What it really feels like to call someone or their food “exotic”

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There’s a word that sends more shivers down your spine than ‘humid’. It is “exotic”. Ugh.

I clearly remember the first time someone used that word to describe me – I had gathered the energy to drag my introverted self to a drink after work with my brunette friend. We were sitting at the bar enjoying our conversation when a decent looking Caucasian guy confidently walked over to us. He turned to my friend and told her that she “looked like a model,” then turned to me and muttered three words: “You are so… exotic.

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

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

Of course, I always knew I was somewhat different from the western kids I went to school with. As a person of Chinese and Korean descent, I have pale, almost unhealthy skin that turns bright red in 15 minutes in the sun, I have straight black hair that doesn’t hold in shape and I’m trying to get a “sexy” smoky eye. with my little monolids is far from a cute look. My nose is virtually bridge-less, my lips are nothing like Kylie Jenner’s, and my breasts mimic three-ingredient pancakes rather than chewy cupcakes – so basically the 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 portion of the population is of East and Southeast Asian descent? Exotic for someone who is unilingual English?

Let’s get it straight: although people generally use the word as being well-intentioned (mainly by mistakenly believing that they are flattering someone), exoticism cannot be considered a personality trait and does. no correlation with compliments like beautiful, interesting or sexy.

All you have 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 naturalized or acclimatized ”. Same the Cambridge dictionary associates the term with “unusual”, “unusual”, “rare”, “unconventional” and “unique” things.

In fact, its very etymology dates back to the 1590s when it literally translated as “belonging to another country”.

“Exotic comes from the ancient Greek word ‘exotikos’, where it meant ‘foreigner’,” explains Ingrid Piller, professor of applied linguistics at Macquarie University. “The word was borrowed from English (via Latin and French) in the 16th century to mean ‘alien, from afar’, especially in relation to the flora and fauna of the New World.”

An endangered species of bird or rare orchid can be called exotic, so categorizing someone under the same tag fundamentally demeans them as sub-human, unable to live by normal standards and receive a real compliment. .

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

This is exactly why it has been referred to as a form of microaggression, a term coined by Harvard University psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce in 1970 to describe insults and dismissals – whether intentional or not – that communicate negative attitudes towards stigmatized or culturally marginalized groups. .

If you perceive someone as exotic, aren’t they ordinary because they’re not white enough? And does that mean that whiteness is the default that differentiates what is “normal” from what is not?

But it’s not just racialization that’s the problem with this seemingly harmless word – there’s the underlying issue of fetishization as well. (Ugh, another word that sends chills down my spine.)

“As well as being racialized, he’s also sexualized with the examples all relating to ‘exotic women’ and the ‘exotic dancer’,” Piller says.

A growing appetite for the display of “exotic human specimens” began during British imperialism and colonialism. This led to the development of “human zoos” where the “exoticism” of native Asians was hypersexualized and exploited before the “colonial masters”. Yes really.

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

Referring to someone as exotic is steeped in the colonial mindset that you think your worldview is usual and everything else is ‘other’. Sorry to say, but those colonialist elements rooted in history make the exit from the mouth of a white person exotic, well, sketchy.

The case against “exotic” food

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While it is a huge issue that people – especially women – are labeled exotic, the same issue applies to food as well.

Piller notes that exotic foods “make a dish or a fruit more attractive and special.”

For example, durian is often sold to non-Asian consumers as being both “delicious” but “strange” and “smelly”, implying both loathing and attraction. The same applies to fried insects and animal parts which are considered garbage in the Western world but cherished in other countries – they foster a feeling of loathing but longing.

There appears to be a correlation between “exotic food” and an amplification 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 burden of the puzzle on the people who prepare the food to define it, rationalize it, explain it or blanch it until it is acceptable to the mainstream culture. “

It highlights the attempt to ostracize “the other” in the service of consumer empowerment.

And as Piller explains, “An ‘exotic dish’ then becomes a non-Australian dish, even though it may be a staple or regular for some segments of our community. Thus, to say that “dish X is exotic” implies that people who eat X regularly are also “foreigners forever” in Australia. “

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

There is nothing rare or unique about the majority of foods that the Western world once considered inaccessible.

So what can we do with the word exotic?

There is an advantage to the word, as Piller points out.

“It’s actually more positive than many of its synonyms such as alien, alien, strange, non-native, invasive, extravagant, bizarre, bizarre, perverted or imported, and has positive connotations such as alluring, alluring, beautiful, à la fashion and glamor. “

But that doesn’t mean that we reject its inherent meaning or simply replace it with another word like “odd” or “rare”.

Despite my long rant, I am not urging the cancellation of the word altogether; a reconsideration of how, why, and when it’s used – along with a broader education of its etymology – is a better way to put what I’d like to see happen.

What is needed is a change in discourse and a re-examination of our view of the world, especially in the Western world. After all, the language we use to describe people and food needs to be challenged on a regular basis.

If someone or something is unfamiliar to you, ask yourself the following questions before labeling it: why is this unknown and how can I change it?

My rejection of the word used to describe people and food can make it sound like I’m complaining about others who are just trying to flatter, and some people of color might not even think of the word evil.

Don’t get me wrong – having a preference for the physical aspects of a human over others is natural (I admit I’m even guilty of that). We live in a world rich in different cultures, and who we attract is our prerogative. But making an individual’s ethnicity a prerequisite for sex or love is nothing but problematic, and it is clear that exoticizing someone is fraught with racialized sexism.

When it comes to relationships and dating, an exotic fetish is neither love nor novelty – instead, you have to see beyond someone’s culture and consider them. like a real person.

It also doesn’t change the fact that the word has a deeply ingrained problematic past, which has a high likelihood of welcoming a flood of awkwardness into any conversation and can be deeply dehumanizing to those who experience it.

A person cannot be exotic – it is not a bird or an endangered plant. They are human beings with individual emotions, characteristics and looks that make them wonderfully different from others. Instead of perpetually attaching physical appearances to ethnicity, let beauty exist on its own. Please.


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