I was called “exotic” last week on the bus. I like to think that I sent a sharp stare and a quick backhanded compliment to the person sitting and staring at me. I like to think I conveyed how uncomfortable I was being eyed as “exotic” instead of a regular student on her morning commute. I like to think I was not tired of hearing that word, but I can’t lie to myself with wistful thoughts. I mumbled “thanks” and proceeded to grudgingly answer the questions I’ve come to experience as standard to my life: “What are you?” “What are you called?” “Are you actually just American?” Following the questions, came the equally standard compliments: “I love mixed people! They’re so pretty!” I didn’t feel so pretty for just being foreign. I wondered, knowing how diverse our campus is, how many others are called exotic every now and then.
First rule of dating: Never call anyone exotic.
Second rule of dating: Never call anyone exotic, even if they look exotic.
(Third rule of dating: Don’t point out my use of Fight Club quotes.)
Exotic doesn’t mean pretty or beautiful or cute. If you use this as a compliment to show your admiration or attraction to another, then be careful because your message might not be received. But why is that? Why won’t I understand what your compliment truly means?
Pull up an Internet browser and Google exotic. Read what some of the searches are. I got: exotic bounties, exotic fruits, exotic animals and exotic shorthair. Don’t like Google? Then try Bing. I searched Bing for “exotic” and also got: exotic cars, exotic flowers, exotic meats and exotic fruits again. I’m sorry if I don’t like being complimented like I’m some sort of rare object or a pug-faced cat (let me use the politically correct term, “exotic shorthair”). Exotic just isn’t a word that should be applied to people, not only due to objectifying a human being, but for its other definitions that marginalize others.
Pull up that browser again and head over to Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Note these two definitions.
“Full definition of EXOTIC:
Very different, strange, or unusual
Of a plant or animal: note living or growing naturally in a particular area: from another part of the world.”
To me, exotic brings to mind how some view me as different, or strange or unusual, because I don’t look like I’m from America — that the one aspect of myself that catches their attention is how much I don’t look like I belong. “Exotic” insinuates that you’re trying to typify or categorize me to try to understand me, because I look “different.
If you’re trying to start a conversation with someone after stating, “You’re exotic,” please don’t follow it up with “What are you?” Knowing my nationality isn’t going to tell about who I am. People are more than just their nationalities or ethnicities. At times when I’ve told others that I’m Japanese and American, they’ve told me that I’m more Japanese than American or the other way around. Yet, I’ve never felt more than some other nationality. I’ve always felt like myself — not just being Japanese and American.
Yet, it feels uncomfortable when others find me interesting just based on my mixed heritage. What about my hobbies? What about my favorite shows? Am I not interesting for being myself than just being mixed?
From my own experience, I feel uncomfortable and self-doubt of my own identity when people just point out my race as the first thing they notice in conversation. These are the sorts of feelings that you can make someone feel if you call them exotic. So, please, don’t call others “exotic.”