Range Rover
Respect. Respect the White Man's automobile! That is what the one word message at the end of Range Rover's latest advertisement is commanding you to do.

The ad's opening shot is of a city whose buildings are exclusively Thai temples. Through this mythical Thai city comes an anachronistic procession straight out of the British Raj, complete with the masses bowing as the shrouded carriage of royalty passes, borne on the shoulders of servants. The crowd is generically Southeast Asian with elements of hilltribe clothing and ornamentation thrown in to achieve the proper exoticism. Luckily, this semi-exotic, yet very orderly, throng of people assembled to worship the passing royalty have been thoughtful enough to leave unobstructed an intersecting street (with some people even turned, prepared to worship crossing traffic).

As the Range Rover pulls up to the intersection, the procession stops and the tension mounts. Who will be given the honor to proceed first? The tension can be seen on the faces of many people wearing Akha, Lahu and Mien clothing. Finally, a bejeweled hand emerges from the shroud and motions the Range Rover to go ahead. Of course, we can assume that it is just the grace and practicality of the shrouded royalty that motions the Range Rover on. She probably realizes that her servants will eventually tire of holding her carriage waiting for the Range Rover to yield.

The scene fades to black as the ironic message "Respect" dominates the screen. The advertisement then reminds us that Land Rovers are "the most well-traveled vehicles on earth."

Are the advertisers bragging about their ignorance? It would be one thing if in cutting across the royal procession the Range Rover driver were portrayed as an awkward but apologetic accidental tourist. In that case his lack of decorum and understanding of the basic principles of courtesy in human interaction could be explained, if not excused. Instead, they make a special point that drivers of Range Rovers plow through mixed-metaphor processions and ceremonies of the devout the world over.

Before writing this essay, I showed the Range Rover ad to the Akha and Lahu guys working with me on this project. I wanted to see what their reaction would be. Confusion was the consensus: Why are our people bowing to someone riding in something we have never seen before? What are our people doing down in the flat land?

Atee, an Akha, then brushed me aside and replayed the film, stopping in the places that begged commentary. He treated those sitting around to a delicious dissection of the incorrect or inappropriate Akha imagery seen in the film, even surmising the woman in the Chiang Rai Night Bazaar from whom the filmmakers bought their cheap, knock-off Akha headgear.

The advertisers do not appear to concern themselves accuracy in displaying these exotic peoples. But, why would they be concerned? Their market is neither Akhas nor Filipino girls wearing sloppily adjusted Akha headgear. No, their market is exactly the self-important would-be adventurer that has established so many unflattering stereotypes for himself around the world. Of the many tiresome tourist types one encounters throughout the world's Tourist Space, the Range Rover tourist deserves special recognition. Instead of being the curious but unobtrusive observer, the Range Rover tourist is one who demands (both implicitly and explicitly) that his Tourist Space bend to meet his needs in ways that, for locals, range from strange to inconsiderate, with an occasionally offensive. In spite of this, local tourism officials can not seem to inconvenience themselves enough to woo him and his money to their locales, which demonstrates the economic discrepancy between nations as clearly as any numerical indicator.

Sweating and wealthy, our intrepid Range Rover tourist comes to places such as northern Thailand decked out in the uniform of all great explorers (khaki shorts/slacks and a polo shirt), in search of "adventure" which can be molded into exotic stories of the "primitive," "colorful" or "amazing" tribal people with which he interacted. Comfortably nestled within the Tourist Space, never once in remote danger of having an authentic human interaction, he marches through a tribal village like a king surveying his kingdom (a colonial surveying his colony might be a more accurate description). The villagers welcome him, of course, because they are polite, but even more so because they have come to see him as a way to augment their meager incomes. Villagers will attempt to make him feel honored (more inclined to spend money), but they do not genuinely respect him. Genuine respect derives not from awe for one's automobile, but from mutual understanding.