It’s going to happen without you realizing. It always does — trust me. We’ll be out together some night, somewhere, just two anonymous faces in the crowd, wined and dined and lingering into those early hours just before the morning, and you’re going to lean in and whisper, you’re so exotic.
I know, because I’ve been there before. It happens more often than I’d like to admit, more often than I think anyone would like to think about. The first time a man told me that, I poured over a dictionary, a hard, heavy, bound thing that had grown dust. But I needed to look it up in paper, not on a screen. It was late at night, and my mind raced, my tongue tripping over each of the syllables, the word already stale in my own mouth. Exotic.
ex·ot·ic [ig-zot-ik] (adj.)
1. of foreign origin or character; not native; introduced from abroad, but not fully naturalized or acclimatized: exotic foods; exotic plants.
2. strikingly unusual or strange in effect or appearance: an exotic hairstyle.
3. of a uniquely new or experimental nature: exotic weapons.
4. of, pertaining to, or involving stripteasing: the exotic clubs where strippers are featured.
5. something that is exotic: The flower show included several tropical exotics with showy blooms.
6. an exotic dancer; stripper.
I sat there, confused. Unsure. Funny, I never thought of myself as strange. I knew I wasn’t foreign. Why would a word — an arbitrary word, an innocuous word, just a word, just letters and sounds — make me so uneasy? Maybe because words have all the power we give them, and some words whispered between lovers late at night are meant to draw them closer. I am yours, you are mine. You’re so exotic, the echo hinting at all the ways you might want to somehow naturalize me. To claim me as your own. I can be yours if I choose to be yours. But I am not your exotic girlfriend.
Because your telling me I am exotic is to feel like I’m Other, to feel strange, unwanted, unwelcome, unnatural. I was born here, you know. There’s no naturalization to do, no nativeness I need to prove. The right to be here belongs as much to me as it does to you, and I’ll correct your English not because I feel as if I have something to prove in regards to what is, yes, my native tongue, my first language — but because I’m insufferable that way. I will devour pop culture and books not because there’s something in the water that tastes better on this side of any border, but because I am a nerd and like the fairytales and blow-em-up movies that seem to be a specialty from these parts, our parts. Because those are what I grew up with. Those are what I knew. Those, to me, are normal. Because they are normal. To like the mainstream thing is not assimilating myself, not acclimating myself, not forgetting where I came from. I never forgot. I came from here.
Is it my looks, you mean? The curves and slopes of my body, the color of my hair (that, to be honest, comes from a box, not a country) or my eyes or the shape of my lips? I can tell you where to buy my lipstick, my dress. How to style another woman’s hair so that she resembles me, so that we are no longer women but mirror images, an idea of what a woman might look like. You can get my tan in a booth or a spray or too much time in the sun. There is no part of me that you cannot buy or create these days. And even women who look like an ideal – whatever that is — are always chasing for more, for better, for surgery and elixirs and salves and potions and prayers that will turn cellulite to curves and skin sun-kissed and shiny with sweat, the way you see in music videos. But even those are fabricated.
Those are a false ideal, and they’re no more natural than photoshop or propaganda from the old days, when that word really came into play with the jet set, traveling off to foreign locales. That’s where it comes from, you know, the rich and famous who were the only people who could afford to travel, or even the G.I.s tramping through distant tropical jungles, discovering something other than their notion of what home was. But other was normal to these people who lived there, those people who were then called exotic because they were other, even if the other were the tourists, the travelers, the soldiers at war. Each side was going to see the other as strange — we’re human, and it’s only human to classify things as like us or unlike us. We see things in juxtaposition to what we know, in contrast and comparison to ourselves.
People are resilient, funny things. We can thrive on our own terms without assimilating to any one culture, even if it’s outside the world we think we know. There are no rules to play by, least of all the rules of your own society. Of my own society. Of our society.
I never did well with rules, anyway. You’re going to call that the exotic side of me, the hot-headed, fiery, spicy, loud, sultry side. Try a stereotype, I’ve heard it all. None of it is true. None of it was a birthright, you cannot find that fire in my blood. In truth, I’m just stubborn. That’s just how my personality ended up, cultural identity or otherwise.
Because I am not your exotic girlfriend, no matter how different I may be from the girls who came before. And if you’ve dated other girls like me before, if you say you have a thing for the exotic, I’m going to wonder if you veer towards a fetish, a preference, a predilection, a type. I may be your type, I may have had some sort of spark in me that stood out, something that drew us to each other, a commonality — but I am not your fetish.
And if this is fetish you’re exhibiting, I don’t know if I can take this on. I don’t know how to be feral and foreign because I am neither of those things, and if you need some vulnerable little thing, unsure of where she stands in the world, if you want to project those dynamics, if you need me to need you, I can’t do that. Even beyond not wanting to be identified in ways that are stereotypes and are far removed from any one personal experience and true identity, it makes me shudder to think that I could or would wind up with someone who would objectify me — who might neglect to deal with the reality of the complexity that lies in any human being at all. And for what? All for the sake of how a false, two-dimensional version of a so-called “exotic” girlfriend looks on him, as if a girlfriend who is in any way different is any less a girlfriend and therefore, more like an accessory, or clothing you can wear. I don’t make you more worldly, less racist, more inclusive just because you date me. I am not your free pass. I am not proof that you’ve evolved just because you were open to the idea to sleeping with me.
Because to be in a relationship is to find someone who values you as a person – who really knows and respects you. I can’t help you patch up any of your own insecurities with all the Otherness I might be able to offer.
And in truth, there is none on offer to begin with. In truth, I am not exotic. I may be different, but we’re all headed toward different anyway — this ever-continuing, ever-changing, ever-evolving reach toward global and instant and multicultural and new and celebratory and layered. People have known multiple languages for centuries, have prided themselves on these words intermingling in their minds and in their mouths. And I know there’s war in the world, we see it every day in the news, and the aggression between races can seem strange and misplaced, mountains out of molehills, as if we should be past that, but we’re not past race. Nor should we be. Because to say you don’t see color is to imply that there’s a whole background of history and culture and identity that you’re choosing to gloss over, to blanket, so that we all start from scratch. We can’t, of course, you know that. Don’t you?
I am not your exotic girlfriend because your world is as different to me as mine is to you, too. You could be my exotic boyfriend. Should we switch roles? Should we play those parts? Would you like to feel foreign and other and strange? There’s a whole culture in you that I don’t know. And I’d like to learn it, if you’d let me. I want to meet your parents and find out what your mom cooks for holidays and what birthday games you play and what nursery rhymes you sang as a kid. I bet you they’re different from mine, even if we grew up in the same backyard. We’re both natural here, you know. We both have the right.
And if it feels so natural here next to you, why should I suddenly be made to feel like I’m Other with that word tripping over your lips? With your eyes compartmentalizing every bit of me that might look a little bit different, all the nicknames you think are cute but I think are hurtful. I can be different because I’m not like any of the other girls you’ve ever dated before. I will be fine with that, though it will gnaw at me and I will wonder what you mean. But I am not your political statement, not a prize to be won, not your rebellion against your parents or your grandparents or the culture or society you may or may not want to reject. I am not some eden, some promised land because of my skin or my hair or my father’s accent.
I can be your girlfriend — with a culture and a history and family traditions that may seem a little different from your own — but still, as a woman, love you all the same. Differences don’t change love, so I could love you and you could love me.
But I am not your exotic girlfriend.