What makes foreigners weird? A quick guide to orientalism

Heinrich Zille, "Die Original Australier" auf dem Rummel, ca. 1900 (Fluegge, p. 80)

Heinrich Zille, “Die Original Australier” auf dem Rummel, ca. 1900

One of the central arguments of my book Intercultural Communication is that, even today, much intercultural communication is approached from an orientalist perspective, i.e. a Eurocentric and colonial way of seeing people from other countries as stereotypes. Orientalism finds expression in a myriad of discourses and one way in which it is reproduced is through presenting “foreigners” as weird spectacles.

During the ages of European exploration and colonial expansion, the west delighted in viewing the wonders of the “new” world by collecting specimens of exotic animals, plants and cultural artefacts for display in zoos, botanical gardens and museums. The desire to collect and display “the exotic” did not stop at humans, either. For instance, in the 1830s a French merchant snatched the body of a young African man and stuffed it in the way animals are sometimes stuffed and prepared for display. The body was then shipped to Europe and displayed for almost two centuries in various museums. The body was removed from public display only in 2000, when the remains were repatriated to Botswana. If you are interested in learning more about the man behind the body, you will find this BBC article about “the man stuffed and displayed like a wild animal” as informative as it is disturbing.

Heinrich Zille, Sioux-Indianer auf dem Rummel, ca. 1900

Heinrich Zille, Sioux-Indianer auf dem Rummel, ca. 1900

Another way to turn foreign people into spectacles for the western gaze was to put actual people on display. For instance, in the collections of Heinrich Zille, an illustrator and photographer who documented the lives of Berlin’s poor in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there is a series of photographs of an amusement park festival, a “Rummel.” The photographs are ethnographic in the sense that Zille’s aim was to capture the perspectives of the common people who attended the festival. Many of the spectacles on display for the amusement of Berlin’s poor relate to “fremde Völker” (“foreign peoples”). Browsing through the photos, one notices an “Indian Pavilion”, one that displays “Roses from the South” (women in costumes), or another one that features “Sioux-Indians from the Island of [illegible].” In the displays, anthropological accuracy is obviously completely beside the point. While the name of the island, where the Sioux on display are supposed to come from, is illegible in the image, it obviously does not matter because the basic mistake is the claim to island residence. Furthermore, the painted image of a “Sioux” on the front of the tent is of a black person.

The image I find most haunting in the collection is of a tent displaying “Die Original Australier” (“the original Australians”). In front of the tent, three Aboriginal (or South Pacific?) men stand on display. They are wearing long white robes in the manner of Christian monks or possibly traditional Arabs. The headdress of two of them includes some feathers and the third wears a headdress that includes the horns of cattle. Again, accuracy is completely beside the point – do I even need to point out that cattle are not native to Australia and so could not have been part of traditional dress? One cannot but wonder what the three costumed men who are being gawked at make of their position. Their facial expressions seem withdrawn. How did these men from the Southern Hemisphere end up as display objects in a Berlin amusement park in 1900? What did they make of life in Wilhelmine Germany? Where did they die?

In addition to displaying real bodies and people as specimens of the “weird” Other, books, newspaper and paintings equally contributed to the exoticization of non-Europeans. The stalls photographed by Zille all also display painted images of and short slogans about the featured group. A vivid example of “textual display” comes from Robert Louis Stevenson’s collection of children’s verses “A Child’s Garden of Verses.” First published in 1885, the collection continues to be in circulation today. Wikipedia informs us that the collection “contains about 65 poems including the cherished classics ‘Foreign Children,’ ‘The Lamplighter,’ ‘The Land of Counterpane,’ ‘Bed in Summer,’ ‘My Shadow’ and ‘The Swing.’”

It is the “cherished classic” poem “Foreign Children” that positions the non-European Other as weird spectacles – objects of a mixture of pity and amusement:

Robert Louis Stevenson, “Foreign Children” (first published in 1885; a “cherished classic” in 2016)

Collectible card character "Lani" representing Papua New Guinea, 2016

Collectible card character “Lani” representing Papua New Guinea, 2016

Little Indian, Sioux, or Crow,
Little frosty Eskimo,
Little Turk or Japanee,
Oh! don’t you wish that you were me?

You have seen the scarlet trees
And the lions over seas;
You have eaten ostrich eggs,
And turned the turtle off their legs.

Such a life is very fine,
But it’s not so nice as mine:
You must often as you trod,
Have wearied NOT to be abroad.

You have curious things to eat,
I am fed on proper meat;
You must dwell upon the foam,
But I am safe and live at home.

Little Indian, Sioux or Crow,
Little frosty Eskimo,
Little Turk or Japanee,
Oh! don’t you wish that you were me?

Country "fact" about Papua New Guinea on collectible card, 2016

Country “fact” about Papua New Guinea on collectible card, 2016

Whether the poem presents any facts about “foreign children” is completely beside the point. That there are no lions or ostriches where the exemplars of “foreign children” in the poem live is beside the point. What the poem does – in the same way as the displays mentioned above – is to set the foreign Other up as weird spectacle. Ultimately, the point of the poem is not even about the Other but about the Self: the British child who reads the poem – or has the poem read to them – can feel reassured that they are safe, normal and proper – in contrast to all the imagined foreign weirdos out there.

The examples I have shared so far are over a century old and one might be tempted to dismiss them as the benighted ways of our forebears. We have certainly largely lost the appetite for putting real humans – whether alive or dead – on display. However, the proliferation of images of the cultural other as stereotypical spectacle continues unabated. Not only do texts such as the “Foreign children” poem continue to circulate but new texts presenting people as stereotypical representatives of a country and weird spectacle appear all the time.

For instance, the Australian supermarket chain Woolworths is currently running a marketing campaign aimed at children called “World Explorers.” The campaign is a collectibles program where shoppers can collect card sets. The front of each card is dominated by a cartoon character, who is clearly identified as a representative of a particular country. The back of each card contains two sections. One is titled “Have a go …” and consists of a one-sentence activity suggestion and the other is titled “Weird but true” and contains some random country fact. The cards can be flipped over and their insides reveals further sections, including “Did you know?”, which features another random country fact, “Food for thought”, which describes a national dish or food item, and a little section, where the character introduces him- or herself.

What is the lesson of this 2016 collectible cards wrapper? That white boys always take center stage?

What is the lesson of this 2016 collectible cards wrapper? That white boys always take center stage?

The character for Papua New Guinea, for instance, is a little girl who introduces herself as follows:

Gude! I’m Lani and I’m from the town of Tari, Papua New Guinea. It’s one of the few places in my country where we still regularly wear traditional dress.

The card also features an image of two tribal men, accompanied by this “Did you know?” explanation:

The Huli Wigmen, where I live, grow their hair long to make helmet-like wigs. They often paint their faces yellow too.

The purpose of the campaign is supposedly “to educate kids about the world and different cultures,” as the campaign website states. “Education” supposedly also was the aim of the exotic people displays from an earlier period. As I showed above, this was an “education” not in facts, knowledge, understanding and empathy but an “education” into a particular way of viewing the world: one where the foreign Other is always defined by their national identity and destined to offer a stereotypical spectacle for the western viewer. This spectacle of the “weird but true” Other may cause amusement, pity or disgust in the viewer but, above all, it is designed to bring home to the viewer their own essential difference from, if not superiority to, those exotic foreigners.

ResearchBlogging.org References

Piller, I. (2011). Intercultural Communication: A Critical Introduction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. A revised 2nd edition of the book is scheduled to appear in 2017 – watch this space!

Flügge, M. (Ed.). (1984). Heinrich Zille: Fotografien Von Berlin Um 1900. Leipzig: VEB Fotokinoverlag.

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller
  • Tricia

    I felt sick in the stomach while reading about the unsavory othering that orientals have suffered under the European gaze. I guess in some ways this disturbing intercultural phenomenon still persists to this day but commodified in other forms like the media projection of white beauty as superior to brown beauty. Thanks for this eye-opener, Dr. Ingrid.

  • Robert Phillipson

    Congratulations on yet another stimulating and revealing post. The racialisation of European empires, of the USA’s myth of its cultural superiority (‘manifest destiny’), and the continuation of this ideology in the development agenda of the past 60 years, is explored in a fascinating book: McCarthy, Thomas 2009. Race, empire, and the idea of human development. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
    My wife, Tove Skutnabb-Kangas, coined the term linguicism by analogy with racism, sexism, and classim, so that language scholars would start analysing the linguistic features of social inequality. A Greek scholar, Bessie Dendrinos, analyses linguoracism in education, and its implementation in foreign language education, with such languages hierarchically ordered, generally backed up by a misuse of cultural assimilation in traditional foreign language learning. As opposed to the intercultural education that Ingrid advocates. Bessie’s retirement is being celebrated at a conference in Athens next week, where I am speaking, and exploring the connection between linguicism and linguoracism.

    • Thanks, Robert! Congratulations to Bessie and best wishes for the conference! Ingrid

  • ALEXANDRA GREY

    Not disagreeing at all that Eurocentric/Occidentalist gazes persists and are problematic, but I think it’s revealing to see how often “orientalism” occurs in my studies in and about the People’s Republic of China. That is, “Chinese” people “othering” people who, from different gazes appear to be insiders not others. Some theorists call this “self-orientalism” (I that implies it’s a frame received from empowered ‘orientalizers’ and then reapplied down the chain, more akin to elite closure, so I’ll just use the term “othering”).

    Three examples:
    1 – 18th C watercolour painting with in-text poems and descriptions of the ‘weird and wonderful’ tribal people produced by imperial Chinese travelers in areas of today’s S-W PRC, produced as both educative texts and fascinating curios for Beijing courtiers. Compiled and annotated well in Tapp and Cohn (2003) “The Tribal Peoples of South West China”, Bangkok: White Lotus.
    2 – A 2009 Sina News article reporting a Guangxi News investigation into new street-signage at a major intersection in Nanning, South China, that residents have complained about because it is “misspelled”. Turns out its not erroneous Chinese Putonghua (in the romanized pinyin script) but the minority language, Zhuang, which also uses a romanized pinyin orthography. The article was re-posted with a Zhuang minority group online forum (Rauz Horizons) and readers commented on it. One points out, in high dudgeon, that the news ‘always’ reports these sorts of instances of Zhuang language as ‘weird’ stories rather than, after years of Zhuang language being increasingly written in public, and centuries of Zhuang language being used in the area, the media accepting that Zhuang language is normal and in-place. That is, the reader identifies and challenges a dominant, othering gaze.
    3 – the entire minzu classification system of the PRC, still extant as law, and discursively in very wide circulation, in which ethno-linguistic groups are categorically othered as non-Han and as “minorities”. This othering gaze creates all sorts of products akin to some Ingrid describes, but most similar to the Woolworths “World Explorer” cards Ingrid cites are a set of postcards that I purchased at the GZAR Museum in Nanning. The cards depict each official ethno-linguistic group as a cartoon sheep in a traditional costume ( the “Zhuang” character is in the centre of the image attached). The cards’ text is in Putonghua and the intended audience is, I therefore assume, not Western orientalizers. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/4b6fd9206bda2909595b1f1ce05410091b242b040bff138e9a96f3beb0b9d150.jpg

    So, to what extent are the ideologies Ingrid draws our attention to products of Western culture and circumstance, and to what extent are they products of elite or empowered culture and circumstance situated in any cultural context?

    • Thanks, Alex! It certainly wouldn’t occur to me to argue that ‘westerners’ have a monopoly on being obnoxious (incidentally, the idea of “the noble savage” is in itself an Orientalist trope). Your postcard example is indeed dreadful: the face of the minority characters seems to be a cross between animal and human face …

    • Matthew Nelson

      I agree Alexandra. Although a Eurocentric view can be problematic if used extensively. Is it not human nature to view the world through one’s own unique perspective. I think from having lived abroad for a decade that the roles are reversed and each country tends to view other countries as ‘weird’ and ‘strange’ in comparison with their own individual normalised customs.

  • Adrian Morgan

    It’s easy to assume, at first glance, that the Stevenson poem was intended as parody, subtly mocking the narrator’s attitude — but since it was published for children it probably wasn’t.

  • Jean Cho

    I personally think that academia is one area in which orientalism has prevailed and is still prevailing, and it takes many forms from othering to voyeurism. The East that we think we know has been largely constructed by Western imagination about exotic lands, and there has been a reinforcement of standardization and cultural stereotypes.