The Appeal of the Other

I’d like to look at three possible explanations for why the “other” is so appealing to some people. There are more possible explanations, but I’m going to focus on just these.

The Biological Reductionist

Gene Simmons
This Is Not the “Gene” You Were Looking For

The biological explanation is so simple, it’s cheesy. The argument is that people are interested in other “cultures” because of a biological, genetic drive to seek out populations that are very dissimilar from their own — to breed with.

Some say the offspring generated by breeding between genetically dissimilar groups are on the average more resilient. Additionally, they may avoid genetic problems endemic to one group or the other.

While arguably true (or partly true) in some cases, this is simple biological reductionism. To claim that world travel is driven by the perceived advantage of genetic diversity is based on the underlying assumption that we’re pre-programmed for behaviors that increase the viability and competitiveness of our offspring. It further comes from the idea that we’re controlled by biological drives.

On the one hand, maybe there’s something to that. But on the other side, the world is a complicated place, and people are complicated as well. This kind of biological reductionism was made popular by the book The Selfish Gene (1976). Like Darwin’s Origin of Species, the ideas of the book have moved from science into popular thought, and are sometimes used to perpetuate a much more cultural selfishness.

In plain words, in the hands of anyone but a geneticist, the idea of the “selfish” gene is probably a justification rather than a reason.

The Social Scientist

Cosmopolitan
Social scientists are a cosmopolitan crowd.

Today, most people live in hierarchical societies. In fact, if you’re reading this, then you have access to the Internet, and I can guess with near certainly that you live in one, too. In these societies, not everyone gets to be on top, or even comfortable where they are. Sometimes, those who travel out to other cultures might be looking for places they’ll fit better.

In order to understand this one, we need to think about how population diversity interacts with cultural diversity. Imagine you’ve got a talent for something — say numbers, for example. You could stay in your hometown in Nowhere, Illinois and be the local math teacher. Or you might move to New York City and work as a business analyst on Wall Street. One way, you’ll have status as a teacher, and the other you’ll have access to more resources — you’ll almost certainly get paid more.

In this era of instant communication and near-instant travel, there’s not much difference between moving to New York and moving to Tokyo or Seoul — except for the paperwork and the language. Especially in the American middle class, moving for work is an accepted tradition, and moving around the world doesn’t have the impact it once did. Maybe we just seek out the “other” in a search for opportunities that fit our skills.

The Cultural Afficianado

Palestinian Cultural Mural Honoring Dr. Edward Said
Sometimes, what we see in other cultures has more to do with our own desires and wants. Thank you, Dr. Said, for writing Orientalism (1978).

There’s a third possible reason for striking out to explore the “other.” This one is much less “deep” than the two previous explanations. It could be as simple as believing, as part of your own culture, that certain other cultures are “cool.” Travel could be a way of rising in status in your own culture, too.

Someone’s motivation to know the “other” could be as simple as their own culture putting a value on certain other cultures. In the past, Korean scholars and monks would go to Imperial China to study, as education found there would raise their status.

Closer to home, I studied about Japan in the ’80s, when its economic power made it of interest to the U.S. It never even occurred to me at the time why I was interested. But it wasn’t just me. This is when we started importing such household words as katana, ninja, and sushi.

There is a similar interest today in both China and Korea, as they come to wield greater economic power. Ideas associated with East Asian culture happen to be hot property at the moment. This probably has a lot to do with that region’s growing economic power and influence.  Have you ever watched Boys Over Flowers? Been to an acupuncturist? Heck, have you ever played Dynasty Warriors? Or watched Mulan?

I know that many of my readers have experience living in a number of countries, so please comment below with your responses, explanations, and amusing anecdotes!

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2 thoughts on “The Appeal of the Other”

  1. While I specialize mostly in Japan right now, I also specialize in China. It stems more from cultural fascination than from economic drives. When I talk to people about how these cultures–especially traditional cultures–interest me, they often comment that I must have had a past life in the east. I think it’s more like polyandry–I am keeping up two romantic relationships that develop and go through high and low periods, and the more dedicated I am to one the more I feel I’m cheating on the other. That, and I have the occasional fling with some other culture. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m here looking for a biological partner, but it is quite an emotional love affair on a broad spectrum.

  2. Buri-chan,

    Thanks for posting.

    I think you’re running into an interesting phenomenon there, where people talk about past lives.

    It’s the way people go about saying that links to other cultures (like the cultures you study and love!) are somehow spiritual. And heck, for all we can say for certain, maybe they’re right.

    But what we do “know” is this: when people use spiritual terms to describe experiences, it’s because the emotions and links they’ve experienced feel “pre-rational” (as opposed to irrational). They’re experienced as Eternal and True and Inarguable, as opposed to simple, rational choices we make. I’d also like to point out that these links are, in some sense, outside of our everyday cultural framework.

    What you’re saying is especially interesting because it points psychologically to some kind of subconscious link to the culture — and a link that might be bigger than just you.

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