The Authentic Self

How do we locate authenticity in our everyday interactions? With the Millennials being told to constantly look for experiences that are more meaningful and true, is society conditioning them to dismiss the present for being less original and authentic?

Nilofar Shamim Haja

If most of us spend a good part of our non-work (and working) hours browsing travelogues, top 10 lists of best travel destinations, devise travel itineraries, check couch swap availability, bookmark the experiential homestay options, save to favorites “best price guarantee” listings, and keep a sharp eye on the balance flying miles on our privilege cards to plan that perfect (economical) get-away, then I count myself an entrenched solider of this exercise. The exercise has gotten a bit more layered and time-consuming in recent history: I have to keep tabs on newfangled categories such as  eco-tourism, luxury-tourism, women-only travels, rural get-aways and glam-camps, to see if any of these could offer that refreshing travel sojourn that we are all told is crucial to experiencing authentic travel, just a click away.

These exclusive, customized, tailor-made, flexi-date itineraries are designed to evoke specific responses: angst (a kind of pining for the impossible – itineraries may be expensive, exclusive), wistfulness (or nostalgia for experiences not immediately within reach due to health, distance), and therefore desire. The last is a state of continuous pining or anticipation, where we are seen drawing up bucket lists, signing up to travel blogs and sharing our wish lists publicly, checking our authentic local cafes (if it’s a cooking experience with a local chef, you have hit jackpot!) sharing and liking travel photos on social media sites that evoke further longing for sunsets, beaches, snow-clad mountains, pristine cottages and picture-perfect smiling families entangled in selfies, constantly asking friends and agents for “quick weekend getaways”.

The selling points used to emphasize the attractiveness and immediacy of these travel itineraries include words and phrases such as “quick getaway” “cheap travel deals” “holiday package offers” “compare find travel” “best vacation deals” 24-hour mega sale” “the great travel sale” “50 best hotspots” and various permutations of the same. What are these taglines and sales pitch asking us to consider? Pack our bags and get to a destination because: there’s a sale, the ticket is cheapest and the task of travel and leisure can be accomplished in quick two days. Guaranteed. Travel and relaxation are chores to be experienced and handled in a finite time module, with compact luggage, quick check-ins, quicker sight-seeing tours, and planning the next quick get-away on the way back home.

Along with the convenient reasons for traveling, there’s also a notional value attached to the idea of authenticity. A trip to the local market in Hanoi, with the expertise of a local chef playing guide is touted as an authentic experience when you are traveling to Vietnam.

There’s also a distinction made between tourists and travelers: the latter have a better grip on what travel implies and encompasses, than the former, who are trigger happy with their packing, food, photography, and flight back home. Travelers take the time to delve into the history of the place, enjoy home cooked food at homestays, go camping to enjoy the natural vistas, walk and cycle to explore the nooks and bylanes of the city (as well as to reduce the carbon footprint of their journey), interact as much with locals and attempt to pick up a skill or language, and embrace a more local rhythm for the duration of their stay.

Do travelers even need to engage in grocery shopping, shucking peas and cleaning the fish, and doing sundry chores? What is it about the grocery stores in these bustling streets and shopping districts that mark them as authentic and real, as opposed to shopping for fruits and vegetables at some air-conditioned hypermarket or a mall, where you have access to bathrooms, food court, rest areas and nursing zones, as well as play spaces for kids? The same marketing narratives get jigged when one visits Dubai or Hong Kong. Here, an authentic experience includes a visit to the snazzy malls, followed by spa, and other luxury-oriented experiences on the to-do list for travelers and tourists. Doesn’t Dubai have any local markets where one can experience grocery shopping the way locals and residents would?

Where did this idea of authenticity come from?

I happened to read a post by a writer who was articulating his need to be more ‘authentic’ in his writing endeavors, to be more honest and to be more meaningful. The blog generated a lot of comments about what authenticity means for different people. The premise of the blog begins with a quote from Ernest Hemingway, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

Here’s my response to the blogger:

Let me first reflect on your comments about the need to do something real and the search for authenticity. In a world of simulations and simulacra, there’s a constant need to find the authentic, the original, the real deal, a meaningful moment. Our generation feels like they need to disconnect from the Internet in order to feel more connected to life. We take deliberate sabbaticals and travel around the world so that we may find a pure experience, untouched by previous acts / people / politics or by technology.


But, inevitably, where does this real exist and what is our benchmark or yardstick for measuring this construct of real? Most of us associate meaning with our childhood, as a time and place where we were innocent and the world was much more simpler, truer and nicer. But were we really? Was the world really better off in the past, more authentic and more genuine than today? Was there ever a time when things were much more real than how life appears to be today?

What are some of the experiences you have understood that have made you classify them as more real, more meaningful, more authentic, and more original? What was it that you felt, what rang true, how were you able to relate to it, and did you feel like others in your group or people that you spoke to about this experience could relate to the authenticity you experienced?


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