All posts filed under: Essays

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 …

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 …

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 …

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. …

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 …

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 …

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 …