Thursday, December 11, 2008


HSCBC has an advertising campaign called 'point of view', where they compare two things, and show how they can be differently understood according to their cultural context. Images of sumo wrestling and muay thai alternate the words 'violence' and 'art', showing how a little shift in geography can mean a total shift of mind.

I was thinking of this idea a lot in my final days of travel, as I realized how Southeast Asia had become so mundane to me. Two years ago, the towering temples of Bangkok had seemed completely exotic-- yet after my year and a half of residence, they had become quite ordinary. Contrarily, the adobe houses and big blue skies of New Mexico had once been quite commonplace for me, but had since become rather romantic in my mind. At the point where I could pass by a gorgeous glittering wat without raising an eye, I knew it was time to leave Thailand. I wanted to be able to reinvest Asia with a little bit of the exotic I had lost.

I know there's a lot to be said against the exotic. It's a distancing device, a potential method of primitivization, it's the opiate of the tourist. But I have to say that a lot of what keeps me connected to the world is the draw of the exotic. Is there a way to construct the exotic so that it doesn't rest on out of date tropes and patronizing ideas of a disconnected world? What does the exotic mean nowadays, and should we still be opposed to it?


a said...

You beat me to it! I was writing something very similar just last night (about fruit actually!), now I'll let it rest a bit.

I think I wrote this before before, but I thrive on being able to digest the once "exotic" into the familiar or even mundane. This is almost impossible to do on a quick visit; it takes time to live, learn, understand, and assimilate into your life the things that make sense. Understanding is always preferable to superficial experience. I gained and grew a lot by living for over two years in Bangkok, I don't know about if a trip to Angkor Wat did much for me.

The lure of the exotic is the transformative/fossilizing element that leads to the themepark-ization of place. I certainly don't blame people in far flung republics giving the tourists a taste of what they think they want, but it is certainly as destructive a force as much as it is a preserving one. The exotic leads to the end of evolving culture, it leads to human zoos, it destroys the very place the tourist has come to witness.

I feel what you are staying and am having a bit of a crisis about these issues. After years of living and travelling around the world, I've kind of sworn off it for a while. I am certainly quite bored at the moment.

Thanks for getting me thinking.


Ange said...

Interesting thoughts to digest...

I think one of things that the "exotic" does for me is bring me into the present moment in a way that the "mundane" just doesn't.

Still I tend to agree with a regarding the way the tourist industry tends to capitalize on this making things less of an authentic experience.

Prêt à Voyager said...

Fascinating ad campaign (first time seeing it). In with the idea of the exotic and the mundane is the whole fact of "normalization" or what we see when we travel and how we become used to/accustomed to what we are seeing. While watching "Slumdog Millionaire" I thought of all my experiences I had in India (visiting an orphanage, painting a school) and beyond (visiting the townships in South Africa). I wondered if I loved this movie so much because I had all these experiences and witness part of the world and "lived" the reality (but those who have never traveled to India love it too). But that's what this movie does so well - it shows off a slice of life that whether or not you've seen it first hand - the story is told in a way that feels so real. It doesn't have to even try to be exotic. The scenes at the Taj Mahal play on what we as tourists are looking for in the "exotic" so it's almost comedic to see it told from an Indian point of view. . . I think as along as we're always a bit self aware, and striving to learn about new places, and looking at cultures from an ethnographic standpoint, we will always be able to find things that exotic to us, but mundane to others. For me though, the mundane- signs, food, patterns, colors, words in a city are what make it exotic. As I photograph my own city, I'm able to make it exotic in it's own way (I mean you've seen on my blog - Baltimore has it's own flavor way beyond the tourist hot spot of the Inner Harbor!). It's all about how you look at the world! Funny too, because we all have to learn that it's ok to look at it in non-traditional ways sometimes.


Laura Kelley said...

Hi Xander:

Thanks for stopping over at Silk Road Gourmet - I thought I'd return the favor and see what you've been up to.

Love this post. . . particularly because (in addition to the great points spelled out) it also shows how "truth" can change as does one's point of view.

I also think the quest for the exotic is an interesting topic in general. Different people go about it in different ways.

Some travel the world looking for it, and despite their quest, continue to find reflections of themselves and their microcosom instead of saomething really "foreign".

For others, the quest is smaller in scale and much more sensual - the truly great meal, or (for smokers) the fine cigar.

An interesting - if somewhat self absorbed - film to see along these lines is the old, "My Dinner With Andre" that features two old friends with very different world views facing off over dinner.

Anyway, great post. Glad to have to back in one piece through the crucible of Thai revolution.

Tell me, what's next for you? More travel ro working stateside for a while?

Robyn said...

The word 'exotic' makes me cringe, though I know it's used all the time. 'Interesting' seems such a blah term in comparison, but it's what I travel in search of. Or stay home in search of.

Good post - I had all sorts of similar thoughts after our last trip to the States. Somehow the US seemed more interesting to me that trip than it ever has. I don't know if that's a function of being a way for awhile or if maybe I've become more observant (traveling with a photographer helps).

Enjoy the cold weather!

kristine said...

I love that HSBC campaign - I think the reason it has been so successful is that it plays on getting us to change our paradigms. Its like that picture of the old/young women, you know the one I mean? Until you have spotted them both, you are stuck seeing only one version. Once you are able to see both, it becomes so obvious.

I think its the same with the exotic. Very regular things become so super interesting to me when I go home to the UK or home to Norway - street signs, and the way the inside of a bus looks, or the water glasses at a restaurant. Its all about the paradigm.

I think maybe it is quite important to keep that alive a little. I sense that going to new places brings less of the "Oh WOW" factor these days than it did 5 years ago...perhaps I am saturated. But whoever said above that a trip to Angkor is less inspirational than some time spent doing the "mundane" everyday things in a foreign country - hear hear!


Yoli said...

I think "a" summed it up very well. I also think it has a lot to do with your level of education and appreciation.

Jamie said...

Well said and couldn't be truer. We're on our way home from China and I honestly can't wait to see the small country towns of Tennessee.

Happy Holidays!!

Anonymous said...

I hardly every use or say the world exotic.
I've lived, worked abroad for many years now and quite frankly things are never exotic to me, they're simply beautiful, something that I don't see on a daily basis but quite normal to for the people who live in that region where I happen to find myself.

Mikey D said...

That's a good ad campaign and I know what you mean after all of my travels. After returning from Bolivia, home became exotic again, if not futuristic. All sorts of new music was popular and everything more high tech.

I have those thoughts all the time, the juxtaposition of different points of view like that. Finally an ad campaign that expresses the real me.