fields hitting my friends with sticks. I took Spanish instead of Japanese as my language in school because speaking Spanish was a very American skill.

My failure to embrace Japan when I lived there is one of my biggest regrets, and every time I go back I try to make up for it. I try to have the most authentically Japanese experience I can have. I try not to go to my friends’ high-school hangout of Hub, a faux-British pub with Guinness on tap and fish and chips in the fryer, and instead frequent more authentically Japanese bars; I duck into random ramen shops that have four seats; I go to Tsukiji.

The interesting thing about Tsukiji as a tourist destination is the fish market itself is a place of commerce not meant to serve the visitor. Yes, it is a tremendous spectacle that is outrageous to experience, but it does not exist to be experienced or observed. It serves as a functioning market for people to sell and buy everything that we humans can pull out of the sea. And many of the men and women who work there aren’t ashamed to let you know that you’re presence isn’t entirely welcome. This isn’t necessarily because you are spoiling some Japanese aesthetic they hold dear, but more likely because you are taking pictures, not actually buying the fish they are selling, and getting in their way. This, of course, makes the novelty of it even more enjoyable. What feels more authentic than that which openly challenges an intruder on that authenticity?

But the intruder anxiety is still there for me. I know that my very presence here is destroying what I deem so wonderful about this place. To assuage my guilt I stop at a stall to buy a small cut of tuna. As I am assuring the man selling the tuna that I will in fact be eating it within the next four hours and I know how to cut it, I realize that just as much as he is part of my authentic experience of the market, tall blond Americans buying cuts of tuna he rightly assumes they have no idea how to prepare is part of his.

A man pushing Sea Urchins on a cart through the tiny alleyway yells at me and breaks me from my reverie. I look around the market spotted with blond heads, breathe in the air of recently slaughtered fish, and build up my appetite for the best sushi I’ll ever eat.

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3 Responses to “Searching for Authenticity”
  1. Brent says:

    Kecak, based on a Balinese trance ritual, was created by a German, Walter Spies in the 1930s. Bali has adopted this performance as their own and tourists are encouraged to seek out this powerful authentic dance/chant experience. The Balinese have a way of accepting the influence of visitors without loosing their culture. Instead of feeling like an intruder, one is welcomed into homes, engaged in conversation, and even invited to burning funeral rituals if one is willing to show simple respect. (though Made did tell me his favorite show was Baywatch)

  2. Chambers says:

    Great description of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. Nice job on this article.

  3. SweetLou86 says:

    “I would tell my parents I wanted to move back to California and be a “normal American boy,” which in my mind consisted of playing little league baseball, chasing ice-cream trucks, and running around in open fields hitting my friends with sticks.”

    Being born and raised in the States, I can honestly say that I never did any of those things. I played soccer, chased the paletas guy and played with kids on my block til one of them got hit by a car, then we didn’t go out much. But I’ll tell you, I don’t feel any less American.
    A lot of what your talking about has to do with a sense of cultural identity, and the beautiful thing about it is that it has very little to do with where you grew up. You could grow up in Japan and never feel Japanese, much like my father grew up in the United States but always felt more German (to the point that German tourists will randomly approach him downtown and speak to him in German. I’ve witnessed it. It’s creepy.) and my mom, having grown up in Panama never felt Panamanian (she was born in Chile). Your parents and immediate network of friends and family have an enormous amount of influence on your cultural identity, especially when you’re younger. So if you’re in Japan but your immediate network is American, then they’re going to make you home-sick for a place you may never’ve been to and make you feel alien in your own country, however unintentionally.

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