See Infra

Digging at the confluence of culture and everything else

Tag Archives: Chinese

Kids, Kimonos and Cultural Appropriation

So, via Bored Panda we have a charming tale of a Utah mother throwing a themed birthday party for her child and the inevitable performative wokeness tumblr fight because “our nature is not only destitute of all good, but is so fertile in all evils that it cannot remain inactive [for] man is of himself nothing else but concupiscence.”[1] Questionable bukkake[2] joke aside, the piece transcribes the tumblr users on the right side of the argument. But some of you still may have questions about how to judge the parenting of a Utah woman for a party she threw in… jeeze, 2012? Seriously? Sorry Patty. Anyway, if you want to know the line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation I’ve got an answer for you and it has to do with factions because factions are everywhere.

For those of you reading me for the first time, some context: I am Chinese. I am also American. My parents are both Han Chinese who emigrated to the United States as adults and had me and my brother here.[3]  I am married to a woman of Hmong heritage (via Laos) who was also born here. This will all become relevant shortly.

So, when I say I am Chinese, the thing I need you to understand is that there are people you would indisputably recognize as Chinese that would not call me Chinese. They would call me American and find my claim to be Chinese spurious. But many Chinese would be happy to recognize my claim. Thus, we have our first factional split. This is probably the most visible layer. Any group will split along the issue of who is to be considered an insider – a member of the group – and who is an outsider, not a member of the group. Who is Chinese? Who is American? Who is a Jew? There are of course, far more than two options for this factional split but there will be at least two groups, includers versus purists. Let’s dig deeper.

The next layer of factions I want to point out is between sharers and hoarders.[4] Sharers within a faction want to take the elements of their culture – food, philosophy, food, language, food, clothing, food, music and did I mention food[5] – and share them to as many people as possible because these things are good and it is good that people partake in them. Think of the yogis who spread their practice across the world. The hoarders on the other hand, want to restrict the elements of their culture to those who have a “right” to it, often by blood and legitimacy, taking offense to outsiders stealing their heritage away, especially as to sacred symbols and idiots in costumes on Halloween. This factional split, between sharers and hoarders is both distinct and interlocking with the split between the includes versus the purists. In turn, this is distinct and interlocking with people who want a culture to adapt and change, and those who want a culture to stay the same.

These three factional conflicts between who is in the group, how should the culture change, and whether it can be shared with outsiders, do not cleanly split into two sides. But for simplicity’s sake, we will model them as if they do. On one side of a community you have progressives who recognize many claims to a culture, wish to share that culture, and wish for that culture to adapt. On the other, you have conservatives, who recognize fewer claims, do not want to share the culture, and do not want it to change.[6] Sometimes, progressives and conservatives can come to terms. For example, the Māori people have a tradition called tā moko – tattoos that indicate identity and status within the Māori. Outsiders got moko, because they thought it looks cool[7] which many Māori found offensive. As a solution, some Māori have developed the idea of kirituhi. Kirituhi are meaningless designs that anyone, including outsiders can wear.[8] Problem averted, right?

Of course, not all factional conflict can be settled by clever compromise. Should, for example, a white man who marries a Māori woman, be allowed to wear moko? That is the sort of question that will irrevocably split a community into factions with very little compromise available. It is not an abstract question for me, either, although in my case it has nothing to do with moko. When my wife and I married[9] I did it in Hmong dress within a Hmong cultural ceremony. I was, in a very real sense, culturally appropriating my wife, at least according to some of the Hmong. And this fear of outsiders taking our women, lies deep in the dark hearts of hoarder factions. It always has and it always will.

So, what does this have to do with you, a well-meaning and curious outsider, especially a white outsider, trying navigating the world and it’s many traditions? Unfortunately, everything. As I have said before:

Something that every racial minority knows implicitly is that factional struggles within our race are won by convincing whites and our victories are enforced by co-opting whites. … When whites wring their hands about cultural appropriation of minority cultures, they side with the isolationists within those minority cultures over the assimilationists and boundary pushers. … These choices are almost never made to make one faction the victor. In fact, these choices are most often made ignorant of that dynamic. But you cannot help but choose. The moment you, as a culturally powerful outsider, essentialize another culture, you finger one faction as the true, authentic representative of that culture.

It is of course, not just about race but any axis of identity. Whether you are progressive or conservative, the victor of factional struggles are determined by outsiders. So we try to convince you, the outsider, to take our side, and we play to win. We start screaming things about cultural appropriation on the one hand, or accuse our opponents of being allies to the Patriarchy on the other.

So, the issue at hand, with the child, the Japanese tea themed birthday party? Something important to know is that kimono manufacture is a dying art in Japan, because the Japanese of Japan aren’t particularly interested supporting the industry! I mean, would YOU buy traditionally made ball gowns or tuxedos if you had the choice? So part of what keeps the art and its artisans alive in Japan are tourist and exports to foreigners. Something the Japanese descended in America are fighting against for their own reasons.[10] So, where does that leave you?

There is no right or wrong way to appropriate or appreciate a culture because a culture is never truly static. You cannot respect a culture, but you can respect people. But know that you will inevitably find yourself having to choose to two rightful heirs to a tradition, one who holds out a hand in invitation and another who holds up their hand to deny you, and you cannot respect one without disrespecting the other. You cannot but choose a side.

As to all the things I have a right to, I hold out my hand to you in invitation. The choice, as it always was, is yours.

Footnotes

[1] I am of course quoting John Calvin of double-predestination fame, and subject of my first attempt at a viral image meme. It did not take off.

[2] If you, like my wife, did not know what this was, DO NOT LOOK IT UP ON THE INTERNET.

[3] Thus, I am an American Born Chinese, ABC for short, and also the title of a good book by Gene Luen Yang.

[4] Simply by those names you can figure out which side I am likely on, but bear with me anyway.

[5] In college, I took a course on the social foundations of teaching and diversity with a woman who made very clear to us that food is not all there is to culture. But it is delicious so we had a party with diverse foods.

[6] “But wait,” you might say, “don’t progressives tend to side with the people you call conservatives when they complain about cultural appropriation?” Funny that.

[7] We might call this cultural appropriation classic: wearing a cultural design of a foreign culture with little to no understanding of its significance.

[8] Not only does this protect the cultural significance of moko it provides an income stream for artists!

[9] One of the times anyway

[10] It has to do with signaling but this post is long enough as it is.

At the Dinner Table

氣 (qǐ): meaning breath, air, energy, spirit, life force.
生氣 (shēng qǐ): meaning anger, literally birthing air.
火大 (huò dà): meaning extreme anger, literally big fire.

Father’s Father taught physics
while students carried their slates;
even as Japanese soldiers gave chase.

Mother’s Father taught too,
the right politics and skills
but to the losing side.

Two grandfathers
trapped on two islands
with Chinese language
Chinese students
and Chinese food.

My parents left
and I was born free
from my birthright.

Mother rebuilt the nation with every meal.
The dinner table was Fujian
seasoned with a splash of Shanghai.
China in Michigan
by way of Taipei.

Grade school failures stole China from me.
Disappointed Chinese mother,
and furious Chinese father,
blew English lectures across the dinner table.

Father and I were windstorms
captured by our lungs
and imprisoned by a beating furnace.
Winds do nothing but push.

Dueling winds made tornados,
splintering thrones,
spilling ceramic islands.
Sinking China.

My smile died for ten years.

Food that hurts,
burns,
cuts.
It made father’s eyes sweat
and my brow tear.

Without the pain
the mouth runs free.
At the dinner table chewing
was the sound of peace.

Our words hurt when they brush the skin.
Breath burns,
not by purpose
but by nature.

Fire is how father and I create
the gas range is the forge
never set lower than seven.

“The Cantonese call it the spirit of the flame!” he said.
He never believed in spirits,
he hates hot air.
But, he understands fire.

You need heat to forge steel,
carbon pain and iron threats,
the awful flame he uses
to save lives.

Incinerate the cancer,
heal the patient.
Extinguish the rebellion,
Remove the failure.
Recrimination is redemption.

Heat is my family’s definition of love.

The tornado passes.
In the wake,
drops of salted rain.

Regrets are found
in the ruins of China
But storms destroy
and salt soothes no wounds.

Things don’t have words that burn,
tongues that trip.
Plastic dragons don’t breathe fire.
Things don’t have to push.
Things have hidden words
I can hear over the wind.

We forgive,
firm the foundations
for a future fighting fires.
China rebuilt again.

Storm season must end
before the next must begin.
Seasons upon seasons,
we fare each better than the last.

I am still a windstorm.
My wife a willow,
strong because she bends.

My families will never be safe from fire.
But I now know how to bend
and how to rebuild.

My smile has returned.

False Friends at Strange Shores

Probably the most foundational idea in my life isn’t religious, ethical, or relational. It’s a pretty simple observation, a rule of thumb really: an advantage can be a disadvantage, and a disadvantage can be an advantage, it depends on context. Not merely social context, but as an inherent property, most everything is a mixed bag. It’s pretty much the only that gets me through the day being, well, me.

As I’ve indicated before, my youth was troubled, even if I was too pro-social to be considered a troubled youth. I had – have – focus problems and impulse control problems stacked on top of a compulsive need to analyze and systematize everything. It wasn’t all bad. I was – am – a pretty smart and I was – am – a strongly intuitive learner, good with systems, patterns, and stealing extra efficiency out of a studying routine. It’s a gift of nurture and nature and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. But for all of the advantages, there are some real downsides as well. I was unused to being genuinely bad at something. Even if I hadn’t been convinced that a lack of complete of all intellectual pursuits was a tremendous moral failure, my long reliance on intuition would have – did, does – doom me to frustration and failure, especially as a child.

If you sat me down before a list of things and asked me to memorize them, I’d get fidgety and bored fast. And then, when I tried my very best, I’ll turn out to be really bad at it – even worse than “normal” kids – which will frustrated me quite a bit. When you’re 7 and your parents are legacies of an effective but brutal rote memorization school of education, it just looks like you’re lazy. I certainly thought so anyway. 1 And as narcissistic and ridiculous as it is to complain about being so gifted that being brought down to normal is torture, when you’re 7, you don’t know any better. The bad habits have stuck around long past me getting a good dose of perspective.

It wasn’t just the let down from relying on a talent and having that talent fail you, but in some cases, that talent, that asset, led me astray. I have failed at a truly staggering number of things, and I carry a perpetual sense of shame for having “gotten away with” less than stellar work on multiple occasions throughout my educational career. As bad as all of that can be, nothing haunts me the way that failing to learn Chinese, and to a lesser extent, French has. Probably because of all of the academic failures and false starts, not knowing Chinese has cost me the most. More, infra