A Prose Piece About Constantly Being Identified as ‘Exotic’

exotic, brown girl
[Photo Source: ebbsnflowsphotography.com]

by Adeline Nieto 

The following prose piece is in collaboration with #ImmigrantHeritageMonth. 

Throughout my life, I’ve been called E-words enough times that the F-word is inclined to follow.

“You’re so ethnic.”

“You’re so exotic.”

I’m searching for myself. Not for my tangible self, but rather for the self that hasn’t been identified and described by outsiders. I’m looking for my self, void of labels not spoken by the insider. In the labyrinth of myself, I’m searching for my self.

Nowadays I rarely divulge my ethnic identity on command without judging or feeling judged. Growing up, however, I was fond of the question. In a town with a predominantly white population, I was flattered when someone took an interest in asking me; it meant they acknowledged I wasn’t white. I remember excitedly sharing (my history) (my family) (my identity) (my soul). But after repeated offenses, after the cons began to heavily outweigh the pros, I stopped investing so much of myself into my responses. It felt like pieces of myself vanished with strangers, with acquaintances, and with the greedy. It felt like I was a circus performer, briefly used for entertainment and then abandoned.

When I find her, she’s been mangled. Shards of mirror glass protrude from her skin. Her mosaic is glued together with blood, and when I look at her, I only see a fragmented version of myself.

“What are you?”

“Where are you from?”

My audience awaits “The Great Reveal.”

The time between the question and the answer feels like an out-of-body experience. I zoom out, observe two characters interact, and words from potential scripts rush about. I’m inclined to direct the scene, but I’m fired before given the chance.

Having dealt with this scene for around two decades now, I’ve pinned down its usual prerequisites. One, I must have just met this person, preferably five minutes ago. Two, this person must be a heterosexual man. The latter prerequisite leads me to believe the encounter isn’t just racialized but sexualized as well.

While I’ve become familiar with the character criteria, I have yet to realize a pattern in the moments leading up to the questions. The inquisitions are unannounced rainstorms, ending as quickly as they begin. Prompts range from silence to last night’s festivities. A conversation rarely gets six minutes deep before the undying need to label me becomes transparent. I am always caught without rain boots.

“What am I?” my future daughter whispers.

“My dear, my dear,” I say, consoling her, “repeat after me: ‘Who am I?’”

“What are you?” he inquires. In three syllables, I am objectified. In three syllables, he lets me know I haven’t glided into one of his preexisting categories. In three syllables, he successfully alienates me, builds a wall between us, and climbs atop it to gaze down at me. I’ve turned into a spectacle for viewing. I can tell he’s becoming uncomfortable with my hesitance and resistance. He’s probably used to navigating like Columbus, charting territory already claimed, already defined. His inexperience with confronting ambiguity is screaming. His privilege is showing.

“Where are you from?” she implores. I quickly ascertain her assumption that I’m not “from around here,” with “here” ranging from a city to a nation. When she’s unsatisfied with my location of residence, and still unsatisfied with my birthplace, I read further into her assumptions. Her words become jabs, underhandedly telling me that I look, and possibly act, foreign. I stop giving her the benefit of the doubt and begin to view her as xenophobic.

She repeats after me. “Who am I?”

And so I attempt to pack an answer infused with power and determination. “You’re a beautifully complex dancer interpreting the world as you go, and pounding the earth with bare feet.”

She smiles with one side of her mouth and clasps my hand. Together, we flash back.

“What are you? Where are you from? Where are really from? Where are you fromfrom? ¿De dónde eres? Where are you originally from? Where were you born? Were you born in America? Were your parents born here? Where are your grandparents from? Where do your parents live? Did your family immigrate here? When did your family come to America? Are you from the states? Are you American? Are you from around here? Where’s home for you? Where’s your home base?”

“I’ve been looking at you for awhile now, and I just can’t put my finger on it… What’s your ethnicity? What’s your nationality? What’s your background? What’s your heritage? What’s your blood? Are you a mix? Do you speak a second language? Are you Asian? Are you Spanish? Are you Latina? Are you Hispanic?  Are you part black? Do you have white blood in you? Are you part native? Do you have indigenous blood in you? Are you Hawaiian? Are you naturally tan? Do you curl your hair? She’s your sister? He’s your brother? That was your dad? Do people always say you look most like your mom?”

And so I tell you, in words painful to regurgitate.

After you’ve processed my words, you declare, “Ohhhhhh wow! That’s such a cool mix!” And suddenly you introduce a new topic. You quickly silence your subject, evidently satisfied with your detective skills and your ability to elicit a monologue of explanation. You silence and ignore the facets articulated, foreshadowing when you’ll silence and ignore me.

Honestly, I’ve become accustomed to the dead ends and the awkward transitions, but I’d like to point out the discord. Your excited declarations in response to my vulnerability directly contradict your lack of engagement and your proposed transition.

When I’m not granted cool points, I’m told, “You’re so ethnic!” or “You’re so exotic!” All I hear is, “You’re so other!” This othering and exoticism may seem coveted to someone who is included into mainstream culture. (After all, appropriation is a thing, right?) But to someone who is not normal, these excellent observations about my physical appearance and these excellent assumptions about my cultures, make tangible my ability to be commodified into a supermarket aisle.

Another common reaction is to pay me a compliment laced with insensitivity. “No wonder you’re so pretty!” Because this follow-up usually drops from the mouths of heterosexual men, I’m already suspicious of their sincerity. Once I remove myself from the sexual implications, I wonder what they are implying about Asians and Latinas who fit stereotypical phenotypes. I wonder if I look less threatening, and more innocent than my older generations because my skin color, facial features, hair, and curves have all been blurred.

But the response that pains me the most is, “You must have the best of both worlds.” This triggers a deep spiral into memories of one-sided family get-togethers, where my ethnic identity was compromised at the expense of household peace. A deep spiral into memories of two-sided family get-togethers that laughed at the idea of a multicultural festival, and disapproved when the children crossed the heavy invisible border. As one of the nomadic children, I learned that the ethnic segregation around me held hands with the ethnic conflict within me.

“You’re too sensitive.”   They say.

“You’re expecting too much.”   They say.

“I don’t think they meant it like that.”   They say.

After the exchange occurs, I wonder. A lot. I wonder if brown women are the demographic most targeted when you pose these questions. I’d never want you to be colorblind, but I wonder why you wanted to know and what difference it made, what purpose it fulfilled, and whose agenda it helped. I wonder if you’re another taker and if I played the giver once more. I wonder if I’ll ever even see you again. I wonder if my answer was reduced to your labeling system, the nuances going in one ear and out the other. I wonder if you distilled my answer to organize your tousled mind, and if you tossed me into the proper folder of your file cabinet. And after you made a racist joke, I wonder if you had asked me in order to bypass racist attitudes towards my people, but to openly denounce others, assuming we shared a common enemy. I wonder if you ever questioned your own identity, or if there was no need to because you never felt those questions close in on you. I wonder if you’ve always been comfortable enough to view yourself and your people as the standard, and others as deviations.

Often I echo your inquiry, anticipating you squirming under my microscope. If you are white, you typically dismiss the questions like they’re old news, normalizing your existence and declaring your right to this land is greater than mine. If you are a person of color, you typically answer in one of two ways. Either you minimize the questions with a simplified version of your identity and immediately change the subject. Or you detail yours with a sense of internalized exotification, using the white gaze to make you seem cool, different, and unique, effectively normalizing whiteness.

Rarely am I able to hold a prolonged, conscious conversation about ethnic backgrounds when the conversation debuts with, “What are you?” Sometimes, I simply don’t have the energy to engage and educate you. Usually, I’m exhausted from a recent, similarly painted conversation. Other times, I steer the conversation towards multiculturalism, binaries, systemic racism, stereotypes, or exoticism. In this way, I partake in self-preservation.

I’m searching for myself. Not for my tangible self, but rather for the self that hasn’t been identified and described by outsiders. I’m looking for my self, void of labels not spoken by the insider. In the labyrinth of myself, I’m searching for my self.

We walk in the rain without an umbrella because we know it’s perfect for hushed voices and occasional tears. Thump, thump, thump. I listen to the beat of her dancing.

exoticAdeline Nieto is based out of New York City and is currently studying at Teachers College, Columbia University. Adeline is both an aspiring teacher and an aspiring author. She believes in leaning into ambiguity to find authenticity. She has been published in Rethinking Schools Magazine and in Rhythm and Resistance: Teaching Poetry for Social Justice.

By Brown Girl Magazine

Brown Girl Magazine was created by and for South Asian womxn who believe in the power of storytelling as a … Read more ›

The Pressures of Being the Perfect South Asian Woman

NAKED: The Honest Musings of 2 Brown Women was born in the autumn of 2018, when Mimi Mutesa and Selvi M. Bunce began sharing their poetry collections. It was scary, beautiful, and terrifying when they decided to trust each other with their most intimate thoughts. Not only did they feel relieved after doing so, but Selvi and Mimi also felt more seen as women of color. They embarked on their publication journey, so others may feel as seen as they did on that fateful autumn.

“Ingrown Hair” deals with the themes of societal and family pressures that are reflected throughout NAKED. Mimi and Selvi have always written for themselves. They see poetry as an outlet, and their poems exemplify their personal frustration and vulnerability. “Ingrown Hair” speaks to Selvi’s experience with the societal pressures of South Asian women, such as getting married, being a good wife, becoming a good mother, and leading a certain kind of life.

[Read Related: Exploring the Endless Possibilities of who I am In the Mirror]

Ingrown Hair

There is something strange beneath my skin
telling me to build a house,
make a home,
mother children.
I am not sure how to reconcile it.
My mother was strong
and a mother after all.
My philosophy has been to spend my time
on myself and the world.
I have always thought
I could simply address the thing under my skin
when it finally crawled out.
But when my family starts guessing
who will get married first, and my father
has been saving wedding money for years,
I begin to wonder
if I will have to pluck it out.

[Read Related: Reconstructing and Deconstructing our Ideals]

You can purchase your copy of NAKED on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Waterstones, Bookshop, and The Black Spring Press Group. Follow Selvi on Twitter and Instagram. Don’t forget to check out her project, Brown & Brazen.

The opinions expressed by the guest writer/blogger and those providing comments are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Brown Girl Magazine, Inc., or any employee thereof. Brown Girl Magazine is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the guest writer/bloggers. This work is the opinion of the blogger. It is not the intention of Brown Girl Magazine to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, or individual. If you’d like to submit a guest post, please follow the guidelines we’ve set forth here.
By Selvi M. Bunce

Selvi M. Bunce (she/they) has written for academic and creative journals and spoken at diversity conferences and TEDx. Selvi currently … Read more ›

The Poetry Film Breaking Genres and National Borders

“After so Long” is a poetry film created for Simha’s EP, which is streaming on Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon Music. The poem was collaboratively written by Simha, a U.S. native, and Jae, who is based in India, during the 2020 lockdown. “After so Long” was recited by Simha and their parents. In 2022, I directed and produced the film through my studio, Star Hopper. “After so Long” premiered on Nowness Asia in March 2022.

This film is a worldwide collaboration among trans and queer south-Asian artists from the United States, India and Canada. It was recorded, shot and filmed during the lockdown of 2020 and 2021.

[Read Related: Poetry That Reflects the Fire Inside]

[Read Related: A Bengali Muslim Boy’s Poetic Journey Through Himself]

After So Long (English Translation)

Awake at 10 am but out of bed at noon,
I want to be here where I lose myself in these sheets
Glancing through half-shut eyes
At the gold pressing past my window
The glimmer remarks on the ledge of my bed
But the voices are so loud
Like dust collecting in the corner of my room
I am unaware to why I’m still here
With the chilling doubt of the breeze…
I’m swept into lucidity After so long

Mil rahi hoon mein aaj iske saang barso baad,
(Today, I’ll be meeting them after so long)
Koi paata nahi diya tune
(But with no destination sight,)
Kya karu?
(What should I do?)
Kaha jau?
(Where should I go?)
Shayad agar mein chalne lagoon,
(Perhaps, if I keep walking)
Inn yaadon ki safar mein
(Down this road of memories)
Mujhe samajh mein ayega,
(I will find out)
Yeh rasta kahaan jayega,
(Where this road leads)
Inn aari tedhi pakadandiyon pe baarte hi jaana hai,
(Through the twists and turns of this winding roads, I must keep going on)
Mujhe mil na hain aaj uske saath,
(I wish to meet them today)
Barso baad.
(After so long)

I feel like I’m retracing my footsteps
From these concrete stretches
To broken cement walls
Chips and cracks forge their way for new designs
I see the old abandoned buildings
That once held the warmth of bodies
Now just hold memories
Supporting the nature’s resilience
In vines and moss
After so long

Dhoondli shishe mein jaaga leli hai
(These isty mirrors have offered refuge)
Bikhri hui laatao ne,
(To these scattered vines)
Zameen pe uchi ghaas pe
(Amidst the tall grass stretching from the ground)
Lehrati kamsan kaliyaa
(The swaying little buds)
Bheeni bheeni khushboo bikhereti
(Spreading honeysuckle scent through the air)
Phir wahi mausam,
(I lose myself in reminiscing, the same season)
Wahi dil,
(The same heart)
Baarso baad.
(After so long)
Phir bhi mein chal rahi hoon aaj
(Still, I keep carrying on today)
Khudko khudse milane ke liye
(In the pursuit of my higher self)
Inn galiyo se guzarna hain aaj
(I must pass through these streets today)
Chaalte chaale jaana hai aaj
(I must keep going on today)
Kabhi hum milenge kisi mor paar
(Someday, we’ll meet again, somewhere on this road)
barso baad
(After so long)
Kabhi hum milenge kisi mor pe
(Someday, we’ll meet again, somewhere on this road)
barso baad
(After so long)

[Read Related: How to Follow Your Heart, Even When it’s Hard]


Poem by Simha & Jae
Produced by Star Hopper Studios
Directed by Varsha Panikar
Cinematography and grading by Tanmay Chowdhary
Editing by Asawari Jagushte
Featuring Vaishakh Sudhakaran
Music Production by Simha
Hindi editing by Rama Garimella
Recited by Simha, Rama Garimella, Annaji Garimella
English Translation by Nhylar

The opinions expressed by the guest writer/blogger and those providing comments are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Brown Girl Magazine, Inc., or any employee thereof. Brown Girl Magazine is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the guest writer/bloggers. This work is the opinion of the blogger. It is not the intention of Brown Girl Magazine to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, or individual. If you’d like to submit a guest post, please follow the guidelines we’ve set forth here.
By Varsha Panikar

Varsha Panikar (they/he) is a filmmaker, writer and multi-disciplinary artist from India. They are the co-founder of Star Hopper, a … Read more ›

Moving on After Breaking up With Your Cat

“Take what you want//Take everything” reflects on a time with my partner and our cat, Layla. It’s a retelling of the chaotic night I adopted her. I didn’t know why Layla hid from me. When I chased her around, it scared her more. “Take what you want//Take everything” juxtaposes our first night, filled with misunderstanding, with the rest of the time we spent together. My fond memories call back to the loving moments Layla and I shared.

Such memories defined us; they reverberated in my partnership. I wonder if my partner, like Layla, only remembers her fear of me, over our shared moments of love. The title, a Kanye West lyric, is an acknowledgment that their happiness together–without me–destroyed my sense of self. When I see their photos, I wonder if I can see myself reflected in their eyes. I wonder if they still keep kind moments of our time together.

[Read Related: Artivist Poem Essay-Studmavati]

Take what you want//Take everything

I remember when she would look at me from behind a laundry basket.

A small simple cat with green owl eyes. She was afraid of her new home and its owner. Shit, I remember the night I got her, she hid under my bed, in the middle just out of my reach for maybe 6 hours, watching me. She didn’t eat anything the entire day. When the night fell I was afraid she’d starve or come out and attack me. I was just scared. I didn’t have a childhood pet, I’m not white, I didn’t know what to do. I picked up the whole bed and yelled that she needed to move. I chased her into the closet with a vacuum cleaner. When she ran in, I called my lover and yelled to her that she wasn’t helping enough, she needed to be there to help me. That was our first day together, me and that cat. No one will ever have that memory but me and maybe her.

It was during Ramadan, my first year fasting.

Our problems had already begun by then. Enough so that I decided to fast and show retribution. I’d try to change into a more patient and understanding self. Like the Prophet (SAW) I guess. To become someone that my lover could feel safe around. Somehow, getting a cat felt like it fit into that picture. I’d be a cat dad, you know, gentle. We’d raise her. I’d fast and become New Again. Maybe I’d wrap an inked tasbih around myself and show I’m a man of God.

I don’t know how a cat remembers fear any more than I know how a lover does.

I know her body stored it. My cat’s must have stored it too. That first night, I wish I could tell her that I was afraid too. It doesn’t make sense that I was afraid really — I’m bigger, more threatening. We don’t speak the same language anyway, so how could I ever tell her? She learned to trust me though, in her own way. Her small bean paws would press on my chest in the mornings. She’d meow to berate me for locking her out some nights, or when I was away from home too long.

She lives with my lover now. They share photos with me, they’re happy together.

I saw my lover once, it was on 55th and 7th, Broadway shined blue performance lights over us. She wore a red sacral dress. She said her mental health has never been better. I think she was trying to tell me that she’s doing well, because she knows I care for her. I don’t think she was trying to say she’s happier without me. We don’t speak the same language. I actually think they are happier with just each other. And I loved them both, so it hurts. Sometimes, not all the time. And it doesn’t always hurt that bad. Other times it does get pretty bad, though. I probably owe it to myself to say that.

I look back at the photos, the ones of our life together, and the ones of their new life.

Two green owl eyes, and two brown moonlit eyes. I look for myself in them.

[Read Related: How Love Matures as you Grow]

By Umrao Shaan

Umrao Shaan is a short storyist, poet, and ghazals singer. You can find his songs on his Instagram. His other … Read more ›