Coming from “the West,” there is a tendency to view all things “East” as “exotic.” This intangible “other” that is distinguishably different from everything that we know and recognize walking down the streets of cities like New York, San Francisco, Toronto, Paris or Berlin.
We expect—naively—to step off the plane in Asia into a sensory overload of all things exotic and unknown. The reality, at least in Seoul, could not be more different.
In the span of 15 days I crossed the globe, leaving Newfoundland, Canada and arriving in Seoul, South Korea.
When I talk to people back home about my first days in the furthest place I could possibly go from anything familiar, I have this feeling like they are waiting for me to tell them about all exoticism I encounter.
Yes, Korean culture is, in some ways, very different from that back home, and the customary formalities are taking time to adjust to. But seeing them in practice by local people things rarely come across as truly exotic—at least in comparison to my imagined picture of what that should be—it’s just different.
What is it that drives Western fascination with Eastern exoticism anyways? What is it that will make some travel thousands of kilometers over oceans and mountains to fulfill this search for something exotic? Perhaps for those who really lust after it, finding the exotic is akin to some kind of euphoric high they must search out again and again.
The sorry reality is that the exotic, at least how one might imagine it from television broadcasts and films, is not so easily chanced upon.
Fascination with the East and the exotification of the East has gone through many reincarnations.
There were the missions to Manila and Japan where the Eastern cultures were seen as lowly, something to overcome—souls to be saved through Western beliefs.
Somehow we moved from there to an almost sexual fascination with the Eastern world—the mysticism of India, the Geishas of Japan, China’s Forbidden City—a fascination, truly, with stereotypes that are no more representative of those cultures as a whole than Coca Cola is of America.
Then, they were “Charlie,” “Commies,” all-in-all, the enemy, a war to fight, a place for young men to die.
Now they are K-pop, streets crowded with bicycles, and people wearing medical masks when they go outside.
We don’t often stop to think about whether this limited knowledge of the East is really representative of the people who live there or the lives they’re living. South Korea is unmistakably ethnically homogenous, and walking down the street I unavoidably stand out as different. But in a place so populous, you are never more than a stone’s throw from anything you could possibly want to do or see or buy, except maybe peanut butter.
It would be too cliché for me to launch into a diatribe about how people are more or less the same, and so I will do my best to avoid it, even if that is perhaps the very simple take away from this.
Walking down the street in the Gangnam district–aside from signs in a language I can’t read very well–nothing feels particularly different from what I’ve seen seen growing up in North America. There are wide sidewalks and tall buildings with stores selling clothes and food and accessories that I can easily identify. If I don’t think too hard about it, I could well think I was in New York or London.
People spend more time looking at their cellphones here than where I come from, there are more stores, and the queues for public transit actually are queues, not blobs, but I wouldn’t really call any of that exotic—just different.
Travelling to different parts of the city I still fail to see things or people that are distinctly exotic. At a ballet class on the 13th floor of a cinema in Sinchon after a particularly tiring jump exercise a girl makes the universal gesture of being tired in my direction, the same way myself and people in ballet classes in the six countries I’ve danced in commiserate with one another.
But part of me really wants to find that thing I can’t relate to or recognise at all, something to “write home about” so to speak.
In Namdaemun Market on a Saturday morning I finally catch my first glimpse of things that look distinctly different when I peer down an alley to find it so packed with people eating foods I can’t recognize that the cooks and servers can barely deliver to the customers.
Ah yes! This is what I’ve seen in the movies and on TV. This is the “exotic Asia” I thought I was coming to, and even this is barely exotic or different, if anything it’s just an indication of a population density that I have never before had to contend with.
But then, this is one moment in a city of 11 million people, not the norm. The norm is far from exotic. Perhaps, this is an indication of the global penetration and domination of Western culture, and I’m sure to an extent it is.
I think it’s also more than that.
From the rocky shores of Newfoundland to the tip of Argentina to the streets of Seoul, the lives of people—at least those in the middle and upper-middle class economic brackets—are not so greatly different. They go out with friends, listen to music, watch TV, go to school and aspire to similar jobs.
Exotic in the 21st century is so hard to come by because, stripped to the bones, we are so much more alike than we are different.
Climbing to the top of a hill in the Seoul National Cemetery I find myself standing in a place that contrasts completely with everything I have seen thus far of the city. I am at a Buddhist Temple. There is an orange-robed monk sitting cross-legged on the floor in one of the buildings leading people in chant while others go into different ornately painted structures to pray quietly.
I’ve never been to a Buddhist Temple before, and it looks like I’ve stepped back in time, it feels untouched by the uber-modern grasp technology has on Seoul, I truly feel far from home standing there looking up at this great statue and these beautifully painted buildings.
Is this the exotic we look for? It fits the description, the whole situation is entirely foreign to me. And if so, what right do we have find our exotic in someone else’s religion?
This thought brings me back to standing in a Synagogue in Prague last fall and watching other tourists walk around, marvelling at the “strange” objects that were on display and feeling uneasy. Those objects aren’t “strange” to me, they’re part of a belief system that is an important part of my life, just as this place is to the people who have come here to pray.
Standing at the top of the hill listening to the monk chant I am struck by the realisation of just how misguided my unspoken quest for the unfamiliar—dare I say exotic—is.
It’s not exotic, it’s different. And that’s a difference.