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Setting the Record Straight: Cultural Appropriation

By: Christina Lee

The next time I sit down on a chair, I should think about “cultural appropriation.”

That’s the message writer Bari Weiss relays in her 2017 op-ed for The New York Times titled, “Three Cheers for Cultural Appropriation.”

Weiss misses the point in some spots, failing to examine the impact of colonialism, i.e. the inherent power play that does exist within the broad concept of “cultural appropriation,” and claiming that cultural appropriation is what “makes America great” in an eerie echo of hackneyed Trump-isms. Nonetheless, the takeaway that “cultural appropriation” is everywhere, even in the chair I’m sitting on, may seem far-fetched, but it’s essentially an idea that has shaken my worldview ever since, making myself doubt my own stance toward this hot, new term “cultural appropriation” and what it really means for someone bicultural like me to grapple with the ways people are abusing this new phrase.

In her article, Weiss writes that cultural appropriation “is overwhelmingly being used as an objection to syncretism—the mixing of different thoughts, religions, cultures and ethnicities that often ends up creating entirely new ones”. To discuss the term as it’s commonly abused especially by young, outspoken social media users today, I would have to say that Weiss has a point: American singer Jessye Norman specializes in the Italian opera and performs pieces written by German composer Richard Wagner; one of the most popular Greek yogurt companies is run by a Kurd born in Turkey who now lives in America; and as for me, Koreans rarely used chairs until they were most likely introduced to them via foreign nomadic tribes who had already made use of stools. This exchange and adoption of various cultures into our own lives is inevitable.

With the prevalence of social media and online communication today, we’ve created an environment in which we learn to empathize with, gain awareness of, and implement new ideas faster than ever, and it’s only appropriate that we have learned to do so considering the abundance of resources at our disposal. However, the consequence emerges where these “advocates” begin to misuse their newfound power, wielding their social media accounts as a weapon to present their indignantly self-righteous cries for restoring justice in niche spaces, only to validate their self-created sense of virtue.

These are the people who blur the lines between assimilation, cross-cultural exchange, Weiss’s so-called “syncretism,” and true cultural appropriation that suggests actually harmful notions of racism, colonialism, and discrimination in the given context (e.g. naming an American sports team “Redskins,” a white individual donning Afrocentric hairstyles without facing the same consequences in the workplace). In that same sense, before examining the dangers of misusing the term “cultural appropriation,” it’s crucial to establish that nuances to this discussion indeed exist. Specifically, this issue extends to the implications of white privilege and the hypocrisy of a dominant culture misrepresenting and exploiting the cultures of ethnic groups that have been systematically discriminated against throughout history. Essentially, context matters. In the United States, where issues surrounding race have continuously marred the country, it’s important to note that “cultural appropriation” can quickly escalate into a denial of an entire ethnic group’s past struggles, the establishment of imperialist sentiments, and blatant racism.

But in examining the pros and cons of being aware of “cultural appropriation” as it’s thrown around these days, it seems that the negatives outweigh the positives.

Following the “logic” of some of these advocates of cultural appropriation’s dangers, I should have been considered guilty of appropriating culture—I’ve been copying and using the cultural items valuable to these nomadic tribes without knowing about their origins because I literally Googled the history of a chair just to write this article.

In this same manner,  the commonly misunderstood version of cultural appropriation results in a slippery-slope argument that could leave me posing endless examples: white people shouldn’t listen to R&B, jazz, or even rock music—if they don’t know the comprehensive history behind these music genres, starting from where and when they originated, their characteristics, and key figures, they should probably just stick to Bach or Mozart.

I exaggerate, but that’s essentially the dangerously flawed message that these advocates portray. These same advocates choose not to speak out so vocally about the exploitation of slaves who worked in unimaginable conditions in salt ponds during the 1800s whenever they pick up a container of salt to season their food, and these same people indulge in music genres that, surprise, have been appropriating the sounds that originates within cultures of people of color.

Perhaps we’re just picking and choosing our own battles for our own convenience and self-conceited sense of righteousness and entitlement without acknowledging the hypocrisy of our flawed logic.

A lurking sense of discomfort emerges whenever someone points out an instance of “cultural appropriation” and calls for the restoration of that particular cultural practice or item to its original place in a context that doesn’t hint at racist and imperialist sentiment. Realistically, the idea of “exoticism” and “otherness” is perpetuated instead, where we enforce the concept that whatever seems foreign and unfamiliar should remain foreign and unfamiliar. In adopting this mentality, we stray further from learning about other cultures and growing closer to them in a healthy way that encourages the unification of people rather than division. Let’s be honest: deeming other cultures “exotic” is frankly outdated. But with these mindless performances of gatekeeping, the discouraging sentiment surrounding the integration and possibility of approaching various cultures evokes the imagery of the past, of segregation, of exoticism, and of discrimination.

Would I be offended if I saw any person who wasn’t Korean wearing hanbok? Probably not. But then again, I’m in no position to speak on the behalf of an entire culture and its people when I myself am a combination of countless cultures integrating and influencing one another.

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To a Mom

By: Christina Lee

To a mom who never caught the flu in the winter, who never forgot the names of her daughters’ childhood stuffed animals, who never complained about the distance between “home” and the home she has grown to know.

You held one baby in the crook of your left arm while gripping a toddler’s hand in your right hand and led two others trailing behind you. You are the same mom who smiles in the photograph taken the day of your college graduation. It was raining that afternoon, and the crowd of parents behind you, dressed in gray suits and long skirts, hold umbrellas above their heads like a nylon backdrop for your own personal photo shoot. On your face is the biggest smile I’ve seen, your eyes almost completely closed. A modest bouquet of congratulatory flowers rests with dignity in your hands, and to your right is your mom, a portly woman from whom you got your smiling eyes. Your dad on the left looks stoic. This was the same man who told you to put down the heaps of laundry and read another chapter from your textbook instead, who told you to stay out of the kitchen and go to college because you would be spending enough time in there once you were married. He was right.

In that photograph, you didn’t know that you wouldn’t be returning to your home country until 15 years later, arms full of toddlers and hair shorter than ever, no longer permed because quite frankly you didn’t have the time for that. At some point, you went back to the country from where you first earned your bachelor’s degree in agricultural science from one of the top universities in South Korea, and when I asked you about that bright-looking twentysomething in the photograph, you answered, “That was me at my graduation. I left for the United States not too long after that.” That’s when I knew something was not lining up.

One night, I sit at the foot of your bed while you are relaxing under the covers. I ask you, “Did you ever want to work?” You answer, “Of course I did.” So I respond, “Did you ever have a job?” You say that you had a desk job for a short while after graduation. Although I didn’t at the time, I now believe this to be a lie. The timeline of your rushed youth did not allow for such a thing. Now I wonder how it would feel to be you, the freedom of youth cut short by naivety that quickly led to marriage, immigration, and four kids. You, who have never worked a day in your life, then ask your daughters to please go to college and find a job because you know what it’s like to be a slave to domesticity.

It’s strange that “America” in Korean literally means “beautiful country.” I tell you this, and you respond with the story of South Koreans living in a pre-industrial world who dreamed of a better life in the West where everyone could supposedly find gold on the streets. You unwittingly held onto a version of this dream yourself, thinking that you would put your degree to use and become a working woman. Instead, you never became a naturalized citizen and never got that dream job.

I ask you why you never became a U.S. citizen. “I wouldn’t mind going back home sometime,” you say, vaguely. Within that statement lingers regret, longing, and conviction that the United States isn’t truly your home. It hurts me to understand that.

It hurts me to think that perhaps the only reason you stay here in the so-called beautiful country is because of the family you created, your loyalty to your husband, who is more American than you will ever be. You look at your eldest daughter and wish that she would not get married, and you begin panicking when she tells you that she’s moved in with her boyfriend. “They probably just live in the same apartment complex,” you say, completely in denial. Your mind wanders for the rest of the day.

Finally, you let her bring him home for the holidays but only once you know that she’s been promoted at her job at a large IT consulting company. You’re pleasantly surprised when you learn that she’s finally paid off her student loans and that her boyfriend has been working a steady job as an accountant. On your eldest daughter’s 24th birthday, I can see your relief, knowing that she is the same age as you when you had your first child but only has a job instead.

Once again, you panic when your daughter brings up marriage. “It would be easier for him to work if he finally gets his citizenship,” she says, explaining her South Korean-born boyfriend’s trouble with his work visa. Something about the suggestion haunts you. You furrow your brow and stay silent, as if you are traumatized again and again by the demands of marriage. You think marriage means finality, devotion, years and years of routine. You think about what you lost on your way to America. What is gone. What you can never get back.

“You just have to learn to live with him,” you say half-jokingly about your husband while he’s away at work. We are discussing his impatient personality and strange habits in one of our “self-improvement” talks about what it means to be a “good person” or how to turn out “better” than the previous generation. By “previous generation,” you mean yourself and your husband, and you wish that your children will not experience the behavioral side effects of enduring immigration, language barriers, and racism. It’s 3 p.m. No one is taking any of this seriously. You know that when your husband comes home in the evening that you will ask about his day, feel like the family is whole again, and spend the rest of the night happily catching up on missed conversations. Although you might never use the word “love” to describe your feelings toward him—because how cringeworthy and emotionally vulnerable is that?—you still know that this man is still the reason you remain in America and live each day with a sense of stability, safety, and security. You look at your four children, all born on American soil, and wonder if they resemble you or him more.

To a mom who hates watching American TV that pokes fun at Asian stereotypes because your immigration, your accent, your struggles, your lost dreams are not a couple lines on a script for the masses to laugh at. To a mom who hates watching these shows because oftentimes the representations are somewhat true. To a mom who always told her daughters to “brag” more, in a rough translation of a rather more humble piece of advice that means: “Be more confident.” To a mom who lives vicariously through her three daughters. To a mom who says, “Don’t ask me weird things” when I ask about your childhood, your college days, your dreams growing up, as if opening up about your true desires is “weird,” too indulgent, unnecessary.

What did you lose on the plane ride here? Were these things lost or sacrificed? I know you ask yourself this everyday without deciding on an answer because you watch your daughters grow up and become all the things you couldn’t be, feeling concern, pride, regret, and joy—all at once.

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The Dangers of The Model Minority Myth During The BLM Movement

By: Christina Lee

The society that white people have constructed has allowed for this—a Black Lives Matter movement. Reflecting on just the title itself, I can’t help but wonder what hasn’t changed in white America thus far that precipitated the need for such a movement, that we explicitly need to rally for the validity and worth of human lives. The social stagnancy scares me. We are repeating the same mistakes over and over again, and so the Black Lives Matter movement emerges, and we must begin to recognize once again the related problems that arise.

In America, Black Lives Matter doesn’t simply end with the story of Black Americans. It begins to spiral into a long-existing yet insufficiently discussed story about the dynamics between minority groups in America. The term “melting pot” that Americans love to throw around euphemistically ignores the elephant in the room, that America consists of drastically different ethnic and cultural groups. Especially during a time like this, when the racism targeted at these groups is at the forefront of national politics and social movements, the dangers of positioning the numerous minority groups in America in comparison to one another become amplified under the watch and control of white society.

For Asian Americans, this “comparison” comes in the form of the model minority myth. This “model minority” myth is not a new phenomenon. It can be traced back to the 1940s when the government forced Japanese Americans into internment camps. In response to the socioeconomic achievements of Japanese Americans even after suffering from a traumatic history, the concept of the “model minority” emerged, which asks, “If Asian Americans can succeed in the face of adversity, why can’t everyone else?

The problem with the model minority myth is that it assumes that all minority groups in America share the same experiences. It assumes that all minorities start off on a level playing field and that any discrepancies can be attributed to the sufficiency of each group’s “work ethic.”

What the model minority myth actually does: perpetuate tension among the various minority groups and ignite a sense of competition, comparison, and antagonism within their dynamics when in actuality, there is nothing to be compared.

Pitting minorities against minorities distracts from the main issue, that minority groups should be uniting against the Eurocentric society that enforces those ideals by attempting to direct those antagonistic feelings anywhere else but toward them.

The inability to dismantle the concept of the model minority especially during times like Black Lives Matter is especially dangerous. We must be uniting against a force that opposes the Black Lives Matter movement, not fighting each other.

I can’t speak for all Asian Americans, but at least within my small social circle, I know that this change begins by dismantling the stereotypes and prejudices that our own communities have perpetuated against other minority groups, particularly through anti-Black sentiment. The greatest problem is white society, the people who create and uphold our laws, who define what it means to be a person of color, who purposefully promote the value of “work ethic” as a valid method of succeeding in a society that we already know is rigged.

There are lessons to be learned, steps to be taken, mindsets to be changed. One of those first steps is for minorities to begin viewing their experiences from the perspective of white society. Despite the glaring differences, we are simply the “other” to them, and in this case, we can use this generalization to our advantage. We can unite under this sense of “otherness,” and Asian Americans can begin to dismiss the idea that we are an example of American success, that we exemplify the fairness of white American society. We can’t let them convince us with lies, and we can’t let them allow us to believe that this was a fair game in the first place. But this is what we can do: unite against the common enemy and recognize that although we experience different kinds of pain, we can feel. Sometimes, it’s a blessing to be able to.

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An Ongoing Reflection on COVID-19 from Six Feet Away

By: Christina Lee

Our world during the coronavirus pandemic is on hold, yet constantly moving.

As for me, I’ve found it difficult to harmonize my position as someone who stays home (or where I’ve been for the past two months, honestly) while I know that out there, the whole world partakes in a global fight against unprecedented circumstances. I don’t know how to reconcile the stressful but quiet stagnation of my social, academic, and work life with the dynamic bustle of the larger world as they cope with new government regulations, social issues rising to the forefront, and the glaringly global nature of the current pandemic.

As someone who is privileged enough to work and study from the comfort of my home, what I am about to express might not feel justified. I almost feel guilty for having the leisure to reflect, to point out my observations when I know that there are others occupied with holding onto life, risking their health and safety everyday. Nonetheless, I cannot help but believe that reflection might be one of the more productive things I can do as of now, to recognize lessons beyond not panic-buying toilet paper, disinfecting surfaces, and social distancing.

These lessons relate to the numerous social issues that appear unrelated to the virus at first glance but are actually relevant and quite predictable consequences to the coronavirus’s impact on our world. Only now under the guise of the effects of an unexpectedly rampant virus are we starting to shed light on some of the more headline-worthy issues—from increased numbers of daily domestic violence calls to hotlines in Colombia ever since their lockdown to one-dimensional regulations in Panama that failed to accommodate the identities of their transgender population, as well as government orders in Malaysia suggesting that housewives wear makeup and try not to nag their husbands.

The most striking aspect to these headlines are that they are all part of the process of disillusionment; we only let these social issues come to our attention now because firstly, they may give us a new way of looking at the coronavirus, but most importantly, we oftentimes fail to realize that these events actually originated from existing, systemic problems present all over the world. These problems are ingrained in our culture, yet we fail to acknowledge them until a worldwide crisis pushes our limits and the next journalist needs a headline that people will read.

We can’t find temporary interest in issues like these only because they are timely, and we certainly shouldn’t forget about these issues once the pandemic subsides. If anything, the resurgence of these topics is a sign that tells us what values and mistakes society has built up so far, and these are now exacerbated by the virus. Domestic violence, discrimination, or inequality isn’t something that just happens within a day; these are all results of systemic, habitual, and ongoing sociocultural shortcomings that always need consideration, regardless of whether we are in a pandemic or not.

Hopefully, there will come a time where we will be able to view the coronavirus in the same emotionally distanced state as we view the diseases of our past, but we cannot let the lessons we are constantly unearthing and bringing to the forefront become as ephemeral as the virus.

Yes, the pandemic is ongoing, and there are no solid conclusions to be made just yet. But we can only hope that we come out of this more enlightened, aware, and cognizant of the world we have created—and we must carry that with us into the future.

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Dear Andrew Yang: I Voted. Why Are People Still Racist?

By: Christina Lee

This year marked an exciting milestone for me: it was the first year that I was able to vote! Imagine my excitement upon finally exercising my right as an American citizen in a democratic process that I know I must not take for granted. So, I voted, and it was great. But why did I still feel uneasy about walking around in public several weeks afterward, right before the enforcement of California’s shelter-in-place order?

My uneasiness felt eerily familiar, like that first day of kindergarten when I looked around the classroom and noticed that no one else looked like me. Or that unforgettably awkward time in middle school when my teacher confused me for the only other Asian girl in the class.

Sure, these are not blatant experiences of extreme racism, but they’re the foundational roots of little things that give rise to larger issues. The ignorance, the discomfort, the establishment of “otherness” and foreignness.

So when former Democratic candidate Andrew Yang wrote in his controversial op-ed for The Washington Post that he “felt self-conscious—even a bit ashamed—of being Asian” after receiving looks of distaste in public since the coronavirus outbreak, I felt that. We all did.

In fact, we were all on board when he spoke candidly about the country’s state of insecurity and fear following the pandemic. It’s not surprising that, in the words of Yang, “people are looking for someone to blame.” It’s human nature. It was bound to happen.

And then, things start to go downhill from there.

Yang writes in an almost humorously unnecessary and flippant manner: I obviously think that being racist is not a good thing. (Thank you for your insight, Yang!) Still, here’s the best part: But saying “Don’t be racist toward Asians” won’t work.

I’m afraid that even Yang himself doesn’t realize what he is implying.

If we start to adopt an attitude of believing that “not being racist can’t stop racism,” it is only symbolic of our giving up. If we truly begin to submit to the meek way of thinking that we must find other ways around combatting racism besides speaking up against it, it simply distracts us from our main goal and the glaring issue: saying “Don’t be racist toward Asians” should, in fact, work.

Yang tells me, my family, my friends, and the rest of the Asians in America to start showing some love for Uncle Sam to battle racism. “We Asian Americans need to embrace and show our American-ness in ways we never have before,” he writes. “We need to step up, help our neighbors, donate gear, vote, wear red-white-and-blue, volunteer, fund aid organizations, and do everything in our power to accelerate the end of this crisis.”

Maybe the Asian Americans making headlines for becoming victims of coronavirus-related hate crimes—being stabbed, being spat on, being cursed out—should have been wearing red, white, and blue. They should have known better!

Let’s be honest: if my wardrobe was the key to solving racism, I would have changed it years ago. Yang thinks sporting patriotic colors is the solution, so how will he explain the fact that people will inevitably notice my gold skin, monolid eyes, and dark hair?

Yang then suggests in an example of “patriotism” and poor taste that Japanese Americans during World War II “volunteered for military duty at the highest possible levels to demonstrate that they were Americans,” dismissing the hundreds of thousands of other Japanese Americans who couldn’t do so because they were busy being held in internment camps under a xenophobic government that justified their racism out of “military necessity.” In other words, they were trying to protect the other Americans from an “enemy,” the enemy being Japanese Americans. Or like today, the “enemy” is us.

In essence, Yang argues that we must forgo our Asian heritage because it is something shameful, dangerous, and suggesting of malintent in times of crises. He claims that we must try to blend in, that we must try to prove something that doesn’t and shouldn’t need to be proven, that we, Asian Americans, are the problem.

With a current president referring to the pandemic as the “Chinese virus,” our social and political atmosphere scares me. I’m afraid that we are not progressing as a society, that we are embodying the echoes of a scarred past, that Asian Americans and fellow minorities are giving in. I’m scared because the first Asian American political figure I’ve ever seen doesn’t quite understand the problem. Or perhaps he’s doing just that—giving in.

Let’s not let our fear make judgments for us. Let’s not give up our identity and roots to make others feel more comfortable with their ignorance. Let’s not allow ourselves to think that we are the problem, that we must accommodate. Fear is a powerful thing, but what’s even more powerful is that we can control it.