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One of the cultural hypocrisies that always surprises me is the timeworn caricature of Asian tourists ceaselessly taking pictures of everything and everybody.

Timeworn, because it's struck me during my travels that the middle class of every race on earth never stops taking pictures - of the street sign that shares their name, of the hamburger they're about to eat, of themself in the mirror, their dog on the couch - and now posts them online.

But we - ha, ha, chortle, chortle - think "taking picture, please" is an Asian thing?

A buddy of mine was holidaying on the Gold Coast recently when a group of visiting Chinese politely asked whether they could squeeze off some photos of his gorgeous four-year-old daughter, who has alabaster white skin, cherry-red hair and big blue eyes.

"Basically the opposite of a Chinese child. They'd never seen anything like her," he said.

As the tourists snapped away, he was set upon by a group of Australian mothers pointing out the strangers "shooting" his child. The intimation was the middle-aged Chinese men and their wives were somehow gonna get their rocks off on the pictures of his fully clothed daughter.

This is a very Australian double standard, considering the millions of photographs of charming "Third World" children that reside in the photo albums and hard-drives of our country's travellers.

When my friend replied he was not at all worried, one of the women changed gear and expressed annoyance at the way the "Japanese always have to take so many pictures".

"They're Chinese," he replied.

"How can you tell?"

"By the language they're speaking," he said.

They looked at him like he'd just translated the Dead Sea Scrolls, so alien a concept was it that you might be able to differentiate between the sounds of Mandarin and Japanese, let alone tell the speakers apart physically.

I reckon, however, they're valuable skills we all might consider learning, seeing as our landmass is kinda stuck in this neighbourhood.

Last month, the federal government launched the next phase of its "There's nothing like Australia" tourism campaign in Shanghai, China.

It's part of a $250 million push to seduce some of the estimated 100 million Chinese tourists who'll be travelling the world by 2020 and to get them to visit us here.

One of the keys to our country attracting more Asian visitors will be word of mouth - ie what tourists say when they get home and are asked "So, how was Australia?"

I don't know how many times I've seen an Aussie roll their eyes about ignorant foreigners asking if we're from "Austria" and "Do you really have kangaroos as pets" but I'm pretty sure the Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Singaporeans, Malaysians, Indonesians, Thais, Vietnamese, Filipinos and Taiwanese feel the same when we voice similar ignorance about their countries.

Asian tourists are not part of some homogenous, almond-eyed mass who take heaps of pictures, but members of disparate, ancient cultures that look, sound and act in surprisingly different ways if we care to notice.

Imagine for a moment how many visitors we'd get from China in 2014, if every one who came here in 2013 was greeted with a "ni hao" instead of "wot?"

It's not that hard to learn, especially considering there's a whole generation of Aussies who can tell you the symbol on their shoulder or bikini line means "freedom" or "brave" (but probably says "chicken chow mein").

In short, Tourism Australia could do far worse than running a few ads right here teaching us all how to say "g'day" in a language our visitors will understand ... and appreciate.

Sam de Brito's latest novel Hello Darkness is in bookstores now. You can follow him on Twitter here. His email address is here.

29 comments so far

  • So what, it is noticed Asians take a lot of photos. Especially Japanese. Big deal. Is anyone really having a go at them? Most people know the difference between the Chinese, Japanese and other Asian nationalities etc.

    More the problem of attracting tourists is anyone visiting is ripped off blind. If you consider flights and transfers around the country, admission fares, costs of accommodation etc Australia is a very expensive place to visit.

    2 ways to attract tourists like any business is to attract those willing to pay top dollar for premium services or have infrastructure set up that allows lower prices. The first option has been done so lower prices might attract greater numbers.

    Date and time
    July 02, 2012, 8:47PM
    • Accommodation in Australia is expensive by Asian standards, and transfers, and food. Interstate flights in Australia are not much different to similar distances in China. Food in China is pretty disappointing in my experience, unlike SE Asian countries like Malaysia and Thailand.

      Date and time
      July 03, 2012, 8:36AM
    • So true, we have come a long way from the 1980's stereotype Sam outlines here. But overlooking the not so subtle tone of condescension (most Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne residents could clearly differentiate between Thai, Viet, Chinese, Info etc.) I think its always nice when you go to another country to speak a bit of the local. I know my Thai aunty and her sisters were keen as to use their hard won English skills when they got here, and yes I learned a few basics from them too. But I really don't think this paints an accurate picture of the reality of the Australian view of Asia in 2012. Now telling the difference between an Afghan and an Uzbek, that's another story entirely.....

      Date and time
      July 10, 2012, 10:56PM
  • That mythical point in your cultural future when we are progressively accepting of all cultures seems a millenia away. Oh for the joy that the process is spend up. C'mon Australia.

    quirky enigma
    Date and time
    July 02, 2012, 8:53PM
    • Arh, Sam. Remains me of a tale from long ago. Our Army Reserve was slated to parade at the Shrine of Remberance. Slow marching in time is a bugger. Anyway, during a break one of the corporals "What're those Japs watching us." And mention some misfortune his uncle had has in Pacific War as PoW. "Tough on your uncle," I offered. "But I think you're find they are Taiwanese.” Whom they certainly were. Not hard to tell the difference. But living in Box Hill you’ve got be be very careful about “Wo Jue de ni fei-chang pia liang.” As you might get “I’m Korean. We’re much more beautiful than Chinees!” But you can quick extract your self if you offer that “Yi Sun-Sin was certainly the greatest naval commander of all time (sunk almost 300 Japanese warships with a force if only 13 Turtle ships and skilful seamanship). But really, Sam. Our children “Buon giorno! ni hao má, Kia ora, Annwyl gyfail, Sa-wat-dii, Tere tulemast! Hej! De nada, Selamat pagi, guten tag, konnichiwa, Ti karnis, Salam! Ahlan wa-Sahlan, Terve, Dobraye ootro,” as a matter of fact just growing up in this great land.

      Date and time
      July 02, 2012, 10:36PM
      • The Japanese love of taking photos, any photos is fondly remembered.
        When photography was expensive and involved the trip to the Chemist or having a dark room for professionals or enthusiasts.
        I watched as a young child in the late 60's a group of Japanese tourists playing golf at St Michaels. One or two of them were in the mean bunkers on the second.
        As one eventually played out the other took photos, alot of them.
        The last fellow went into the shallow but tricky bunker and played many shots and then picked up the ball and threw it on the green. He laughed and took photos.
        Dad and my Uncle, both single markers waiting to play laughed themselves while I looked on in disgust at his cheating.
        If they enjoy it and it does no harm, who are we to say what they take photos of.
        Dad and Uncle were Chemists and probably wished they had customers taking as many photos as they did.

        The Old Guy
        Date and time
        July 03, 2012, 12:10AM
        • hahaha yeah having lived in different parts of asia, and having travelled almost all of it over the last 15 years, it's funny to see the thousands of differences among asians from different countries. but trying to explain some of the nuances to friends or family usually gets a couple of disinterested nods then a quick change of subject. the point is that most don't care......

          and on the point of taking photos....what with facebook, instagram etc etc it's cheeky at best to accuse asians of being particularly camera happy. the number of pointless, useless, ridiculous photos that i see posted daily by people i know is quite incredible.

          Date and time
          July 03, 2012, 10:02AM
          • I guess the question for me here is are Australian people more or less ignorant than other cultures? Seems like a simple question – but find me some empirical data. I’m sure there are isolated examples of intolerance in Asia and or Africa just as there are in this country. I’m not convinced any country or culture is inherently more or less intolerant.

            I’m very supportive of our children learning a language as a part of their education, I’m not at all supportive of teaching someone a language as a cheap advertising gimmick though – I suspect our visitors would see straight through it also.

            For all the negativity generated by those in the left side of politics, Australia remains in the top ten of international tourism receipts with no sign of dropping out of this group anytime soon, even in these challenging economic conditions. Surely we are doing something right?

            Lastly, whilst I’m appalled by the actions of those in Queensland criticising some happy snapping Asian tourists – I’d also point out that the “racist banana bender” is a well-known Australian stereo-type. As are the “bleeding heart lefties” from NSW who love to criticise.

            Date and time
            July 03, 2012, 10:37AM
            • On the question of language aquisition, I agree wholeheartedly that time spent learning a language brings much more than dexterity when travelling. Bring on languages and cross cultural programs from day one. The silver bullet for many many problems.

              Then again, as a life long expat who has one and a half languages plus her native English, I have always wondered at the number of people in tiny villages ALL over the world who can greet me in a foreign tounge...and even in the back of beyond find that grandmothers and toddlers can get out a 'hello' and 'welcome' before they give up with a laugh and we resort to sign language or the nearest teenager.

              That connection is made, though, and you know what? it feels good. It calms me down if I am a little pannicky. It makes me feel as though I AM welcome.

              So why not teach Australians how to say Hi, Welcome, and etc, in a number of languages? Why not teach us how to go a LITTLE bit further as good hosts to the many people who travel 1/2 way around the world to get to us?

              Even the campaign would spark a debate that would allow for some discussion on why we want to welcome those who aren't like us - and about how well we are treated elsewhere, as though we may wish to return the favour.

              far away
              Date and time
              July 04, 2012, 2:08AM
            • I think we are broadly on the same page here, I see no harm in teaching people how to say hello in a number of different languages. I'm all for the debate as well, it exposes the intolerant and educates us all.

              However, at the risk of pointing out the obvious Far away, the reason why so many people can greet you in your own tongue is becasue you speak English. I'm not suggesting thats fair or equatable, however it's the state of play.

              There are seven languages in China alone, whilst Mandarin is the official language 31 million people still speak Gan... and that is the least popular of the seven languages.

              I guess we start with ....Ni hao and hope we don't end up completely Xìngjiāo.

              Date and time
              July 04, 2012, 11:10AM

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