And the problem with the word EXOTIC
Once we got a present from our friend. It was tiny, had yellow fur, four legs and a tail. It was called Dolly. It was a dog.
I may have to say a few words about pets in Kenya.
In my entire time here, I have only seen three small white pet dogs. The others are usually either stray dogs or security personnel. That means they are not petted. They are being fed in the evening, but caned if they start getting on peoples’ nerves. I trained Dolly a bit but she is not the norm. Children as well as adults fear touching her like they fear touching any other dog.
Compared to the common dogs in Kenya, who have a rough short fur and are rather bony, Dolly is almost fluffy, especially her ears, and a bit smaller than other breeds.
When we called the vet to vaccinate her, he filled a little pink passport for her with her name: Dolly. Colour: brown. Breed: exotic.
That made me smile – and think. This breed is not common in Kenya, therefore it must be exotic. This applies to other areas, too. There are exotic trees and exotic cows. People here use the word exotic to describe species. And indeed, these species of animals or plants are often common in my country.
The word exotic originates in the late 16th century and stems from the Greek word exōtikos (foreign), from exō (outside). The Greeks therefore called anything outside Greece, or let’s say outside the European space, exotic.
Can something from inside Europe then be described as exotic at all?
Another question: What is wrong with describing something or somebody as exotic, foreign, attractive? If you stress a certain population’s dancing talents, their colourful dresses, or the wild and rich nature, isn’t that a positive thing? What does it have to do with racism?
Here are the problems with exoticising people or countries:
- People are generalised and certain characteristics are given to them. Differences and varieties disappear and they all become one mass.
- Mostly such expressions stress the emotional or visual aspects. Single persons’ intellectual abilities or what makes them human are ignored.
- The “exotic” global South is the contrast to the “enlightened”, “rational” and “well-organised” global North. When presenting a group of people like that, we also put ourselves and our own culture above them.
- The same applies to wild, exotic stretches of nature, where travellers can present themselves as courageous adventurers, explorers and heroes. The academic, economic and governmental potential of these countries doesn’t count.
You can download this free worksheet with a little eye-opening puzzle with words used to describe the differences between global North and South. You will soon find out that they are hardly neutral. (It’s part of the free online course.)
In my own opinion, it should be fine to describe a certain species of animals or plants as exotic, meaning uncommon, not indigenous, from outside.
But travellers must be aware and careful with exoticising landscapes, people and entire continents.
How do you deal with “the Exotic”? Let us know in the comments below. (Also let us know how you find Dolly. She’s our baby!)
For even more insights on how to travel – and write about it – responsibly, more worksheets and videos – and less dogs: