Colonial Fantasy, Sexual Desire and Saving the Exotic Dark Other (aka Why Are You With This Guy?)

One of the most insightful articles I remember reading during undergraduate anthropology was by an English literature scholar examining western fascination with the ‘exotic other’. He described how the white tendency to fetishise and ‘study’ colonised populations was driven not only by the need for expanding markets at the economic level, or the need for greater territory and military prowess at the political level, but also by sexual desire for the exotic at the psychological/unconscious level. Indeed, he suggested that cross-cultural interaction and influence during the colonial moment (which is ongoing in many parts of the world) spreads through a limited number of ways – namely, language and sex (I can’t remember if he included trade). He often referred to colonial anthropologists and geographers who were well respected in their home countries and professional fields, despite of (or because of?) their wide-ranging sexual relations with ‘the natives’. Such sexual desire for ‘the natives’, according to this writer, was underpinned by a sense of adventure and conquering the unknown, and a drive to realise and strengthen one’s own civilised whiteness and identity by saving the exotic other from the dark throes of savagery.

Thankfully, ALL the people he referred to were male and white. In fact, the entire article was about white male sexual desire and how it is indulged through colonial relations and the western missionary/saviour complex.

Phew! thought the starry-eyed humanitarian in me. I’m not white, I’m not male, I don’t have a penis which can hide my brain when it doesn’t want to work, or a libido that can be titillated by a brown-skinned girl in a coconut bra. So my desire to help all those dark people in all those poor villages is not at all related to white colonial sexual fantasy and an unconscious saviour complex, right?

Ummm…wrong, according to my therapist.

To backtrack slightly, L and I are having some pretty major issues right now as he goes through a rough patch. To deal with all of this, I booked myself into a counselling session, because I don’t really know what else to do besides cry tears of frustration and slam all the doors in the house until they disintegrate into cracked splinters. (Oh, and blog).

The therapist took one look at my situation and saw western-wannabe-humanitarian-meets-black-boy-in-distress. She gently explained to me how, sometimes, people with a human services orientation meet somebody ‘interesting’ and initiate a relationship with that person not for who they are, but because of who they represent, because of all the potential in them to change. Or, more accurately, the potential in them to be changed (i.e. be saved). She reminded me that “He is not a project; he is not a member of population you are interested in studying; he is a human being who can only help himself”.

Yup, thanks for reminding me that my partner is a human being.

Forgive my sarcasm. I just can’t help but feel completely misunderstood and patronised. I know she was well-meaning and concerned for my welfare, but implying that I am with somebody for all the wrong reasons and that I am incapable of loving somebody outside of my professional and academic commitments, is hardly conducive to healing. And the more sinister implication that I am with L only to realise an aspect of my own identity (western saviour to this ‘traumatised’ black boy) was absolutely devastating.

(I guess my therapist, if she ever read this, would read a lot into my defensiveness here. But whatever).

I fled that counselling session and am yet to get up the courage to go back. Maybe if she had asked questions about how we met, how long we’ve been together, the nature of our relationship and how we feel about each other, she would have realised that I am acutely aware of this dynamic. It took me almost 3 years to agree to go out with L because I wanted to make sure my feelings were genuine. I would never have been that careful had he been a white guy; I would have plunged into the relationship, ‘given it a shot’, and sorted out the issues later. Yes, I treaded water carefully because of his personal and cultural background, even tolerated things that I would not have tolerated had I been with the guy-next-door. But ‘giving way’ in such a relationship (where there is an imbalance in racial privilege, at least publically) – or even BEING in such a relationship in the first place – does not automatically call into question one’s basic reasons for loving their partner.

These thoughts have arisen in response to a great conversation amongst South Asian intercultural relationship bloggers about balancing their ‘gori’ identity with their partner’s culture. Some, like Sara at A Little Bit of that Too, went through a stage of enthusiastically courting South Asia. Others have never felt the need to embrace their partner’s culture so enthusiastically.

Adding my two cents worth, I commented on a number of posts that I would never overtly embrace the markers of L’s culture, or even directly express interest in the cultural differences between us. If I did, L would think I was just being a middle-class, confused white person who doesn’t truly understand cultural difference at all (and worse still, a try-hard white person because I’m not actually white: trying to be white by trying to be ethnic!). On the back of his interactions with westerners here and in Africa, he very much associates this fascination for ‘other cultures’ with white fantasy and colonial exoticisation (in Australia, it’s certainly true that most people’s perceptions of and questions about Africa are based more on personal ideas/fantasies than on any real knowledge of what life is like over there).  So, if I expressed interest in his culture, for him it would be more about me using it to explore an aspect of my own identity (Eat, Pray, Love style), rather than actually understanding where he’s coming from (even though I LOVE learning about other cultures, and from my perspective it’s about understanding others as well as myself). And in so far that I have the privilege, education and resources to make such dips into another culture to ‘discover myself’ and ‘have a spiritual awakening’, yes, the process is inherently exploitative and tinged with racism. In the extreme version of this argument, embracing Africa would simply be a tool to solidify my own sense of self as an enlightened cosmopolitan westerner (the ‘trying to be white by trying to be ethnic’ thing isn’t a joke).

A lot of this stuff also comes from my own experience of fielding ‘culturally sensitive’ comments and questions from people in Australia who, despite their good intentions, come across as infuriatingly ignorant. But it’s best not to get started on this…

Until now I have felt just a wee bit smug populating the blogosphere with my clever commentary. The “I’m so enlightened and cosmopolitan and suave that I don’t even have to embrace another culture to prove my enlightened-cosmopolitaness” type of smug.

Then I remember how hurt I felt when my own motives for being with L were bluntly questioned. And how angry I felt when we were typecast into a saviour/other script that, at least in my mind, ran with the more extreme points of the exoticism and colonial desire argument; without once acknowledging all the love, frustration, joy and anger that goes on between us as two people, independent of any historical and psychological meta-narrative we may fall into.

Having spent much time at university examining patterns of racism, exoticisation, white fantasy and colonial guilt in western culture and politics, it’s been easy to project these same patterns onto other people’s intercultural relationship experiences, based on this-or-that post which I just happened to read. What’s been harder, I’ve discovered from hurtful personal experience, is to let go of my assumptions and understand people’s experiences from their point of view rather than my own.


Filed under Blogging, Cultural Difference, Interracial Relationships, Race, Racism, Western Privilege

39 responses to “Colonial Fantasy, Sexual Desire and Saving the Exotic Dark Other (aka Why Are You With This Guy?)

  1. I guess i am a confused middle class white girl trying to find myself by embracing my husband’s culture… I don’t know how to feel about this post. Maybe my defensivness shows my own colonil fetish… Or maybe some people just embace their partners culture as a way of saying I accept you and the way your family live… I have to go think about this one.

    • Hi Amanda, thanks for dropping by.
      The whole point of the post is that it is easy to class certain types of behaviour in intercultural relationships under the “middle class western guilty confused” label…but that, obviously, personal relationships go way beyond such stereotypes and that anybody who’s too quick to judge (which I have been in relation to other bloggers) is also probably uninformed. That’s certainly why I’m feeling defensive and hurt about the therapist’s comment (though maybe my defensiveness shows my colonial fetish too. I dunno…).

  2. americanepali

    Your posts are always thought provoking. Its tough sorting through all of these feelings– especially when critical analysis is part of your academic world (I had a conversation with a friend doing a economic geography phd who said you wind up reading so much analysis, you almost can’t look at the world anymore).

    As you were mentioning about colonial sexual fantasies– about 8 years ago I did an internship at a refugee camp near the Kenyan border with Sudan. I was horrified during a one-on-one camp orientation when I was told I was “not allowed to have sex with the refugees” (the thought would never have crossed my mind!) I said okay and the staff member said again, “no, really, you are not allowed to have sex with the refugees.” I thought, is this lady serious? Then she said a third time, “It can be a tough rule but… you are not allowed to have sex with the refugees– sometimes workers use their position of authority for sex in the camp, and this is not acceptable.” I was a relatively naive college student, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. As my time at the camp went on, I realized that in many ways the camp was a bizarre place. I appreciated the chance to work up there, and I’ll never forget it.

    • If you read the code of ethics for psychologists, it emphasizes that you can’t have sex with students or CLIENTS. It’s a huge thing in the ethics literature, too…I’m like, really? Is this a problem? Well, yes, yes it is.

      For therapy, what’s been suggested is that it feels so intimate that it can feel like a romantic relationship. You sit near each other for an hour at a time, and this therapist listens intently — and is totally focused on you, and soooo supportive. Well…kind of sounds like a date! So the client reveals more and more person things, becomes more and more vulnerable with the therapist…kind of sounds like a great relationship, right? And because the therapist isn’t bringing their stuff — very little of who they are comes into the room — it’s easy, too! So it’s actually not that unusual for one or both parties to feel attracted to the other, because, well, the client looks adoringly at the helpful and powerful therapist, and the therapist is attentive and understanding to the client who’s really got a great heart and is working so hard. I think some people are creeps and predators…but I think others genuinely (but falsely) believe they’re in love and it’s what’s best for the client.

      I would guess that in refugee camps, similar experiences would arise…along with, you know, the creeps and predators. Blah.

      • This is such an interesting topic! I can also see how therapists/clients and refugee camp workers/refugees would ‘genuinely’ fall in love (not talking about all the creeps who do in fact abuse their position of authority). I guess human emotions and desire, coming from all those deep down complex tricky places, are pretty difficult to contain within a professional code of ethics. What happens when therapists do develop feelings for their clients? Are they taught ways of deflecting such feelings?

        A supervisor of mine who had spent many years in PNG before moving to Australia once told me that it was common for older male white researchers (linguists and anthros) there to have sexual relations with younger PNG men, both casual and long term. From the tone of her voice, I thought at first she was going to be critical of them. Research is not client-based in the same way that therapy, teaching or even aid work are, but having sexual relations with some of the people in the community you’re living in is still an instance of old white men (ab)using their power. But she actually went on to say that these relationships weren’t necessarily bad. Or at least the ones which were consensual. In these parts of PNG homosexual relations and casual sex between older and younger men are not necessarily pathologised as they are in the west. From what she was saying, I got the impression that such sexual encounters can be experienced as a progression into manhood for some of the younger PNG men, as they would also most likely be engaging in casual sex with older local men, both informal (consensual) sex as well as ritualised sexual acts during initiation. I didn’t know how to respond to this then – and I still don’t.

        Maybe the Christian ethic of ‘sex as sin’, which still hugely informs western mores about sex, predisposes us to pointing the finger and saying, “colonial sexual desire and sex with ‘the natives’ is BAD” (hence my sensitivity to these issues!!). This resonates a bit with the colonial and racial supremacist idea that sexual desire for non-whites/racial others can never be love, instead it is just some perverse, sinful fetish – or a relationship driven from guilt – because it deviates from the norm. Even my mum has drawn on the guilt logic when expressing some pretty strong objection to my relationship, along the lines of: How can you actually love somebody who’s culture is different to yours? You don’t really love him, you just feel sorry for him.

        There are a lot of people in the world who don’t see casual and extramarital sex (or just sex full stop) as sinful and problematic in the way it’s seen in the western/Christian worldview (not to say they don’t have their own rules defining and governing appropriate sexual conduct, everybody does). So a person on the other side of a ‘white colonial abuse of power’ MAY not (emphasis on the qualifiers here!) see themselves as a victim of abuse…it could represent a good time, which has fulfilled their own desires and fantasies. Then again, this type of argument could just be a self-serving discourse for perverts who do deliberately abuse their position of power, I don’t know. I guess it’s all very contextual.

        Right I should stop over-analysing this otherwise I won’t be able to look at my own relationship anymore!! Though I have to say, reading everybody’s thoughts and writing about it helps heaps in processing these feelings. I really appreciate your comments 🙂

  3. The other issue with deciding what your motives are is that…well…to marry and function and eventually raise kids together, somebody’s gotta give somewhere! I think the uncomfortable place for me is where one person stands still and the other person bounces all around them trying to be the “right” blend…like I bought a couple broad books on Hinduism at least two years ago, but I just recently bought a Manga (Japanese-style comic) version of the Gospels (this example is complicated by the fact that A grew up in the US, so always vaguely exposed to Christianity whereas I knew almost nothing about Hinduism, and that I was separating myself from Christianity at the time we met, whereas now I’m finding a comfortable balance with that, too).

    Even with very concrete things — if people grew up in two different countries, somebody doesn’t get to live in his/her home country. And it’s not just intercultural relationships — I’m from Midwest and he’s from East Coast, so one of us is going to be several hours further from family than the other (unless we say screw it and move to San Francisco). And culture comes in all different levels…my SIL is urban while my brother is rural, and they’ve both had to compromise. So just because there’s cultural compromise doesn’t mean something’s wrong or you’re using your partner. And, I think it matters whether your partner perceives the compromise to be intrusive — I think South Asians (especially in the auntie age range) strongly encourage and reinforce participation in the culture (possibly connected to the tradition of the young daughter-in-law letting go of her own family traditions to adapt to her in-laws? I really don’t know, it just struck me).

    Really thought-provoking, Taswin. I can see how the mixture of “colonial fantasy” and “savior/other” can really screw with a person…but I think both are up for argument in your case. I think everyone has reasons for being open to intercultural relationships…but I think it’s not typically a 1:1 ratio (e.g., I was interested in a variety of men through college — some biracial, some from other races and nations of origin, some who really closely shared my culture — so there was precedent but no clear pattern), so there may be a “fantasizing about an exotic other” piece (and I think it does flavor the romance), but I think there’s a lot of other pieces (e.g., I feel pressured within my family to conform to religious and cultural norms, so I really like that with A, I get to choose how we celebrate holidays that are important to my family), including um interpersonal compatibility (e.g., I knew I might marry him when he started talking about social justice — which has nothing to do with his cultural background). Even with “savior/other”…it’s not a clean fix. Sometimes I wonder if I do it with A…he’s not great at expressing feelings, so I sometimes feel like I express things for him through our version of 20 Questions. On the other hand…he could well feel that way with me, too, because when we met he was 26 and I was barely 21, had little exposure to world news and events, and was coming from a pretty low SES but getting a PhD so moving into upper-middle-class (where his parents are now)…plus there’s that ever fun dead-mom-hole and need for a secure base (he has both me and his parents…I mostly just have him).

    No relationship is clear cut or nonmessy, because no person is fully issueless.

    • “No relationship is clear cut or nonmessy, because no person is fully issueless” Thanks Sara! You’ve hit the nail on the head with what I was trying to say. There was definitely an ‘exotic’ flavour to our early romance, but that there was also so much more. Like personal compatibility (one of the things that attracted me to L as well was his interest in social justice). And the saviour/other thing isn’t clear cut with us either. I won’t deny it’s not there, but like you and A we also have an age difference that was particularly noticeable at the start. So the reverse situation was always there, where I came across as pretty naive and non-worldly, and I admired L for his intelligence and savy-ness.

      And of course re motives somebody does have to give! Like Amanda said, learning about and embracing your partner’s differences is a way of saying you accept and respect where they’ve come from. Every relationship, intercultural or not, involves compromise. And it would be warped to immediately assume that cultural compromise FOR your partner and your relationship immediately equals using them or indulging a fetish. Your rural-urban examples are great because they highlight the everyday nature of compromise.

      Definitely hear you though when you say this ‘embracing’ can throw you out of whack. Your most recent comments on your POSA Stage 2 post are really interesting, about losing and then finding that balance (I probably shouldn’t confuse my posts and responses, but my thoughts are all over the place today!). And like you said, in South Asian families you’re really encouraged to embrace the culture and traditions. And depending on the family, this encouragement can sometimes translate into pressure…which does I think fit into the tradition of the DIL letting go of her own family and assimilating into her husband’s (sometimes, if she doesn’t assimilate appropriately, she will be seen as a threat to the husband’s family).

      Going back to saviour/other, to be honest I did start feeling attracted to L when seeing a bit of vulnerability and emotion in him for the first time. But it wasn’t a feeling-sorry-for-him attraction, it was more of a “hey, this guy is not the emotional stone I thought he was” attraction. I knew he’d been interested for a couple of years, but had just avoided him because I my feelings didn’t reciprocate his. By the time he’d asked me out I’d grown up a bit and was pretty interested. The night before our first date, I freaked, questioned my motives, and decided that I would tell him I’m actually not interested. We chatted over dinner for the first two hours before he shyly commented on my looks (it wasn’t even an outright compliment lol!!). Being the over-keen, naive young woman that I was, I immediately jumped at my chance and explained that I was so flattered by his interest, but I didn’t really think we could be together, but maybe I’d feel differently in a year. He smiled, looked at his watch, and cracked a joke about calling me in year then. Meanwhile, he picked up his glass of water and unwittingly poured it all over his food (I’ve asked him about this since and he can’t even remember pouring water over his food…). It was at that moment I thought, “Shit, here’s a guy smiling and joking graciously while feeling pretty hurt and rejected…hmmm…I think I like this guy”. Fortunately, L asked me out again and had better luck on the second try. Obviously heaps has changed since that moment of initial attraction, and we have much more solid reasons holding us together. I once tried explaining this ‘initial attraction moment’ to L but he looked hurt and said, “So you just felt sorry for me?” I was like “No no!” but it’s pretty hard to put my finger on exactly what else was going on then. All I know is that it has lead to a relationship that means everything to both of us, so it couldn’t have been all that bad.

      Anyway, now I’m just blabbing, I just like talking about how we met 🙂

      • I think “vulnerability” is different from “someone I can save” — it’s more of “someone who will let me in and not always be the powerful other.” There’s a sense of being approachable and relatable — a mere mortal, just like me. I think vulnerability is fundamental to real relationships, because it’s the foundation of interdependence — if this person doesn’t need me but I need them, then it’s not really interdependence, I just feel needy.

    • Thanks Sara, I really appreciate your comment 🙂

  4. ally

    Hi Taswin
    Your posts are always so thought provoking, I have to admit I struggle to respond, your definately interested in confronting some painful truths. When I first met my partner I was majoring in anthropology and yes if I’m being brutally honest as you are my attraction to him had a lot to do with the ‘exotic other’ BUT colonial exoticisation does not a long term relationship make ! If that were the only reason, the relationship would come to its natural end and fairly quickly because your not that invested in it, love has to come into it. I’m perfectly happy not questioning what attracted me to my partner, it was a long time ago.

    When I look back now I was absolutely one of those bideshi’s with the clothes and the jewelry{ I used run about Sydney wearing salwar kameez 20 years ago , I cringe when I think of it} and the desire to totally immerse myself in Nepali culture but its a phase, you move through it and come out the other side a wiser more mature version of yourself, with enough knowledge to understand whats going on around you and not offend anyone. Now I take the bits I like and leave the rest behind. There have definately times when Ive been in conversation usually with a younger Nepali girl about some issue with their boyfriend and Ive shocked myself by advising them to be more careful about their reputation and Ive had to do a double take and explain that whilst I understand that the concept of reputation is important in Nepali culture as an Australian woman I think its rubbish ‘dump that loser and be dammed what anyone says about you’.
    Thankfully I wasn’t one of those gori’s who picked up their partners Nepali/Hindi speech patterns, those are the women who earn my scorn, I will never understand why a woman whose first language is English will start for all intents and purposes to speak it badly {just a pet peeve of mine}.One of my mantras and I have a few is that ‘ I love A Nepali not ALL Nepali’s ‘ Another favorite of mine is ‘cultural sensitivity is two way street’ but see Ive appropriated ‘mantras’ but I promise you I never incorporate namaste with accompanying hand gestures into daily conversation not in Australia anyway but in Nepal try and stop me.

    I realize the purpose of counceling is to help you confront painful truths so you can then move onto healing BUT surely not in the first session you must’ve felt like you’d been hit by a truck. I don’t think you should feel bad about not having the courage to return, more like good sense, maybe try a different councilor. Hope you and L can work through your issues.

    • I have to admit…I’m bad about speech patterns, so I guess I’m lucky my partner himself is American (and, more important, doesn’t have the Jersey Shore accent). When I talk to my Southern Belle sister-in-law, I start to drawl. My husband almost cracks up at how differently I talk on the phone with my dad (pace, pronunciations, and especially phrases that come flying out of my mouth that I never use any other time — my dad works in a factory in Amish country and still says “warsh” and I’m a PhD candidate, so the language differences are many). And when I am with my in-laws, I start dropping words and (thank God it doesn’t come out of my mouth) I start to think in an Indian accent. If I was clever enough to know the emoticon for “blush,” I’d put it. I guess I say this to argue that some people “can’t help themselves” with the language part…but (although I’m only in Year 4 and thus I’m sure will still laugh at some of the things I do now) I do appreciate your description of a period of going too far with exploration of your partner’s culture. I’ve been thinking lately about the purpose it serves — it’s a way to show a commitment to overcoming cultural barriers, and it’s a time of boundless energy and openness for exploring and learning about the “other’s” culture. If I could have enrolled in a Gujarati class at the height of my culture-love, I could be fluent by now! Plus, I would imagine that same energy comes back at different times during the relationship (especially around new cultural experiences) — just like my husband and I occasionally have a date night that feels like when we first got to know each other, and there’s a ripple of electricity!

      • Although, as I re-read my post…I also think I have a speech pattern “rebound” effect, where I realize how much I’m mimicking the other person and start to “take back” my normal speech patterns…which I guess is like the cultural rebound, where you go back to wearing jeans and tops and don’t get giddy like a schoolgirl every time you get the opportunity to show a little cultural expertise. So over time, although some phrases will probably still stick, the dominant speech pattern should probably pick back up.

      • Lol “thinking in an Indian accent” is such a great example of how strongly exploring your partner’s culture can affect you, both consciously and unconscioulsy (not surprised that people might go through a rebound stage after this!).

        I agree that the energy and excitement that comes from exploring something new can contribute to keeping the relationship interesting…not in an exoticising way but in an intimate and exciting way when you discover another aspect to your partner. I can’t wait to meet L’s family and visit his home country, because of course I want to know the place, culture and family who have ‘made’ the guy I love. I imagine I’ll probably go through something akin to Stage 2 when this happens. I remember when L and I were planning to visit at one stage, and for the first time in 3 years of being together I suddenly had all this energy and motivation to learn language (unfortunately it didn’t last too long!).

    • Hi Ally, thanks for your comment! It’s a huge help to hear from somebody who has more experience than I have. Makes me realise that it’s ok to admit to having some pretty exotic ideas about L at the start; without having to chastise myself or question everything else about our relationship.
      I did come out of that session pretty bruised, and will be looking into seeing someone else. Meanwhile, it’s reassuring to be reminded that we wouldn’t have lasted this long if it had all been based on some sort of exotic fascination on my part.
      It sounds like you’re in a comfortable place now with how you integrate Nepali culture into your life. Having some killer personal mantras is definitely not a bad idea!

    • americanepali

      Ohh– that is a good one, I’ll have to remember that! “I love A Nepali but not ALL Nepalis.” Sometimes I feel like I fall into the trap of having to over extend myself for all Nepalis because they are Nepali, but it isn’t the case. I don’ t need to invite 10 extra people to the dinner party simply because there are 10 extra Nepalis in town.

      Again Taswin, thanks again for a great thread.

  5. Kay

    Great post Taswin. I find that women who bend over backwards in trying to ‘fit in’ to their SO’s culture (and romanticize their SO’s culture) are usually the ones who end up hating said culture in the long run. I do think there is a tendency for people in the majority to sometimes make people in the minority into exotic objects. Case in point, Bollywood movies seem to have token white girls wearing next to nothing as back up dancers. Or there’s this cricket thing called IPL which features ‘white’ cheer leaders and not Indian cheer leaders! It’s because they don’t want to objectify their own women but are completely alright with objectifying white women. It’s all very weird to me because I’ve been a ‘visible minority’ for so long that I sometimes don’t realize that now, living in India, I am a part of the Indo-aryan/Hindu majority!

    Your therapist definitely seems to have projected her own views on your situation. Not very professional for a therapist, but that’s not completely surprising because all people tend to do this. However, therapists have to go through training sessions to avoid this kind of thing.

    • Thanks Kay for your comment! You’re absolutely right about western women being viewed as objects in India. I really appreciate your perspective. And yup, I guess therapists are human too…!

  6. Anju

    Hi there, jumping in very late but I will say that I think your defensiveness is not over the line. One of the most offensive things an ex-friend said to me was after I mentioned that I had started dating a Nepali man, she said “I hope he’s exotic enough for you.” This hurt me because first of all I had specifically avoided any romantic contact whatsoever with Nepali men (in our study abroad program they told us not to get involved because of the danger of messing up the arranged marriage structure over there, a valid concern), only accepted his invitation because it was here in the US rather than over there (side note, the one girl who did hook up with a Nepali guy there during that program ended up being horribly embarrassed when after what she assumed was a one-night stand he figured out where are program was and tracked down her village host family’s phone number and called her there!!!), and was really uncertain about what, if anything, would happen with him moving forward. Somewhat as you described, we were very cautious and slow in the beginning because of all the ‘dangerous’ intercultural issues we recognized. We’re now engaged, after being together for almost eight years. Anyhow, that ex-friend made it sound like I was out to catch exotic men, when I really had had just a few ex-boyfriends, maybe a couple had been Jewish but nobody from another country before. In reality, to be perfectly honest, I had a crush on him at first based only on the very superficial fact that he was (and is, haha) very good-looking (like, made me get butterflies in my stomach and get all shaky to be around someone that attractive) — which if you think about it is even more shallow than liking someone because you romanticize their culture (I’ll admit that during my first visit to Nepal there was some romanticizing going on due to overzealous application of cultural relativism, but I reigned it in pretty quickly to a proper respect-level). In some sense, we all hope to change our significant other, because in all conflicts we hope to convince them to accept our position. This would be true in a monocultural relationship too. Relationships are hard no matter what, and cultural issues definitely add to some conflicts. A very good therapist would be able to try to pick this apart without making huge, weird assumptions like yours did, but actually I think it would be difficult for someone with little experience with intercultural relationships, let alone a basic awareness of another culture outside of their own. Thanks for the very interesting post, these are important issues to think about!!!

  7. Thanks Anju, I really value your comment and sharing a similar experience.
    That ex-friend of yours doesn’t sound very sensitive! I guess that’s one thing about being in an intercultural relationship – that people think they can make all these weird assumptions and don’t realise how hurtful it can be. Sounds like you were very careful not to romanticise his culture…I agree being attracted to somebody based on looks is probably even more shallow, but isn’t that how we all get hooked in the beginning 😉 ?

  8. Hi there thanks a lot for your post. It really chimes with me as I’ve been reluctant to start a gori blog for reasons you have been able to put into language ie disquiet at maybe engaging in studying the ‘native’ exotic other and kind of using white and female as having more right than non-White and male to define reality. ( I’ve written about the gori blog, post entitled Goris Come Clean and I am Envious

    The only foriegners who would come by our roadside town in rural Ethiopia were … photojournalists and anthropologists! Yes, study the specimens, why don’t you! It got to the point where I’d almost ask a ‘forenge’ which they were! Oh and the odd development worker or evangelical Bible society type. Now I am a Christian, but it’s clear what the pattern is here, studying or saving, always the same paradigm. Development my husband appositely put it is about ‘becoming like us. And because we are us, we are uniquely placed to tell them how yo do it.’

    Anyhow I’m digressig. I think the link beyween development and gori blogging was abiut saving/studying the exotic other. I don’t usually ramble so much but it’s the middle of the night. So back to the gori blog.

    As a mixed race person I have a ‘hard to define’ outlook. I actually thought I couldn’t write a giri blog because I wasn’t a proper gori! Internalised racism or what? Says it all But I’m not sure that the blogs are primarily about intercultural relationships, I think they are about us and sexual racial politics and the nature of identity. So I can write one. or maybe it will be a gorideshi blog!!!

    • You have such a cool perspective on things! I love how other bloggers (with varying levels of privilege) bring their experiences to help each of us better understand our privilege and perspectives. For the record, I’m not a fan of “gori bloggers” or even really the term “gori” — something about defining myself, by my race, from another race’s perspective (or is that just my White privilege saying, “But wait, this isn’t supposed to happen to ME!!!”). I like to focus on “intercultural relationships” and then the subcategories of “White/Indian” and “American.”

    • Hello mybangladiary. Oh wow thanks for such a perceptive comment!

      You’ve also put into words something I’ve been struggling to articulate about ‘gori’ blogs. By drawing on the development/missionary paradigm (saving/studying) you point to the implicit racism that goes with trying to understand another culture from a racially privileged position. And when I say implicit racism I mean it. I’m not saying gori bloggers themselves are explicitly racist, but that sometimes their interests (e.g. traditions which make their MILs attitudes seem ‘outdated’ in the west, or their SO’s culture seem ‘less socially evolved’) reflect the institutionally racist interests and attitudes which predominantly drive western development efforts… I.e. We are the ‘developed’ and have all the education and expertise (read: political and economic power) to develop the ‘undeveloped’ and ’developing’; who in this paradigm are defined as lacking something the developed world has. As if the developed world is in some kind of baseline normal and evolved social (and cultural) state which everybody else should be catching up to. On the level of individual attitudes, I find that most Australians consider their way of doing things to be inherently superior to other ways of doing things…cultural difference is often defined in terms of lack. But, from what I can see most intercultural relationship bloggers, probably because they have a more intimate understanding of their SO’s culture (warts n all!), recognise that difference is just difference. It doesn’t have to be slotted into a cultural hierarchy, as if South Asian culture is just traditional and backwards and will one day catch up to the enlightened west (i.e. will one day be fully developed).

      Re implicit racism, I’m not blaming white women for focussing on aspects of their SO’s culture that are difficult to deal with. One of the great things about blogging is that it gives you an outlet to vent, understand and heal. Paradigms by definition go beyond the individual and reflect structural power relations at a much wider historical level, and I really appreciate bloggers out there who make it their business to recognise their inherent white privilege when writing about other cultures. Sara’s mock Partner of a South Asian (POSA) identity model is a great example. Another one that stands out in my mind is Lucky Fatima’s post on being an Honorary Member of another culture; and the white privilege that makes such honorary membership possible in the first place. I’m sure there are other excellent examples out there, as the conversation has been going on for a while now.

      I first started blogging because I resonated with people’s MIL vents (they are similar to my Mum vents…;)). I only realised the whole ‘gori blog’ phenomenon a month or so into it. Like you, I obviously don’t fit into the category of a gori. It’s difficult when there’s already a pre-defined category of blog out there and you’re kind of circling the edges but your experiences will never be as centred as a ‘gori’s’. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head when you say such blogs are actually about the sexual and racial politics and the nature of identity…which why it’s so important to have a wide variety of perspectives.

      I better stop here. My thoughts are running too fast and I’m not sure if any of the above makes sense. Thanks again for your contribution. I’m looking forward to reading your blog 🙂

      • Re bloggers and implicit racism, there’s also self-selection into (a) intercultural relationships, (b) said relationships that last long enough to start blogging about them, (c) actually blogging, and (d) interacting with this ring of bloggers. My relationship helps me step beyond my privilege to see the world from a more neutral point (and own my values as MY values, rather than a “right” stance), but I first had to be open to an intercultural relationship and then to exploring the role of culture and to stepping beyond privilege. Just being in an intercultural relationship isn’t enough to recognize privilege and be open to seeing one’s own culture as only one amongst many rather than THE one to strive for.

      • Absolutely agree that just being in an intercultural relationship isn’t enough to recognise privilege. Blogging and interacting with fellow bloggers has certainly helped me step back and try to recognise where racial privilege impacts (sometimes HUGELY) in our relationship. Striking that balance between recognising your own privilege, respecting (not romanticising) your partner’s culture and yet also being comfortable with your values (not as the best, but as a set of cultural values which you identify with and which are just as important to you as your parnter’s values are to them) is so so hard. Which is why I wouldn’t want to describe that process of trying to understand your partner’s/family’s culture in terms of explicit racism…coming as it often does from some pretty painful experiences with family (in my case) and in-laws. What I find frustrating, and what I was trying to express in my previous post on western privilege and interracial relationships, is that sometimes, no matter how ‘anti-racist’ and ridden with western-guilt you are, your privilege just becomes this glaring massive gulf between you and your partner and there seems to be nothing you can do about it but cry, “wait a sec, it’s not MY fault I’m more privileged than you, why are you bringing this between us?” I wish there was a better way of dealing with these issues than simply asking L to stop rocking the boat.

      • Hi there – another idea for thought.
        What is the difference between an expat and an immigrant?

      • Hi there – another idea for thought.
        What is the difference between an expat and an immigrant?

      • It’s a great question! What’s the difference between a Cambodian doctor who moves to the UK and an English doctor who moves to Cambodia? I asked L and he thinks it’s because westerners are uncomfortable defining themselves as migrants, particularly knowing the negative connotations of the term and how they treat migrants in their own countries. I must say I agree – again it comes down to the power to define oneself as expat and ‘the other’ as migrant. Imagine if migrants in Australia suddenly stood up and proclaimed themselves to be expats? They would be pretty heavily ridiculed, without any self-irony or reflection (“Who are you to call yourself an expat”?!)
        To me expat culture seems like such a colonial hangover. Almost every south and south-east Asian city I’ve been to has some kind of colonial-style expat’s club which is still foreigners only. Expats are the former colonisers partying it up in the former colonies, migrants are the formerly colonised reversing the trend and “swarming over” the land of the colonisers. It points to the one-way nature, at least ideologically, of cultural assimilation. Despite multiculturalism, migrants in the west are expected to assimilate to such a huge degree (though it might not seem like it because people tend to focus on migrants who visibly resist the pressure to assimilate; while liberal westerners are often described as being more politically correct, more culturally sensitive and adaptable, and more cosmopolitan…but again cosmopolitanism is a middle and upper class privilege). But westerners who move to south-east Asia, for instance, are hardly expect to assimilate Buddhist and communist values into their entire being/way of life/mode of thinking. Though they may choose to – but at least they have the choice. It’s almost like that one-way arrow of cultural assimilation mimics these underlying, unsaid ideas of ‘cultural evolution’ – i.e. that migrants should assimilate to western culture because somehow it’s somehow more liberal, evolved and not stuck in the 1800s, but when it comes to ‘reverse’ assimilation westerners have the luxury of picking and choosing the things they like about eastern culture (food, yoga, clothes) while doing away with the things they don’t like when they get tired of it. Though I think this is more on the ideological level (the taken-for-granted normative view that people have about their world)…In practice, even an ‘expat’ who moves to another country (or finds themselves in an intercultural relationship!) is going to be forced to assimilate to some degree, and is going to feel homesick, and confused and decentred and all the rest of it. I’ve lived my whole life in Australia but when I spent a year in India and Nepal – predominantly travelling by myself – sure I felt privilege when seeing the poverty, but mainly I felt completely stumped and shocked and clueless.
        Anyway I’m chattering too much. I would love to hear your thoughts on this because I suspect in your case the line between expat/migrant and coloniser/colonised is not quite as clear cut as I’m making it out to be?
        Thanks for the link, I’m looking forward to checking out the mixedracefeminist blog. I really value your thoughtful contributions (I’m a bit of a late night blogger too), this kind of interaction is one of the most rewarding things about blogging 🙂

  9. lkafle

    perfect writeup so true real and humane

  10. Gosh sorry seem to have posted my qu twice
    I only seem to get on the computer late at night
    Thanks a lot for writing your blog, all your posts are insightful.
    Have you checked out this blog?

  11. Expat sounds like a Latin (just checked “ex Patria” – out of the fatherland) phrase; it does have the clubby exclusive feel about it. We want to make out we are not moving for money or a better life but actually the reasons for moving are money or a better life. We feel so privileged, it’s like these poor countries should be lucky to have us and yet when they move, they should feel lucky we have them. Even though they usually work harder for lower wages and don’t get things like their rent paid! I think expat draws attention that you are coming out of somewhere (so you have the right to carry on being British/what you are) and immigrant stresses where you are going (what can you do for us).

    The expat city life is a vaguely interesting one because when you are abroad you vaguely look towards it. However, when you volunteer abroad as a non-White from a developed country you also kind of think you’ll have a lot in common with the other White volunteers (interest in social justice, poverty alleviation, development). You then find yourself at an absolute loss. We went abroad in the 1990s as teachers for a British Development Organisation (let’s call it BDO) Shortly after we arrived in Ethiopia there was an event at the Embassy and all the British volunteers went (bar one) I wanted to go but my husband didn’t feel comfortable. A handful of others didn’t too. We later realised they were Canadian, Dutch, Irish. Not British. The British are the absolute worst, honestly. Their sense of superiority is so ingrained they just cannot see it. Go to any expat group and everyone else is fine. The Italians we met, none of them had the outlook which all the Brits did (again, bar one, he married an Ethiopian later).

    I once met a British guy travelling home from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He told me he worked for a tobacco company and he had a swimming pool guards etc but life obviously was very different for the people around him. He was very humble actually. He said that he deliberately chose countries without a British expat presence.

    I’m so pleased to find a gori culture (albeit web based but I’m hoping to meet up with a blogger in India, we are based in the same city when I do go) Because when you’re mixed race and you meet expats you can feel even worse than you’ve ever felt at home, because being abroad makes them/one even more British.

    This theme (when it’s the privileged they’re expats and when its the non-privileged they’re immigrants) did link to your original post about the exotic other. I’m still fascinated by the point about sexual attraction to the exotic other being a kind of exploration for the white male anthropologist, it’s almost not sexual, the ultimate in observer participation. (For the white female its different. To Kill a Mockingbird? It’s a transgression) And yet in literature, I expect you never see this exploring/studying/saving the other way round(non-white to white).

  12. Pingback: The Aftermath Part Two: A Disastrous End | taswin12

  13. I like your distinction between an expat as someone coming from somewhere, gifting the host country with all their privilege and power to ‘develop the natives’; while the immigrant is going somewhere, and should just be bloody grateful that we even let them in. Very astute!

    Thanks for sharing your experience being overseas. I was wondering whether being overseas ever makes you feel more British as well? It sounds like it was quite a confronting experience of questioning your identity vis-à-vis other Brits, but what about in countries without a ‘loud’ expat presence? Do you think that brought out your Britishness?

    I’m asking because I went through similar identity questioning when I was backpacking in India. I avoided Australian backpackers, but the result was that I spent most of the year travelling on my own. Being by myself in a foreign country (it was my first time in India, and the first time I’d travelled solo) definitely brought out my Australianess but all the same, I tried to distance myself from the loud, conspicuous presence of Australians in India (at least the ones I saw – I guess I was never going to notice the quiet ones!). And then of course, there was the issue that I look Indian, yet can’t speak any of the languages – a lot of Indians would think of me as a snob if I called myself Australian, hung out with large groups of noisy white kids, and acted ‘white’. So I ended up retreating to more rural areas where there were no tourists to pick me out and no cosmopolitan Indians who would question me constantly (because of my accent and mannerisms) when I said I was from “Nepal”. I guess what I’m trying to say is that such self-questioning intensifies when there’s relentless questioning from others about where you’re from; because they see your race and they see your class and they see your face and in their mind, it doesn’t completely add up. For a long time there it didn’t add up for me either. It really made me seriously question ‘where I come from’ for the first time.

    I guess it’s not surprising that British expats would have such an ingrained sense of superiority, especially in the former colonies (India, Ethiopia, even Australia) – after all, they’ve had generations of traipsing around doing what they want.

    Regarding white male sexual attraction to the exotic other…from a purely analytical point of view, it can be desexualised and seen as the ultimate form of participant-observation. But I think in any relationship, brief or long, human affect and emotions come into it. Even when your desires are informed by power relations and self-exploration (via the other), human beings are social beings and bonds are going to form. Also (and I know this isn’t at all what you mean) by desexualising the white male-dark female relations, there’s the danger of implying that because she’s not white, she’s not feminine or attractive enough to ignite “genuine” sexual desire in a white man (with white man as the standard, normative human being). By desexualising and dehumanising her, it makes the whole relationship less of a transgression…she’s his experiment, not his heart’s true desire, he’ll come round to his proper white wife in time (maybe that’s why for the white female it’s also such a transgression…of course she didn’t desire the dark brute, she must have been forced). And that’s why it’s so important to acknowledge that in such colonial situations, desire also flowed the other way (non-white female to white male), although it’s rarely seen in literature (which is dominated by western writers). There are some good examples in Australian writings on colonial relations – recognition that Aboriginal women were exploited by white men, but also that, in some cases, who’s to say the women themselves didn’t enjoy these sexual relationships? That more intimate, fulfilling relationships didn’t form across the radical racial divide? And that in the process, these women weren’t studying and observing their white male partners? Curiosity about other human cultures is a feature of almost every human culture…although it’s very much a matter of who as the power to fulfil these curiosities and ‘study’ the other. In a colonial situation, if you’re a colonised woman, maybe one of the most intimate ways to fulfil this curiosity would be through a personal and sexual relationship with a white man. Not just in the sense of using your body, but actually developing meaningful and pleasurable social and sexual relations.

  14. Pingback: You are in Australia yaar, why don’t you get with a white girl? | taswin12

  15. Bharatiya Nari

    And thank god for fetishes! They make life all the more enjoyable!

    I wonder what your therapists would have said to your Black boyfriend? Would she have lectured him about rejecting his own “strong black women” for a more “feminine” exotic non-black woman means he’s a “self-hater” and subconsciouly seeking “higher status”? I don’t know where you live but that is a HUGE ISSUE in the African American community.

    Honestly, I don’t mind that white and black men find me a “refreshing change”. I find them a “refreshing change” as well.

    I honestly think alot of these “post-colonial studies” that are being taught in academia now are just a way to make present day white people feel “guilty” about things they did not do. And men desiring sex with hot looking women? Hello! That’s how we all got here in the first place!

    I will not be made to feel guilty over desiring the “other” and I sure as heck don’t want white or black men to feel guilty over desiring me!

    These “gori” blogs? Honestly – sometimes I feel some of them set us Desi women back another 50-100 years. We are trying to BREAK OUT OF all that family conformity and ghar ki bahu nonsense and they fly in for 4 weeks, serve chai, smile, then fly out while us Desi women are stuck hearing about how great it is that firangs are adopting our culture while we are trying to “abandon” it.

    Gori, please. Work in conjunction with your fellow woman, not against her.

    • We live in Australia. I don’t think the black ‘self-hater’ subconsciously seeking ‘higher status’ is a big thing here (the black African community is very new), but if the therapist knew about it she may have read that stereotype into the situation too!

      I do understand that it’s frustrating to see white women get so excited about desi culture when they are never going to be ‘stuck’ in the realities of it as South Asian women are. There are some blogs which present a more balanced perspective (some on my blogroll if you want to check them out?)

  16. Bharatiya Nari

    “I do understand that it’s frustrating to see white women get so excited about desi culture when they are never going to be ‘stuck’ in the realities of it as South Asian women are.”

    I wouldn’t want them to get “stuck” like I am. That’s why I say they should boldly and proudly stick up for their cultures and ways of life, especially Feminism. Forget this 2 week ghar ki bahu nonsense. Help our Indian families get out of this mess by setting an example and showing how their precious “beta” is now in a EQUAL relationship.

    I didn’t agree at all with Sreeman’s take and many of the commenters at Bidesi Biya.

    And of course my comment didn’t get posted. You are the only one thus far who’s posted my comments. Thanks!

    • Completely agree that women should stick up for feminism. And seeing how spoilt some of those ‘precious betas’ can be (I remember a friend in Nepal telling me that she couldn’t meet me for coffee because her male cousin had asked her to wash his jeans and she couldn’t say no…what an asshole!! But why couldn’t she say no?!), for sure it’s important to communicate to in laws that they are now in equal relationships.

      There are a lot of people uncomfortable with the BB post (except most of us are too cowardly to come out and say it…!)

      No worries for posting your comments. Like I said, I find them really thought-provoking – hence some long passionate replies 😉 (I’m trying to be less wordy, I sometimes feel like I drown people out). Your perspective makes me reflect on how I think through some pretty major issues in my life at the moment. But it’s also great to read in and of itself.

  17. Pingback: The objectification of the exotic other (and international development) « Masala Bou

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