What It Really Feels Like When You Call Someone, or Their Food, ‘Exotic’

What It Really Feels Like When You Call Someone, or Their Food, ‘Exotic’
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There’s one word that sends more shivers down my spine than ‘moist’. It’s ‘exotic’. Ugh.

I clearly remember the first time someone used the word to describe me — I had mustered up the energy to drag my introverted self to after-work drinks with my brunette friend. We were sitting at the bar enjoying our conversation when a decent-looking Caucasian guy confidently made his way towards us. He turned to my friend and told her she “looked like a model”, then turned to me and muttered three words: “You’re so… exotic.”

I’m the last person to be affected by culturally insensitive remarks, but this one left me both confused and disgusted.

I grew up associating that word with foreign animals and plants, and it conjures up images of hunters in the wild or explorers in the jungle holding binoculars.

Sure, I’ve always known I was somewhat different from the Western kids I went to school with. As someone of both Chinese and Korean descent, I have almost sickly pale skin that turns bright red within 15 minutes under the sun, I have dead-straight black hair that doesn’t hold shape, and trying to achieve a ‘sexy’ smoky eye with my small monolids is far from a cute look. My nose is practically bridge-less, my lips look nothing like Kylie Jenner’s and my boobs mimic three-ingredient pancakes rather than fluffy cupcakes — so basically, the complete opposite of what social media deems ‘attractive’.

But, me, ‘exotic’ in a country that prides itself on being multicultural? Exotic in a country where a large proportion of the population is of East and Southeast Asian descent? Exotic for someone who is unilingual in English?

Let’s set this straight: despite people using the word usually being well-intentioned (mostly under the mistaken belief they are flattering someone), exotic cannot be counted as a personality trait nor does it hold any correlation to compliments like beautiful, interesting or sexy.

All you need to do is Google its definition – Dictionary.com defines it as an adjective used to describe something “of foreign origin or character; not native; introduced from abroad, but not fully naturalised or acclimatised”. Even Cambridge Dictionary associates the term with things that are “unusual”, “uncommon”, “rare”, “unconventional” and “unique”.

In fact, its very etymology can be traced all the way back to the 1590s where it literally translated to “belonging to another country”.

“Exotic comes from the Ancient Greek word ‘exotikos’, where it meant ‘foreign’,” explains Ingrid Piller, Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University. “The word was borrowed into English (via Latin and French) in the 16th century to mean ‘foreign, from afar’, particularly with regards to new world flora and fauna.”

An endangered bird species or a scarce orchid might be referred to as exotic, so categorising someone under the same label is fundamentally belittling them as subhuman, incapable of ever living up to normal standards and being given a real compliment.

Regardless of whether the word is being used cordially, being described as exotic reminds someone that they belong to a racial minority group, which basically fuels estrangement.

It’s exactly why it’s been referred to as a form of micro-aggression, a term coined by Harvard University psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce in 1970, to describe insults and dismissals – whether intentional or unintentional – that communicate negative attitudes toward stigmatised or culturally marginalised groups.

If you perceive someone as exotic, are they unordinary because they’re not white enough? And does this mean whiteness is the default that differentiates what is and isn’t ‘normal’?

But it’s not only racialisation that’s the problem with this one seemingly harmless word – there’s also the underlying issue of fetishisation. (Ugh, another word that sends shivers down my spine.)

“In addition to being racialised, it’s also sexualised with the examples all relating to ‘exotic women’ and the ‘exotic dancer’,” Piller states.

A burgeoning appetite for exhibiting ‘exotic human specimens’ began during British imperialism and colonialism. This led to the development of ‘human zoos’ where Indigenous Asians’ ‘exoticism’ was hyper-sexualised and exploited before ‘colonial masters’. Yes, really.

Fast forward to the 21st century and fetishisation manifests itself in a myriad of ways, particularly evident in the dating scene. It falls into the same category as telling someone, “You’re beautiful for a [insert non-white race]”, “You speak English very well” or “Where are you from?” – three other statements that objectify physical “otherness”.

Referring to someone as exotic is embedded in the colonial mindset whereby you believe your worldview to be habitual and everything else to be ‘other’. Sorry to say, but these colonialist elements engrained in history make exotic coming out of a white person’s mouth sound, well, sketchy.

The case against ‘exotic’ food

exotic racism
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While the issue of people – notably women – being referred to as exotic is a huge issue, the same problem applies to foods, too.

Piller notes exotifying foods “makes a dish or fruit sound more attractive and special”.

For example, durian is often sold to non-Asian consumers as simultaneously ‘delicious’ but ‘strange’ and ‘smelly’, which implies both repulsion and attraction. The same applies to fried insects and parts of animals that are considered trash in the Western world but treasure in other countries — they promote a sense of disgust yet desire.

It seems as though there’s a correlation between an “exotic food” and a magnification of intrigue and desire. But why the need to do this?

As Serena H. Rivera, Assistant Professor of Portuguese and Spanish at the University of Pittsburgh, told the Washington Post in an article titled Stop calling food ‘exotic’: “Calling a food exotic puts the onus of the puzzle on the people who make the food to define it, to rationalize, explain, or whitewash it until it’s palatable to the dominant culture.”

It highlights the attempt at ostracising the ‘other’ in the service of empowering the consumer.

And as Piller explains: “An ‘exotic dish’ then becomes one that is non-Australian, even if it may be a staple or regular food for some segments of our community. So, saying ‘dish X is exotic’ then comes to imply that people who regularly eat X are also ‘forever foreign’ in Australia.”

The overarching question now is: what actually makes a food exotic, and what status quo are we following? Japanese ingredients like miso and sea urchin are readily available from supermarkets, escargot can be seen on menus around Australia, fruits like durian and papaya are as accessible as oranges, and if you can’t purchase an item at a store, then you can most probably buy it online.

There’s nothing rare or unique about the majority of foods the Western world once considered unreachable.

So, what can we do about the word exotic?

There is one upside to the word, as Piller points out.

“It’s actually more positive than many of its synonyms like foreign, alien, weird, non-native, invasive, outlandish, weird, bizarre, kinky or imported, and has positive connotations such as alluring, enticing, beautiful, fashionable and glamorous.”

But that’s not to say we dismiss its inherent meaning or just replace it with another word like ‘odd’ or ‘rare’.

Despite my lengthy rant, I’m not urging for the cancellation of the word altogether; a reconsideration of how, why and when it’s used – as well as wider education of its etymology – is a better way of putting what I’d like to see happen.

What is needed is a change in discourse and re-examination of our worldview, particularly in the Western world. After all, the language we use to describe people and food should be regularly questioned.

If someone or something is unfamiliar to you, ask yourself the following before assigning it a label: why is it unfamiliar and how can I change that?

My rejection of the word used to describe people and food may sound like I’m complaining about others just trying to flatter, and some people of colour might not even find the word baleful.

Don’t get me wrong — having a preference for a human being’s physical aspects over others is natural (I’ll admit I’m even guilty of this). We live in a world abundant with different cultures, and who we find attractive is our prerogative. But making an individual’s ethnicity a prerequisite for sex or love is nothing other than problematic, and there’s no denying the fact that exotifying someone is laden with racialised sexism.

When it comes to relationships and dating, a fetish for exoticism is not love nor a novelty — instead, you need to see beyond someone’s culture and view them as a real person.

It also doesn’t change the fact that the word has a deep-rooted problematic past, which has a high probability of welcoming a flood of awkwardness into any conversation and can be profoundly dehumanising to those who experience it.

A person cannot be exotic — they are neither an endangered bird nor a plant. They are a human being with emotions, characteristics and individual looks that makes them wonderfully different to everyone else. Instead of perpetually attaching physical appearances to ethnicity, let beauty exist on its own. Please.

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