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“Exotic” and “Native”

Alison's picture

“Exotic” and “Native”

 My first draft started with several questions on Momoko and her “exotic” identity. I wondered what is the real meaning of  “exotic” and how does people use it to define others. With the more exploration of Momoko, I was convinced that people should not be defined as exotic or native by its origin. As this word embrace more complexity related to identity.

A “native” person is “someone born in a specified place, region, or country, whether subsequently resident there or not.”  Oppositely, exotic means “originating in or characteristic of a distant foreign country.”(Oxford Online Dictionary) Although they seem to be neutral definitions, but exotic has some unpleasantly underlying meanings: according to Historical Thesaurus, the synonym of this word is strangeness, abnormality, unconformity and irregularity. And when a person is defined as exotic, she or he is automatically eliminated from the mainstream community.

Stick with the definition of “exotic” and “native”, Yumi is a native to Idaho. However, some of her actions such as her more “Asian” behaviors and abortion could be defined as strangeness and unconformity for the people living there and even for her foreign mother. Momoko, as a person who originates in a distant country, should be regard as “exotic”. However, she transfers from a wired foreign figure to a heroic women who helps many natives in America by preserving the diversity of plants. Comparing the origins and identity of Momoko and Yumi, it is interesting to find that the different origins is not sufficient to define a person as exotic, and boring in a specific place cannot make the people more native. People cannot be defined by the place they come from, they should be defined more upon their indentity and affiliation.

In this book, Momoko is the most exotic character: she is from Japan, brought by Lloyd after the war. She eats rice instead of potatoes, and she makes her daughter rice boll for lunch, which is queer to Yumi’s classmates. “She is the cutest thing they have ever seen, so delicate and fragile looking, like a china doll.”(5) In such a place like Idaho with few or even no Asians, she is totally exotic. In these years living in Idaho, she learns English, the habits and other aspects of a new culture, and she prefers going to Methodist church instead of the religion in her original culture. When Yumi asked her about the Zen in Japanese, she questions “Why you need enlighten when you got good Methodist church to go to?”(20) Even though she seems to get used to the life in Idaho with her American husband, she is still an exotic person from the her neighbor’s perspective. She is regarded as Lloyd’s “crazy wife” (9), a stranger who “still spoke with the deliberateness of a foreigner, carefully pronouncing words, lining them up one after another, and launching them tentatively into the air” after living fifty years in Idaho (10).

However, things are gradually changing with Momoco’s planting business. Lloyd, as a person lives with her for more than several decades, feels surprise when he first see the letters written by the customers of Momoko’s business. He found that she “had a set of connections and friendships, a whole world, about which he’d known little or nothing.”(112) He was supposed that Momoko’s only affiliation to this land is him, her husband, but she developed her own circle of friends and really join this new environment. She is accepted with more respects and love. She is not a figure hiding in the back and Lloyd’s wife anymore, she comes to the front and shows her value of as an individual.

From those letters from her customers and the inspiration Momoko gives to the “Seeds of Resistance”, Momoko clearly is not a symbol of abnormality, unconformity or irregularity anymore. Instead, she becomes the heroic person for preserving the diversity of plants and helping people with the similar demands. These descriptions are not correspond to the relatively wired and even crazy figure of Momoko when she firstly went to Idaho as an exotic person. She is still a person from a country far away from America, she still speaks influent English, maybe she still prefers eating rices, but she is not exotic anymore.

An opposite figure of Momoko is Yumi. Yumi is a native person in Idaho, but she does not think she belongs to this land. At the first several chapters after she goes back to Idaho, all the things she wants to do is leaving. And she thinks she would be an “angry housewife” if she stays here. She clearly feels more belonging in Hawaii or even in California where she could be in “a real Pan-Asian scene” (38). It is very interesting to think that she as an “hybrid” child with lineage from both America and Japan regards herself more as an Asian. She was born in America and grow up there. From the definition of the word “native," she should be a naive people in America and feel more affiliation as she is immersed in American culture for many years. But the fact is, she graduates form university “with honors in English and Asian Studies” (39, 40) and gets an award for her paper called “The Exiled Self: Fragmentation of Identity in Asian-American Literature”. When she is pursuing her master degree, her research is “Fading Blossoms, Falling Leaves: Visions of Transience and Instability in the Literature of the Asian-American Diaspora” (42). Concluded by that, Yumi cannot really be defined as a native American who should have more belongingness and emotions to that land and culture. In fact, she is more exotic to Idaho, even though her childhood friends, her parents and many acquaintances live there.

As a completely exotic character, Momoko seems more native to me who shares common values and immerse into the community in Idaho to some extent. However, Yumi seems to be exotic according to her thoughts and actions. Thus people cannot be defined as “exotic” only because they are not originally born or live in somewhere. It’s more about identity, not the location; it’s more about the cognition of oneself, and the willingness to comprehend and actively join into a culture and the place.


Works Cited

Ozeki, Ruth. All Over Creation. N.p.: Penguin, 2004. Print.



Anne Dalke's picture

Your first draft of this paper laid out several possibilities for exploring the concept of "exotic" in All Over Creation. This time 'round you've really structured the paper quite nicely as an extended comparison between Yumi ('born' native, but learning to 'act' exotic) and her mother Momoko ('born' exotic, but conversely learning to 'act' native). You conclude, twice, that "people cannot be defined by the place they come from, they should be defined more upon their indentity and affiliation," that "people cannot be defined as 'exotic' only because they are not originally born or live in somewhere. It’s more about identity, not the location; it’s more about ... the willingness to comprehend and actively join into a culture and the place."

I'd like to think through the implications of this claim a little more with you. You say that Momiko "is still an exotic person from the her neighbor’s perspective"; but later you say that "it's more about the cognition of oneself." So which is it (or both)? Is the measure of how exotic one is made by others, or by the self? And how separable is that self from others? The interesting shift you mark in Momoko's identity comes when her husband recognizes that she “had a set of connections and friendships, a whole world, about which he’d known little or nothing.” Here her work is acknowledged as useful by a community, who embraces her; it is their recognition that alters both her sense of self and her husband's sense of who she is. So it's more than, as you say, showing "her value of as an individual"; the sense of self emerges in the collective, which mirrors her back to herself. I'd say something similar happens to Yumi, when she leaves white Idaho to encounter "a real Pan-Asian scene,” and begins to explore its expression in literature as well as on the street and in her home.

In your first draft, I was most drawn to the thesis that "exotic" and "native" are just two ends of a temporal continum, with all "native things coming from somewhere else."  In that analysis, which category one (a person or a plant) lands in is not a distinction based on any fundamental difference, but rather only a function of time. Here you seem to develop a different idea: that one can decisively "land" in an identity, and claim it by active involvement in a given culture. I myself am a little more interested in the possibilities of fluidity...;)