Deconstructing and Inscribing Cross-Cultural Consumption Through Drinking Tahitian Tikis Tea: Is It Too Late Or Never Too Late to Experience the Authentic Culture of Polynesia?

Stephen J. Gould, Baruch College, The City University of New York
ABSTRACT - This paper revamps prior theories of the movement of cultural meaning by situating them in the virtually ubiquitous, cross-cultural intertextuality embedded in consumption. Through a deconstructive material-ethnography, it shows how one product, Tahitian Tikis tea, inscribes such intertextuality via themes of diffOrance: English versus French, Western versus Tahitian, paradise versus non-paradise, and nature versus culture. It also leaves us wondering whether we are too late or never too late to experience authentic Polynesian culture. Ultimately, culture in general is revealed not only to be determinant of consumption, but also a reflexive object and creation of it.
[ to cite ]:
Stephen J. Gould (1998) ,"Deconstructing and Inscribing Cross-Cultural Consumption Through Drinking Tahitian Tikis Tea: Is It Too Late Or Never Too Late to Experience the Authentic Culture of Polynesia?", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25, eds. Joseph W. Alba & J. Wesley Hutchinson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 31-36.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25, 1998      Pages 31-36


Stephen J. Gould, Baruch College, The City University of New York


This paper revamps prior theories of the movement of cultural meaning by situating them in the virtually ubiquitous, cross-cultural intertextuality embedded in consumption. Through a deconstructive material-ethnography, it shows how one product, Tahitian Tikis tea, inscribes such intertextuality via themes of diffOrance: English versus French, Western versus Tahitian, paradise versus non-paradise, and nature versus culture. It also leaves us wondering whether we are too late or never too late to experience authentic Polynesian culture. Ultimately, culture in general is revealed not only to be determinant of consumption, but also a reflexive object and creation of it.


As cultural interaction on a global basis continues to evolve, consumption serves as both a window on this process, as well as in an overdetermined role as central change agent, leavener and catalyst. Culture in general is a fundamental element of consumption which as it has been modeled is seen to provide meaning to consumers through the mediation of consumer goods (McCracken 1986). Extensions of this basic model have considered how subcultural ad cross-cultural influences may lead to different forms of products and different constructions of meaning (Gould 1990; Applbaum and Jordt 1996). In this process of meaning production, consumers, products, and rituals, as well as their inscribed meanings very often (almost ubiquitously) cross subcultures or cultures though at times they may remain insular and isolated.

In this regard, all sites where meaning is inscribed may be remodeled to reflect multicultural (cross-cultural) influencesCsee Figure 1. It should be noted that while this paper addresses a cross-cultural situation, much what is being said may also apply across subcultures and therefore the more general term "multicultural" is used in the model. Each level (i.e., culturally constituted world, consumer goods, and individual consumers) is transformed multiculturally to capture the intertextual influences that traverse cultures. The cultures inform and infuse each other with experiences that are often sought out in terms of cultural crossings (cf. Pe±aloza 1994). In this sense, the culturally constituted world is multiculturally constituted, the goods within it become multiculturally based, and consumers are then embedded in a multicultural set of meanings rather than those confined to a single culture (or subculture).

Consumer goods are particularly good carriers of this cross-cultural interplay since not only do they move across cultures via the marketplace, but they are also imbued with symbolic and mythological meaning, have a history and biography, and may be studied as intercultural, artifactual objects embodying various marketing, sign and cultural systems (Kopytoff 1986; Levy 1981; MacCannnell 1992; McCracken 1986; Rose 1995; Sherry 1995). To further explore these processes, one such consumer good, Tahitian Tikis tea, will be considered.


As part of my own personal and academic interest in experiencing different cultures first hand, I recently traveled to French Polynesia for a period of slightly longer than one week and concentrated on two islands, Tahiti and Moorea. Of these two, Tahiti is the more settled and developed island while Moorea is less populated and built-up. The latter is also seen as being more concerned with reviving traditional Tahitian culture. These differences can perhaps be attributed to the independent histories of the islands, especially with respect to their encounters with Western invaders and settlers (Oliver 1981).

As a tourist-researcher, I became what can be characterized as a marginal-peripheral member-participant in Polynesian culture in that I reflexively interacted with Tahitians and engaged them in terms of what I perceived to be their expectations of me (Adler and Adler 1987). I would add by way of clarification that my role is very marginal when compared to active or complete types of membership in which researchers engage the group or culture in question in much more central ways and roles and in the most central may be said to immerse themselves, as the Adlers describe it (p. 67), as "natives." Thus, the Tahitian culture is something well beyond my reach in terms of being anywhere close to a full or "native" member.

On the other hand, there are also several advantages to this type of research. First, I take the culture in question to be not Polynesia per se but rather the culture of interaction among tourists and Tahitians. In this sense, my membership and role is much more clear. I am not attempting to account for Tahitian culture in and of itself but rather the intersective Tahitian-tourist culture of which I was very much a member, perhaps a more complete one at that. Thus, I am perhaps at best a marginal member of Tahitian culture, a more complete member of the Western (U.S.) culture which is my native culture, and a rather complete member of the tourist culture as well. Therefore, I also reflect in this reserch both the expressed and tacit understandings that come from the process of engagement across these cultures which comprise an intersective subculture that reflexively inscribes them to varying degrees. Adding to the cogency of this view for me was the way we tourists were often treated almost as representatives of the Tahitian culture to others. This became particularly evident when I visited Tiki Village on Moorea, a recreation of a living Tahitian village. There, we were also urged to share our experience of it with others and spread the word about Tiki Village as a place which is preserving Tahitian culture. In other words, the Tahitians, themselves, encouraged tourists to become carriers of a cultural message, if not actually direct members of the culture itself.

While on Moorea, I purchased a package of tea, Tahitian Tikis, at the Bali Hai Hotel where I stayed. This tea was clearly sold for tourists and as an avid tea drinker, I felt compelled to try it. (I was later informed by an official of the marketer, Tahitian Tiki Products, that the company exports more than 35 products to France, Japan and Germany and will soon begin exporting to the U.S.) Upon drinking Tahitian Tikis, I discovered its distinctive vanilla flavoring gave it a quite novel and enjoyable taste when compared to other teas. In many respects, it serves as a self-gift that allows me to recapture the Tahitian ambience whenever I choose and to engage in something more than nostalgia, i.e., a living, if internalized reexperience. It is also a loose tea, as opposed to its being in tea bags, which further signals its high quality and suitability for tea connoisseurs. Finally, it should be noted, based on Levy’s (1981) classification of food and drink, that tea is a bitter-herbal type of product likely to be associated with more sophisticated, upper class tastes. Viewing tea in this way is important because a reading of it may not generalize to other products or relate to other social classes although tea has historically been identified as one of the five "enjoyment goods" worldwide (along with coffee, cocoa, wine and tobacco) due to its flavor, aroma and stimulating properties (Wickizer 1951).



In terms of both the product and its packaging, tea embodies a site for an ethnography of objects through which one engages material culture and its meanings (Rose 1995) and seeks to comprehend its interconnection with the nonmaterial (Hodder 1994). Moreover, while tea is a worldwide product, it is also one which often reflects the properties of the specific culture(s) in which it is consumed and/or produced, as well as the historic and temporal dimensions of its cultural biography (Olsen 1995). Thus, I also realized that Tahitian Tikis reveals much about the rhetorical interplay and intertextuality of cultures and consumption that was both embodied and commodified in the product and expressed in both the verbal and visual signs of its packaging (Arnould 1989; Clifford 1988; Scott 1994). It thus mirrors the blending of cultures that appears to be present in French Polynesia and perhaps to some degree in the world as suggested by world-systems theory (cf. Arnould 1989). I say appears because blending is a problematic term that may be deconstructed, i.e., it may indicate nothing more than a metonymic contiguity in which things appear to blend by being present in the psychosocial vicinity of each other but which in fact remain quite distinct entities (Schleifer 1990). This conceptualization is quite consistent with Scott’s (1994, p. 264) view that visual images and symbols are conventional rather than natural and that therefore we should not "expect exact, concrete correspondences of meaning [object with meaning] but rather provisional, contextually situated meanings..."

Adopting this perspective on language, as well on visual symbols, led me to read the dynamic cultural interplay and tensions that are present in deconstructive terms since such a reading is grounded in the contextual site of the text in which meaning is always provisional (Derrida 1982). From my own readings of Derrida and Stern’s (1996) interpretations of his work, I chose to onduct this reading in terms of structuralist binaries and then undoing them. In this sense, we may apply the meaning-deferring and displacing concept of diffOrance and look for hierarchies in which the expressed may conceal the unexpressed or undecidable.


Four major themes emerged and were interpreted deconstructively: (1) English versus French, (2) Western versus Tahitian, (3) paradise versus non-paradise, and (4) nature versus culture. However, one overall cultural aspect that emerged should be considered before specific binaries and their reflection of diffOrance is discussed. In this regard, Pe±aloza’s (1994) "Empirical Model of Consumer Acculturation" is instructive. She suggested that consumers displayed various responses to moving across cultures: assimilation of the culture of immigration, maintenance of the culture of origin, resistance to pressure from one or both cultures, and segregation from the mainstream culture. Here, we suggest that these outcomes may help to frame the way products are viewed in their cultural crossings. In this sense, Tahitian Tikis may be viewed as assimilating the Western cultures to which it is targeted. At first blush, it may also be viewed as maintaining the Tahitian culture, although later we will reflect on whether it is maintenance or a reconstruction. Segregation applies on the package in that each cultural element has its separate identity (i.e., the Tiki symbol, the use of French and English). Finally, resistance is embodied in the deconstruction itself, i.e., the cultural negotiation and conflict that are ubiquitously present involve the resistance of the cultures to being subverted by each other. To some degree, these phenomena are embodied in Tahitian history which has seen a long struggle between Polynesian and Western cultures (Newbury 1980; Oliver 1989).

English Versus French

As is common in tourist-oriented Tahiti, both English and French are used on the Tahitian Tikis package. On the most primary level, this reflects the fact that French (along with Tahitian) is the official language of French Polynesia while Americans and many other visitors speak English. French is given a slightly favored position in that it appears on the front of the package and first on the top flap of the package. The headings read:

Front                           Back

TH+                            TEA

Tahitian Tikis               Tahitian Tikis

Vanille De Tahiti           Tahitian Vanilla

On the other hand, the bottom of the package places English first and reads, "Distributed by (Distribue par): Tahitian Tiki Products." On each side of the package, instructions for preparing the tea are given, once in French and once in English.

The diffOrance to be exposed here concerns the long history of English and French language rivalry. In this regard, the choice and use of the two tongues is a negotiated matter that may be seen as a political act (Heller 1982). The battle over language also in part reflects a much larger battle over cultural and economic dominance (Kuisel 1993). In this regard, the maintenance of French identity in the face of overwhelming Americanization is a major issue (Kuisel 1993). Thus, the play of language on the package and the apparent although reatively minor privileging of French in the dominant position seems to reflect this contest. However, this evident diffOrance is subverted by the prominence of the Western-Tahitian contest.

Western Language Versus Tahitian Symbols and Words

To this day and to a greater degree than other colonial powers, the French are said to make and view colonial or former colonial peoples as a part or extension of France, or what in French is called la France lointaine (Prunier 1997). In this regard, French Polynesians came to be considered French citizens since they voted to become a part of France. Moreover, intermarriage over generations has reinforced this union. There is a point at which a person visiting Tahiti or even living there might conflate the two cultures (i.e., Tahitian and French) and not be able to establish where one begins and the other ends. As one Tahitian gentleman put it when I tried to make a distinction between native Tahitians and French people, "What is a Tahitian?" His words melted and subverted my very concept of a Tahitian. Yet at the same time, the distinction I was looking for is very much present and many others make it (e.g., Tahitians trying to revive or save aspects of their original culture and identity). Tahitian Tikis tea itself opens up and reveals this conflation as incomplete, if not an outright illusion.

Thus, upon further examination of the Tahitian Tikis package, one is struck by the fact that Tahitian culture is evidenced by its symbols, and only the word Tiki, which is included as the name of both the tea, Tahitian Tikis, and the company, Tahitian Tiki Products. One might note the relative prominence and type of the major terms. TH+ (French for tea) and TEA are in capitals and in fact the type is much bigger for these words than for any others. They announce in grand marketing style what the product is. Tahitian Tikis is in a smaller but fancier, italicized script. Presumably, the first thing to catch the eye of the consumer is the word tea and then his or her eye is drawn to the italicized brand name which suggests the specialness of the tea. Regarding this choice of terms, it would be a large stretch to expect tourists to whom this product is targeted to have any knowledge of Tahitian language though there are occasional efforts to expose tourists to a few Tahitian words. For example, there is a listing of English, French and Tahitian words in a weekly publication in English called, Tahiti Beach Press, which is distributed gratis in Tahitian hotels and tells what is going on throughout the islands. Yet, in the main, a lack of knowledge of the Tahitian language removes the tourist from a high level of intimacy with much of the culture. What tourist would know the Tahitian word for tea, for instance?

This is not say, however, that there is no sense of such intimacy, at all. On both the top and on the front and back of the package, there appears a drawing of the Tiki. The Tiki is a representation of the ancestors and is omnipresent in the form of statues and smaller relics throughout Polynesia. The use of the plural Tikis in the name (albeit with a Western "s" at the end) rather than the singular Tikis may be a subtle reminder of this fact. However, whether one really understands the significance of the Tiki is another matter. Some tourists may attempt to grasp its meaning. Indeed, one tourist whom I met on Moorea and who was primarily interested in the culture and considered herself a "cultural tourist" in general took great pains to point out that the Tikis did not represent Gods per se but instead ancestors. On the other hand, while I did not systematically study this issue, it certainly seemed on an anecdotal basis that most other tourists saw them as just quaint reminders of a lost aspect of the culture. At the same time, there is no explanation of the Tiki on the package. Thus, it is assumed that the visitor to Tahiti will at least be familiar with the symbol and therefor that its presence authenticates the tea as being a product of Tahitian culture. Tiki, the word, becomes a loan word (Sherry and Camargo 1987) and the object (or its rendering) a loan symbol for tourists. When we drink this tea, we may feel through the Tikis’ mediation that we are ingesting the ancestors or at least their spirit.

On the two sides of the package, what is apparently a vanilla flower is shown. Since the Tahitian element of the tea which is a "Mix of Asian tea with Tahitian vanilla" is a major selling point of the tea, it is interesting to reflect on the Tahitian contribution. Vanilla is treated as an important aspect of Tahitian economy, indeed vanilla plantations are included in tours of Moorea and Tahiti is said to be known for its vanilla. Furthermore, the advertised Tahitianess of the tea is underscored by noting that the actual tea is "Asian" and that this is mixed with the real Tahitian element, the vanilla. The use of the term "Asian" indicates that although tea is drunk all over the world, it is mainly grown in Asia and that many of the connotations of ritual and ceremony associated with tea drinking (e.g., the Way of Tea, the Philosophy of Tea, the tea ceremony) emanate from that continent (Anderson 1991; Kakuzo 1966).

But while the package invokes this Asian subtext, it also in the same breath adds the Tahitian vanilla twist. However, the application of this alleged Tahitian character of the tea turns out to conceal an important fact, i.e., vanilla is not native to Tahiti or Polynesia. It was first brought there in 1848 (Oliver 1981) and thus is not a native aspect of Tahiti. Is it important that one realizes that vanilla is not Tahitian in origin? I, myself, never knew this fact until I was writing this paper. But it does change my understanding of the marketing of the culture which seems to involve a major displacement of a prior conception of Tahiti and what it was originally by a reconstruction that is probably lost on most tourists and perhaps natives, as well.

Thus, the great unexpressed on the package, the diffOrance, lies in the displacement and suppression of Tahitian language and culture while apparently representing them (cf. Dodd 1976, 1983). (Paradoxically, there is evidence that Tahitian, itself, has had a displacing effect on the dialects of other islands, such as Rapa (Hanson 1970)). Since Tahitian culture is so reconstructed, we may not feel that much closer to the original culture after drinking this tea than we were before since we can still only imagine how it might have been.

Paradise (Sacred) Versus Non-Paradise (Profane): Are We Too Late?

Tahiti is a very much romanticized part of Western lore and mythology, especially as it was expressed in the life and painting of the French painter, Paul Gauguin. Such romanticization is part of the widespread valorization of non-Western (noble savage) cultures by Western explorers, writers, ethnographers and now tourists (Clifford 1988; Obeyesekere 1992; Sahlins 1985) Tahitian Tikis attempts to inscribe this idealized romantic element by billing itself as, A Taste of Paradise (French: "Gout Du Paradis")

Certainly, Tahiti and French Polynesia are also seen as part of the South Pacific and while each island and its culture both in and beyond Polynesia is distinct, there still is some commonality among them that people in the West construct (Oliver 1989). This and other matters problematize the issue of paradise. What paradise are we speaking of? We have already noted that vanilla is not a native aspect of Tahiti. This does not mean Tahiti could still not be paradise or that Tahitian Tikis is not a taste of it, but it does qualify it. It is a paradise with its own particular flavors even if some of these evolved after the advent of a Western presence. The islands while not untouched and perhaps unavoidably polluted in places continue to have relatively paradisaic rainforests, beaches and pristine underwater ocean environments.

Still a visit to the Gauguin Museum on the island of Tahiti, reveals that the artist felt he was already too late to see the pristine civilization that he nonetheless mythologized. The Polynesian religion which was at the heart of the culture and which Eliade (1959) makes reference to in his paradigmatic conceptualization of the sacred and profane was gone. Indeed, as some have expressed it, the rape of Tahiti had already occurred by the time Gauguin had arrived and much that had comprised the original culture in terms of language, religion, and social structure was lost or suppressed (Dodd 1983). The title of Dodd’s book, the Rape of Tahiti, makes this point and his book’s subtitle is especially instructive, not to mention provocative:

A Typical Nineteenth-Century Colonial Venture Wherein several European Powers with their Iron, Pox, Creed, Commerce and Cannon Violate the Innocence of a Cluster of Lovely Polynesian Islands in the South Pacific Ocean.

Others may take a more relative view. For example, Douglas Oliver (1981), who did field work in Tahiti in the 1950’s, wrote that his "most urgent and most important professional duty" as an anthropologist was to provide a "description of a vanishing way of life." He obviously thought that there was still something of the original culture worth documenting. Still, if Gauguin felt he was too late, then how does the visitor to these islands feel a century later? We are all way too late. As soon as the settlers, particularly the missionaries came, that was it for many aspects of Polynesian culture, especially the religious aspects. The commercialization, globalization, and hyperrreality in our contemporary period that Belk (1996) deplores has its roots back in these times when Western nations competed to run the world as their own estates.

People visiting French Polynesia, who are interested in finding pristine cultures, may go to the relatively but hardly untouched outer islands (outer is relative to the central island of Tahiti). Others may be content to settle for what remains anywhere in these isles since compared to many other areas of the world, they are still relatively untouched. In this sense, the "taste of paradise" is a mixed bag although the taste of the tea is distinct. And it does serve to tangibilize one’s trip and capture its sacredness (Belk and Wallendorf 1990) or even extend it at home by adding a new experiential sensation. But what is this experience a consumer is having? If it is one that is informed by the great cultural displacement that has occurred, then it is a sad one. At least that was my feeling. It is true that this tea is culturally different from other teas. But it may be seen as signifying a loss of the sacred as much as or more than it does cultural richness.

Yet in some sense, Tahitian Tikis could be signaling, "you are never too late." Sacred paradise is always there, just as we reconstruct it and create idealized utopias. Never mind that Tikis do not carry their original meaning today. Never mind that vanilla was transplanted to Tahiti. It is a part of Tahiti now and that is what is relevant. The history and various meanings of Polynesian culture are hopelessly obscured and disputed anyway (Sahlins 1985). What we know of Polynesian culture is little more than a European reconstruction from the very beginning (Obeyesekere 1992). Therefore, one is free to "re-ethnographize" (Obeyesekere 1992), remythologize and aestheticise (Urry 1995). Postmodern tourists have that right; they are liberated (Firat and Venkatesh 1995), some would say too liberated (MacCannell 1992). Live in the now and be catered to by this artifact in its embodiment of the presence of a Tahiti that is soothing to your spirit and bends to your every wish.

Nature Versus Culture

The idea of paradise as embodied in Tahitian Tikis may be further deconstructed in terms of whetherone perceives paradise in more natural (i.e., land, ocean) terms or in terms of culture. The nature versus culture theme, which was also considered by Sherry and Camargo (1987) in their study of Japanese packaging, reflects in the present Tahitian context an unpacking of the taste of paradise and also of what sacredness is. The Tiki would indicate that it is the culture that is paradise but which culture, the present one or the ancient one which created the Tiki? The present one appears to be more embodied in the land and water with the Tiki being more of an epiphenomenon. Of course a symbol can signify many things and the Tiki and taste of paradise do represent both levels. But it is not clear on the package. The consumer is left to fill in the missing part, i.e., diffOrance, in gestalt closure style. Whatever perspectival stance one takes or whatever comes to mind is what paradise is. Furthermore, we are perhaps not so late if Tahiti’s natural environment rather than its ancient culture is our object of enjoyment though environmental waste washed up on some beaches partially belies this point.


Our examination of Tahitian Tikis tea reveals a joint deconstructive-intertextual way to read consumption, cultures, and the consumption of cultures. Products and consumers are necessarily caught up in multicultural crossings, discourses and meanings. Related constructs like country-of-origin and consumer culture are problematized by reflecting tangled networks of signs and signification beyond simple binaries, such as "made there-bought here" and "my culture-other culture." The very culturally constituted worlds of various cultures interact and inform one another though not necessarily producing an integrated amalgam or melting pot. Indeed, their relationship is based on a number of contesting actions including assimilation, maintenance, segregation and resistance. Products that cross cultures embody these actions and by consuming them, consumers also consume both their own and foreign cultures through, as they necessarily must, the ethnocentric agency of their own culture. They also become members, usually peripheral ones, by assimilating, inscribing and consuming the foreign culture while at the same time maintaining their generally central membership in their own culture of origin.

Thus, on the one hand, the Tahiti Tikis package beckons English or French speakers to view the Tahitian culture through their own language and through the meanings they carry along with them in constructing the culture they are witnessing and experiencing. The sacred, paradise connotations of Tahiti are embodied in the tea. When one imbibes the tea, one may take in these meanings, much as cannibals eating other humans were thought to be partaking in their strength or power. Yet, on the other hand, many unstated, often negative connotations, such as the loss of paradise, emerge from a more deconstructive reading of the tea package. Thus, the question as to whether we are too late or never too late to experience the sacredness of Tahiti will be constructed in the tourist gaze (Urry 1995) of the beholder of this spectacle who may appropriate its meanings and inscribe them in his or her own cultural context (Root 1996). Some tourists will likely think we are too late while others will exude an attitude that we are never too late and view Tahitian Tikis as just one of many hyperreal artifacts (Baudrillard 1983).

Further exploration of these issues might be taken up in future research across many different cultures, goods, and consumers. Our ideas of how we construe these cross-cultural sites of meaning, interplay of signs, and processes of meaning transfer are likely to deepen as we include the impact of ubiquitous, intertextual cultural influences in our theory cnstruction and empirical studies. As consumers and cultures interact, evolving and emerging discourses will capture these effects so that layer upon layer of multicultural meanings will sediment ala Derrida in various goods. Researchers need to incorporate these discourses in their thinking, desediment and deconstruct them, and consider how they help to inform consumers’ behavior.

We will also find that our very notion of culture will be deconstructed, reconceptualized, and expressed in multicultural or cross-cultural terms, especially when we consider how cultures omnipresently define themselves reflexively with respect to other cultures. Globalization as a meta-cultural (i.e., relative to separate ethnic cultures) and hyperreal force is disrupting our standing views and is increasingly forcing us to consider the multiple layers of culture that consumers inhabit and the cross-cultural roles of varying activity (e.g., peripheral, central) which they adopt. I also want to underscore in this regard that McCracken’s (1986) framework needs further revision. Individual consumers while embedded in culture possess free will to self-fashion themselves (Gould and Stinerock 1992) and therefore to change culture, not only react to it, thereby causing flows of signification from the consumer as site to culture as site, as well as the other way. Thus, when consumers drink Tahitian Tikis or consume virtually any other good, they are engaging in self-transformation which inscribes a kind of reflexive hermeneutic circle between self and other. What is of most importance about this circle in the present context is that it is being greatly extended to embrace multicultural influences.


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