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The Absurdity of “Cultural Appropriation”

Yesterday I watched a series of presentations by young Chinese businesspeople. Their task was to find a product or service from China, then choose a target market abroad, and figure out how to break into that market. It was an exercise in culture, as much as anything. Their assigned reading included various essays on the failures of businesses attempting to enter the Chinese market and vice versa. My job was to pick apart their presentations and find flaws in their plans, and then challenge them to defend or change their presentation.

Most of the groups picked various Chinese foods that have not yet penetrated international markets, but two of them looked at Chinese clothing. In particular, they decided to pick the qipao, and market it to consumers in the United Kingdom. One of the groups intended to hybridize the qipao with Victorian-style clothing, which I think is just a horrible idea that profoundly misunderstands modern British tastes, whereas the other thought they could simply sell the qipao as it is to British women.

Qipao_woman
A woman wearing a Qipao (Source: Wikipedia)

My question to them went a little like this:

“I think that most people in the UK and other Western countries would agree that the qipao is a beautiful and elegant item of clothing, and maybe fifty or a hundred years ago they would love to wear it. But these days people would be afraid of receiving criticism for cultural appropriation. How do you intend to get past this obstacle?”

The students were unfamiliar with the concept of cultural appropriation. In fact, if you try to explain this issue to just about anyone here in China – or, for that matter, much of Asia – they look at you as if you were insane. And I would tend to agree. To me, the whole concept is indeed insane.

The Chinese, like the Japanese and Koreans, mostly wear Western-style clothes. Their idols are American pop stars, movie stars, and basketball players, and, each year, their diets are comprised of more and more Western-style food. Their cultures are utterly permeated with American and European influences. It is hardly surprising, then, that people from this part of the world dream of the day that Westerners walk about in Asian clothing, listen to Asian music, watch Asian movies, and eat Asian foods. The idea that this could somehow be offensive to them is absurd.

The issue of cultural appropriation was widely discussed a few weeks ago after an American girl wore a qipao to her prom, and incurred the wrath of America’s liberal trolls, who said she was offending the Chinese. Meanwhile, in China, people agreed that she had done nothing wrong.

qipao
Keziah Daum in a qipao

My girlfriend has asked me about this before. Last year, she was looking for a dress to bring to Scotland, and she suggested I buy something Chinese for myself. She thought it would be nice if we both wore Chinese-style clothes when we visited. I tried to explain that British people would think I was stealing from her culture and being offensive to Chinese people.

“But it’s my idea! I’m Chinese and I want you to wear Chinese clothes!”

“You don’t understand,” I said. “It doesn’t matter what you want. There are a bunch of people who think they know best, and they decide what’s right and wrong, and they’ve decided that this is offensive to you.”

We “argue” about it sometimes, although I’m entirely on her side. I am merely trying to explain what cultural appropriation is. I have no interest in defending it. I can certainly understand why it’s wrong for kids to wear offensive Halloween costumes, and that there’s a difference between respecting someone’s culture and mocking someone’s culture, but it seems that too many PC folks cannot understand these nuances.

When pressed, these critics will argue that cultural appropriation is a matter of power. The argument goes that Western countries have pushed their culture on the rest of the world for so long that it is impossible for them to steal from us. However, when Westerners take an element of another culture and incorporate it into their own, it is a form of theft. This is reasonable, except that is usually a form of respect to see something worthwhile in another culture, not to mention a natural part of intercultural exchange throughout human history. Surely it would be far worse to dismiss that other culture entirely, saying, “I’d never wear Chinese clothes! I have more class than they do!” As for the power dynamic, as my girlfriend pointed out, surely by now China has far more power and wealth than, say, Scotland, and yet no one would complain about a Chinese man playing the bagpipes.

In Asia, despite the sudden influx of Western fashion, people remain fiercely proud of their traditions, even when they don’t engage with them much themselves. A Chinese person who has never done kung-fu or played the er-hu will nonetheless tell you of the subtle sophistication of these cultural artifacts and, whenever a picture of a white person engaging with either makes it onto social media, they are not offended. On the contrary, people are filled with pride that something from their part of the world has made an impact on someone from another part of the world.

If you ask them about it, they’ll say, “Well, we have x from your country; why shouldn’t you have y from ours?” And that is exactly the point. It is precisely why cultural appropriation is a deeply ignorant concept, even if it is, in some cases, well-meaning.

To be honest, I have no interest in wearing Chinese clothes when I go back to Scotland. It’s just not my style. However, I have been in Asia for more than ten years now, and in that time I have travelled through dozens of countries. I attempt to see and experience the culture in each place I visit, and it always makes me sick to look at the limited perspectives of the people who get riled up on social media about cultural sensitivity. These folks are mostly from the US, and their entire worldview is shaped by American society and politics. They attempt to apply their morality on the globe, whilst at the same time decrying ethno- or geocentrism. The things that they say make no real sense from a global perspective. Their hearts are, mostly, in the right place, but their heads are firmly lodged inside their own rectums. They make me embarrassed to call myself liberal.

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I'm the editor of Beatdom magazine and author of Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the 'Weird Cult'.

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