My Exotic Life

At the same time that I have been sharing my life in mission through these blogs, I have been sharing some of my daily experiences with my friends and family on Facebook.  One reply that I keep getting when I describe my life is “how exotic!”  When I hear this comment, I aIways smile inside as I have never thought of my life in Asia as “exotic.”

  I have lived in many other places in my life and even in other countries, but my life has never been described as “exotic” as much as it is now.  I do think of my life as new and different here and some days, it is very different from home.  Yet the repeated use of “exotic” has made me reflect on what others are seeing and what makes for what everyone is calling my exotic life.

I think people use the word exotic especially when talking about a place or experience that is far away from your home.  I cannot think of a time someone described the United States or Canada as exotic. Things or places we know are more familiar but places far away from our home are what we think of when we say “exotic.”

When I think of the places I have heard people describe as exotic, it seems one thing they have in common is that these places often have a hot climate.  I have not heard of Alaska or Sweden as being exotic, but I have heard this about Papua New Guinea, Polynesia, and Thailand, all of which are in the hot tropics.

At times, it seems exotic is a way of speaking about cultures that may be more primitive than our own.  In the modern age, when other cultures are less technological, it is common to see them as something different, something foreign to us, something “exotic.” When our culture has forgotten its roots it is easy to forget how our ancestors held some of the very same customs and traditions.

I think the most common reason people have used the term “exotic,” in addition to the earlier reasons, is because they are encountering something unknown to them.  When others have habits, traditions, or foods very different from our own, we think of them being “exotic.”  Here in Indonesia we eat papayas, green or ripe, just as many cultures do, but since we also eat papaya flowers, papaya leaves, and banana flowers, those who have never eaten them call this “exotic.” 

If you ever see the cooking shows on tv, many of the fruits common to Indonesians, like dragon fruit, salak, or rambutan, are always called “exotic” by the North American/European cooks and chefs, but here they are normal.  Exotic often depends on where you live and what you know.  The more familiar something is to your culture, the less you will think of it as exotic, I think. 

It is true that if I was in the United States, I would probably think of many of the things I am seeing, doing, and eating as “exotic.”  Now that I am here on the other side of the world, I realize one person’s idea of exotic is just another person’s normal life.  I am trying to see the new things not as “exotic”, just different or special.  It is not that the word “exotic” is a bad word; it generally is a very positive word. 

The problem with this word is that when we see another culture only as “exotic” then we may be unable to see them as having normal lives.  Rather, we keep them in a gilded cage, like some people want to do with “exotic” birds or animals and only relate to them as something completely different from us.  When we do this, as Christians, we forget the words of St Paul who reminds us, because of our baptism we are all one body in Christ, each with different functions, but still one body.

This is the challenge before me right now, to share the new and different ways people live here and not put them in a box called “exotic.”  It is my challenge to see how their lives are ordinary for them and even the same as mine on the deeper level of hopes and dreams. 

I think the best approach to avoid these challenges is to follow a phrase we use in the United States, we are called to “embrace diversity.” It seems to me the word diversity does not patronize others as does the word “exotic.”  Embracing diversity still holds others’ beliefs and customs as special without forgetting another’s way of life is normal for them.

My life is richer for being here.  I have learned many new ways to experience and celebrate life.  I have eaten foods I have never heard of before.  I dance and sing in ways I have not before.  I have new words to call God, like “Tuhan,” “Bapa,”and “Allah.” I have learned that I must try to be present to the here and now instead of always thinking they are on the other side of the world.

Life here is definitely different and it is exposing me to a greater diversity than I have ever known- a diversity that has taught me everyone’s life is special and normal at the same time.  This diversity has also taught me my life is not so “exotic” as others think, but rather I am just getting to see a new face of God and the word “exotic” will never fully capture the depth of God’s love in this place. 

I don’t tell my friends they are wrong for using the word exotic, but in place of my “exotic” life, I do prefer to say I am living a “blessed” life.  I am blessed with new experiences that open me to a new experience of God and God’s creation.  I am blessed to pray in a language I fully don’t understand, because that always reminds me God is beyond all our words, English or Indonesian.  Lastly, I am blessed because my family has gotten a lot bigger than it was before I got here and slowly I am blessed because this new life of mine is beginning to feel normal.


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