Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Secrets of East Asian Women Part 4: Exoticness

Good morrow, friends! I've just finished an exam on Chinese culture, which is why I haven't been updating recently, and holy jazz, do I have a lot of things to say about China! But first things first. I promised you guys that I would unravel some stereotypes, and by George, that's what I'm gonna do!

Today's stereotype will be examined a little differently because it's a lot more obvious where it comes from, but, without further ado -- exoticness!

Stereotype: "East Asian women are exotic."

Cambodian dancers in traditional garb.
I have to admit, this is a stereotype I hear less and less frequently nowadays, but it does crop up from time to time and I've always found it problematic. At the same time, people can get away with it very easily, and I'll explain why. The thing is, this stereotype, unlike the previous two, can actually be undeniably true. However, it depends greatly on whom your talking about, relative to your culture, where you live, etc.

First, let's look at the meaning of exotic and what it entails.

The following definitions I pulled from 

ex·ot·ic /ɪgˈzɒtɪk/

1. of foreign origin or character; not native; introduced from abroad, but not fully naturalized or acclimatized: exotic foods; exotic plants.
2. strikingly unusual or strange in effect or appearance: an exotic hairstyle.
3. of a uniquely new or experimental nature: exotic weapons.
4. of, pertaining to, or involving stripteasing: the exotic clubs where strippers are featured.

All right, we have quite a few meanings here, but I'd certainly assume that when people describe an East Asian woman as being "exotic," they are probably referring to one of the first two . . . unless they're talking about a stripper, apparently (ahem*), but anyway . . .

So the question is, what does it mean to be exotic? Well, you have to be foreign -- i.e., not native and from abroad and yet not acclimatized. Aha! So right off the bat we can exclude Asian-Americans/Canadians from this label. Why? Because they are Americans and Canadians! (Check out my article on differences between East Asians and Asian-Americans here: In other words, someone who grew up in your hometown cannot be exotic. This can extend to immigrants as well. If someone has immigrated to wherever it is you live from, say, Tibet, and has lived in your city for a while, maybe 10 years or so, and speaks near-perfect English and maybe runs a business, then this person is what you could call acclimatized and therefore cannot be considered exotic. So yes, George Takei, for example, cannot be considered exotic . . . unless you're talking about the third definition! (har har)

The annoying thing about this word is that it could be correctly associated with women in East Asia, but only if you have little experience with East Asia and only in relation to culture, because lack of familiarity with a culture is really what dictates whether something is exotic to you or not. In certain contexts, using exotic in this way might be all right, but the problem I have with the term is the way I hear people using it in everyday life.
Actress Khulan Chuluun in her role as Borte (wife of Temujin, a.k.a. Genghis Kahn) in the 2007 film Mongol -- a character that a friend of mine, who interestingly enough is an East Asian Canadian, described to me as "looking exotic."
In my experience, when someone describes another as being exotic, it's not so much that they are exotic but that they look exotic to the speaker. For example, in my travels I've had acquaintances indicate a man or woman who might have really dark skin or who looked "really Asian" (not my words) or some such thing to that effect, and tell me that that person "looks exotic." I really don't know what to say to that. I grew up in what the UN considers to be one of the most multicultural cities in the world (Toronto). I continue to live alongside people from all sorts of backgrounds, to the point where I feel that no one can really look exotic to me, at least insofar as ethnicity alone is concerned, and for me that's really the problem. When people say someone looks exotic, it's totally a "racial" thing. That brings me to my next gripe.

Perhaps the biggest problem I have with the term exotic is that it denotes a kind of cross-cultural ignorance that, in my opinion, way too many people have. My problem is that you call something exotic if you're not familiar with it -- in other words, if you're ignorant about it. It reminds me of the old days of "the Orient" in which Asia was this strange and, yes, "exotic" land. You may as well call me Buddha, because like him, I agree that ignorance is the root of all evil. I wish to stamp out my own ignorance (as much as possible -- I mean, I will die someday and as such cannot be expected to learn everything) by reading and learning about all kinds of interesting things (not just East Asia). 

We live in the information age, my friends; if you have a question or are curious about something, look it up! Get familiar with the world! It's a crazy huge place with all kinds of cool stuff! That's why I blog the way I do about cultures different than my own. The thing is, like it or not (and let's face it, you might as well like it unless you want to be miserable for a long time), multiculturalism is now a fact of the 21st century. Even in small burgs you might easily encounter folks whose ancestors came from somewhere else, so I feel that people should make more of an effort to get along and learn about each other's backgrounds and whatnot. Maybe I'm an idealist, but I feel that someday the word exotic will be seen only on strip-club posters and unique salons. As the famous Chinese strategist Guo Jia said in the Red Cliff films (in which he was played by Gum Sing Mo, a.k.a. Takeshi Kaneshiro), "To learn a trifle about everything gives life more colour."            

The Truth! 

In my opinion, I don't see too much wrong with calling an East Asian woman exotic, provided she's not from your culture and you have little or no experience with hers. For unfamiliarity is pretty much what exoticness is all about. However, the idea that all ethnically East Asian women are inherently exotic -- which is what some people I've encountered actually seem to think -- is wrong. It certainly isn't the reason why I date East Asian women, or any other woman for that matter.

Next Post: The final and ugliest stereotype: "East Asian women are easy."                    
"George Takei is an exotic weapon," says Alex.


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