Before groups like BTS entered the modern media scene, Korea was as alien to a nation as Oz to most people across America. Samsung was known as a Chinese phone brand among Westerners, and Hyundai was still a Japanese car for many.
It was part of the reason why when my mother saw a Caucasian girl in a traditional Korean dress, hanbok, on Halloween, she was overjoyed with the excitement I shared with her as a kindergarten. It wasn’t until several years later that I realized the problematic nature of the girls ‘actions, as Kim Kardashians’ cornrows made headlines with the words cultural appropriation in her title.
With the entry of not only Korean culture, but other Asian cultures into the mass media in the past decade, individuals of all races have become interested in the linguistic and social aspects of various Asian countries. The popular drink, boba, and Chinese take-out, although frequently criticized for being heavily westernized, have become a staple in the diets of many. The demand for Korean, Japanese and Mandarin language classes has caused a plethora of curriculum revisions in many schools as enthusiastic students have started to enroll in these language courses to not only familiarize themselves with the language, but also with the cultures of the countries which spoke these languages.
With the widespread attention to Asian cultures, companies began to take advantage of this extreme demand, breaking away from many elements of Asian tradition and monetizing them. PrettyLittleThing released a collection with British girl group Little Mix, which featured many items resembling the material of traditional Chinese dress, qipao. These articles were highly sexualized and edited to be provocative to viewers, one of many examples of Asian culture being tampered with for monetization by (often white) fast fashion titans.
Accompanying the fast fashion trends, Caucasian people wear traditional Asian clothes as a fashion statement or costume. Even today, it’s very common to see white individuals posting photos in a sexualized version of a kimono or qipao (traditional Japanese and Chinese dresses, respectively) for Halloween. By reducing the precious elements of Asian culture to costumes while ignoring the historical and cultural values of these garments and traditions, this portrayal of Asian culture is not only inaccurate, but extremely disrespectful.
Further, diluting the importance of cultural elements such as these ignores the faces of discrimination that permeates society even today. Most Asian children, myself included, are able to relate traumatic memories of being bullied for bearing an ethnic name, of bringing food from our home countries to school, or being called insults, often by teachers and students. According to Mental Health America, racial trauma, at its worst, may be linked longitudinally to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
It took many decades for Asians to regain comfort with their heritage, and many Asians still struggle with self-image issues today due to their racial trauma. By appropriating elements of Asian culture, the power to regain one’s identity is almost derided. While these traditions and clothing have been a huge part of why many Asians, especially in the South, were banished when they were younger, the mere decision of a white individual to begin to accept culture like hers is disrespectful and discouraging.
The most horrifying fact is that many Asian Americans still ignore the appropriation that is unfolding before their eyes. While it is understandable how many Asians have had to conform to fit into a predominantly Caucasian society, the overhaul of our identities to fit into the same cultural box as whites has resulted in many cases of blindness in the face of appropriation behavior. Yes, the oriental patterned shirt is offensive, as are the lyrics to a song by a white rapper that qualifies someone as perverted.
While it is important to recognize cultural appropriation within our culture, it is also important to recognize the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation, a line that is often blurred by misuse and dilution. of both terms.
Appreciation of Asian culture can take many forms. Learning an Asian language, observing Asian vacations, and visiting Asian countries are among many respectful ways to show love for any Asian culture. The line is drawn between the two with intention; Appreciation is an attempt to expand one’s knowledge and understanding of other extremely beautiful cultures as a whole, while Appropriation is about choosing cultural elements (choosing to appreciate a sexy dress while negatively commenting on Chinese traditions ).
Before you mindlessly don a hanbok, qipao, kimono, or any other oriental garment this Lunar New Year season, be sure to keep in mind the differences between appropriation and appreciation. Are you really trying to learn more about a culture by experiencing it or narrowing a culture down to things that you find selectively appealing?
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