The familiar exotic

Exotic yet familiar: Jeff and Matt at the gate to Chinatown, San Francisco, 2003

Exotic yet familiar: Jeff and Matt at the gate to Chinatown, San Francisco, 2003

“Make the familiar exotic; the exotic familiar.”  Bharati Mukherjee

I’m pretty good at making the exotic familiar, or at least trying.  When Jeff and I travel, we tend to avoid the tourist routes and go to places where the locals are: public transportation, grocery stores, municipal libraries.  The more intriguing a city is, the more I am determined to walk through it enough times to get a feel for the neighborhoods and the pulse of daily activity.  It can be daunting at times, especially when one doesn’t know the language, but it’s also comforting to be where the people are, going about lives that are strikingly similar to our own despite the varied contexts.

I’m not quite as good at seeing the exotic in the familiar.  Yet I know it’s there, hiding in plain sight.  When Drew was in first grade, his teacher assigned the students to write to their grandmothers (and great-grandmothers, if they were lucky enough to have them) with questions about daily life when they were children.  It was one of the most memorable school experiences I know of, because the letters we received in answer to Drew’s inquiries were fascinating to the point of seeming exotic.

These were women I thought I knew well, but I learned things about them I had never known.  We also realized that their school experiences, so different from those of today’s children, were scarcely mentioned in the history texts.  I came away with the understanding of how little of our past is ever documented, and how much it comes to life when told in everyday details that historians often leave out.

The popularity of scrapbooks, journals and blogs is adding exponentially to the everyday history that is being recorded, and I’m so glad!  When I read posts from Bindu or Z or Sydney Fong, or look at the beautiful photos from Cindy Knoke, Michael Lai, or another Julia who loves to take photos, to name just a few of the many people all over the world whose work I enjoy, I feel a bit more familiar with the exotic.  And I am inspired to discover the exotic in my own familiar life, things that are unique to my particular world that I am happy to share with others.

I invite you to join in the worldwide conversation by reading, commenting, or starting your own blog or online journal to introduce other people to your corner of the world.  I think you’ll find, as I did, that the blogging community is a friendly and supportive group, where newcomers are always welcome.  It’s a wonderful antidote to the news media stories about conflict, hostility and fear. There’s a lot of good news out here in the blogosphere – welcome to our world!


  1. What was my great grandmother’s name? How did she look like? Do I resemble her?! Who knows!
    Julia, your posts always evoke a lot of thoughts in me. I realize these are thoughts that have crossed my mind often. But you present them so well that I couldn’t resist commenting. Thanks for the mention. 🙂

    • I appreciate your kind words about the blog. I enjoy your writing and photos too; they bring me a step closer to India, a country I have never been to but hope to visit one day. I really love reading about another country from the people who know it best. We really are very lucky to be able to communicate so quickly and easily with people all over the world. When I was a child, if someone from the future had been able to explain to me that someday we would enjoy the whole phenomenon of the worldwide web, digital communication, and the ability to take and share unlimited digital photos at very little expense, I would have thought it a space-age fantasy.

  2. Random: I keep thinking about the tea you sent me a while back and it came at such a propitious time that I would like to return the favor. I am in Alaska and you mentioned a favorite tea. Could you tell me what Alaskan tea that was so I could bless you? Also, I will be going to Hawaii this summer (which also carries it’s own brands of teas). I know you mentioned living there for a few years so I was wondering if there was a Hawaiian tea you’d like to have (or anything else Hawaiian food product wise that I could perchance bless you with). Just thought I’d ask. 😉

    • Wow, how wonderful of you! I believe the tea I found in Alaska was from the Metropolitan Tea Company, a Canadian company I first discovered years ago when Jeff had a business trip to Vancouver and brought me back some of their “Northern Lights Exotic Maple Strawberry.” They have all sorts of flavors and whenever I go anyplace near Canada I try to pick up a box or two. Our time in Hawaii was before I drank tea or coffee (when I was young enough not to need the caffeine!) so I have no idea what types of tea they have there, although I know their Kona coffee beans are famous among those who know and love coffee. Most of the things I loved best in Hawaii could not be brought back; the fresh Plumeria blooms one sees in profusion everywhere; the frequent, amazingly bright rainbows; the sound of ukuleles and those incomparable Hawaiian voices wafting from open hotel lobbies over the breezes of Waikiki in the evening; and food-wise, the totally delicious smell and taste of hot malasadas from Leonard’s. I did love Rosalie Prussing’s folk art images of Hawaii; perhaps if you see one of her postcards or greeting cards there, you can send me one of those. Mahalo, and I wish you a beautiful time in Hawaii! I hope you will get to visit as many of the islands as you can; each has its own unique charms.

      • 1) I will have to do some research on the Metropolitan tea as I’m not sure where it’s sold locally. I suspect our local tea shop might have some of it. I will have to double check though.

        2) I gather that you like Strawberry teas (since you sent me some and have mentioned this Metropolitan tea as a favorite). I have some Strawberry Lychee tea I picked up on my last trip in Hawaii that I will have to send your way.

        3) Thank you for the tip about the malasadas! I’ve not heard of them before. I will definitely have to track those down and give them a try.

        4) The Hawaiian artist you mentioned happened to illustrate a children’s book I bought a copy of (“Aloha is…”) without knowing who she was. I bought it for my classroom to read to my kids (I’m a 1st grade teacher). I’ll have to see if I can track down another copy for you when I’m back over there. It’s very cute.

        5) This is my 3rd trip to the islands. I will only be visiting Oahu on this trip and exploring on my own. I’m very excited about it as my previous 2 trips have been with my sister, her husband, and her young daughter (to Oahu first and then to the Big Island). It was fun to travel with them, but this is my time to explore on my own. I look forward to exploring all of the islands at some point in the future though as they strike me as unique entities all on their own. I find Hawaii endlessly fascinating at this point. I can only imagine how delightful it must have been to live there for two years. But then again, Alaska is pretty amazing too. 😉 Thanks for responding.

        • Thanks for your very kind reply and for thinking of me! I do love strawberry teas and find that they are not all that common, at least not around here. I’ve never seen Lychee tea but a Chinese friend introduced me to the fruit many years ago; very delicate flavor and would probably go great with the strawberry. While I was in school at UH (Manoa) people would sometimes bring in hot malasadas for morning classes, oh my! I don’t have too much trouble resisting doughnuts but I would be in trouble if I could get malasadas around here! We lived on Oahu for three years and there are so many things to see that tourists don’t often know about. Strange as it may seem, one of my favorite spots on Oahu was a beautiful cemetery called Valley of the Temples near Kaneohe on the windward side. If you haven’t been there I highly recommend it! The had just started charging a small admission fee when we left in 1996 because more and more people were finding out about it. It’s a beautiful drive up there, just take the Pali Highway and be sure to stop at the amazing lookout where Kamehameha and his warriors from the big island drove the Oahu warriors over the cliff and united Hawaii as one kingdom. Also, if you haven’t been to Waimea Falls Park, that’s one of the best things to go to on Oahu I think. They used to have cliff divers but also it’s just a beautiful tropical park that is wonderful to stroll through. There are lots of great hikes in and around Manoa, and I always enjoyed doing the full Diamond Head walk also; lovely view of Waikiki from up there. The north shore is beautiful and it’s easy to get there now that they have the H3 completed (We had about an hours drive to get there when we lived there but it’s less than half that now.) The Plantation Village is lovely and if you see Espie Garcia working there, give her Aloha from Jeff, Julia and Matt! The Arizona Memorial is well worth a visit if you’ve never been there. I hope all of these things are still open and as good as I remember them! Also if you have time to visit the Leeward side of the island, it’s interesting. Not as pretty, more dry, but very different from the rest of Hawaii. You will really enjoy being able to explore on your own; it is a beautiful place and grows more so when you learn about the local cultures and the long and often sad history of the Hawaiian people. Sorry to go on so long, but it’s fun to get lost in the memories! BTW, almost everyone we know who lived in Alaska wanted to retire there; we’ve heard living there is incredible. We very much enjoyed our short visit and hope to go back.

          • Thank you so much for all of the suggestions in Oahu to check out! I love finding things off the beaten path and especially things that only locals know about. I can’t wait to check these out. Especially because I’ve been dying to find a waterfall in Hawaii (a sight as yet unseen by moi). I’m very excited about these suggestions and can’t wait to explore. And yes, most Alaskans are infatuated with Hawaii still. I think it is because it seems such an antidote to our terribly long winters. But I remember what George Clooney’s character said at the beginning of “The Descendants”: Hawaii isn’t a perfect place without grief or drama (though most people imagine it to be so); everyone that lives there still experiences the valleys of life (and I’m summarizing). But I do love it so and cannot explain why. Ever since my first trip there, I’ve been captivated by all things Hawaiian. And the exchange between Alaska and Hawaii seems to go both ways, as we have a larger Hawaiian community here now too (of Native Hawaiians that have decided to move here). It’s an interesting phenomena. 😉

            • Wow, I didn’t realize there was a large community of Hawaiians in Alaska! We have a good friend here in Virginia who is Hawaiian and I have been impressed with how closely-knit the Hawaiian community here is. I joke that Robert knows everyone Hawaiian who lives in the 200-mile radius around us, and that’s not much of an exaggeration. He’s been on the mainland for over three decades but still has that wonderful Hawaiian mana and has a genuine luau every year, complete with pig roasted in the old Hawaiian way and ukulele music. I’m sure the Hawaiians in Alaska have similar get-togethers. Here’s my favorite Hawaiian song to get you in the mood for your trip – be sure to look for Keali’i Reichel’s CDs. His music, along with that of the late Israel “IZ” Kamakawiwoʻole, is a must for all who love Hawaii!

              • Funny, but I’ve never seen a Hawaiian gathering here. That doesn’t mean they don’t happen. I know there’s lots of cultural gatherings around here. We have one of the most diverse cities in the country (here in Anchorage). In fact, one of my favorite discoveries of recent years is a little Hawaiian restaurant here called Hula Hands. It’s a nice little laid back place to go and enjoy Hawaiian foods and music. And I have to laugh at the song you sent me. I just started this last weekend compiling a playlist of Hawaiian music. I’m familiar with Iz, but not this singer. I’ve already got quite a few CDs on hold at the local library. I’ll have to look him up too. Thanks again! 😉

                • Our Hawaiian friend has played on stage with the Makaha Sons (after Iz died). I just love those Hawaiian voices, they have a sound like no other. Have fun!

  3. Sheila

    Oh, Julia, I would love to tell a little story of my lovely Mom,who was a wonderful great-grandmother to my six grandchildren. The one grandson,Hewitt, needed to share in class a special time with a family member. He stood up and said, ” My great- grandmother taught me how to play basketball.” The teacher quickly asked, “You mean your grandmother?” Hewitt proudly said that it WAS his great- grandmother. To know her was to love her! I hope that you had a lovely day. With a prayer, Sheila

    • Wow Sheila, I bet hardly any boys around can say their GREAT-grandmother taught them to play basketball! That’s pretty amazing and definitely one worth sharing. Kids who have great-grandparents are super lucky I think. I did have a lovely day today – went into DC this afternoon to see the cherry blossoms, which are at peak bloom and just amazingly gorgeous. The crowds were out in force but everyone was cheerful and happy, taking photos of each other and generally being blown away by the beauty of the trees. There are so many of them, too! I’m sure some photos will be showing up here sooner or later. Hope you and Bill are doing well – prayers continue!

      • Sheila

        I thought of you, knowing that you went into the city. We had lunch today with Bill’s cousin and his wife, retired teachers from Fairfax,Va. They were returning home from Charleston,…..sounds like a good day for all! Ta ta for now!

  4. I’m so in tuned with your message here today Julia, I just finished writing a post about Journaling as well, that’s so funny. I would love to link your post if that’s ok with you. I had a ‘ah ha’ moment for sure with the notion of looking for the exotic in the everyday. That’s really so true with blogging, taking the ordinary and turning it into extraordinary. You do it so wonderfully.

    • Thanks so much, and I would love it if you linked to my blog. I haven’t been asking people for permission before linking them, hope nobody gets mad at me! I figure if it’s out there in the blogosphere for all the world to see, the more who see it, the better! Thanks for asking though, and for your kind words.

      • I’m certain it’s never a requirement to ask, you’re absolutely right. I can’t imagine why anyone would ever get mad, I know I never would unless they didn’t acknowledge where it came from (like on twitter a few times, which I now block). Personally, I always do because if you were a stranger and we’d never corresponded with each other, I’d probably introduce myself and ask if you minded. So I always figure I should be at least as courteous with dear friends. I’m always a little surprised to get a link from someone I don’t know at all and they didn’t leave a message of some kind but absolutely, WP is all about sharing.

        • I’ve never linked to someone I didn’t exchange comments or visits with first. But you’re right, it’s never out of place to ask. In fact, I have a phrase my family has heard me say often…”It’s always nice to be asked.” When Matt was younger sometimes people wouldn’t invite him to things which would hurt my feelings (and his too I think) and sometimes if I felt close enough to people to let them know I was hurt, they would often say “I didn’t know if you would want him to come” or “I didn’t know if he would want to come since we were going to be playing football” or something similar — presumably because they knew he had disabilities and assumed he might not have the same interests or whatever. But I would tell them “it’s always nice to be asked.” And now whenever we are wondering whether to invite someone to something, thinking they may be busy or not interested or some other reason they might not want to come, I say “it’s always nice to be asked.” You are so right, we should be as courteous to friends and family as we are to strangers, but often we take them for granted and don’t go that extra mile. Thanks for helping me remember to be considerate with the people I should be most mindful of! 🙂

  5. I like the idea of discovering the exotic in the familiar. I’m always new somewhere and I’ve found that walking an area gives more opportunity to see it than to drive it. I miss a lot flying by in a car. I like this post.

    • I am a great fan of walking (2 miles a day now, but used to do 5) and I’ve come to feel I don’t really know a place until I’ve spent some time walking around it. So often we will walk when we go on vacation or at a sightseeing spot, but don’t even know the details about our own neighborhoods. Some of my favorite memories of northern California were from the many times I went into San Francisco for the day and just walked around the different neighborhoods. I’m so happy you like the post!


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