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“Exotic” and “Native”

Alison's picture


ESem Paper #9 (3rd draft)
November 15, 2015

“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 and deeper analyses of Momoko and Yumi, I was convinced that people should not be defined as exotic or native by its origin, instead, they should be defiance by the connection to a place. 

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.

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.  She starts building her social connections with other people in this land. 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. 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. 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 person 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.

The reason to cause these difference is related to “connection”. For Momoko, she does not have a deep connection with her relatives or friends in Japan. It is reasonably for me to speculate that she does not contact the people or she is not able to contact her families in Japan anymore. The social relationship she has is in Idaho, the place where she starts her business, helps and inspires many people, and built her new family. In this case, Japan is only a symbol of “hometown” but not really the please with lots of memory and cares. She might feel more native when she lived in Japan, but she definitely feel more native in America after so many years passed by. For Yumi, her appearance makes her apart from her friends, but the culture and the environment where she grows makes her immerse in the society. However, she does not have an intimate relation with her family, and there are no signs that shows she has close friends except for Casey.(And I think the friendship between Casey and she is not that close to influence her identity.) In this situation, she needs to find a way to define herself. Finally she settles in Hawaii, a place with more Asian people than that in Idaho, and more hybrids as well. Thus it is reasonable to say that the identities of Momoko and Yumi should not be defined by her birthplace.

However, for most of the people who do not have the multinational background as Momoko and Yumi, the birthplace plays a very important role in search of an identity. I feel exotic in America because my identity is bound to the place that makes me carry the history of a nation. The strong connection between my country and I makes me feel pride and shame as well as the country experience the similar process. The deeply ingrained culture makes me feel completely native in China. However, this situation is not applied to Momoko and Yumi as their identity is not simply about one country. So they are finding their own way to shit from places to places when the connection to their birthplace is not strong enough to make people feel native, the identity will shift.

According to the examples of Momoko and Yumi, the identity of people can be defined by their birthplace. But the most important thing to define a person is the social connection the place carries instead of the place itself. When a person lost the significant relation with a  place, its identity will not tied to the place anymore. 


Works Cited

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


Anne Dalke's picture

I'm appreciating your continuing to work and re-work this essay; with each revision, it becomes more pointed. This time 'round you're really emphasizing the network of connections that one can develop where one lives (wherever one might have been born), as a way of distinguishing between what happens with Momoko and what happens with Yumi. It's a nice comparison.

But then what surprises me is that (having developed this argument) you turn, in the next-to-last paragraph of the essay, to reflect on "most people, who do not have a multinational background," and insist on the importance of birthplace in reference to their identity: they are "bound to the place that makes them carry the history of a nation."

Which leaves you saying three (contrary?) things in your final paragraph: that "the examples of Momoko and Yumi" show that identity "can be defined by their birthplace" (though you'd just proved exactly the opposite). Then you claim that the most important dimension of identity is not place, but "social connection" (which is what you had shown...until you brought in "most people" who lack multinational backgrounds). And then you end with the observation that, when a person loses "significant relation with a place," their "identity will not tied to the place anymore" (also confusing, since you'd claimed above that it wasn't place, but "social connection," which mattered.

In short: increased clarity in the first 6 paragraphs, but lots of (new? or still tangled?) confusions in the last 2!