Monday, April 11, 2005

Exotic "Otherness" Theory

Alex Strasheim emails me and offered an explanation called "Exotic Otherness" of why Westerners are so fascinated with Chinese characters:

I really love your blog -- it's a lot of fun, and I think that you're saying something about a fad that should be said.

One of the big issues your site raises is "why"? Why would people want text from a language they don't understand tattooed on their bodies?

I'd like to offer two possible explanations. First of all, you have to understand that you and I see these characters completely differently. At least I believe we probably do.

When I look at English text, I can't avoid pulling the meaning out of it. I don't see it as shapes of ink arranged on a page -- I see the words, and the meaning of those words comes into my head whether I want it to or not. I don't have a choice about that, it's completely involuntarily. I assume that you do the same thing with Chinese text.

With foreign characters, that's not what happens. I just see the design. Chinese and Japanese text is quite beautiful. I don't know if that gets lost in the meaning of the characters for you, but for someone like me, it's something I notice each and every time I see those characters.

So in that sense, the idea of having some calligraphy on my wall doesn't seem altogether bad. (Even though I don't.)

The other thing that comes into play is a little less pleasant -- I think it has to do with western people projecting things into the blank slate that the "otherness" of Asia provides. I don't think the stereotyping is explicitly negative, but it's not accurate, and it's narrow, so I think you'd have to say it's implicitly negative at the very least.

It's that exotic "otherness" that people want to reference with Asian characters.

A lot of people in the west like to think that Asians have access to wisdom that's hidden from us, or that the "Asian mind" is somehow different, or even that Asian people have sex tricks that are unknown to us.

This stuff can be really complicated, and I don't know what you can do about it. If you look at the representation of African Americans in American culture, you see a wide range of images, some of them extremely hateful, and others positive in unrealistic ways.

There's a long tradition of depicting black people as have access to a primitive yet powerful kind of folk wisdom, for example. You can see that pushed out really hard in a movie like "song of the south", and more recently in things like the guinan character on "star trek, the next generation".

But at the same time, the popularity of anime seems more sincere, and I don't think the American market is big enough yet to have much of an effect on what's being produced. I think that's an example of sincere admiration for something coming out of another culture, on that culture's terms.

I took some native American studies classes in school, and read a couple of essays by Indians who were sort of mildly upset by "new age spirituality" -- they felt that their beliefs were being distorted and trivialized, and that a lot of what was going on was sort of a scam to make money. It's not exactly the same situation, but it's somewhat similar.

I admire your approach. You point out the idiocy, but you're not too hostile, and you're not particularly angry about it. I think the moral of the story is that it's easy for people to misunderstand things, and the best way to clear up that misunderstanding is to have more dialogue with people who understand what's really going on.

Anyway, it's a very interesting site, and I hope you'll stick with it.


  1. (just to add a bit of historical background) Europeans were fans of 'exotic' Asian culture from way back before anime was invented...Oriental-looking stuff was called 'chinoiserie' in the 19th century. My roommate had to read Edward Said's "Orientalism" for class and she really really didn't like it.


  2. exotic otherness doesn't just pertain to asia. it's everywhere.

  3. Tattoo inflation?

    I see these in the same vain as "Barbwired biceps" tattoos.

    Remember those?

    Does anybody get those "inked" on still?

  4. I really liked Said, but then again I'm from a western perspective, so I don't know what that says about me or Said's work.

    Often Western culture romanticizes peoples who we feel guilty over, such as native peoples. It's a tough thing to talk about. Should people be able to adopt things from other cultures? Does it strengthen those cultures or diminish them? Who decides what is acceptable and what is not?

    I don't know *lol*

    But one thing I understand about the hanzi tattoos - kanji is beautiful, when the calligraphy is done well, and since tattoos are about visual designs on the body, if you want to say something, may as well say it in a way that is more visually pleasing to you.

    I think people see them as symbols rather than characters, which isn't really accurate.

  5. actually, i'm sure there's a frat boy somewhere in a small town who can't wait to get barbed wire on his bicep! (ewwwwwwwwww)

  6. Actually, it is just the exotic 'other'. The tattoos should be seen in the same vein as the odd English words that appear on T-shorts in Japan and China, sometimes the wearer knows what the word means but it doesn't really matter if they don't, it is just cool to do things in a foreign language.

    We used to quote French and Latin to do that, now we've moved on to Chinese/Japanese characters...same deal.

  7. The tradition is older than that. I've seen cloaks and embroidered tunics from the 12th century that have pseudo-Arabic text as the graphical, decorative element. Obviously they had seen Kufic inscriptions on clothing and other articles in the Middle East, and imported that "stylistic" look for fashionable clothing in the European West.

  8. Haha, except that the character Guinan on ST:TNG is not a human with African ancestry, she's an alien who's hundreds of years old, which is presumably why she gives good advice.

  9. I agree with a lot of what is said here, but I must disagree that Japanese/Chinese people don't see something pretty in 漢字. I don't know about China, but it seems to me that a whole lot more Japanese take calligraphy classes in high school than Americans or Europeans.