I have had a lot of time lately to absorb many viewpoints on cultural appropriation, and reflect on them. So much has happened in our world, in these short few months. Life has seemed to carry me in the direction I wanted to be going, with little effort from me. Much like the current of a river. While I am happy good things are happening, I realize now is the best time to prepare a safe cushion to land on, for when the good things go bad. I’m not afraid to express my true experiences and emotions, in good an bad times. Perhaps that makes me more negative than I used to be, or to some, intolerable. The thing is… Honesty is the most raw form of my trust that I can offer you. Some days, my life and this blending of cultures is extremely rewarding, and some days, it’s not.
Before travelling to India, and before even meeting my husband, I was in love with cultures around the world. I experienced them in movies and media, but I wasn’t satisfied with simply seeing them on the screen, I wanted to know more about them. I began with my favorite at the time: Japanese culture. Of course I knew then, just as I know now, that no matter how much I read about culture, I would never know everything. These days I can say with confidence that no matter how much I studied Indian culture, nothing prepared me for the reality of Indian culture. But back then, things were simple. I was hungry for knowledge of culture and language. I wanted to know history. I wanted to dive deeply into the cultural riches that blossomed because of that history. I wanted to know ancient culture and modern culture. I wanted to know language and when, how, and why it changed. I wanted to know Japanese people, and what their ordinary life was like.
I indulged in my favorite parts of Japanese culture. Me and my best friend were spirited away into a world of vast cultural possibilities. We went to the Japanese culture festivals together. We looked up, and cooked recipes of Japanese ramen, treated ourselves to Japanese marble sodas, and grazed on pocky while we read our manga after doing our homework (or sometimes before). We found our true selves when we unapologetically expressed ourselves through modern Japanese culture. It was one of the most beautiful times of my life.
Photo by Mike Mahaffle via Flickr.com
Photo by Jpelljen via Flickr.com
I searched youtube for every free Japanese language lesson I could find. When I got my first job, I bought myself Japanese language books and flashcards. I signed up for an online pen-pal website, and made friends with a young boy named Aki who studied English, and a 50-year-old woman who was retired, lived with her daughter, and loved doing martial arts. They helped me study Japanese, and taught me what life was really like for an average Japanese person. I was ecstatic.
As the years progressed, my love for culture blossomed even more, as I began embracing my love for Chinese culture, Thai culture, Indian culture, and I even learned a bit about Irish culture, but more so historical Irish culture. My appetite for language grew insatiable. I found myself watching a variety of Asian movies, my favorite genre being Asian horror. I would challenge myself to distinguish which language the movie was in, just by listening to the words. I challenged myself to recognize the sounds of each language, and tried to learn words and phrases by listening. And I was good at it. My family and best friend were intrigued by my ability to know which language was being spoken, by simply listening to it.
I desperately wanted to plunge into these cultures by way of travel, and at the time, the impossibility of travel (combined with personal tragedies) is what caused my increasing love for culture to nearly halt.
Of course, at that time, I had no idea I would ever travel to India (though I wanted to travel anywhere, so badly). I had no idea I would marry an Indian man, and I had no idea I would be catapulted into the good and bad aspects of foreign culture.
Knowing what I know about culture now, do I think that young me was appropriating culture? No.
Knowing the bitter truths of a culture and living them, does not make me more entitled to express that culture. Simply because, culture does not, and never will belong to anyone. It belongs to everyone. Like history, like language, it is the memory of creation – of what already happened. To express culture is to take in history, is to learn a new language, is to think in a new perspective.
I used to think that Americans had no culture, that I had no culture. When I was young, I was naive in this way. I was very wrong. I learned my own culture by stepping away from it.
The relationship I have with my mother and sister, that is my culture. The way my grandmother is the matriarch of our family, that is my culture. What I eat in the morning, and my self-care routines, that is my culture. How I butter my toast, that is my culture. My attitude is my culture.
I learned another thing about culture, that I will never forget: My culture is different than my neighbor’s culture, which is different from their neighbor’s culture. Culture can be generalized to a degree, but it is also extremely individual.
If you love culture, learn it. Absorb it. Study it until you are weary. Learn everything you can. Learn the good, and search for the bad. If you can, travel, and experience that culture. Taste it, touch it, breathe it in. Make friends and memories. Above all, express yourself, even if it means expressing that culture. Unapologetically.
I was never wrong to express culture, and I think that no one is wrong for doing so.
Where the concept behind cultural appropriation goes wrong, is when innocent culture-loving people are being accused of “taking the culture but not the people”. Basically, there are some people out there who will use culture as fashion, and coincidentally, are also racist. But likely, if you truly love culture, you love its people too. So for anyone to cast this judgement over someone who loves culture, well, that is wrong. It’s pretty easy: Don’t assume you know something about culture – really research it. Be careful about how you express culture. If you know it’s bad (and it is) to wear a fake purple heart decoration or fake Pope’s hat, then, likewise, don’t wear a Native American headdress around town, or sport a monk’s robes for the fun of it.
Wearing a shirt that says “Otaku” or something cute in Japanese? Go for it. Wearing a bindi and bangles? Go get ’em tiger. The bindi IS a fashion accessory, despite it’s deep-rooted Hinduism origin.
You know, sometimes I cringe when I see people over-use the word “Namaste“. How little meaning it holds in India, is actually astounding. Though the word has a deep unspoken meaning, it is merely used for a greeting, most specifically with important people, elder relatives, and religious devotees. In India, it is taken lightly, but you will often notice foreigners overusing that word. Is that wrong? No. Think about it… They have taken the word “Namaste” for it’s deep-rooted meaning, and blissfully and meaningfully applied it to their every day life. It’s beautiful! Where most Indians don’t think twice about the greeting, some people say it with its full meaning. They will never be wrong for that.
So wear that henna. Sport that bindi. Show off that kimono. But go forth with knowledge and love of culture and people. Make this world a better place.
And as I said before, there are some issues with society that make it difficult for people of different cultures to express their own culture. (See my article: Cultural Appropriation: Its Validity and Problems it Presents) This is a situation that needs attention at the root of the problem: racism. It has nothing to do with the love of culture.
I am multicultural. Not because I am married to an Indian man, but because I always have been multicultural. I will be multicultural unapologetically. If you care just as much for culture and people and language, then don’t stop, and don’t apologize. In this global world, where connection is the only way forward, there is no sense of entitlement.
- Genuine Multiculturalism
- 7 Difficult Realities of Being Multicultural
- Why People With Multicultural Experience are More Creative
Featured Image by Lillan Fuchs via Flickr.com