Stop Calling People “Exotic”



Some have said I “look more Asian” while others have noted that I “look pretty white.” I look like both and I am both! My mother is Chinese, my father mostly German; and I’ve received my fair share of reactions to that my whole life.

As the phenomenon of Eurasian children is relatively new — or at least mixes with Chinese genes are, since my country only globalized in the 70s — culturally insensitive remarks don’t always get to me. While more often than not, these remarks are well-intentioned; we should be aware of how we treat people’s identities. I’m sure that future generations will habituate and react properly to mixed cultures, as they’re becoming increasingly mainstream, but for me today, this is still an issue. 

I moved back to Europe from Asia a couple of months ago and have since become all too familiar with “yellow fever,” or the fetishizing of Asians. White people have also been throwing an interesting term at me a lot more often: exotic. It provokes a little churn in my stomach and feels different than being called “interesting” or “beautiful,” though that is generally what is meant or implied.

In the dictionary “exotic” is either a noun that points to “a plant or animal,” or an adjective that signifies “attractive or striking because colorful or out of the ordinary.” Let’s set this straight from the get-go: the only way in which I fit this definition is that I am an uncommon embodiment of two particular cultures, and as a result, have an unconventional and interesting set of physical features. Being biracial may be “out of the ordinary,” but not in the way some white people interpret it. 

For them, it seems that I am “out of the ordinary” simply because I’m not entirely white. Which suggests that whiteness is the default race and defines what’s “normal.” To them, what makes me “exotic” isn’t the fact that I’m biracial, but the fact that I’m something other than Caucasian. Being held to a Western standard makes me feel like a perpetual foreigner.

As this is my first time dating outside of Asia, I’ve had to ask myself quite a few times whether someone was interested in me for the anticipated “exoticism,” or for me in my entirety. Am I “exotic” because I have an awesome heritage and an interesting phenotype? Or are you simply looking at me like a fetishizing colonialist who’s going to swaddle me back to his homeland and show me off like a parrot? No, really — seeing a white guy grin and exclaim, “Fuck yeah!” when he found out about my origins made me shudder.

Preference of certain physical aspects over others is completely normal, but having a thing for blondes is a different matter than othering entire ethnic groups. There are colonialist elements deeply rooted in history that make “exotic” coming out of a white male’s mouth sound a wee-bit sketchy, to say the least.

The word “exotic” itself was used by colonists to describe new territory, animals, and plants. They hyper-sexualized and exploited indigenous Asians’ (among other ethnic groups) “exotic-ness” in human zoos,  in which audiences were made up of white men and women. The word is historically charged, but most people aren’t aware of that and use it with innocuous intent.

I remember being called “exotic” by my Latino and Black friends in the past, but honestly didn’t think twice about it. I didn’t feel linked to any kind of stereotype or alienation, and I knew the word was being used as a way to describe my mixed background. From their mouths, it took on a different connotation; one that embraced both my unique features and my awesome culture.

This doesn’t change the fact that the word has a problematic past that makes using it today uncomfortable for everyone involved. Context does affect how the word makes myself and others feel, and we should be more mindful of how we regard others’ identities.