“Exotic” and “oriental” in speech

Since it’s our annual team week this week and I will not be there, a lot of my colleagues have been asking me where I am going and what I’ll be doing instead. I never intentionally planned for personal travel during this time, but from my perspective, it seemed like poor planning on our team leadership’s part by never polling anyone to ask what their summer plans were. It is what it is.

While many have responded saying that they think my trip will be really exciting, filled with delicious food, historical sights, and a walk through, in Shanghai, of memory lane, I got one response that I wasn’t completely prepared for.

“WOW! That sounds amazingly exotic! I hope you have an amazing time!” one colleague exclaimed.

“Exotic”? I had to give myself some time to take this in to understand why I was not a huge fan of that word choice, and why this response kind of made me uncomfortable. In its plainest definition and form, “exotic” means “originating in or characteristic of a distant foreign country.” So, for example, we oftentimes will call a bird “exotic” if it is not of the native land in which we reside. A secondary definition of “exotic” is: “attractive or striking because of colorful or out of the ordinary.”

The above definitions don’t seem offensive, right? And I know from knowing and working with this colleague that she in no way would ever mean to be offensive or rude at all. But it still made me feel a little annoyed. And it reminded me of why I hate the term “oriental” when describing East Asia and why it’s always bothered me. It rarely is spoken or heard, this term, but very occasionally, I do see it in writing, and I do hear people use the term “oriental” when referring to food or even groups of people, and those people are usually older since the term is quite dated. The cheeky response back to someone who would ever attempt to call me oriental is, “Well, I’m not a carpet.” And the meaning behind a comeback like that is… I’m not an object. Calling me “oriental” is basically objectifying me and my culture, and no one wants to be objectified. But to flush that thought out more thoroughly, Erika Lee, the director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota and author of The Making of Asian America: A History,” explained this: “In the U.S., the term “oriental” has been used to reinforce the idea that Asians were/are forever foreign and could never become American. These ideas helped to justify immigration exclusion (hello, Chinese Exclusion Act), racial discrimination and violence, political disfranchisement, and segregation.” Lee also claimed that the continued use of the term “perpetuates inequality, disrespect, discrimination and stereotypes towards Asian Americans.”

So that is really what I hear when I hear someone call my mother or father country “exotic.” It’s being categorized as “other,” “foreign,” “distant,” removed from the everyday that is here in the United States. It is not like us here in the land of the free. And that truly is not the case because the U.S. is a country of immigrants from around the globe. I wish more people would readily acknowledge that and acknowledge that all our differences is what truly make up this country.

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