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When Culture Is Appropriated

It’s 2010, and I’m looking through an old friend’s gap year photos on Facebook.

I stop at a photo of him and three friends, all of them wearing conical bamboo hats on a busy street in South East Asia, grinning jokingly at the camera, their faces shiny from the humidity. It makes me feel uneasy.

The many times I see a version of this same image over the next few years, whether it’s at the airport or a fancy dress party, I am still bothered. But I don’t know what to call it, what it means, what it is — until now.

Last week, two accusations of cultural appropriation were brought to the media. The first was a black student arguing with a white student who had dreadlocks. The second was Justin Bieber, sporting cornrows and saying he looked like a douchebag.

Celebrities, particularly musicians, getting interrogated over their choice of props, outfits, music videos etc, is nothing new. Gwen Stefani raised eyebrows in the ‘90s when she wore a bindi, but nobody knew how to have a discussion back then. Fast forward a few years, when Miley Cyrus caused controversy at the MTV awards, twerking aggressively on black dancers, and we were finally ready to talk about it. But it’s tough to know what it all means, and what ‘counts’.

One definition of the term is this:

‘Cultural appropriation typically involves members of a dominant group exploiting the culture of less privileged groups — often with little understanding of the latter’s history, experience and traditions.’

I’ve also read that cultural appropriation can be seen as ‘stripping the minority group of its group identity and intellectual rights’.

Were the boys in that photo appropriating Asian culture?

Conical bamboo hats are associated with various countries throughout Asia, from Bangladesh to China, and have been around in some places for almost 3,000 years. They are typically used as protection against the sun and rain, usually by farmers (also branded ‘commoners’).

Here’s what I imagine happened: the boys saw the hats, thought they were ‘cool’ or ‘funny’, bought them, giving it no more thought, and posed for a picture in them, perhaps even wore them during their travels. They might not have had any pejorative thoughts, but to me, it still feels like exploitation — and I’m not ‘just being sensitive’ (a phrase I find myself saying far too often when I feel like I’m out on a limb, ready to be jumped on).

Sure, you could argue about the product’s existence in the first place. After all, these countries are selling them. Are they exploiting their own culture? I don’t know. But I am certain that appreciating a culture, and appropriating it are two different things. You can appreciate a conical hat in a museum or someone’s house or on the Internet. You can think it looks cool or weird or interesting, or any other adjective. You can look, and touch, and ask questions,and discuss, and research. Appropriating a culture is to take from it and rely on what little knowledge, perhaps misinformed or stereotyped, you have (or perhaps no knowledge at all) to justify your choice as being morally sound.

It’s likely that my feelings towards this incident are such because I have a Chinese heritage. I have roots, bias. But I think it is usually those who have connections to what’s happening that call it out, draw other people’s attention to it. In a video on sexism I saw recently, actress and activist Caitlin Stasey said, ‘I don’t think you can tell anyone who is marginalised how to respond to their marginalisation’.

After all — if we’re talking about this country — the white British majority aren’t being culturally appropriated, so how could those four boys say that what they did wasn’t harmful? Does it matter to them if Justin Bieber has cornrows? Do they think it’s just a part of pop culture, that it’s ‘the norm’?

Over the past ten years, what is PC and what isn’t has become a topic of importance, something we should discuss. It’s good we have this new agenda, that we can finally tell people, ‘no, it isn’t ok when you say this’. But it’s not without a fight. Many people are riled up, the kind of people who say ‘everything is racism these days’, who defend the notion of ‘blacking up’ as ‘just good, clean fun’. The new agenda has also got people confused about what they can and can’t say.

Surely, the solution is straightforward. Respect each other and other cultures. Respect that a majority can’t just ‘have’ anything they want, no matter the cost. Respect that there is a cost. Respect that we no longer live in a time when letting this imbalance occur is ok.

On The New Age

It’s a weekday afternoon and I’m participating in my generation’s favourite activity: scrolling.

I see a tweet I want to read. ‘YOU Can Get Your Dream Body – Here’s How’.

As I click on it, a mixture of sadness, disgust and confusion stirs in my gut. I’m aware of this uncomfortable hybrid feeling as I read the piece (which is, of course, nothingness that doesn’t, couldn’t possibly, cater to all of the women who will read it). And the feeling simmers within me for the rest of the day, until I realise what it means.

We are losing control, I say to my boyfriend when I get home.
Yup, he replies.

During dinner I think about extreme click-bait headlines that most companies now employ, and how much I hate them. Yet I click on them. I click on them and they make me mad, because the piece is some celeb non-news or not at all the thing I was promised and it happens all over again the next day. This is not every linked tweet, some are wonderful and shareable and spot on, but it is many.

I realise that worse than a nonsensical, hungry click-bait is an imperative click-bait. I once worked at a magazine where the aim was never to tell women what to do, but to give them advice that they could choose to take. This idea no longer exists. We are told what we ‘can’t live without’, what ‘we must know right now’, what will ‘change our lives’. This absolute insistence, this warped version of a promise, is ludicrous, but I try to accept that it’s the ‘style’ of today.

It shouldn’t bother you so much, social media and journalism are businesses, I tell myself.
But it’s sad, I reply.

I wash my face and try to convince myself that it’s acceptable, brilliant, even, to pour your everything into a piece of work, sell it short with a description that reduces the meaning to a 140 character soundbite (including a link), and then connect your self-belief with the amount of clicks it gets. I try to convince myself that it’s acceptable to see ‘views’ as the whole picture. I try to convince myself that all work needs to be advertised with a pithy/shocking/vague/contextually untrue tweet. I try to convince myself because I am no stranger to these things. I have done them because they seem like the new ‘thing’, the only thing. So I try to convince myself. But for all of my trying, I can’t.

In bed, I deduce that the problem lies in how I see social media. I’ve been letting it tell me I’m nothing without tips and life rules; that my work is nothing without click-bait untruths.

I fall asleep thinking about the brands and people I’m going to unfollow. For a second, hanging in limbo between sleep and consciousness, I worry I won’t remember them all when I want to do a cull. But the next morning, they flow like cold water right out of the tap.

The Photographer’s Stories

This week, I went to an early preview showing of the Paul Strand: Photography and Film for the 20th Century exhibition at the V&A Museum. I wasn’t familiar with Strand’s work, but it wasn’t long before I found myself thoroughly immersed in his life through the lens.

It wasn’t just the beauty of Strand’s pictures that astounded me. Sure, they were lovely to look at; the quality, the composition, the light. To the eye, they were aesthetically pleasing. But to the heart, they were something much more.

New York-born Strand travelled extensively during his career, photographing his way through America, Canada, Mexico, Europe and Africa. While he was a modernist photographer, he didn’t specialise in one type of photography, but rather captured the things that interested him, whether it was an intimate portrait of his first wife or a close-up of cabbages. He also didn’t flit between places and people, snapping fleeting experiences as photographers often do, instead choosing to spend anything between a few weeks to a few months in certain places to understand the local people, the industries they were involved in and how they survived. A placard next to one NYC photograph read, ‘He concentrated on older figures from the various ethnic groups that populated that part of the city. Before him, few photographers had attempted to make such monumental statements about everyday people’. My brain started to fizz with excitement and curiosity.

Strand was an anthropologist.

In the 1950s, he spent over five weeks in the Italian village of Luzzara. One particularly evocative print (the photo at the top) shows the Lusetti family — the mother, and her five sons — stood outside their farmhouse. One of the sons, Valentino, was Strand’s guide around the village, and explained that he had learned English while he was a prisoner of war during the Second World War. In his comments, Strand added that their father, a fellow communist, had been beaten to death by political opponents.

While the photographs tell their own stories, Strand’s notes accompanying each print or collection of prints certainly encourage you to see the photos in a fuller, more perspicacious way. As with most anthropological research, his photos weren’t just about stories, but the evidence of those stories and the source of his conclusions: the people he photographed.


Two siblings, John and Jean MacLellan, who appeared in the above photo when they were children, taken in the Outer Hebrides, came to the exhibition. Jean spoke to me about her experience of the ‘photoshoot’.

‘I don’t remember it, but John does. Our parents must’ve spoken to him [Strand] about it. We were often photographed by two local GPs that were into that, so it was just another photo. We just did what we were told, looking out the window and kneeling on a sofa, or a bench as it was known back then. We didn’t know who he was for a very long time. I had the book at home for years, but it was only a few weeks ago, when this was all happening [the exhibition] and a filmmaker said, ‘you must’ve felt honoured’, that I realised how big he was. I’d like to find out more about the story so I can pass it on to my children.’

It was believed that Strand was motivated to take the photo by the idea that things would change.

After being transported through Strand’s world ventures and his relationship with nature and landscapes, I came to the last photograph. It was of Strand himself, in his garden in France in the 1970s, six years before he died. He was stood holding his camera and looking elsewhere; the perfect denouement.

Chinese Is Not Just Mandarin

Recently, to mark Chinese New Year, one of my favourite bookshops — Foyles — presented a selection of Chinese language books in the main area of the language section. It was fantastic — resources and books to get people interested in learning Chinese. Only, there was one problem.

They’d been banking on people learning just one version of Chinese, no plural. All of the books they’d proudly presented were in or about Mandarin. There was no Cantonese (only a handful on the shelf, not display). I’ve already discussed the very real problem of Mandarin being seen (thanks to a political push) as ‘Chinese’ and Cantonese getting the lesser label of a ‘dialect’, but I didn’t realise how widespread this understanding really was. If we were to view both Mandarin and Cantonese as dialects under the ‘Chinese umbrella’, it would be slightly less insulting, because they would be seen as equally important. But that isn’t what’s happening.

My father is Chinese and, if you were to generalise, speaks Chinese. But more specifically, he speaks Cantonese. This doesn’t make him any less Chinese.

I recently wrote a piece about how being mixed race can sometimes mean being invisible in society, making you feel like the ‘foreign half’ of you is unacknowledged and unsupported. This notion that ‘Chinese’ exclusively means you live in or are from Mainland China or just speak Mandarin has the same damaging consequences for those who are from Hong Kong or speak Cantonese. An entire population, shrugged off or brushed over; unseen.

After seeing this display in the bookshop, I scoured language forums. I was in for a rude awakening. I already knew that there were almost no Cantonese learning resources online or in bookshops. This is partly because there’s no one, universal romanised system for learning Cantonese (although Jyutping — the system of using words and numbers for tones is very popular). But I believe it’s mostly because of the Mandarin push.

Apple, as in, the world-dominating technology behemoth, does not have any Cantonese/Jyutping options within its software. It can give you Mandarin pinyin, Cantonese characters, and languages from all over the world — but no Jyutping. Encouraged by other disgruntled members of a Cantonese forum, I recently wrote to Apple via an online form asking for some form of romanised Cantonese.

Because without it, learning the language has been made harder. Which means that it will become even less talked about. Which means that it will soon be seen as irrelevant or unimportant. And we know what that means in the end.

Being English Abroad

There are very few places or situations that English people (that is, native English speakers) can’t deal with or work around. This makes us lucky – but it also makes us lazy. The lack of necessity means that most of us don’t even think about learning another language.

English is the second most spoken language in the world but is considered to be the planet’s lingua franca and according to the New Scientist, even predicted to be the language we will one day all speak (thanks to English similects developing around the world), but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t learn certain words in a foreign language out of respect and appreciation for others, if nothing else.

Last week, I found myself reeling as I watched chef Rick Stein eat his way around Shanghai. He was meeting people who could speak English (such as a food blogger who translated very specific, food questions), and locals who couldn’t speak English. He was invited into their kitchens, their workplaces and even their homes, yet he could not say one word. The only ‘thank you’s’ he gave were in English. In one particularly surreal scene, he was sat around a table with local fishermen, eating their fresh catch, and spoke to the camera while his lunch companions looked on like props.

I don’t know Rick Stein – maybe he can say the basics in Chinese and chose not to, or maybe he just mumbled them really quietly. But if I was going to another country, working with people who can’t speak English, discussing the culture equally as much as the food — and doing all of this on TV — I’d probably say ‘thank you’ in the relevant language. If not for the cameras, or the reminder to audiences at home that appreciating other cultures is important, then at least for the people he was interacting with, out of basic courtesy. It’s not just Stein. I recently watched John Torode (a chef I quite like) fumble his way through Malaysia.

Thankfully, this isn’t the case for all of those who explore the world on our TV screens. In Levison Wood’s recent account of walking the length of the Himalayas, he frequently said hello and thank you in the varying native languages, even though he was often accompanied by locals who could speak for him.

Most of us have relied on English when we’re abroad, simply because we can. On family holidays, it was the norm to use English and a half-apologetic, half-‘oh well!’ smile to get by. I figured that I was saying thanks, and that was the important thing. But when I started travelling as an adult, something changed. I realised my defiant use of English was tacitly implying that the only thing I was thankful for when I cooed ‘thank you’ to Greek shopkeepers was that I could speak English and they could — had to — understand. With every ‘hello!’ and ‘can I have this please?’, I was really saying, I don’t value your culture as much as my own.

The rudeness of what I was doing (or not doing) became painfully apparent. I felt I could no longer ‘get away with it’ without feeling terrible, and the fact that I felt I had been ‘getting away with it’ in the first place made me realise that I was fully aware all along that I was doing something wrong – something we think is acceptable simply because we haven’t been thrown out of an Italian museum for using English, or tutted at by a Moroccan waiter. This is the worst kind of assumption, akin to saying it must be ok to shoplift because you haven’t been caught.

I can’t speak any other languages fluently, so this isn’t a diatribe about those who can’t converse with a Spanish bus driver or say what they’d like from the menu. But if we tried, most of us could manage hello, goodbye and thank you in a foreign language.

So this is a call for respect. We are so lucky that, for the most part, we don’t have to learn a foreign language to get somewhere in life. Let’s be kind to those who do, and respect their mother tongue.

The Relationship We Need To Have

Recently, I (metaphorically) became acquainted with the Tasaday tribe.

To cut a long story short, the Tasaday tribe were a group of people discovered in the depths of the Philippine rainforest in the seventies. While lots of stories unfolded around them and their new found fame (we still don’t know the truth), the thing that struck me most was their relationship with nature.

They believed there was an owner of the forest who lived in the sky. They obeyed his wishes, which they believed he expressed through the weather and their wellbeing. If he was happy, there was sunshine. When he was angry, he sent rain and thunder, and sometimes even sickness. Nature was their god, the only supreme being they respected and worshipped. A lot of people around the world still live this way today, albeit in less extreme circumstances (e.g. Shinto, a nature-focused ‘religion’ in Japan, is still practiced by 83% of the population, while many South Koreans adhere to the popular motto ‘body and soil are one’).

It turns out, these guys had it sussed. And thankfully, Western societies — who, compared to the rest of the world seem to have the least healthiest relationship with nature — are starting to suss it out, too. Provoked by declines in wellbeing, physical ailments or general itchy feet, people are leaving their desks to ‘find simplicity’. Of course, by simplicity, they really mean nature. Log cabins, remote retreats, etc. They’re fed up of emails and feeling ‘non-stop’, they’re bored with excess and want to pare back.

I’m not dropping everything and moving to Bali, but I am currently moving house. I need air and space — two things my current area, as bustling and brilliant as it is, doesn’t have. Parks nearby take the edge off, but it’s not enough for my mental health anymore. The first thing I thought when I explored the new area? ‘I can breathe’. The roads are wide, the streets quiet and there are vast expanses of green in every direction.

It’s strange it’s taken us this long to realise just how important nature is to our everyday lives. National Geographic recently published a piece called‘This Is Your Brain On Nature’, which highlights the endless ways that nature is good for us.

Here are just a few:

‘People living near more green space reported less mental distress’

‘Students performed 50 percent better on creative problem-solving tasks after three days of wilderness backpacking’

‘Researchers found lower incidence of 15 diseases, including depression, anxiety, heart disease, diabetes, asthma, and migraines, in people who lived within about a half mile of green space’

‘In 2015 an international team overlaid health questionnaire responses from more than 31,000 Toronto residents onto a map of the city, block by block. Those living on blocks with more trees showed a boost in heart and metabolic health equivalent to what one would experience from a $20,000 gain in income’

But the research that sums it all up for me is the discovery that people who lived near green space were happier and healthier — even if they didn’t use it. You don’t even have to go for a leafy walk to reap the benefits, so think of how good you’ll feel if you do. Researcher Greg Bratman also found that volunteers who roamed a park for 90 minutes had less negative and self-deprecating thoughts than those on a busy street.

The latter part of this research certainly rings true for me. On the streets I frequent in the city — predominantly grey and busy— I’m reminded, with every step, of my reality. Of course, I’m not complaining about my, frankly cushty, way of life, but if things aren’t going the way you want them to, for whatever reason, it can be hard not to let other factors, such as a dismal street, add to those negative feelings. There are also the typical city moans: slow walkers, predictably terrible weather, overheated subway, miserable people (miserable, of course, because of the aforementioned obstacles). When I’m hiking in the woods, I feel hopeful, productive, satisfied. I think about how nice my life is, and how I could make it even nicer. I seem to conjure up brilliant ideas out of nowhere (magic tree dust?).

But as the endless studies have shown, all of us — even people who can’t identify with this — can be both healed and high-fived by nature.

Japanese researcher Yoshifumi Miyazaki believes that our bodies relax in nature because they evolved there, and that we’re adapted to take in information about trees and plants, not office blocks. This is central to our toxic relationship with Mother Nature. Despite having most of the same bare essentials as all living organisms, we refuse to accept that we are equal with animals and wildlife. This is evident through so many things, from poaching to cutting down trees, building on green space to letting global warming happen on our watch.

To paraphrase Jason Mraz, we are animals, we are wild, and we need to live with the land in harmony.

It would be trite and narrow-minded to suggest everyone just ‘lives off the land’ (as my mum would say), and spectacularly naive and unrealistic to suggest that we abandon our busy lives for a hammock in Indonesia. While most of us would prefer that lifestyle, modern life doesn’t permit it. But it’s shocking to think that we can increase our feelings of calmness or happinessfor free, in just a few minutes, and yet many of us choose not to.

“We think other things will [make us happy], like shopping or TV. We evolved in nature. It’s strange we’d be so disconnected,” Lisa Nisbet, Psychology Professor at Canada’s Trent University told Nat Geo.

A walk in the park is enough. And if you can’t even manage that? Just spotting a tree from your window will do the trick.

The Cultures Within

Last weekend, I relived my recent solo trip to Hong Kong.

Turning the pages of my travel journal, I was reminded of something that had happened in a temple.

I’d bought a pack of incense sticks to light and pray with. Once I’d lit a handful and placed them in the sand beneath a grid of black and white photographs of the deceased, I realised I had a lot of sticks left. I didn’t feel I could light them for the Godly shrines occupying the rest of the temple floor, simply because I didn’t know what each God stood for, and therefore if I believed in what they represented. But not wanting to waste them, I politely stopped an American couple who were being given a tour and said, “I bought too many incense sticks, would you like to have these?”, thinking it might add to their experience. But the man threw me a look of disgust and annoyance as he replied tersely, “No thank you”, his stiff tone suggesting I was a pest trying to sell him something inappropriate in a sacred place. I was taken aback. I felt like I’d been stung.

Beneath the story in my journal, I’d written this question:

‘Do we even understand our own culture?’

As a studying anthropologist, and generally a curious being, I’m always interested in the way other cultures and societies function, from their street slang to their customs and rituals. That was partly why I was in Hong Kong — to explore, discover, try to understand and challenge what I believed I knew.

I didn’t give the altercation much thought for the rest of that day, or the trip, but now, having re-read that question, it’s been playing on my mind. While I’m not American, I am (half) British, and I both grew up and live in a predominantly Western way. Americans and Brits share many of the same values and ideas, principles and rules. I don’t think the incident was simplistic enough to dissect as just: some people are rude.

I started thinking about our behaviour in foreign countries, and in particular in sacred places or places we might not be familiar with. No matter how adventurous and open we are, most of us retain a wariness as we wander, the notion — just in the back of our heads — that we are not from this place, nor do we know this culture inside out. It readies us to say no to the street sellers quickly, before they can start following us, hollering to buy their product. It readies us to note our location in the interest of safety and comfort. It readies us for anything unexpected. Perhaps that’s why he reacted the way he did, and if so, I understand.

But his behaviour, this behaviour, doesn’t account for an entire culture. Not all Westerners, or Americans or Brits, would have done and said what he had done and said, of course. It struck me that there are so many sub-cultures tucked away under any primary culture umbrella. Not to be mistaken for personality traits, these sub-cultures might be born out of localisation, or family cultures, maybe even the effect of a work environment.

I think, more than anything else, the interaction we had taught me that culture isn’t just something you find on the other side of the world exclusively with populations that don’t look or sound like you. Set cultures can be found in your office, your hometown. Maybe the man from the temple frowned at me because that’s how everyone in his family treats those giving things away for free.

In the end, I carefully stacked the sticks on the side. It seemed a better fate than throwing them away. Hopefully somebody picked them up and decided not to waste them, or followed the age-old rule of ‘finders keepers’. Perhaps that’s in their culture.