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Monday, August 13, 2012

On the Exotic

Note, I started working on this ages ago and never got around to posting it, so here it is finally. And by started working on it I mean I wrote the first paragraph and then stopped.

Oh my, it has been far too long since I updated. But I am back. I have been thinking about this idea of the "exotic" for a while now. Not intensely, per se, but it has frequently been brought to my mind as I have been doing my course reading and interacting with people. The idea first struck me when I sat down with the book Kim by Rudyard Kipling. My copy is a cheap, Bantam Classics paperback. The back descriptive text describes the adventure and the history and all that, but the thing that caught my eye was a line near the top that read "a farewell look brimming with all the color and sound, squalor and splendor of that exotic land."

Okay, now in the present, soon to be the past, it has been far too long since I last worked on this post. So I have been thinking about this idea of the exotic especially how it relates to India. There are countries who match it, but when you think of exotic as an American, India I think readily comes to the mind. I never really thought about it before, but that phrase "as an American" is incredibly critical. Forgive me a Mormon talk moment, but according to the dictionary, exotic means things like "origination in or characteristic of a distant foreign country" and "attractive or striking because colorful or out of the ordinary."

This may not be eye opening to you, but I had never thought about it in these terms. It is probably a human thing, but I can attest that I personally pick up most my word definitions by context and repetition. So to me, the word exotic has always meant that, it also had the implied meaning of not Western, as if people from Africa or China never thought of something as foreign or exotic. It was not until I was looking at the back of my copy of Kim that I really started thinking about this concept of exotic.

Another event that really made me think was one morning when I was reading the back of my cereal box. There aren't really that many awesome flavors of cereal here. They are all Kellogg's and most of them are good, but for some reason I get tired of them much quicker than in the U.S. Anyhow, so I had played out all the cereal options until the only thing left was Muesli. I left it for last because I don't really like fruit (long story short, it is a problem with texture, not flavor), so I generally avoid Muesli whenever possible. I find that if I just close my eyes and tell myself it's just fruit leather I can get by okay. Why is eating fruit leather palatable to me while eating raisins and dried dates disgusting to me? I have no idea. So anyhow, while I was trying to distract myself from the frickmassive (it's totally a legit scientific measurement, science just hasn't discovered it yet) dates in my cereal, I was reading the back of my Kellogg's brand Nuts Delight Muesli (I have yet to discover why Indian English pluralizes stuff like that, e.g. we would say potato soup, here they would say potatoes soup (that is if they had potato soup)). So as I was reading the description of how luxurious and amazing the cereal I was eating I first encountered the obligatory reference to California almonds. This is par for the course. Almost all almonds I have seen here advertise themselves as from California, maybe to justify how expensive the dang things are.

The next part was the shocker to me. After describing the decadent and nutritious almonds, the box then claimed that it contained "succulent Canadian dates." It was there that I stopped. Canadian dates. Like that is a good thing. When I think of dates, I think of Bedouins riding camels with baskets of fruit through the deserts of Saudi Arabia to hawk at a bazaar. If pressed I can imagine Israel or maybe some of the Balkan states if I have to. But Canada? Why would you be excited to eat dates from Canada? That's like being excited to eat a made-to-long-ago and let-sit-too-long-in-a-wrapper-under-a-heating-lamp Chicago dog from the local grocery store deli.

This is what really got me thinking about what it means to be exotic. I realized that Canadian dates, in this context were incredibly exotic. What is more out of the ordinary and strange to someone sleeping in the crazy honeycomb of stores and apartments strewn with cables that is the neighborhoods in Old Delhi? The snickers bars I sometimes eat after eating a plate of rice and rajma and stir-fried vegetables is the exotic part of the meal. It isn't the random mystery vegetable balls that my pg sometimes serves (you would think that something like mystery meat would only exist in the U.S., but there are actually times when I am served some sort of ball or patty of who knows what vegetables in who knows what condition and you just take it and eat it without questions. It is probably better that way).

I am still working through this. So if you were expecting some profound, concise truth about the exotic or something, I am going to disappoint you. I don't know quite how to apply it or what it means yet. But I am realizing that this idea of foreign and native, near and far, exotic and banal, it is all much more complex than I had assumed it to be growing up. In my cultural exploration on this trip I have been really trying to see beneath the surface not at the differences, but how things are similar. There are so many things that seem "exotic", but really I am convinced more an more that everyone is basically the same, even across the East/West divide. All the different expressions of culture are serving the same basic needs. I can't think of a really cool, intelligent sounding, philosophical way to end this so I am just going to stop abruptly now.

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