In America, I do not stand out. In a country that has prided itself on being a “melting pot” for many years, the vast spectrum of skin tones, hair and eye colors, heights, and weights means that I am just another blue-eyed, dirty blonde-haired, slightly tall, average-framed, pale-skinned woman. There are thousands more like me. It’s an interesting oxymoron: because everyone is so different, your defining attributes largely go unnoticed. I am the opposite of exotic. I am vanilla.
But not in Japan, where ninety-nine percent of the population is homogenous. (To be clear, I am not claiming that all Japanese people look alike. I’m only saying that when it comes to hair, eye, and skin color, the spectrum is much less varied.) Here, especially in the rural part of northern Honshu, where I live, I’m suddenly the one who sticks out. With the beginning of a new school year, there are suddenly three hundred new students roaming the halls. Most of them are too shy to speak to me just yet, but for the brave ones, the first words out of their mouths are almost always “青目” (ao me, “blue eyes”), voiced in a tone that is usually equal parts surprise, awe, and envy. If I got a hundred yen for every time I’ve heard that phrase in the past few days, rent this month would easily be paid. My eyes, true, are a vivid enough blue that they get remarked upon in America, but in Japan? They make me an anomaly to be gawked at.
That reaction is strengthened even further when I stand up. At 5’9”, I tower over the vast majority of the population. One of my more poetic students remarked one day, while I was practicing Japanese archery with my long hair down, that I looked like an Amazon warrior. In Japan, land of kimono, sushi, and kendo, I am the exotic one.
Even more strangely, I’ve started to view other Westerners as being exotic now. Any trip to Tokyo, where foreigners run rampant, results in reminding myself that I can’t gawk at non-Japanese people. A visit to America now feels like a barrage on my senses. I’m not used to seeing so many different colors of hair, skin, and eyes. I’m used to the homogenous now. So many variances seem strange.
It’s funny to see how our perception of what is exotic changes, depending on the place. The more foreign and novel something is, the more exotic. If it comes from a place we view as inherently mysterious, chances are that we’ll put some stock in that belief, no matter how implausible it actually is. For example, this picture has been floating around the Internet in recent months. It’s of a “moonmelon,” a fruit that looks like a watermelon, except the inner flesh is blue. When you eat it, the fruit supposedly switches up your sense of taste, so that sour things taste sweet, water takes on a strong citrus flavor, and salty foods taste bitter. Not surprisingly, this ‘miracle’ fruit only grows in certain parts of Japan, the home of other such bizarre, crazy foods like sea cucumber, cod sperm sacs, and square watermelons.
I can assure you that the moonmelon does not exist, not in Japan or any other “exotic” place. But the very fact that it came from Japan, a place that Westerners largely perceive to be unknown and mysterious, made it seem plausible.
You see this skewed view of exoticism in other ways, too. McDonald’s in Japan often has Texas or Idaho burgers (and the advertisements usually feature some sort of cowboy, because, you know…that’s America), and they’re usually wildly popular. “Exotic” might not be the word that comes to mind when describing a hamburger, but they’re still viewed as something out of the ordinary. In actuality, there’s really nothing remarkable about them, but the very fact that they’re associated with a far-off place makes them seem special and unique.
I don’t think that anything is truly exotic, at least not universally. It’s only different from what we’re used to seeing. What’s mysterious to one person is completely normal to another. You can be average in one place, only to be treated with near-celebrity status a few hundred or thousand miles away. Stepping outside of our comfort zones means that we can realize that the thing we admired and dreamed about is considered normal by everyone else. Or, alternatively, we find out our “normal” is someone else’s “bizarre.” It makes you appreciate what you have. You learn to look at things through the eyes of another.
Vanilla for us might be boring, but for someone else? It’s anything but.