Oprah: “I Heard Some Indian People Eat With Their Hands”

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

To the rest of the world: On behalf of all American travelers, I’m sorry. I know that according to recent polls, you think Americans are the worst tourists, and that angers me. Perhaps it’s not making much difference, but one of my goals through this humble site, and something I’m sure is a goal of the travel blogging community as a whole — beside eternal fame and glory — is to try to help change this. By writing about new destinations, by encouraging travel outside our own borders and by providing travel tips, I hope that in its own small way, this site and others like it are doing their own small part to help change the world’s perceptions about American travelers.

Namely, the perception that we’re unadventurous, that we’re afraid to explore, that we don’t like to leave our comfort zones, and that we are culturally insensitive. I know that for my American friends who travel, these descriptions are not true. However, I’m not friends with Oprah. You see, Oprah has a new special airing on TLC called Oprah’s Next Chapter: India that, from the reaction it’s been getting around the world, isn’t doing much by way of dispelling the myth of the “Ugly American” traveler. This is not good.

“Myopic, unaware, ignorant and gauche. This was Middle America at its best worst,” so writes columnist Rajyasree Sen of Firstpost.com in her recent critique of the show. Sen details how Oprah begins her show with a tour of a Mumbai slum, capping her visit with an interview with a family living in a 10×10-foot shack. While doing so, Oprah asks the young children living there, “Don’t you feel it’s too cramped?” and to their father she asks whether he is happy and satisfied (to which, in true Oprah fashion, elicits a teary response from the father in front of his children).

Never mind the fact that the children are probably very happy — thank you very much — in their humble abode, and hopefully when they’re a little older, maybe they’ll have some of the same opportunities Oprah had and make their way out of the slums. Until then, why not avoid pointing out the obvious? And never mind the fact that the father’s economic situation is probably less his own doing, and more likely a result of various extrinsic factors such as post-colonialism, economic changes in the developing world, ingrained socials class structures unique to the country, and maybe a few bad breaks along the road of life. Why not ask him whether he’s happy about the state of economic disparity as a result of economic upheaval and rapid development in his country? That may elicit a more useful response.

Next, while attending a dinner party at a wealthy family’s house in Mumbai, Oprah exclaims upon presentation of the meal, “So, I hear some people in India still eat with their hands!” (See the video above.) The host family takes this observation in stride — of course she doesn’t know this, she’s from America! — then shows Oprah how to properly eat her meal the Indian way with one hand. I wonder if this household expected Borat to show up around dessert time with a bag of his own feces to round out the cultural ignorance of their dinner party?

I know Oprah may seem like an easy target, but we’re not exactly talking about some uninformed reality star here. We could easily imagine a Snookie or a Jessica Simpson acting in such a manner — they have practically made their careers wallowing in a state of oblivious self-deprecation. But Oprah — whose business acumen, show business skills and penchant for brand building made her the highest-earning woman in entertainment in 2011 — surely demands more respect than them? Surely Oprah’s traveled the world, rubbed shoulders with international socialites and maybe even watched a foreign flick or two on Netflix? Or, as the world expects, is it simply that you can take the traveler out of America, but you can’t take the America out of the traveler.

The worst isn’t that it’s Oprah in particular that is making these transgressions. It’s the fact that it’s somebody so visible, someone whose shows people actually watch, and whose actions are for better or for worse reflected upon ourselves as Americans.

I liken it to the crowded dinner table at restaurant for a friend’s birthday. The waiter is hustling, trying their hardest to get the orders right, the kitchen is putting out a good meal as quickly as possible, and the bus boys are keeping the water glasses full and the dirty plates off the table. But it only takes the actions of that one guest whose louche behavior, constant complaining about the service and refusal to leave a decent tip that is going to influence how the restaurant is going to remember the table. The world is the restaurant, the Americans are the guests and Oprah is the annoying roommate that your cousin brought along because she felt bad leaving her home on a Friday night. Next time, tell your cousin to leave her roommate at home. The meal will be much better, and the service will be just as good next time you’re there. Otherwise, risk getting stiffed with the table by the bathroom on your next visit.

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