Slow hostel nights always lead to backpackers exchanging hours of amazing travel stories. But there’s a catch. First you must deal with 10 minutes of one-upsmanship from the night’s peacocks. It’s boring here, they say, “but at a party in Cambodia…” The words crazy, insane, exotic, and unbelievable then dominate their descriptions of what happened. It’s boring here, they say, but every experience that the peacocks talk about on these boring nights becomes exotic. And when they return to the 9 to 5 with their crazy, insane stories, they hope to be exotic back in Australia.
The temptation to exoticize foreign people ends as soon as you speak with them. “Exotic” people have different circumstances than we do, yes, and different opinions and tastes, but all have the same basic aspirations: be happy, take care of family, and live a meaningful life. Nobody considers himself the exotic furniture maker from rural Brasil. He considers himself Marco, who lives in Arambepe to stay close to his ailing mother and who feeds his family because he is skilled at making chairs with palm leaves. The unbelievable guy who makes crazy furniture using only a gigantic, ancient machete would be a software developer if he were born in Seattle.
Of course there are unique people. The man who spends his days as a teacher and his nights exploring the subway and sewer systems of Des Moines, Iowa and the Tanzanian woman born with AIDS who is now an honors student at Yale are certainly unique people, as are those who quit well-paying jobs to run a small charity started by their deceased sister. Nobody wants to meet these people though. They want to visit a Mumbai slum and gawk at the children. The practice of proclaiming foreigners, who are perfectly normal in their home environment, as unique because they’re unfamiliar is somewhere between condescending and colonial.
After staying with locals in gringo-free “exotic” locations like Brazil, Bolivia, and Kenya, the most out of place I ever felt was in… Switzerland. The expensive prices, rigid adherence to traffic laws, and whispered xenophobia made me feel like an outsider in Switzerland. A well-educated blond haired, blue eyed outsider of European descent. I don’t consider myself an honorary Kenyan or anything so silly, but I saw myself in the Kenyans that I met. The only major difference I saw between us was opportunities. I didn’t see myself in Swiss people who pretended not to notice the swastika drawn inside their train car. If I were Swiss would I look over my shoulder so I could complain about the Eritrean immigrants? Would I be angry at a man who just committed suicide by jumping in front of a train, viewing his horrific way to end his suffering simply as an inconvenience to me? I’ll never really know but I hope not.
I’ve yet to meet an exotic person. From Arizona to Athens to Africa, most everyone is formed by the circumstances they were raised in. I have met people who consider themselves exotic though. Plenty of them. They are almost always from the middle class and fleeing what they consider to be boring lives, thinking that if they live in a rain forest or take part in indigenous religious ceremonies that they themselves won’t be boring. If interesting people do this, and I do this, then I am an interesting person. Their new, exotic life is insane, crazy, and unbelievable, they say. The “exotic” people they want to emulate, of course, want nothing to do with them.
On slower nights, after the braggarts finish their stories, Bolivians sit around and talk about wide-eyed Californian visitors and the crazy, insane, unbelievable things they do.