Take a trip back to the 90s – a time of Britpop, shell-suits, and really really bad hair. You’ve just joined the hip new service known as the internet, and are busy trying to make new friends from around the world. You log in to a chat room, and are soon in a conversation with someone who goes by the name ‘Princess Water Lily’. They claim to be a teen from Japan, who—like you—is using the web to interact with people from across the world. You get talking, and the good Princess tells you about her life, which you realise sounds rather stereotypical: she is a Geisha who enjoys flower arrangement and tea-making. She begins to suggest that your friendship might take a more romantic (or at least lustful) turn, though you try and stall her. Soon, you begin to question her, suggesting the accounts of Japanese life are a bit two-dimensional. Eventually, the user admits that Princess Water Lily is just a character, and that they themselves are a twenty-four year old West Virginian, who we’ll call Billy.
Identity Tourism originally referred to the use of the internet's anonymity to adopt the 'skin' of another culture, though it can also be used to play as different genders or sexual orientations. In this case, the antiquated and orientalist images of ‘East Asians’ are a masquerade, turning non-white ethnicity into little more than a performance for fun (and in the case of Princess Water Lily, something a little steamier). Identity tourism allows Western users to experience what it’s like to belong to a different culture and ethnicity without the drawbacks, and often whilst reinforcing popular stereotypes.
Although an online phenomenon, it can have serious real-world impacts on those who are caught up in the deception. The popular blog ‘A Gay Girl in Damascus’, supposedly run by Syrian-American Amina Abdallah Arraf al Omari, was revealed to be a work of fiction created by an American post-graduate student who wanted to make a name for himself—but not before Amina had become involved in a relationship. When the student attempted to 'kill off' Amina, writing a post claiming she had been abducted, it sparked a major manhunt. Members of the LGBTQ in Syria—not a country well known for its human rights record—put themselves at considerable risk as they attempted to free the non-existent detainee.