Ken Routon's posts on fetishizing the foreign have surely made me think. It's easy to regard an insider's preference for something foreign imported from an outside culture as a fetish. One can even go further by becoming postcolonialist and material culturist and dropping theories that range from the overstretched to the overanalyzed. It's interesting how a bottle of perfume can touch almost anything complete with theoretical assumptions. I'm not really allergic to theories, but I just think that any material, if studied anthropologically, should be contextualized in a system where it belongs. A bottle of perfume is not what we think it is if it's in the hands of a traditional healer or in the bag of a prostitute. It can be for charming spirits to the healer and for luring male customers to a prostitute. What I'm saying is that any material should not be analyzed away from the people who make, sell, buy, or use it to avoid losing the focus on humans and diminishing their roles in social and cultural phenomena.
I've always been interested on how locals appropriate foreign concepts and materials in their social activities and cultural ways. In my language, for example, we have words that sound foreign but have local meanings and appropriations. For "toothpaste," we have "kolgit." In our village, one doesn't sound incoherent when he wants to buy and use a "kolgit" that's Pepsodent. "Pridyidir" is our word for "refrigerator." We have quite a lot of foreign and borrowed words. We don't have indigenous words for "ice," "bra," and "candy." I don't think considering such linguistic borrowing as fetishizing something foreign is correct. The best explanation, at least to me, is that the locals have merely appropriated the foreign and the strange in their language and culture after realizing their uses and functions. Culture change is not only physical and social but also mental and behavioral. So, I'm more interested why my people use "kolgit" for a toothpaste not how a toothpaste has become "kolgit." I see a nuance in it.
I used to think that Filipinos' preference for imported goods coming from Europe and the US is a colonial form of fetishism. I believed then that cultural inferiority also involved inferior materials or goods produced and sold locally. I now consider such thinking absurd. People in my village who buy and wear Nike shoes and Lacoste shirts have no clear knowledge of colonialism and what fetishism is. I don't think it's right to ascribe concepts or even ideologies, which are foreign to them, to their ways of buying and consuming goods. I do, however, think that their preference for something imported has a sociocultural basis that's local and economic. One of the things that establishes social status is one's wealth and capability to use it to avail expensive luxuries. Anything expensive, among my people, is luxurious. So, Nike shoes and Lacoste shirts are like gold jewelries and cut gems to them. They display their wealth and their ability to spend on something expensive and wasteful among those who are poor and can't afford.
A couple of days ago, I read in an Indian magazine how European men and women, who are white, spend their gap year in Mumbai and New Delhi by vacationing and working. They're paid just to eat in upscale restaurants, stand in weddings, and show up in private gatherings. They're hired because they're white foreigners. It's easy to call such premium put on white skin as India's "colonial fetish" or "slave mentality" or "cultural inferiority," but I don't think it's really the case. Social stratification in India is very complex. It includes one's caste, religion, group, family background, educational attainment, and economic status. The latter is the most powerful one. These white foreigners and European strangers are objectified by the locals and appropriated in their cultural ways of making and marketing their social images and economic statuses. They're not really different to gold jewelries and imported goods as used in our village.
Those Europeans who are paid to eat in Indian restaurants help create an upscale image restaurateurs want to convey to their markets. In developing countries, Europeans mean euros and Americans, dollars. The ones hired to pretend they're brides' or grooms' friends from Europe reinforce the cosmopolitan image of either a bride or a groom. One's ability to spend on foreign travels is also related to one's disposable wealth and economic status. Those who go to gatherings and get their hourly payments afterwards show off how the wealthy locals who hire them can easily waste money on white foreigners whose functions in gatherings are no different to those of gigantic elephant statues or gold vases of marigolds in themed parties. What I see in this phenomenon that uses white-skinned Europeans as mediums for social images and economic statuses is not fetishism. Indians just appropriate the foreign(er) and localize the strange(r) in their highly stratified society and culture that gives importance to social roles and statuses.
The article, "Minding Their Gaps," from Tehelka:http://www.tehelka.com/story_main49.asp?filename=hub260311MINDING.asp