A Question of Restoring Culture
There is something rather peculiar that you find on the islands of Fiji, or at the very least, I found it peculiar. Tour groups and resorts alike offer a tour activity in which you visit an elementary school. While there, I’m told that students present a brief program of singing and dancing, sharing their cultural traditions with Westerners from abroad.
This sounds very nice at first, but it divided my thoughts and set me into a little, internal debate. For instance, while in Cambodia, it is well-advertised that tourists should avoid touring orphanages. While it may make tourists feel good, as they are bringing joy (and donations) to the children, in reality, researchers remind tourists that it is not healthy for developing children to experience a home-life muddled with public demands. An orphaned child in Cambodia deserves a home that feels as private and safe as the homes any other children experience growing up, unconfused by tasks designed to accommodate tourist curiosities. Remembering what I’d learned in Cambodia, I wondered if perhaps there were some hidden things to consider with the children’s performances in Fiji as well. Is there a similar risk involved in a child’s participation in school shows like the ones mentioned at the intro of this article?
students in Fiji
As an art teacher, I can absolutely appreciate activities designed to teach youth about the artistic traditions of their culture. I found great value in learning about the quilts my Amish relatives made in Holmes County Ohio, and I have met others who have enthusiastically invested in learning about the artistic traditions of their Irish roots, Native American roots, etc. But my passion for art has always been rooted in the wonderful opportunities it provides for personal expression. Yes, I think there must be phases during which a person focuses on building skills or exploring new art-forms they are not as intuitively drawn toward. How do you know you like something if you never get to try it? In that respect, it could be very good to encourage a young class of grade-school students to learn about the artistic traditions of their local culture. But what happens when they have explored the art-form extensively enough to determine it does not help them express themselves? What happens when the traditional dances of native Fijians feel to them like basketball felt to me in grade-school? I was grateful that we needed only to explore that activity for a few weeks each year, as I know that others in my class were equally grateful that art class only happened twice a week. Art was something I had the freedom to choose to invest my time in, and basketball was something I had the freedom to experience for only two weeks a year. Even as a child, I had the freedom to choose what activities I felt accommodated my self-expression most.
Also, what happens when art is no longer for expression, but is instead for the economic good of your country: for promoting tourism? What happens when a six year-old is not doing a performance for proud parents at the annual Christmas program, but is instead doing a weekly performance for Western tourists? Adding to the questionability of this tourist attraction, I found out from a staff member at a resort that the children are sometimes asked to return from school holidays in order that the tourist program may be offered in any season. Now, what could have potentially provided artistic expression for students with a curiosity and interest in the art-form, has become a job. A job for a classroom of six year olds. Yes it brings a helpful influx of money to the schools...but is there a way the schools could tap into these tourist donations without interfering with the study-life of the students in attendance?
In Guam, there are traditional dances that are quite similar to those found in Fiji. Rather than offering tours of schools to provide tourists with a peek at such dances, however, there are culture-centers and performance groups made up of adults and children alike who have found interest in the art forms of their cultural background. Tourists do not go to elementary schools to see these art forms, but instead, go to performance fairs and stages. It is my understanding that all participants in these dance groups have joined out of feelings of genuine interest. They want to express themselves through the dances of their ancestors. You can see the joy on their faces as children and adults work together to bring the cultural dances from their history to life.
I did not see the children perform the native dances in Fiji, nor did I talk to the students at the elementary school, so I cannot offer anything more than a few questions that came to my mind. Perhaps there is something to my concerns, and perhaps there is not. Perhaps the school tours keep alive cultural art-forms that may have otherwise disappeared. Perhaps they culminate appreciation for traditional art-forms as well. I cannot say. As a tourist however, I think it is important to think about what our tourism does to a community, even if the conclusions are long in coming.
Caroline Yoder Macomber is the Arts Editor for Wandering Educators. She is traveling the world soaking up all that each culture and wilderness can offer. You can find more of her musings at www.carolinetakesflight.wordpress.com or tap into the thoughts she has to share with children learning about their world at www.connecttheclass.wordpress.com.
Photo courtesy and copyright Caroline Yoder Macomber