I’m not comfortable with it, but I’ve had to accept that across some portions of the globe, something about the combination of my skin and facial features renders me “exotic”.
The first person I recall using this term was a guy at the Marquis Cornwallis, while I was waiting for my drink at the bar. “So where’re you from then, my beauty?” was offensive enough, without the accompanying leer, but it’s just good sense to ignore drunk sexists in pubs. I was turning away, without answering, when he added something about how exotic I was. This puzzled me, since London is a smorgasbord of cosmopolitanism where every other face you see on the street is likely to be from literally anywhere in the world.
What specifically made me exotic? I’m not being disingenuous when I say I still don’t know. But the word “exotic” or attractive with an “exotic” implication has popped up alongside queries about my nationality and identity in many variations over the years and my travels. I’m just about fed up with this two-for-one-offer, and I’ve come to think the linkage deserves to be unpacked.
Upon a recent trip to Montreal, after dinner at Schwartz’ Smoked Meats, a waiter in his early 20s came up to me and said: “I hope you don’t mind me asking, but we [indicating two other waiters] were trying to decide – what nationality are you?” After I answered, “I’m from Trinidad, an island in the Caribbean”, he looked obviously confused, so I added, “Also, I’m of Indian ancestry”.
His confusion cleared, and his muttered parting words were: “Oh…you’re very beautiful.”
Still in Montreal, I approached a middle-aged man seated at an otherwise empty table at a Tim Horton’s during the busy lunch hour, and asked if I could share the table.
“Why would I mind if a beautiful young woman sits with me?” he replied, then added, “Are you liking our Montreal weather? Where are you from?”?
“Where do you think I’m from?” I responded.?
“Well…somewhere exotic?” he replied.
While shopping at an organic-and-health-goods, one-stop-shop near Rue Rene-Levesque (Canada) the proprietor smilingly commented – “You have a beautiful fresh face, with such exotic eyes!” before presenting me with (unsolicited) samples of incense and questions about my nationality. I asked him to guess, and he replied “Middle East?”
McGill University was right around the corner, drawing students from across the world, and there are many other universities with students of multiple ethnicities dotting the Montreal landscape. Indeed, buying a phone-top-up at the convenience store right next door, I saw the cashier was equally identifiable as non-Québécoise: brown skinned, with a nose-stud and a bindi on her forehead. Was she also seen as exotic? I didn’t know.
In a bookstore in New York, waiting to pay, a middle-aged bearded gentleman saw me, smiled, and held up a book for me to (congratulate him? relate to?) see: Gitanjali, by Tagore.
“He’s one of my favourite authors; isn’t this one of his best works?” he said, before going on to invite me to a club where he was playing some fusion sax, adding that I was sure to enjoy it since it was fusion with Indian music. He hadn’t even bothered to ask where I was from.
Curiosity is natural and human. I’m not saying I haven’t wondered about the origin of people with whom I’ve had even fleeting interactions. Sometimes I’ll ask, though most times I don’t, for many reasons. A major reason is that I’m a Trinidadian, and our own history of migration and inter/intra-cultural incorporation or transmogrification is ample proof that ethnicity is no indication either of nationality or self-identification.
Another one is that in my travel experience, the heavily trafficked spaces I frequent are generally full of people from somewhere else, who may be passing through the city, though at varying rates. Finally, I guess I’m less interested in people’s nationality than in something more elusive: their sense of themselves.
For some people, though, despite this increasingly globalized world in which we constantly zip and unzip carbon-trails across the skies, there is still the assumption that people’s visible markers of ethnicity and nationality are not only related, but the same as their self-identification.
This doesn’t mean, however, that I don’t understand that asking about someone’s nationality or geographic origin can be just a social icebreaker. It’s a way of indicating that you’re interested in someone and their response can be a good marker of their friendliness.
I’m generally polite to strangers, and, if you engage me in conversation, I’ll usually respond. And of course, getting someone to talk about herself is a great lead-up to a pick-up, where the golden rule is: “compliment”.
I understand this.
But the choice of compliment, and the fact that it usually follows from or leads to questions about my identity, has made me feel like there’s something else at work.
What might this “something else” be? Both the question of where I’m from and the labelling of me as “exotic” serve to identify me as not belonging, as other.
In some of the contexts I’ve been asked my nationality, it’s clear that I’m a foreigner. But in others, it isn’t clear at all: large cities, teeming with cosmopolitan life from around the world, including people who are citizens and putatively belong there, and still I’m “exotic”. Is it just a question of being objectified? Am I exotic because I am female and attractive? Or am I exotic just because I’m brown – because my skin and features set me apart from the people who feel they have the right to question where I’m from since they truly belong?
I’ve begun to feel this double-punch is almost their attempt at reassurance – we know you’re not from here, but we don’t hold it against you because you’re beautiful!
The implications of the association between India, land of my ancestors, and me is beginning to rankle as well. Do I fit some image in your head of what the (insert adjective here: mysterious/inscrutable/exotic) East looks like to the male gaze in the West? No, my geographic ancestry doesn’t imply that any stereotypes are applicable to me. I am not a product of your exotic East.
Who I feel myself to be is being orientalized out of existence: “Account for your appearance!” is what I’m hearing. “Account for the stamp of your face! Those eyes!” (cue mystic music, my eyes with exaggerated lashes being lowered behind a muslin scarf, in front of piles of spice and tinkling bells with the Taj Mahal as backdrop).
Born in Trinidad to Trinidadians, I did live in India for some years, but who I just AM is Trinidad-Indian. So if you engage me in conversation about India, I am willing and able to talk with you point for point, but, once you assume I am Indian, it all breaks down.
I would truly be the last person to deny my ancestry, but the boxing and tagging of identity that the question “Where are you from?” insists upon is a constant demand to define myself to suit your category of exotic otherness that I am not only unwilling to meet but incapable of so doing.
Whatever the root, the next time someone – anyone – calls me exotic, I might just spin ‘roun and clout dem in dey head. Or corner them and talk their ear off. Like I’ve just done with you.
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