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Why You Should Stop Calling Us Exotic

He stands out like a sore thumb. He is 6’6″. I am 5’5″ taller than most Filipinas, but I stand like a dwarf beside him. He is white. I’m a dark-skinned Filipina with small eyes. A very odd couple. I know.

We were walking around Borobudur (Yogyakarta, Indonesia) last December, without knowing it was a holiday season for locals as well. In almost every corner, a local Indonesian or a group of students would stop us and ask him for a photo. Most of the time, I played the photographer. Moments like this make him extremely uncomfortable. Yes, westerners are often approached for a photo on this side of the world, but I have never seen as crazy as that.

Why You Should Stop Calling Us Exotic

Somewhere Vinh, Vietnam before riding the train to Danang

He is a real introvert. I am an extroverted introvert. He is an interesting sight for many: too tall a person walking among us short Asians. He is perfectly fine being a wallpaper and enjoying the place as genuinely as possible. To be white and 6’6″, however, are not the perfect combinations when you are traveling around Southeast Asia. He eventually ran away when the crowd wanting a photo with him got thicker.

When we retold the story to the hostel’s owners we were staying, they joked they would sell statement shirts like Take a Photo for 20K Rupiah! to their Western guests.

Why You Should Stop Calling Us Exotic

Chiang Rai Market (Thailand)

T asked me, if he cannot be counted as exotic too—we Southeast Asians exoticizing them, the westerners—because he knew firsthand my issues with the word.

For a moment there, I wondered too.

But.

Most Southeast Asians want a photo of, with westerners out of sheer adoration: white. White means rich, for many. White means beautiful and handsome. White means snow. White means life better than ours. We never thought of them as exotic. Did we?

Three years ago, I found myself traveling around Donsol (Sorsogon, Philippines) with three young Canadians who started their day drunk and ended it drunk. Booze in the Philippines is so cheap compared to Canada, so they primarily traveled here for booze, weed, and anything fun like riding on the top of a tricycle. They were young, reckless, and easily forgiven for things locals do not normally do.

With the encouragement from the tricycle drivers, we went to Gura to witness cockfighting: the favorite of many local men in the countryside. The boys, with Red Horse in hand, bet and won successively.

Everything was so exotic, one mentioned.

Why You Should Stop Calling Us Exotic

Ayyuthaya, Thailand

“What do you exactly mean with ‘exotic,’” I asked.

“Brutal.” Indeed, blood sprouted from the rooster’s flesh. It was indeed very brutal and cringing for someone like me who has more heart for animals than for humans. Activities like this are banned in the West. I do understand that there should be a stop on brutal cultures like this, but I think gun control in the US is a more pressing issue, and therefore a more exotic case? It sounded wrong, right? Non sequitur!

“Would I find winter exotic too? Cause I’m pretty sure it is brutal.”

“Hmm, yeah?” He was not convinced of himself.

We bought a bihag—the meat of the bitten rooster—and had it cleaned and cooked at one of the driver’s place.

The boys got grossed out when they saw the blood and bones of the butchered chicken.

They said, they are too white-washed. Westerners are white-washed—a variation of brainwashed, I supposed—when they are too used to the Western ways that other ways gross them out. Since then, it is a term I loved using to tease my western acquaintances. I barely used it to T. He loved our food—he even loved our sister countries’ food more than I do. He never complained of our Asian ways; well except for the fact that we handwash our clothes when we are traveling together and imagine a 6’6″ giant stooping on a sauna-like bathroom scrubbing his shorts clean. I love handwashing my clothes and am too stingy to pay for laundry.

Firewood cooking, handwashing clothes, eating chicken feet are some of the many things westerners considered exotic. Our ways are way too primitive, so backward, and sometimes puke-inducing like eating balot or chicken intestine.

Here in the Philippines particularly, women of my skin color often get unsolicited comments from acquaintances or strangers we met on our trips that foreigners dig our skin color. I used to think our local men do not appreciate our beauty. But I soon noticed I get this comment mostly from women, some of them are afraid to go out in the sun and are crazy about whitening products. Oh, yeah, it is one of the many colonial hangups we have here.

To be called exotic, which is also a form of racial microaggression in the west, does not sound like a compliment to my ear. To be called Pocahontas is never a compliment either

The definition of beauty here used to be or still largely singular: either you are mestisa-looking or fair-skinned. But it is getting varied, I hope.

More than once, I got emails from foreign men, mostly middle-aged, asking if I can guide them around Cebu. Of course, there is an underlying meaning behind this question: hankie-pankie is part of the package. I look delectable to the westerner’s eyes on my blog and IG (I’m photogenic, by the way, but my smooth-looking skin is pretty scarred in real life).

Why You Should Stop Calling Us Exotic

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

I would say, “Yeah, I could guide you. But no hankie-pankie!”

“Eh?!”

“I’m far from the exotic being you thought I am.”

To be called exotic undermines one’s intellect. It limits one’s femininity to being a sex object of Western men. It is subjugating.

I would never hear from these people again.

A boy in Mawun Beach (Lombok, Indonesia) said, “You’re like us.”

And when we asked him, why he thought so, he answered,

“Because you [imitated the burping sound]. His kind does not,” he said while pointing T.

I burst in laughter. T at first found my unladylike manners like burping and eating like a construction worker rude and disgusting. Our social etiquette is unsurprisingly patterned after the West (that’s why I adore the Japanese for their undying love of slurping their food).

Why You Should Stop Calling Us Exotic

Chiang Rai Night Market

These rude manners eventually became a private joke between us; we take turns in annoying each other. I sometimes tease him with a dried fish kiss. T tried eating chicken feet in Jakarta and dried squid in Chiang Rai and decided they were not for him; on the same manner, I can only handle a bit of pasta or pizza.

Oddly here in Asia, to be called exotic is taken by many as a compliment.

“Exotic,” for the innocent mind, merely means “being different or unusual.” And this still rings true to some foreign travelers. They marveled at our differentness without hidden disgust and mockery. Just pure joy and wide-eyed wonder. Some fell in love. Some vowed not to come back.

Filipinas Who Travel Solo

Trekking Doi Suthep-Pui National Park

But if one retraced its origin, one would know why I hate such word on the same manner I hate being called “Pocahontas.” To be called exotic, which is also a form of racial microaggression in the west, does not sound like a compliment to my ear. To be called Pocahontas is never a compliment either; it is a derogatory term that means “a spoiled child” or “a naughty one,” but I do not mind being called naughty at all. Pocahontas’ real story, which is very sad by the way, is a far cry from the Disney movie we all enjoyed as a kid.

I sometimes think that I am overly sensitive for matters like this. But one can feel if one is being exoticized. In the context of postcolonial period, exoticism often leads to hegemony: the power of the ruling class (aka colonizers, aka neocolonizers) “to convince other classes that their interests are the interests of all, often not only through means of economic and political control but more subtly through the control of education and media.”

To put it simply, people who called us exotic think they are better humans than us, their ways better than ours, that we are better off imitating and living their ways.

Cameron Highlands Itinerary, Budget, and Accommodation

Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

A professor from the University of the Philippines angered a group of artists for saying that the aquiline nose of Carrot Man  [a handsome farmer whose fame started on social media] is from the intermarriage of missionaries with Cordillerans that resulted in an improved race. Again, improved. Again, as if there is something wrong with the people from the Cordilleras, the home of the god-made-by-human-hands Batad Rice Terraces.

To be called exotic undermines one’s intellect. It limits one’s femininity to being a sex object of Western men. It is subjugating.

I lurrve my rice as much as you love your pasta. I love dried fish as much as you love your cheese and sandwiches.

We do not find your blond or red hair and pale skin exotic. We do not find you exotic. We find you different and oftentimes beautiful. T is a beautiful soul.

And we wish you would see us in the same light. We wish you would see us Southeast Asians as human as you: different, beautiful, flawed.

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Jona | Backpacking with a Book

Hi, I'm Jona! I write stories and poetry and take a lot of photos, which I'm too lazy to upload. If you want to receive some photos that I don't share here on the blog, please leave your email here. I'm crazy about cats too. Feel free to browse through BWAB, and I would love it if you say hi! For collaborations, projects, and other things, please email me at backpackingwithabook@gmail.com For more stories about BWAB, check here. Connect with us through

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5 Comments

  1. Karin says:

    In my language, we use the word “exotic” mainly for fruits or food more in general. As far as I know, we rarely use it for people, it sounds strange to my ears. Even, there is an offense which is “exot”, but it has nothing to do with one´s race or ethnicity, rather with someone being weird. (Not in a good way.)
    If I call my husband exotic, I do it mainly to make fun of him (he is from Colombia), but when I was in Colombia, many people told me that my country is exotic! It made me laugh hard the first time because I associate it with palmtrees, coconuts, pineapples and oranges which totally don´t grow here. For my husband, cherries and apples are freakin exotic though. (Yes, I know this article is about a serious issue and I am talking about fruit! Sorry for that but felt like sharing :-D) Also, now that I am at it, I have an issue with posting comments on you blog – I don´t see the “post comment” button anywhere! Ii shows me just a vertical line which when I click on it posts the comment but it had me wondering a couple of times. I am using Chrome…

    • Hi there, Karin! That’s quite interesting. But being weird is fine, I think. I sometimes think of myself as weird. But the implications of exotic in SEA, more often than not, are negative, although some take it as a compliment. Yeah, we have some of those tropical fruits. But the thing is, oranges and apples do not grow here, but we never called them exotic. But I felt giddy when I saw an orange orchard for the first time.

      Concerning the post comment, there is a problem with the design. I think I have to hire someone to fix these problems. Thanks!

      • Karin says:

        Yes, I think even the objectification of people (if I am calling it the right name) goes further in Asia (I have only visited Thailand, Cambodia and India though, so I can only judge based on those experiences) than it does in South America; maybe it is because of the language barrier? As most of the local languages have been lost in Latin America (not all, of course, but a lot) and everyone speaks spanish – which is the european language, besides of being the language of the colonizers, the culture also being more similar to the european culture because of the rule of Spanish and Portuguese, I feel as the tourists perceive the locals in a more human way; when I was in Thailand, for instance, I was shocked by how the locals are treated as animals (that was my feeling anyway) – the tourist goes to the hill tribe village, to take photos, as he would go to a zoo – and he sees the beautiful creatures in traditional dresses but he does not see people. Most of tourists obviously don´t speak the language, so they have no chance to understand what´s going on. This made me feel very uncomfortable. I think many people still subconsciously consider Thai / Cambodian / Indian people to be less human and less developped, just as back in the colonial times, Edward Said writes about it precisely, but I am sure you already know his “Orientalism” book.
        Otherwise, I didn´t mind much being taken in many photos by people in India, it is like reciprocity to me – I also take many photos of people, although I try not to be too rude.
        Also, I like “weird” people, they are more interesting; but in slovak, the word “exot” (which is used to describe personality, not the skin color) is not very nice 🙂 For instance, we have a huge racism problem here, but not with Asians (there is a big community of Vietnamese and some Chinese too, other nationalities almost not), but rather with Gypsies (who are living here since the 14th century, so not newcomers) who are of dark complexion and associated with laziness, dirt, criminality and all that, plus, what is strange, people nowadays hate Arabs although there are maybe five Arabs living in the whole country – it is because of the media. Our governemnt does nothing about it but just build its power on fear of otherness. Since we have a Second world war experience – my country was ruled by Hitlers puppets back then – with killing off all our jewish community, I fear where this will lead.

      • jasmine says:

        thats a really interesting and insightful perspective . Such an interesting read so thank you.
        As a blonde 5 foot 9′ aussie girl ,i often get stopped for photos and questioned about my travels and views of a country. In so many eastasian countries i have visited and worked (i am now based in Hong kOng), i get referred to A LOT as Elsa, or especially children pointing and say frozen. Work colleagues at my old work would even call me elsa.. Last week i was in Sri Lanka, i was wearing a bright pink lipstick i had recently purchased and one man walked up and said ‘you look same as Barbie”.. when i was looking at gifts for my niece, the man pointed to the random disney character on the top, then at me, and said same.. I had never thought of this as anything but comparisons based on my appearance .. I certainly didn’t take offence, i thought it was funny

  2. Doi says:

    Until that conversation we had at Lambug Beach, I never knew that there was a different side to being called exotic so thanks for sharing this Jona.

    “I sometimes think that I am overly sensitive for matters like this.” Reading that line brought me a pressing issue that I am overly sensitive too. Remind me when we see each other again. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it as I’m sure you will have a different view on the matter as it involves revealing/showing skin. Hahahaha

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