What makes something exotic?

Chances are when you think of the term ‘exotic’, what comes to mind are things that are unique and different from the area you grew up in. Things that are unusual yet captivating. Things that are unfamiliar and strange yet intriguing. Perhaps as is common, they’re objects from a faraway land. Or perhaps they’re in your neighbourhood but stand out from the norm.

If like me you’re from a country with notoriously bad weather, the word ‘exotic’ might evoke images of a tropical country with a paradisiacal climate. Or maybe what comes to mind is the peculiar script of a language that caught your eye.

Whatever the case, what’s universally true is that exoticness is relative — something is only exotic from a person’s subjective viewpoint. A tropical climate might be exotic to an English person but almost certainly isn’t for a Singaporean whose country experiences it all year round. Calling snow ‘exotic’ would be laughable to a Canadian but you only need look at an adult awestruck when seeing it fall for the first time to know that it can be. That script you find peculiar because it’s non-alphabetical and read in a different order is blasé to a native that has stared at it for years.

The origin of the word exotic comes from the Greek ‘exotikos’ which means “foreign” or “from the outside”. At its core, exoticness can be interpreted as anything that’s outside the boundaries of what’s familiar and normal to us.

By extension, a cultural boundary that shapes our worldview will not be the same for someone from a different culture meaning it’s plausible that an aspect of your culture is exotic for someone else even if you don’t see it that way. One man’s familiar trash is another man’s exotic treasure.

One man’s familiar trash is another man’s exotic treasure

Since everyone’s culture is unfamiliar to someone else in the world, everyone’s culture is exotic to another person in some way. This means that your culture will be intriguing to certain people whether you currently realise it or not. Chances are some aspect of your country/culture is fascinating to many people in the world — as a representative of your country/culture, this can be advantageous for you.

We’ve covered the origins of the word ‘exotic’ but another crucial point about the word is that most of the time it’s used to refer to something positively. Technically, ‘exotic’ could be used as a label for something with either good or bad meaning, for example it could be used to negatively highlight the strangeness of something.

However, modern usage of the word is mainly positive, commonly used to refer to something that’s exciting or interesting despite being different. Therefore if someone calls you or your culture exotic, it’s almost certain that you can take it as a compliment.

The key is figuring out how to benefit from the exotic perception of your culture.

Embrace your unique background

First and foremost, whatever cultural background you come from it’s important to completely accept it for what it is. 

Some people are proud of their culture but when travelling or moving abroad conceal parts of their heritage or refuse to indulge in an aspect of their culture that they would have back in their home country. This is particularly the case for those who’ve moved to countries with lower diversity where they’re relatively one of only a handful of foreigners. The urge to ‘fit in’ or at least not draw attention to being an outsider for worry of how locals would respond can inhibit cultural self-expression.

Understandably, in certain situations it might be wiser to not stand out if something from your cultural background might put you at risk. For example, someone travelling through a region with high religious tensions would be sensible in not displaying religious items they may have. Nonetheless, minority scenarios aside, you’re better off accepting that your cultural background makes you different overseas.

The reason is twofold.

First, it’s important that you accept your background as something that has helped shape who you are. Some people travel or relocate abroad as a form of ‘escapism’, attempting to leave behind hang-ups they experienced in their country of origin. At its extreme, this ‘escapism’ mindset turns into outright rejection or denial. While it’s perfectly understandable to want a better life wherever you’ve moved, it’s foolish to pretend to be something you’re not.

No matter how well you integrate into a new place or learn the local lingo, you’re never going to trick the natives into thinking that you’re one of them. It’s almost always apparent to the locals you encounter that you’re a foreigner — you shouldn’t try to conceal your background for fear of suboptimal integration.

There’s a difference between nativity and citizenship. While it’s entirely plausible that you can gain full citizenship in many countries, you shouldn’t fool yourself into believing you can become a native. Doing so would likely lead to disappointment in the long term; your assumption would not match the reality of how actual natives see you.

Instead, embrace that people you encounter for the first time will see you as foreign. Do not be shy about your foreignness. By accepting your unique background in the eyes of the locals, integrating into the country will be psychologically easier for you.

Embrace Your Exotic Culture

The ‘geoarbitrage’ of exoticness

The other reason relates to the prior point about embracing your cultural background.

Owning the cultural background that has shaped you leads to an authentic alignment with who you are. In turn, you’re more likely to meet likeminded people. This is the real strength of authenticity no matter where you find yourself.

Embracing your unique background isn’t supposed to lead to an outcome of pleasing or befriending everybody, that would be unrealistic. Rather, it accepts that some locals will not align with you but exposes you to potentially greater upside among those who may find your background fascinating. 

There’s no point spending energy trying to win over people who are never going to be receptive to you. Depending on the country you’ve moved to and your background, this will be a minority of locals or a significant number.

Those who authentically express themselves tend to find and connect with likeminded people more smoothly. Authentic people are more likely to stand out because they take a stand for something. Those who have even a semblance of interest in what these individuals stand for are drawn to their self-expression and confidence in their position. If it sounds simple that’s because it is — if you’re confident in owning your cultural background, you’ll find alignment with compatible people much faster.

In this sense, being exotic overseas can be a type of ‘geoarbitrage’. The concept of geoarbitrage refers to taking advantage of the difference in costs between two locations i.e. using a stronger currency or higher earning power of one country in a cheaper country.

Using currency as an example, your country’s own currency doesn’t generate any extra benefit domestically because your earning power is the same. However, if you convert your currency into the local one of a country with a cheaper cost of living and spend it there, you gain better value for money as you obtain the same things but for lower cost.

Likewise, in your country of origin, the shared cultural background of that society doesn’t lead to any further benefits for you because everyone belongs to the culture in some way. On the other hand, that same background may be considered rare and valuable in another country. My Britishness doesn’t give me added value in the UK but it does in other parts of the world.

Understand that finding ways to make your cultural background benefit you does not mean imposing your cultural values on others. Our focus should be on sharing aspects of our culture not forcing them upon people. With that in mind, let’s look at some specific ways to capitalise on your exoticness.

Practical ways to use your cultural background to your advantage

Find places where your cultural characteristics are desirable

Sometimes, it pays to move to an advantageous location from the start.

Figure out what aspects of your cultural background are valuable and consider moving to places that receive these positively. There are many characteristics to consider: accent, language, cultural reputation, country insights and more.

In addition to intangible traits, you may also have the ability to produce or acquire physical goods that represent your culture. For instance, your country’s cuisine is probably fascinating to many others and if you can’t cook and share dishes from it, you can probably give advice and use it as a topic of conversation at the very least.

Organise a meetup or event related to your country/culture

One of the best ways to proactively capitalise on your unique background is by setting up an event or helping to organise an established one.

With such events, you ideally want to open them to everyone and not just expats from your home country otherwise they become part of the expat bubble and aren’t leveraging your exoticness. However, you can consider teaming up with other expats of a similar cultural background to run an event.

Such events will introduce new people to your culture and gratify the desires of those who have an existing interest already.

A key point to understand about ‘exoticness’ is that it’s powerful because people crave novelty and uniqueness often. By running an event related to your culture in a different country, you’re almost guaranteeing a fresh type of activity for the people there. This allows you to capitalise on a niche since you can more effectively draw interest for the unique event you have to offer.

Arranging events is one of the best ways to expose yourself to upside with little downside. Events can be low-cost (such as a meetup or get-together) and if done well they allow you to establish a compatible community. At worst, you’ll have spent relatively little time and money. As a bare minimum, you’ll probably befriend and network with likeminded people. However with good upside, you’ll be a leader of a community and potentially sought out as a wider authority on your country and culture.

Attend international-oriented and multicultural events

Along with meetups and events related to your culture of origin, international-style events are a good way to connect with others who are likely to be open-minded in interacting and befriending non-natives. No matter how obscure you think your country is, chances are that someone at an international meetup will be fascinated by it and open to connecting.

Due to the intended high diversity of international events, most of them are held in larger cities and so may not be widely available to those living in more rural areas of a country. However, if you live within an accessible distance from a city that has such an event, it’s usually worth travelling to attend as they often have a good mix of locals and expats. This is particularly useful if you’re new to a country and want to meet people as quickly as possible.

Attend international-oriented exotic culture events

Perceived disadvantages can be used as strengths

There are many times when being an ‘outsider’ in another country can feel like a drawback but nevertheless still has benefits.

Someone who comes from outside of the local cultural ‘norm’ can have fresh insights that locals may miss. Remember that most people in the world don’t relocate abroad or travel extensively. Therefore, ‘outsiders’ often have compelling perspectives from their background that they can apply in the country they’ve moved to.

For example, before I moved to Japan to teach business English, I’d heard assumptions that the most popular teachers students choose are native English speakers because of the stereotype that natives must be better at teaching their language (not always true as any language teacher knows — good speaking ability and knowledge do not necessarily equate to good teaching ability).

In reality, there was little difference in popularity based on whether the teacher was a native speaker or not. Clients would choose to take lessons with a variety of people from all different types of cultures, demographics and backgrounds. For many students, it was the first time they’d ever met someone from a country, and for several, the first time they’d even heard of it.

Clients gravitated towards taking lessons with different people because of the unique background the teachers brought with them aka their exotic advantage. If anything, many of the non-native English speakers were more successful teachers because they knew exactly what it was like to be in the student’s shoes as a learner which helped them calibrate. They also tended to speak naturally slower compared to natives which was helpful to students and something natives often overlook. An ability to speak a language very fast is probably only useful if you’re a rapper. Since all the teachers were extremely fluent in English, the perceived ‘disadvantage’ of not being as fast as natives was actually an advantage when teaching languages.

Pay attention to opportunities to reframe your supposed drawbacks into strengths.

Summary

Always remember that exoticness is relative. Whatever your cultural background is, you have the ability to be positively unique somewhere else in the world or even in a different place in your own country. What you consider to be generic in your own country can be attractive to a foreigner.

When overseas, don’t be shy to embrace your own cultural background. By doing so, you’re more likely to align with compatible people who respond to your authenticity and admire the uniqueness of your cultural self-expression.

Since perceptions of cultures vary from person to person and nation to nation, recognise the different ways you can use your cultural background to your advantage abroad.

If you haven’t yet moved or travelled to a different country, think about which countries would view cultural characteristics you have positively. Organise events to do with your culture which can lead you to be a strong part of a niche community. You can also attend existing events or international-oriented ones to find likeminded people.

Last but not least, understand that the perceived disadvantages of being a foreigner can actually be strengths, sometimes it’s just a matter of being creative in how you apply your characteristics and in what areas.