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Asians In Asia View Cultural Appropriation Differently Than You Realize

flickr/Marcus Mo

Claims that Asians live in some sort of racially homogenous paradise impose a Western Orientalist view of the ‘Homelands.’

The debate around cultural appropriation, especially when it involves Asian culture, almost always follows a specific pattern. Let’s take the recent qipao debacle as an example.

  1. White American high school student Keziah is called out by Asians in the West for wearing a qipao to prom.
  2. Articles are written quoting some Asians in Asia who do not see this as cultural appropriation.
  3. Westerners, Asians and non-Asians alike, use articles like these to claim that Asians in Asia live “within a nearly monolithic society where [they] are represented in media” so of course they won’t care.
  4. Rinse and repeat.

Every round of this pattern deeply infuriates me, as an “Asian in Asia” (more specifically, a Malaysian of Bangladeshi parentage, though I now live overseas as an adult migrant). These thinkpieces and counter-thinkpieces homogenize a massive continent of about 40-something countries, cherry-picking segments of opinions to remove any possibility of nuance around how Asians in Asia view cultural appropriation.

I grew up as part of a highly vilified racial minority in an Asian country. My first experiences of institutional and interpersonal racism were not in Australia or the United States, but as a child in Malaysia, where the only “media representation” I had of my race was in front-page news articles about how we’re supposedly robbing houses and stealing women. In Malaysia I was, and still am, barred from services, opportunities, and even jobs due to my race. I was refused on-screen time while working in the media in Malaysia for being too “dark-skinned” and yet nailed a TV hosting gig in Australia. Claims that Asians live in some sort of racially homogenous paradise impose a Western Orientalist view of the “Homelands,” ignore the existence of diaspora, and assume that none of us ever suffer and thus our opinions on the use of our culture are irrelevant.

Of course, I am just one Asian, I can’t possibly speak for the whole continent. So I’ve reached out to other Asians, either in Asia or who’ve lived overseas as adults, about the issue of appropriation. And our opinions are much more complex than Western media wants to admit.

These thinkpieces and counter-thinkpieces homogenize a massive continent of about 40-something countries. Click To Tweet

Sabina Giado, a Sri Lankan writer who grew up in Dubai and is currently based in Sydney, defines cultural appropriation as “taking someone’s cultural artifacts without their consent and profiting from it, whether that is in actual money or fame or some other intangible benefit. Communication, much like any conversation, happens with the consent of both parties….Appropriation usually flows from up to down — as in a more powerful culture takes on the trappings of a less powerful one.”

There seemed to be an overall consensus that cultural appropriation was bad; the differences were in what they felt constituted cultural appropriation. Sylvie, a Malaysian student based in the United Kingdom, argued that people are too quick to name things appropriative. “I think we are in an interconnected world where cultures naturally intertwine with another, giving us the opportunity to diversify our understanding of various cultures. So I think cultural appropriation is an unnecessary label that the people of the West have created to further complicate cultural diversification.”

Jo, a South Indian Christian development professional and “perpetual immigrant,” also has major qualms with the definition of cultural appropriation. “There definitely needs to be more framing of it in terms of power relations between communities and defining why those power relations exist in material terms,” she says, “as well as a conversation about where cultural appropriation is actually about something else (bog standard racism, imperialism and the capitalist commodification of exotic cultures for consumption).”

One common assumption fueling the idea that Asians in Asia can’t understand cultural appropriation is that Asian countries are monocultures — that everyone in China is Chinese, everyone in the Philippines is Filipino, and nobody understands what it’s like to live as a racial minority. “Give me a second to stop laughing my ass off at the idea that Asians (and Indians, specifically) aren’t racist as fuck,” says Tamanna, who grew up in India and recently moved to France. “They don’t know what the hell they’re talking about, and they fail to take into account the effect of colonization and the pervasive effect of white supremacy outside the Western world. And if I’m being cynical I’d say they’re an attempt at twisting the facts to make White people feel better about themselves.”

One anonymous Malaysian writer of Chinese descent said she twitched at the suggestion. “Anyone who calls any Asian country a monoculture really, really needs to go hang out in Asia for a while? Because every country’s built of a multiplicity of ethnic groups, even if they’re not immediately obvious to outsiders.”

Indeed, for countries like Malaysia or Singapore, multiculturalism is baked into the cultural consciousness to the point that it becomes a marketing slogan — “Malaysia Truly Asia.” Many respondents from those areas recounted their experiences of cultural exchange: joining in on cultural holidays, eating each other’s food and wearing each other’s clothes — in ways that they are now reluctant to embrace in the West, lest they be accused of being appropriators themselves.

“I have [a qipao] that I wore to an International Day when I was in high school — ’cause as Malaysians, we are so multicultural I figured I could, as well as having Chinese family members,” said Shamita S., an artist and “third culture kid Malaysian” based in Australia. “I would love to crack it out again cause it’s beautiful, but alas I’m scared to offend, haha!”

Shamita was salty about the prospect of being called out by White Australians for potential appropriation: “I think it comes from the classic white saviour complex. I know intentions are good but…stay out of it unless you actually know what you’re talking about.” When it comes to the possibility of offending Chinese people in Australia, however, her feelings were more complex.

“I don’t think it’d offend newer Chinese Australians. I think it may offend ‘Australians with Chinese descent’ who have been very much Australianized for several generations. It seems to be a pattern with us POCs — that the less connected to our culture we are, the more defensive we get if someone seemingly appropriates an element of it,” she says. “When I’ve spoken to first-gen migrants, or, for example, ‘Chinese people living in China,’ they’ve always been so like ‘YES GO FOR IT.’ Which makes me wonder — why is it people who are further removed from their culture are so much more defensive? Is it because they want to protect something that they too are still learning about and it perhaps comes from some form of self-judgement or questioning of their own identity?”

The qipao debacle itself was a polarising item of discussion. “I would say the qipao girl was wrong, and I agree with the people calling her out for it — wearing it as a costume is denigrating,” says Robert Liow, a Malaysian-Chinese with Singaporean permanent residency, residing in the UK. “I can see why some Asians in Asia think any acknowledgement of their culture is positive; we don’t often get to see ourselves in Western media or interact with the West in a contributory way, and don’t immediately experience racism in the way that Asians living in the West do.”

Multiculturalism doesn’t mean full racial equity, or that issues like cultural appropriation and racism don’t exist in Asian countries. Growing up amidst immense anti-Bangladeshi racism in Malaysia, whose constitution is based on Ketuanan Melayu or Malay Supremacy, meant being surrounded by messaging about how Bangladeshis were “destroying our culture” and “doing Islam wrong” because we wore henna or salwhar khameez, when Malay people could do the same without question. And yet when minorities like myself speak up, “multiculturalism” gets used as a cudgel to shut us down.

Multiculturalism doesn’t mean that issues like cultural appropriation don’t exist in Asian countries. Click To Tweet

“I have faced racist Malays growing up and I think that’s made me somewhat protective of Desi culture, and I can’t help feel a bit uncomfortable when Malay people take and take without crediting where it came from,” says an anonymous Malaysian student of Filipino, Indian, and Pakistani background, citing the controversy surrounding Malay fashion designer Rizalman Ibrahim’s Indian-based fashion line, which didn’t feature any Indian models. “Many local Desis weren’t too happy about our culture being used like that, especially due to the xenophobia that many have faced from Malays. These complaints were invalidated by a lot of people though on the basis that Malaysia is multicultural and we ‘borrow’ from each others culture anyway. On one hand I agree, but where do we draw the line?”

The non-obvious multiplicity of ethnic groups exists even in countries that don’t necessarily have multiculturalism baked into their cultural consciousness (the way Malaysia and Singapore do) — and, just like Asian Diaspora in the West, these ethnic groups face structural discrimination and appropriation.

Michael, a Taiwanese stay-at-home dad who’s lived in New Zealand and the United States, spoke about the “more or less four ethnicities” in Taiwan and the way they’re (mis)treated — such as the neglect and abuse of Aboriginal Taiwanese or the purges of the Hakka, “gypsies from China” that retreated to the mountains after disenfranchisement from local Taiwanese. “Hakkas being a minority tend to serve central government,” he says.“Whenever there’s rebellions or strife, they get purged by local government and rebels. Sort of like Jewish people in Poland.” (The other two groups are the majority Minan Taiwanese and “mainlanders” that escaped China after communist control.)

“So all the racial issues in the US — not new. At all. Our societies are even older than US,” says Michael. “Chinese history is filled with genocide and mass killing.”

A country that gets called out often as being monocultural is Japan. Controversy over incidents such as “Kimono Wednesdays” at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston’s “Looking East” exhibition tends to paint Japanese people in Japan as being oblivious or uncaring to cultural appropriation. Asuma, who’s half Japanese half Bangladeshi and works in marketing in New Zealand, says the truth is more complicated.

“I think ‘people don’t care about cultural appropriation’ because most Japanese people hold the idea that Japanese culture isn’t comprehensible to most ‘foreigners.’ There’s an unfounded sense of pride in being Japanese, and when people from other cultures don’t understand it, they don’t really care,” she says. “I see cultural appropriation as lack of effort to understand and respect a culture, and because Japanese people already so strongly believe that people just won’t understand anyway, and are okay with it, they don’t recognize what cultural appropriation is.”

The concerns of Asians in the West often overtake those of Asians back in or from Asia, due to cultural dominance of the West overall, even though Asians in the West claim that the voices of the other side are supposedly “overtaking” discourse over cultural appropriation — such as this Tumblr post from Kaagaz Kalam saying “Honestly folks back home in South Asia need to stop with the whole ‘cultural appropriation doesn’t bother me.’” This becomes a weird kind of neo-imperialism: enforcing the Western view of our home cultures, while claiming that we shouldn’t have a voice in how our culture is being used, because supposedly we don’t know what it’s like to be a minority or not be represented.

The concerns of Asians in the West often overtake those of Asians back in or from Asia. Click To Tweet

There’s also the issue of where cultural appropriation ranks as a problem. According to Kristina, cultural appropriation takes a backseat to other problems in the Philippines, particularly amongst those who are poorer. “People [in the Philippines] can’t see [cultural appropriation], they really can’t, they’re too busy trying to get out of poverty to take a step back and look at the social issues,” she says.

“To be honest, everyone already has their own problems to deal with, especially with government corruption in the Philippines and stuff, but would Western Diaspora Asians care about Our problem in the Old Country — that’s the question I want to ask,” says an anonymous Indonesian artist in Jakarta. “I can’t say for certain whether or not people should care, but before Western Diaspora can say that, they should actually individually look at their home country and see what issues they are facing. Not to guilt them or anything, but for perspective. Myself, since I am educated in the West I understand their problem and how they feel. But since I AM living here I am also seeing shit like arts education getting zero funding… Not to mention Islam extremism rising in Indonesia, unfair imprisonment of Basuki Tjahja Purnama, and so on. So [the problem of cultural appropriation] IS the last thing on my mind.”

Sangeetha Thanapal, anti-racism activist based in Melbourne, says that power relations between the Global North and South cause this divide. In contrast to Kristina and the Indonesian artist, she does feel like those in the Global South, at least those who are tuned in to social justice discourse in the West, end up caring about cultural appropriation a lot, because it’s what the West prioritizes. “I think if we truly are looking for liberation, we need to start seeing these issues as interconnected. The power structures that hurt us in Singapore also hurt people in Australia and also hurt people in America. Everyone’s got our own problems yes, but we also have similar problems. Or sometimes we have different problems from the same source (colonialism). I think saying we’ve all got to deal with our shit first is going to perpetuate that. I just don’t think that’s realistic.”

Sangeetha recently wrote about the culturally monolithic and unrepresentative portrayal of Singapore in Crazy Rich Asians — a fairly common complaint amongst other Singaporeans. (I too found the trailer frustrating as someone who grew up next door to Singapore: Where’s the Singlish? The accent? The NON-CHINESE?) This contrasts the responses of those in the West, including Asian diaspora, who are calling the movie a “gamechanger” for Asian representation — “the Asian Black Panther.” This is what Michael calls “snapshotting” — overseas diaspora seeing a static view of the “Homelands,” while those within experience the country’s “permanent state of flux.”

Ultimately, Asians in or from Asia wished Asians want the West to understand about our experiences with cultural appropriation: our reactions are based on cultural context, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t experienced colonialism, racism, or oppression.

“Asians in Western countries experience the difficulties that come with white supremacy, whereas Asians back in Asia live in different and often quite complex societies with centuries old histories of negotiating race between Asian groups,” says Spoon, a Chinese-English Malaysian historian in Melbourne. “I’m not even sure the category Asian is meaningful when discussing Asia.”

For Nana, a Malay writer in Kuala Lumpur, her wishes are simple. “I wish that they would look at us with a kinder, non-condescending lens. To know that we are dealing with our issues that may not be similar to theirs in our own way. We’re learning a lot from them, but we are also capable of teaching them a thing or two.”