Gap Yah in my Back-yah-d: Redefining the Exotic

In popular understanding, at least, travel is taken beyond its base sense of movement across space from point X to Z to mean visiting foreign and exotic lands. The contemporaneously vogue Gap Yah is the summit of this understanding: a year of freedom to travel around the world and its many foreign and exotic lands, collating a horde of adventures and stories to tell all who will listen back home. The Gap Yah spent at home is considered, implicitly and silently, an inferior entity. Who, given free choice, would locate their Gap Yah (taking this in the restricted sense of travel and geography for the purpose of this article) in their backyard? I’m certainly reticent to describe the spaces I call home ‘foreign’ and ‘exotic’ lands. And yet, ontologically, there is no such thing as a foreign or exotic land; the very notion relies upon the alterity of personal identity. Cambridge is neither foreign nor exotic because it is familiar to me. However, just as Cape Town, the home of my great aunt and uncle, was foreign and exotic to me, so Cambridge would be to them – because in neither case is the considered space one of familiarity to the subject.

Or, as Robert Louis Stevenson wrote, there are no foreign lands. It is the traveller only who is foreign.

Edward Said composed perhaps the most renowned critique of this notion of foreign and exotic lands in his tome, Orientalism. His argument essentially falls to the conclusion that the Orient has no existence outside of its Western conception, such that the West and the idea of the Orient are mutually constitutive. The Orient that appears in Orientalism, then, is a system of representations framed by a whole set of forces that brought the Orient into Western learning, Western consciousness, and later, Western empire. The key critique levied at his own conclusion and study, ironically perhaps, is that it reproduces the very reductionism Said so seeks to dismantle, this time in his analysis of ‘the West’.

The subjectivity of defining space as place, whilst perhaps inherently flawed, seems albeit inevitable. Meaning fails to exist without context. From an individual point of view, this inevitability often translates into a projected understanding of space informed by personal identity, positionality, experience, et cetera. We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are, wrote Anaïs Nin. The admission of subjectivity and inevitably should not, however, preclude alternative understandings of space nor justify any particular understanding as Right.

The idea of a ‘foreign’ and/or ‘exotic’ land indeed retains the aftertaste of imperialism. Terra Incognita; the white man’s burden; global empires. To be foreign and exotic, a place must fundamentally differ from, that is, be opposed in dichotomy with, the familiar. The contrast of such an imaginative geography, by extension, has historically encouraged the ‘education’ or ‘guidance’ or admonishment of one space by another.

But, returning to the geographical premise of travel and base concept of foreign and exotic, the latter do not have to reside in spaces faraway in Z. They can also be, and are, found in X. A friend from Downing hadn’t been past Sainsbury’s in Lent of first year, with no geographical concept of where Magdalene, or Medwards, let alone Girton, lay. The first two, to them, were foreign lands, the last certainly by that measure foreign and exotic. So many individual geographies are circuits running from college to faculty to library to club to college. And yet, the space(s) of Cambridge extend so far beyond that, past the boundaries of Downing site and the Engineering department, or Magdalene bridge at the other end, Jesus Green and Wilberforce track at the sides.

I have nothing against travel to faraway and entirely new spaces, and think it a waste to confine yourself to a sole space of familiarity. But I think it’s interesting to realise, too, that the foreign and the exotic are all around us. This notion of space depends only on your own understanding and subjectivity.

By Chloe Rixon


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