The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

DISPLACED Q: Is the “noble savage” trope still relevant to today’s expats?

As the July theme for The Displaced Nation is Pocahontas, it seems a fitting moment to ask whether tourists and expats still cling to some kind of notion of the “noble savage” in the countries where they visit and live.

The answer of course should be a resounding “no” — because today’s global nomads (or anyone for that matter) have no business treating the people they meet in other countries in a condescending, racist manner.

To quote from Merriam-Webster to give a brief introduction to the underlying idea, the noble savage is a “mythic conception of people belonging to non-European cultures as having innate natural simplicity and virtue uncorrupted by European civilization.” It’s an idea that was wonderfully useful for racist scientists in the 19th century. It romanticizes primitivism.

Most expats these days seem to be fairly well-educated, well-positioned people who either for reasons of career, lifestyle or marriage have moved to another country. Although there may be constant befuddlement and discombobulation at living in another country, you probably have some existing frame of reference for wherever you are going and for what sights you will see. You are inescapably a product of the late 20th and early 21st centuries —  and I would argue that the noble savage trope absolutely has no relevance to you.


EDITOR’S NOTE: But is awindram right — or do some of you romanticize the natives in the countries where you’re staying?

img: Cropped version of Benjamin West’s “The Death of General Wolfe,” showing the Native American — a portrayal that has often been cited as an example of the “noble savage,” courtesy Wikimedia.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to subscribe for email delivery of The Displaced Nation. That way, you won’t miss a single issue. SPECIAL OFFER: New subscribers receive a FREE copy of “A Royally Displaced Tea.”

Related posts:

15 responses to “DISPLACED Q: Is the “noble savage” trope still relevant to today’s expats?

  1. Janet Brown July 19, 2011 at 9:37 pm

    Interesting that you assume expats are the one to bestow the title noble savage when in many countries we are the ones to receive it–or ignoble as the case may be.

    • ML Awanohara July 19, 2011 at 10:04 pm

      As far as the “ignoble savage” goes, I have the feeling I know which group you’re referring to! We are moving on to this topic shortly — stay tuned!

      • Janet Brown July 19, 2011 at 11:22 pm

        But it’s also when a citizen of the country turns to a foreigner and says, “Oh I forgot you were foreign.” Or “You could be Thai/Chinese/Laotian etc…” or “You don’t act like an American/Englishman/etc.”

    • ML Awanohara July 20, 2011 at 1:47 pm

      Yes, you have a point, though I guess we need another term, since “Noble Savage” connotes non-Western. Maybe something like: “The Noble Foreigner.”

      For that matter, I think that foreign women are also occasionally the object of non-Western males’ fantasies — so we may need a term for us as well. “Exotic foreign ladies” or some such?

  2. ML Awanohara July 19, 2011 at 10:00 pm

    I wish I could subscribe to your assertion that the noble savage trope has died out, but I fear I cannot. From where I sit, watching global travelers coming and going, it seems to be alive and well. “Noble savage” is after all a trope that implies “love-hate” — and in my experience this kind of paradoxical thinking towards other cultures abounds.

    A few examples:
    1) The Eat, Pray, Love phenomenon — or, more specifically, the Western obsession with India and spirituality, implying that you can’t nourish your spirit unless you visit India. Meanwhile, of course, most Indians live in rather miserable conditions, and Westerners at some level look down on them for this.

    2) Sting’s Rainforest Foundation — Sting and his wife, Trudie, have founded a charity to preserve rainforests and the indigenous people who live in them. But the couple’s ties are all with the Kayapos — who are secure in their region and under no threat. They favor the Kayapos because they live in an undeveloped virgin forest (the Stings’ cause du jour). Meanwhile, another indigenous tribe, the Yanomamis, are being murdered by miners because of living in an ore-laden enclave. Do Sting and Trudie care about them? No…

    3) Continuing appropriation by whites of Native American spirituality, animal wisdom and so on — while not particularly caring about how the Natives have been marginalized by white culture. A great example of this is the Cherohonkee phenomenon. A combination of “Cherokee” and “Honky”), Cherohonkee refers to “a special breed of New Age Baby Boomers who have a unique affinity for turquoise jewelry, wolves, and Native American culture.” But although they share the Native American’s respect for Mother Earth, they tend to be distrusted by Native Americans, who don’t think they really get it. Indeed, not much has changed since Pocahontas’s time!

    • Janet Brown July 19, 2011 at 11:24 pm

      “Oh so simple, so kind, so deeply spiritual, the right things matter to them even if they don’t have inside plumbing or clean water to drink.”

    • Kate Allison July 20, 2011 at 12:07 am

      Re number 3, ML – compare the Crocodile Dundee happy portrayal of indigenous Australians compared to the reality of their treatment by the Australian state and federal governments. Aboriginal children – The Stolen Generations – were still being removed from their families by governmental agencies as late as the 1970s.

    • Kate Allison July 20, 2011 at 1:08 pm

      Hilarious link, ML! But it makes you think…

    • awindram July 20, 2011 at 5:56 pm

      But you’re twisting what I wrote by writing “I wish I could subscribe to your assertion that the noble savage trope has died out,” when I, in fact, wrote that it has absolutely no relevance to a modern expat.

      • Janet Brown July 20, 2011 at 10:16 pm

        Oh nonsense! “My maid is such a treasure–honest, worked for us for years–and so bright–she understands everything I say. So different from most of the workers in this country.”

  3. E.M. Fauster July 20, 2011 at 3:40 pm

    I’ve noticed that most male EFL teachers in China have a peculiarly racist view of Chinese women. But “yellow fever” and “jungle fever” been discussed to death on Racialicious.

  4. E. July 20, 2011 at 4:28 pm

    A very one-sided argument, however. I think you could have come up with some similarities if you had given it a tad more thought.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: