Story by Kimia Nikseresht
It was my third Sunday spent in Spain, my second time eating out, and perhaps my first time venturing out on my own into Valencia, the city that was to be my new home. A few weeks into my semester abroad, I finally started to feel at home – I didn’t get lost very often anymore, was no longer intimidated by the city, and found myself okay with the statement “lo siento, no entiendo español” (I’m sorry, I don’t understand Spanish). So, at 11 am on that beautifully sunny morning, I headed out to meet a friend for brunch. Excited for pancakes and happy to be alive, I smiled at the sky and the birds and the group of elderly people who were walking past. One of the old men, in his 70s or 80s, greeted me with “buenas” (Good morning), to which I responded with a customary “buenas”. Then, he quietly mumbled some words, with his two buddies of the same age curiously watching. I resorted to my catch phrase, explaining that I didn’t understand what he said. He, in turn, resorted to the simplest Spanish he could speak. “Si haces sexo, te pago”. If you have sex with me, I’ll pay.
Spain was beginning to feel like home, but I was not starting to feel any more Spanish than the day I arrived. My accent, my clothes, my skin… everything about me is completely un-Spanish. In fact, the only thing that this gentleman knew of me was precisely that I am not native. So, what made him approach me at 11 am on a Sunday morning, wearing a conservative dress, with minimal make up on, and confuse me for a prostitute? Could it have been the fact that I was following Googlemaps on my phone?
The word “foreign” has been popularized and transformed into a culturally and socially addictive term, used to describe anyone or anything deemed different, exotic, or unknown. But it has two very distinct connotations. When used to describe cars, drugs, pornography, or women, it is synonymous with sexy, attractive, or good. When it is used to describe immigrants, religions, or cultures abroad, it is scary and unknown. But both definitions share a dehumanizing effect that works to divide “us” and “them”, distancing the normal from these “foreign” objects.
In his hit radio anthem dedicated to “foreign” women, Trey Songz sings “Same old thing, yeah you know that shit’s boring / American, you know I had to cop that foreign”. In Drake’s song “Crew Love”, The Weeknd sings “Rooftop closed with a handful of girls and they all so foreign”. And Pitbull and Chris Brown’s “International Love”, perhaps the song with the most pop influence, uses stereotypes and wordplay such as “Down in DR they’re looking for visas / and I ain’t talking credit cards if you know what I mean” and “In Lebanon yeah the women the bomb” to describe a wide variety of foreign women. Ca$h Out’s “Another Country” features Future rapping “I’m driving in a space coupe, It was made in another country (foreign), If you see me with a bad b*tch, I guarantee she from another country (she foreign). In yet another radio hit “Say it”, Tory Lanez constantly refers to his foreign cars, opening with an honest introduction of “you wouldn’t want a young N**ga if I wasn’t in this foreign”. The list goes on and on.
Modern Family highlights Gloria’s Columbian roots, complemented with her accent, her outfits, and her infamous shoes, to carve her into the most attractive, if not sexual, character of the show. The Kardashians are known for their own embodiment of “exotic”, with their Armenian roots, olive skin tone, and curvy bodies. And we are all familiar with perhaps Victoria’s Secret’s most famous models, Adriana Lima (Brazilian), Alessandra Ambrosio (Brazilian), and Candice Swanepoel (South African). In fact, out of the 15 angels listed on the Victoria’s Secret website, only 4 claim that they are from the United States. The rest are all, well, foreign.
In her article “They See Me As Exotic…That Intrigues Them”, published in Race, Gender & Class, Chandra Waring describes how women (and men) who possess certain bodily features, such as olive or caramel skin, are automatically deemed “exotic”, a term that Webster dictionary defines as “of foreign origin or character”, “strikingly unusual or strange in effect or appearance”, and “of, pertaining to, or involving strip teasing”. This definition links the word “exotic” to three main concepts: foreign, unusual, and sexual. In her study, she finds that these racially ambiguous participants (specifically, her subjects were bi-racial black and white individuals) who are characterized in this way often internalized the term and its social implications, leading them to believe that they are in fact more attractive, but also more inherently sexual.
The obsession with foreign women is not homogenous for all social sects, as each community is stereotyped to fit a certain label. These associations are constructed without their consent and against their will, and yet the generalizations are so normalized in our society that they are sometimes mistaken for facts. Persian and Arab women are thought to be mysterious, seductive, and belly-dancers in the desert. Asian women are considered submissive, delicate, and oriental. Latina and Caribbean women are deemed fierce, fiery, and curvy. Black women are categorized as strong and voluptuous. And the racially and ethnically ambiguous: well, their attraction lies in the “unknown.”
Born in Iran, raised in the United States, and currently living in Spain, “foreign” is practically a part of my identity that I was previously unaware of. In Iran, boys and men catcall me in English, playing on my American nationality. In the United States, “oh she Peeeersian” is somewhat of a term of endearment. And in Spain… well in Spain I am an unknown, undefined outsider carrying a thick accent, my Googlemaps app, and my UVA backpack. And on that one particular Sunday, I was apparently a prostitute.
Foreign may seem like a fact or an unquestionable characteristic, similar to skin color, hair style, or language. Fact: I was born in a foreign country and that will never change. Fact: I have brown skin. Fact: I have brown, curly hair. Fact: I am fluent in English and Farsi.
However, the cultural and social construction of what it means to be “foreign” is actually a form of objectification and dehumanization. Speaking with an accent, having a certain figure, or a certain skin color automatically makes a woman a sexual object as she is deemed “foreign”, in the same way that the same automobile becomes a much more desirable (and expensive) means of transportation if the Porsche logo is stuck onto it. But owning a Porsche is not the same as owning a car – it is a symbolic expression of wealth and power, as opposed to a means of movement. Thus, being a female with a “foreign” logo attached to your existence is not the same as being a woman – it is a symbolic expression of your hyper-sexuality, submissiveness, and exotic nature, rather than your true womanhood.