In an ever more liberalising world, the term cultural appropriation or ‘misappropriation’ is being seen more and more all over the news, online blogs, Youtube videos, and ranting facebook posts. But what exactly does cultural appropriation mean? It can be described as the adoption or theft of one culture by a member of another culture. Common examples of cultural appropriation seem to follow a similar vein, like Katy Perry wearing a Kimono, Miley Cyrus twerking a bit too often, and Selena Gomez not researching the Hindi culture before donning a ceremonial Bindi.
I often wonder if anyone actually finds this offensive or is it just a pure misunderstanding of culture. As I wrote before, culture can be boiled down to a set of values, ideas, attitudes and behaviours which people who are from a certain society share. These values and behaviours haven’t been stolen just because a celebrity chooses to dress up. I’m from Scotland and I couldn’t feasibly count the amount of times my ‘culture has been appropriated’. It doesn’t offend me to see an Asian tourist buying a kilt or an American drinking some Buckfast, we should embrace this sharing of our cultures.
If any of you have ever been to Bangkok, you’ll be aware of just how multicultural of a city it is. It’s a sprawling metropolis housing people from all four corners of the globe, a melting pot of culture and appropriation. There are thousands of Western immigrants (or expats, as they like to be known) inhabiting the Big Mango, many of whom stick to their little groups of friends who all hail from the same country. They actively try not to embrace a new culture, shying away from new food, and complaining about the Thai way of life without ever beginning to look into the reasons the people are the way they are. Conversely, there are thousands of Western immigrants who begin to believe that – because they have lived in Thailand for 36 months – they are now Thai. They eat Som Tam with FIVE chillis and drink only Sangsom and soda water. This group of expats have completely divorced their up-bringings, forgotten their roots, their educations and their own country’s culture.
Recently, I was speaking to a Thai woman who had spent some years in the States studying and she was telling me about how difficult it was to fit in. She didn’t just have to manage in a second language, but she had to alter the topics about which she spoke. Her tastes in music changed. Of course, she could have joined a group of Thai friends who enjoy shopping in malls and eating Thai food every day, but instead tried to assimilate to Western culture.
But she culturally appropriated Western Culture!? No, she hasn’t, because now her culture has changed. Living somewhere else, you may find yourself slowly changing, starting to fit into some of the stereotypes that you once laughed at. I have become a slightly different person since I first moved to Thailand. I’m a lot more relaxed, having adopted the Thai mai pen rai attitude. I find it bizarrely difficult to eat food without some sort of spice to it, often adding in Tabasco or chilli sauce to Western dishes. I have become a lot more understanding of tardiness, because in Bangkok, you can never guarantee you’ll be on time. I find myself avoiding conflicts, complaining about things less, going with the flow.
So, which is better? Should we scold those who choose to remain culturally stagnant, as they have no right to live in a country in which they won’t abide by the cultural values? Or should we berate those who have culturally assimilated with internet hate because they have stolen another culture’s identity? Neither. Neither group of people should be judged on how they have decided to interpret their own lives. The same way groups of young Asians, inside and outside of the US, shouldn’t be hated on because they like hip-hop and enjoy dressing similarly to their heroes.
If you enjoy travelling as much as I do, you’ll constantly be learning new things with each country you visit. Your own personal culture will change as you’re able to pick and choose your favourite things from different places, but this doesn’t mean you can completely drop your own cultural identity, or even assimilate entirely to another. We develop a sort of cross-culture.
This cross-culture that is developed by living abroad or travelling and learning, evolving, is what makes globalisation a beautiful thing. I have now developed my own culture, a mix between suburban Glaswegian and urban Bangkokian. And if I choose to wear a Traditional Thai shirt in Scotland then I don’t think I will offend anyone, in fact, they’ll probably like seeing someone wearing something that belongs elsewhere. The same way I enjoy seeing someone wearing a kilt outside of Scotland. These traditions and quirks make our cultures easy to identify and if someone is willing to appropriate then it shows that they are willing to embrace something new, another culture.