Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Cultural Appropriation, Part I: Little White Bindi Girl

I know I've been talking about this post for awhile. I've decided that this topic is far too massive to talk about in one post, so I'm going to do it in a series. Enjoy!

Ganesh, Sarasvati and Lakshmi sit there, backs to the view, looking benevolent with subcontinental eyes. Little tubes of incense ash litter the ledge and there's a slant of sunlight coming in, hitting the laptop that sits before them. There's a half-finished cup of coffee somewhere off to the right.

Ganesh is brightly colored and encased in plastic, his elephantine body painted in lurid shades of peach and pink. Sarasvati is carved in "camel bone" which is almost certainly cheap resin. Lakshmi is a tiny stamp of tin. A picture window with a deep ledge in a northern Virginia apartment complex - it has an impossibly good view of a cluster of monuments across a bend in the Potomac - decorated with Hindu idols and fronted by a handpainted desk, all put there by a girl who isn't the least bit Indian...or Hindu, though I dabbled with the idea (I didn't dabble very long - if my central issue with being religious is that I simply do not have and don't feel I need to have the faith that there must be a higher power, then believing in Hindu gods doesn't really work for me either).

In my closet hung saris, all in a row like a gold-embroidered rainbow. I burned jasmine and regular incense most days and learned how to do mehndi (something I still enjoy). I attended Indian Student Association events with alacrity and picked up the nickname "Channa Masala" (which I still have - I joke that it's because "I'm like a chick pea - pale and round" but it's really because nobody in southern India could pronounce my name and I ended up being called "Channa"). I cooked - and ate - Indian food and started stocking the kitchen with spices that made the place reek (in a good way).

Me, sometime between 2004-2005 after a study abroad stint in India and a year in China (I know because I bought those earrings in China). Wearing a sari and bindi for fun: cultural appropriation?

All this because I'd just spent a semester-and-then-some in India as a young, relatively inexperienced and not terribly well traveled 20-year-old. I landed, ready to begin my first experience in the developing world (although India occupies an interesting position that in many ways can't be called "developing world" and can't be called "developed" either - what we called "Fourth World" in university seminars - a world which also includes China, Egypt, Nigeria and Brazil - I've also heard arguments for including Malaysia). From the moment I landed, I was transfixed.

Well, maybe not quite right away. First I caught a nasty bug that was basically a mild dysentery and then I had my "weekend of crying", which everyone has even if they don't actually cry. I watched BBC even though I'm not British and burst into tears when the weather report for the continental USA came on.

But after that? Totally hypnotized. They say of India that you either love it or hate it, and it is possible to both love it and hate it, but never in-between. This is not entirely true, but it was true for me. I loved it (my parents thought - and hoped - I'd hate it and give up this crazy "travel" thing once and for all). I was one of those people who find themselves thrust into a totally new culture and jumped in the deep end, without thinking to keep a pinky above water and attached to the culture I grew up with.

The reason the counselors advised keeping that "pinky above water" - in just those words? So that you don't come up sputtering, terrified, out of air - and so that when you arrive home you don't freak out.

I didn't think I'd freaked out when I got home. I thought I'd handled it quite well. I arrived with my giant bag of saris and tiny resin idols and packs of bindis and rolls of incense and thought I'd be fine. I was fine, after a fashion, but I was also living out the sad caricature of a white girl getting a little too into a culture not remotely her own.

In a way, I was freaking out: feeling detached from my home culture, feeling a bit angry at the United States for all that we have and don't need, feeling like so much was wrong with the way things were at home that clearly the Indian way was "right".

It wasn't and isn't. I know this now, but bear with me. I was twenty and only slightly more well-traveled than I'd been before I left.

So started the slightly embarrassing and probably irritating spiral of cultural appropriation: white girl in sari? Check. White girl pretending to know more than she actually did about Indian culture? Check (allow me a moment of self-defense: having been there, I still knew a lot more than your average person who's never gone). White girl insisting that everything was better in India and we should do it like they do? Check. White girl pretending, basically, to be Indian without assuming even one iota of the less-desireable cultural baggage that this actually entails, especially for a woman? Big, fat, cheek-reddening CHECK.

Edward Said said that Westerners, since we first started exploring the world, have been obsessed to the point of fetishization with the, ahem, Mystical East. That there's this ingrained idea that Asian cultures and the people who hail from those cultures are "unknowable", full of "mystical essences" and all sorts of other pre-globalization crap. Basically, the people of the East were either magical and mystifying, or they were savages who needed to be assimilated into the culture of colonizers in order to be fully human.

I don't deny that that was once generally true, especially (but not entirely) of colonials and very especially in the 19th and early 20th centuries. If you search, you'll surely find people who go against that norm, but I'm speaking in generalities here for a reason.

The question - as it is for us and as it should have been for twenty-year-old me - is whether or not this is still true.

In my newfound fanaticism for all things Indian, was I showing genuine enthusiasm and curiosity leading to a deeper understanding of the world such as bridges cultures, or was I fetishizing India and everything I thought it stood for? (Note to self: if tempted to use the phrase "very large, culturally diverse place stands for X" or any variant of it, stop, slap self and change subject. India does not "stand for" anything that could possibly be distilled from a six-month visit by a foreigner). Did I jump, cannonball-style, into Indian culture because, as a part of the Unknowable, Mystical East it had somehow convinced me that it was inherently full of deep philosophical ideas that were simply better, because of course they had to be deep and awesome because it was the East?

I still don't have the answer to that, although ten years on and many travels later I am inclined to think that I simply swung too far on a pendulum that had been set in motion by the force of impact of culture shock; that perhaps I was a bit young and naive, but that pendulum is rather big and moves rather fast and nobody could have expected me to know how to steady it back then - that maybe, yes, I was fetishizing a bit because I didn't know any better, but after awhile I caught on to how I was acting and turned it into a springboard for genuine learning, exploration and experience.

With an outcome such as that, could anyone really say it was a bad thing? Would it have been better if I'd not jumped in the deep end at all, and remained safely at home, uninterested in India? I wouldn't have been "fetishizing" but I also wouldn't have learned a damn thing. The pendulum would have never swung at all, and is it really better to spend your entire life standing still for fear of going too far?

I do see several manifestations of Orientalism as I travel in Asia - older white men with young Asian girlfriends (hey, some of these might be genuine love - who am I to judge people I don't know? - but I think we all know that many of these couples are either creepy or just a few shades shy of it). Backpackers and Hippie Trailers, male and female, heading off to Asia to "find themselves" (did they think they left themselves in Asia to begin with? What does this even mean?) or acting as though their entire lives have been changed dramatically because they attended a two-week meditation retreat. Coming back in fishermen's pants and white tunics, festooned with prayer beads. The philosophy is so deep. I think I'm truly at one with the Buddha now. Academically inclined writers and speakers who will defend an oppressive, abusive regime like China's down to the last drop of beer polished off during the argument, because they've spent just a little too much time in China, fallen in love with the place and now think that China can do no wrong. Da Shan and his pervasive Da Shan-ness.

Me in a qipao at a friend's wedding: cultural appropriation?
Yes, I just wanted to post this picture because I think it's flattering!

This is where it gets tricky: there is a lot of genuine interest in foreign cultures out there (it goes both ways - I don't just mean "white people think Asian stuff is cool", because come on, plenty of Asians think "white people stuff is cool" too) - some of it is that shallow "I went to China for a month and found myself" tripe, and some of it is real enthusiasm and lasting interest. There is no way to draw a clear line, and impossible to judge these shades of gray - although clearly I try. :)

It's also hard to differentiate what is simple over-indulgence or enthusiasm and what is cultural appropriation. Was my fascination with Hinduism, to the point of putting little idols on my window ledge, an over-indulged interest or was I, by using those idols as decoration from a religion I didn't practice, appropriating them? Is Da Shan's whole schtick simply a slightly creepy white guy speaking great Chinese, or is he appropriating Chinese culture to his own ends, and what does it mean that the Chinese people love it and have made him a celebrity (to the point where, as a foreigner in China in 2002-3 I was asked more than once if I knew him...'cause all we foreigners know each other)?

How about the couple that incorporates a tea ceremony or mehndi into their wedding despite having no connection to Chinese or Indian culture (or in this example - in the comments - of wanting to use a huppah in a non-Jewish wedding ceremony), or who decorates their house with paper lanterns, sari fabric and those little stone pagodas? How about the person who quotes Lao Tzu but isn't Daoist, or walks around wearing a sari, a qipao, a kimono, fishermen's pants or what-have-you, or generally adorning oneself with the aesthetic trappings of another culture - including in tattoo form?

What is appropriate and what isn't, what's offensive and what isn't, who gets to be the judge (the answer to that is easy: nobody, or everybody, but no one person), when does the pendulum swing from enthusiasm to using meaningful symbols in ignorance, when is it a compliment and when is it creepy?

As always, I don't have answers to those questions, but I do have a lot of thought and inquiry. In this and some future posts, I'll explore this in more depth.

For now, some thoughts.

Religion - Now that I'm more thoughtful about these things, I do believe one should generally avoid religious symbols if you are not a serious practitioner of that religion: I agree with the this discussion that using a huppah in a non-Jewish wedding ceremony, for example, is quite offensive (but using a more general, less religiously iconic arch would be fine). Decorating with icons of gods you don't believe in is dodgy business. If you don't know what an icon represents or how one interacts with that icon with respect (for example - a Ganesh t-shirt is generally fine but a Ganesh ankle tattoo is not), then it's best to leave it alone.

That said, there is some leeway.

It gets even more complex when you consider that many non-Western religions are remarkably open (especially ones that sprouted from folk beliefs and not from a single founder - Hinduism and "Chinese Folk Religion" are included in this). I don't feel too ashamed of my Ganesh and Sarasvati icons because Hinduism is sort of like Linux to Western religions' Windows: it's an interesting form of open-source. Most Hindus would be quite fine with, say, placing a small Ganesh on the table by your main door for good luck on any journeys even if you're not Hindu yourself. I'm speaking in generalities, of course, but this is my experience. I am sure there are more conservative types who might object but that's certainly not the overarching view in the culture.

Photo from our wedding by Keira Lemonis

"Your religious icon is my fun logo graphic?" Most Indians would disagree seeing as they use the same images as fun graphics.

I have more to write about this - in another post.

Orientalism - Edward Said made some good points regarding this, but I can't help but think that he went a little too far. He implies that any sort of interest or enthusiasm for "Eastern" culture (it could be applied to more than that, but we'll stick with Asia and the Middle East here) on the part of a Westerner is automatically Orientalist and that, basically, we Westerners can't possibly truly understand the East because we all fetishize it. All of us. Every last one. That's just as racist as the Western attitudes that spawned his original critique - you white folks can never understand. Don't even try. Gimme a break.

I also have more to say about this...again, in a future post. I'm going to have a lot of fun tearing into the academic study of the "subaltern". Psheh.

Inspiration - All Creative Work is Derivative: this piece was created by Nina Paley to stick a fork in current copyright laws, but I think it applies to cultural appropriation as well. If you look at her choice of icons and statues, you'll see Hindu, Buddhist, Coptic, Greek, Egyptian, Medieval, Byzantine, Roman, African and other examples of art throughout. It would have been cool if she'd made it all chronological so you could see how inter-cultural art inspired other works in an accurate timeline, but I do understand that for the purposes of the visual movement that wouldn't have worked. The point is: you can't pinpoint ideas. Ideas are shared. They are at their best when they are collective. They flit between cultures. We all inspire one another. It is OK to borrow aesthetically...we as a race have been doing it for thousands of years if not longer.

Very few things can be said to belong to one culture and one culture only. I'll write more about this later, but if you want a good example now, take a look at the history of henna tattooing.

Meaning - Borrowing aesthetically and philosophically is one thing. Borrowing items of deeper cultural meaning (especially if those items have a history of appropriation with the purposeful intent of robbing them of their original meaning for an oppressed culture) are another: tread carefully.

Ownership - There are no "rules" as to who has access to what, although some basic guidelines of respect apply. I have a lot to say about this, and will save it for another post. Nobody gets to decide who is allowed to find which things meaningful.

Creepiness - If you take this to an extreme, however, you're opening yourself up to raised eyebrows the accusation that "their meaningful icon is her fun logo graphic" (modified from a post in the Practical Wedding comments, above). If you go overboard, you do risk coming across as a bit...well, creepy. You do invite judgement, although I'd argue that judging someone you don't know is almost never fair.

Occidentalism - It goes both ways, you know: I have even more to say about this and will save it for another post, but when you see the borrowing of Western culture in Asia (or elsewhere) it is no less a candidate for the label of "cultural appropriation" as borrowings from Asia appearing in the West. And yet on one side it's acceptable to cry "Orientalism!", but on the other, well, have you ever heard anyone shout "That's Occidentalism!"? Probably not. It's the same thing - you can try to justify it by saying "yes but we were the oppressors and they were the oppressed" or "but Western culture is universal now": both of these ideas are worth examining (in another post) and both have some things in their favor, but in the end I find them both to be so much flatulence.

The Mystical, Unknowable Essences of the East - this attitude still exists to a degree, but I see it fading, measurably, in our generation. I think that if we can wipe it out entirely, as well as its corollary of the "perfect, everything's-better-than-we-have-it West" that I see in Asia, and see each other as people - just people with different backgrounds, aesthetics, traditions, beliefs and practices, but still just people and not things to fetishize, that the idea of cultural borrowing and inspiration will be much less fraught with accusations and problems of political correctness.

As I said, there's a lot to this topic, and I can't possibly talk about it all in one post. Stay tuned for more.


John Scott said...

“To appropriate” means to make something your own, right? That can mean so many things. So I guess that the kids in places from Sweden to China who dress and talk gangsta and rap about shooting mutha-f**kas in the local language are appropriating this vital part of American culture for the enrichment of themselves and their own cultures. :)

Regarding young westerners infatuated with Chinese culture who come to China or Taiwan and walk around in sandals and Chinese-style clothes every day, trying to out-do any other foreigners in “being Asian.” That’s fine, as long as they can understand why locals are laughing at them, and as long as they can see the humor in it, too.

People who look to me like they are stuck in some kind of infatuation syndrome, or have some lingering cultural or identity conflicts, are people who develop attitudes like: “I’m more Asian than you/them because: … I speak Chinese/Taiwanese … I do qi-gong …I never go to McDonalds or Starbucks … I love stinky tofu …I have a local girl/boyfriend ...I live in 台東 …I burn incense and pray at the temple, etc.

Is it offensive? I think it’s more a question of cultural (or in some cases religious) humility, or lack thereof.

As an example, I seldom miss an opportunity to check out temples in Taiwan, to see what is special or different about each one. I quietly look around and snap a few photos, and try to be as unobtrusive as possible. But it wouldn’t occur to me to participate solemnly in rituals at the temples, as I have seen (obviously western) foreigners do. Is that showing respect, or a lack of respect? Just as I wouldn’t expect Taiwanese tourists to sit down for holy communion at a cathedral in my home town, if they aren’t Catholic.

Anonymous said...

"[About Edward Said] That's just as racist as ..."

I would disagree, but I follow the "racism = prejudice + power" definition. Edward Said does not come from a culture that has had significant power over Europe. Edward Said's view might be as *prejudiced* as the view he is critiquing (I don't know, I haven't read his works), but it does not come from a historical or current position of power.

As far as Occidentalism vs. Orientalism ... based on what I've read, what hurts people a great deal is when the oppressed are forced to abandon parts of their own culture, yet the oppressors can pick up those parts of the oppressed culture at leisure. For example, American Indians have been forced (in Indian schools and other places) to wear European/American clothing, yet (white) hippies and others can wear American Indian clothing without much reflection. I'm sure you'll discuss this a lot more in future posts.

Jenna said...

I think we disagree, Anonymous, on the definition of racism (which is fine - of course people have different interpretations of things). I don't think it is prejudice + power, I think it is simply prejudice, whether you have power or not. In my view, it is just as possible to be from a relatively disempowered group (not necessarily oppressed) and still be racist. I don't excuse, say, some guy in a village in China ranting about how all white people (or black people - there is a lot of anti-black racism in China) just as I don't excuse some white guy in rural America ranting about foreigners. An African-American who has prejudices against all whites is just as racist as a white American who has prejudices against all blacks. You're free to disagree, but I feel strongly that this is true.

As for kids in formerly colonized countries forced to wear Western clothes vs. white kids wearing Indian clothes without reflection, you have a point...except I'd say some of those white kids are almost overly sincere and reflective and think that their choice of garb makes a statement. I'm not so sure it does. In India, we - the women at least - were encouraged to dress in Indian clothing and when some of the women in the group didn't, their host families were disappointed.

That said, other than South Asian women (but not men), across Asia people have willingly adopted Western dress. They'd look at you funny if you suggested that their traditional clothing was better or more aesthetically pleasing (and it often is better-looking in my opinion). I do think that that's a form of cultural appropriation, too.

John - I do intend to delve more into religion later, but a bit of my own experience: I don't generally pray at Taiwanese temples. I don't try to be too unobtrusive because I've found that those in temples either don't care that I'm there, or are very welcoming (of course I stay out of the way of people praying and silence my phone). That said, I've prayed at them before - I have a good Taiwanese friend who always encourages me to go around with her and pray, and I do: she sees nothing wrong with it (she says it's a folk religion so you can interpret the "gods" as you like, and anyway plenty of Taiwanese pray to them because it's their culture, not because they really believe that there is a Tu Di Gong). When with her, I will pray. When without her, I don't.

BTW, I'm totally one of those foreigners who loves stinky tofu and never eats at McDonald's. :) The difference? I don't make a big thing of it. I don't go around bragging about it. I just eat my delicious stinky tofu. That would be a good topic for a follow-up post, actually: does bragging turn a simple preference or bit of enthusiasm into appropriation, or not?

Anonymous said...

So what word would you use for prejudice + power? I think there should be a different word for ethnic prejudice practiced by a historically or currently oppressing culture than ethnic prejudice practiced by a historically or currently oppressed culture. One type of prejudice has a whole system behind it, the other does not. That does not mean it is OK for people in the oppressed culture to practice prejudice - and I never said it was. Prejudice is bad.

"... except I'd say some of those white kids are almost overly sincere and reflective and think that their choice of garb makes a statement."

Which is why I said "(white) hippies ... without reflection," not "it's wrong for any white person to wear clothing influenced by American Indians under any circumstances". I'm not an American Indian, so I think I should link to the opinion of somebody who is (or rather, is First Nations) ... and I think you may find some of the comments interesting.


I would also like to point out that I never said that non-white cultures only adopt Western clothing by force, and I also never said that non-white cultures never give permission to white people to wear their clothing. I was saying that that it is very hurtful when culture A has all the choice of what to borrow from culture B and what to preserve of itself, while culture B is being forcefully erased by culture A. Most of the discussions of cultural appropriation being bad that I have read were about such situations, and not situations such as non-white people encouraging white visitors to wear local clothing. Of course, I just may have not encountered the discussions where people say that it's bad for white people to adopt certain aspects of a non-white culture *even when* people from that culture have given clear, voluntary permission for white people to do so.


John Scott said...

I was only half-serious about the tofu. I have also learned to like many traditional foods in Taiwan—foods that did not look appealing at first. But I remain highly skeptical of people (who were not fed stinky tofu growing up) who say they enjoy it.

On the subject of cultural appropriation, it may be a case of “there’s two kinds of people in the world”—people who (as foreigners) make cultural adjustments (including language, customs, etc.) that they feel are appropriate for their own needs as far as fitting into the new culture, and feel no need to compare themselves against others in whatever peer group they may fit into demographically in that country.

Then there are people who adopt certain cultural elements partly out a need to show or demonstrate to others (both locals and foreigners) the state of cultural adoption that they want to project. If someone constantly feels a need to outwardly show or prove something (that they are more “native”, more masculine, better educated, etc.), then I think it usually means there is some insecurity regarding identity issues, or too much concern (or pride?) about how others see them.

I’ll buy a chicken or vegetables at the ‘traditional’ markets, or the Saturday morning street markets. And I know all the best side-alley restaurants for 粽子 and 麻醬緬 in the parts of town I spend time in. But I also don’t feel embarrassed about buying stuff at Carrefors, or about a quick breakfast at McDonalds.

Hmmm… I guess my problem is that I am not concerned enough about authenticity, or purity, or something.

Oh, I did make one adjustment simply out of concern for how locals saw me. I shaved off my beard once I was told that beards were OK for artists, musicians or Confucius, but not for people who want to be taken seriously in academic or “white collar” positions.

Anonymous said...

I get what youre talking about for sure - I've met some strange people, I've also met plenty of people who love Asia and its culture and are perfectly normal.

One must ask: are you fetishising the people and the stuff or are you just enjoying it? People are turned off by the creepy, not the appreciative. Are you putting up statues of Guan Yin in your house as a loud speaker to everyone around you that you are "sooooo Asian" or do you have one because it means something personal to you?

I think it comes down to - just don't be a creeper. Just be yourself.

Jenna said...

@John Scott - I genuinely do like stinky tofu (not too stinky mind you, the raw stinky tofu at Dai's House of Stink, which I have eaten at, was kind of gross), and I was not raised eating it. I think it's the fermentation: I love all things fermented (and pickled, come to think of it) - kimchi, really rank cheese, flavorful wine, natto (don't care for the texture - LOVE the flavor), that fermented preserved tofu that's brown-black, vinegar. If I can handle stankerific bleu cheese, I can handle stinky tofu and in fact like it.

The smell isn't nice, but once you decide you like the taste, you can get past the smell.

@Anonymous: I don't think there needs to be a separate word, so I would also call that "racism". You can think it needs its own word, but I don't agree.