On Appropriation, Race, Popular Culture, and Dorky White Asiaphiles

So I happened upon this blog post at reappropriate, and it got me thinking. To be honest, I didn’t trawl my way through all the comments that followed the post, but I did read a fair number of them.

I was tempted to respond with something snide about how young people are so apt to map their personal anger into statements about the entire world, couched in politics for the greater safety from criticism and negative response. But I decided that, as generalizing and as mistaken as parts of the post are (in my opinion), it’s unfair to respond in a way that undercuts Jenn’s thinking simply because she’s young (probably around my age, in fact, but that is young, I disingenuously hasten to add).

You see, I do think that personal anger, personal gestures of political rage and frustration at how one is depicted, how one’s culture is grasped, are important to make, personally, but that they also map onto the real world only with some difficulty. Part of the problem is expectations and assumptions.

In the post linked above, Jenn basically complains that some dorks are into the popular culture exports of various Asian countries, without knowing much about those countries. She writes:

I wonder if the ninja knew, when they took to rebelling against the samurai, that their true impact on history would not be guerilla warfare, political statements, money or power, but the birth of a long, icky tradition of pimple-faced White boys living a continent away wrapping themselves in black bedsheets, twirling fake-jewel-encrusted and elaborately decorated steel sai, and trying to scale the brick wall of their college dorm building.

Which, you know, is embarrassingly familiar, but, well, is also a tiny number of white people, too. I mean, really, put it in perspective: the mass majority of white filks have no idea where Myanmar is. They don’t know that China’s home to hundreds of different ethnic groups, or that “Chinese” actually encompasses more than one language. They know so little that when you tell them you live in Korea, as I sometimes say when I visit North America, they ask, “North or South?”

So you’ve got mass ignorance, and a few fetishists. Some of whom, as some commenters note, develop into creditable scholars and thinkers on the subject, but others of whom keep consuming Japanese, Chinese, and other Asian cultural exports, but keep on knowing jack shit about the societies from which those exports come.

Well, sad to say, but that’s the nature of popular culture exports. The same happens worldwide. Here in Korea, you could watch the same sitcoms that my students love — mainly Friends, which many of them watch over and over — and think that America is a nation of clever, wisecracking white people, none of whom are fat and or ugly. Really, living in Korea, I am thankful that online piracy is less tightly pursued because, as far as legally exported contemporary North American culture goes, the vast majority of what you get here is crap (with the exception of a few cool TV shows and the odd very good film). The long tail, which contains most of what’s quality, is just cut right off the animal.

And that produces a distorted view of American culture. Sometimes this can be a good thing, something that opens minds: a woman I knew once said that she changed her ideas about sexuality after seeing American movies — realized that sex wasn’t this awful, bad thing that must never be discussed or engaged in, but that it could be beautiful and good and didn’t need to depend on marriage. But there’s a correlate to this, which suggests that everyone in America is having sex with anyone available all the time. White men have this widespread (but not universal) reputation as sexually ravenous, and white women have a similarly wide (though non-universal) reputation as “easy”. At least, that’s the story I’ve been told by white women I’ve known here, over and over.

What is it with young White Americans who can’t seem to get enough of the culture of the East? What is the appeal of the ninja, the anime, the manga, the geisha, the karate, the tae kwon do, the teas, the ceremonies, the lion dance, the yakuza, the curry and the chopsticks? What is it with the New Age incorporation of Confucian-Buddhist-Yin-Yang-Feng-Shui tenets into White women practicing yoga and tai chi trying to get in touch with their inner energy? What is up with the Lucy Liu’s dressed in geisha-esque silk kimonos and wielding samurai swords screaming about hapa pride on table-tops while, a movie later, using her tiny feet to massage the swollen back of a guai lo?

Or of young Koreans who can’t get enough of the culture of the West, but have no idea what that culture is? Students who claim “Western food is unhealthy” and then, when you ask for examples, demonstrate that the only Western foods they know about are spaghetti, pizza, and potato chips, and fast food. Kids who gobble up Hollywood films and then mistake these Californian dream-projections for anything like real American life? Or the society-wide conviction that “American” English — rhotic, youth-cultured and/or business oriented alike — is “better” than other forms of English?

Again, it’s pop culture. If you go fishing in a sewer, you get crappy fish. Popular culture is a very easy, fun way of engaging with another language, something I bear in mind since most of my students are very interested in acquiring the English language — but much to the chagrin of my students, who find reading texts in English a bit of a trial, pop culture’s a very poor way of straightforwardly engaging with another culture, especially when you’re looking at the specific bits of media that countries like America or Japan export abroad.

Popular culture, of course, is the culture of what in Latin was called “populus” — meaning not “popular” as in well-known or well-liked, but meaning “the [common] people”. When “culture” took on the connotation of “the intellectual side of a human society” in the 1800s, “popular culture” was an inevitable distinction to emerge.

Which brings me to the next point. As biased and bigoted as the intellectuals of any culture might be, when it comes to the populus, they are sadly quite correct: the common people are, largely, a rather happily ignorant, shallow bunch. Sorry, but if you hadn’t noticed, go outside your door and have a look about. People would rather watch cricket than argue politics; they’d more happily pay money to see Britney Spears gyrate and sing her silly little songs than pay money to see a skilled, trained musician perform. They’re much happier with the shallow, the easy, the stupid. People worldwide would rather read Dragonball Z, or watch “My Sassy Girl”, than think about the long roll-call of rapes, murders, imperial incursions and colonization that went on through Northeast Asian (and really, worldwide) history.

Probably part of this is because of what they’ve been served to date in the form of popular culture. Get people accustomed to bread-and-circuses, and that’s what they’re going to want to consume. Human nature involves a grasping for the familiar, even when one goes seeking the exotic. Some people get beyond that, but not most. Far from most. The majority of people aren’t willing to give up the comfort, the ease of all that simple, easy-to-swallow popular culture. They’re not going to read The Rape of Nanjing, or A Plague Upon Humanity, or watch Cho Sung-Bong’s documentary Red Hunt, about the massacre of thousands of people on Jeju Island in the name of the anti-Communism. They’re not interested in these things. They wanna laugh, they wanna cry, they want entertainment that ultimately can be discarded and forgotten after it’s used up. The last thing your average Joe, Chulsoo, or Takeshi wants to do is be challenged, or made to think.

So much for popular culture. The other bit of Jenn’s post that made me think, and need to respond, was actually the following:

I’m sick of it. I’m sick of the Whites who disguise themselves as culture-seekers-and-appreciaters going to the distant reaches of the Orient to find some aspect of my culture to rape, pillage and reappropriate.

I have to respond to two parts of that statement: one, the idea of white males as going to Asian in order to find aspects of culture to “rape, pillage, and appropriate”, and the other, the idea of culture as something that can indeed be raped, pillaged, or appropriated.

First, to the image of expats in Asia. I have not lived in Japan, and so I can’t respond to the image of expats in Japan. I can’t respond to the image of expats in China, either. My experience as far as living long-term in Asia is basically limited to Korea, a society and nation that basically has no image in the minds of most North Americans. They don’t know where it is, for the most part, and plenty of people think Korea is part of China or something. So I don’t think a massive number of expats end up here seeking culture to pillage, appropriate, or rape. In fact, most of the people who come here aren’t all that interested in Asian culture, beyond the first few months of acclimatization. They find it wears on them, they get annoyed at the differences, but they stay for a while because the pay is reasonable for people with their skill level and background… and then they go home. Sadly, the majority of people spend their time in bars with other foreigners, avoiding the local culture as much as possible and whinging about it whenever they get a chance.

An exception to this is the guys who come here to treat the place as a buffet of women. Now, some guys have exactly that experience — mostly younger, well-to-do, relatively good-looking guys. But for the vast majority of men, Korea isn’t a sexual playground. Aside from a small circle of hangers-on among the foreigner community, one finds that there’s a curious balance of licentiousness in the popular culture — brothels in plain view on the street in some areas — and a very powerful sexual conservativism, which, if not genuine, is certainly still a role taken on in most relationships while they’re developing. Still, I think there’s a degree to which the word “rape” enters into this discussion because of the anxieties and neuroses associated with white men coming to Asia and “being with” Asian women.

But in fact, if you look at who’s doing the raping here, and how they’re dealt with in the legal system, you’ll see it’s overwhelmingly locals, not foreigners. The blather about whites “stealing” and “raping” Asian women is tied to a deeper anxiety, which is the question, “Why is there a subset of Asian women who are attracted to particular white men, or white men as a class in general?” One Korea-blogger, I can’t remember who, noted once that for all the chatter about famous foreign men marrying or being interested in Korean women — Woody Allen and Wesley Snipes are the famous examples — there’s always this question asked, “Why?” The question is usually phrased as, “Why are their men interested in our women?” and it often ends up being a chance to crow about Korean femininity.

But there are deeper questions underlying that one:

  • Why are “our” women interested in these non-Korean men?
  • Why aren’t “their” women interested in us in the same way?

In any case, this is a little off the beaten path, but I just, I don’t know, I guess I think that when using a metaphor like “rape” in discussing foreigners’ behaviour in Asia, Jenn is harming her own argument, and playing upon popular neurotic fixation about white male-Asian female relationships.

Then there’s the other question, which is as to whether culture can be “raped, pillaged, and appropriated”. What exactly does this mean? As a writer, and especially as a science fiction writing living and working in Asia, I draw upon my experiences. My experiences include seeing women whose boyfriends hit them on the street. My experiences include seeing men so sexist it’s not funny. (They also include seeing men who are very respectful of women, by the way. All of it averages out to something a fair more sexist than how North American society looks to me, but not monolithically so.)

If I write about these things, am I appropriating?

The short answer is, some people will always say yes, no matter what. I could live in Korea the rest of my life, become fully fluent, spend longer within the country than outside of it, read all the works of the culture, marry a Korean and raise children within the Korean language, with strong input from my in-laws, study and internalize as much as any 20-year-old could ever hope to internalize, and that will still fail to satisfy some peoples’ criteria for whether I have a right to speak about, criticize, or dramatize aspects of what I see around me on a daily basis, simply because I was born somewhere else, and have a different set of genes (which is why my skin and nose are the color and shape they are, respectively).

So satisfying others’ criteria in terms of my “right” to write about Korea is pointless and self-limiting.

What, as a creative writer, can I do? More than one of my instructors from this summer at Clarion West, including one teacher who’s got a reputation for teaching about writing “diversity” — characters of different races, backgrounds, and sexualities — told me, “Ignore them.” I believe she said so because, for one thing, she could tell from my writing that there was a deep current of respect and compassion for my characters and for their struggles, regardless of whether I chose to make them Korea, Indian, African-American, Chinese, or white suburban Canadians.

But I think it was also on some level because there will always be someone telling you that you have no right to use a certain voice or face in your writing, and that a lot of the time, this is mostly because of their own hangups. Consider Geoff Ryman’s novel Air: people might have hangups about a white man writing a female Chinese character living in a small Central-Asian village. But people likely will not have issues about the fact that his character is heterosexual and the author himself is not.

When you look at an example like that, it hits you: authors are continually writing about what they themselves are not. Men write female characters; women write male characters. Adults write children. Young adults write middle-aged and elderly characters. Humans write aliens, animals, and magical beings all the time. That stuff, we take for granted. It’s part of writing.

But when we cross the race line, the culture line, suddenly things get political. Right?

Yes and no. When someone crosses the age line, ie. writing a child that thinks like an adult, or like an animal; or when a man writes a female character that’s just, well, not convincing, or when a child writes an adult that sounds like a kid trapped in an adult’s body, we look at that and say, “Huh, that’d badly written.” We don’t start shrieking about politics, we just call it crap. When someone writes with unconvincing physics, we don’t accuse them of appropriating science, we tell them that they got it wrong, and should have done better research.

Culture is not, is absolutely never, static; it is not owned; it is not exclusive. Culture is, in many ways, a sponge.

Vast amounts of Korean culture in the past were appropriated from Chinese culture, at various points in Korean history and for different reasons. Korean popular culture now includes surprising amounts of American pop culture. Japanese popular culture also includes a quirky and wide (but limited and not-well-understood) selection of American pop culture. Likewise, American pop culture now includes manga and anime. This is as natural and unavoidable as the fact that the stirrup finally ended up being a technology that came into worldwide use.

Is it annoying? Yes, it is. It’s annoying when silly white college boys play ninja. It’s annoying when Japanese and Korean teenagers think blackface is cool. It’s annoying when you meet people in Asia who index you according to which TV character you resemble most. It’s a little embarrassing when you meet North Americans (not just white, but with all kinds of backgrounds) who drool over manga books which, as Jenn herself noted, aren’t that good after all. Certainly not better than Asterix and Obelix, the comic books that have been appropriated by Korean translators and have my girlfriend in stitches as they did me, when I first read them in English translation.

The thing that makes a difference isn’t the color of the skin, but rather the rigorousness of investigation, the depth of interest. For me, it’s as offensive when white people start putting on fake airs of their ethnic background — “Hey, I’m Scottish, so I’m going to wear a kilt and eat haggis and listen to bagpipes!” or, “Hey, I’m Ukranian, so I’m gonna dress up like a real Ukranian once a year at Folkfest time!” or, “Hey! I’m one-sixteenth Cree so I’m an Indian and my people have suffered!” (coming from someone who’s never set foot on a reservation or been identified as an Indian by anyone else) as it is when dorky white boys get obsessive about manga or martial arts or ninja movies.

But really, beyond the annoyance and obvious stupidity, I can’t see who it actually hurts. And I think this is what is the big lie, the big pretend game in Jenn’s post: the subtle claim that there is something significantly political about this small segment of dorks. The underlying implication that this is, in any way conceivable, a political issue.

The studios that make films like Kill Bill and Memoirs of a Geisha (and authors and publishers of similar books, perhaps), maybe, might be politically culpable. One could question to what degree good faith, rigorousness, and real research backs up their work. (Though, again, it’s popular culture and we should expect a lot of mass popular culture to be crap from the outset.) But the consumption of it, that seems less than political, to me.

As I said, I find it utterly annoying too; I just don’t think it’s necessary to couch all of that in a political basis, when really, what annoys me isn’t anything political, it’s just the stupid shallowness of it that bothers me.

12 thoughts on “On Appropriation, Race, Popular Culture, and Dorky White Asiaphiles

  1. Hahaha. You made me laugh out loud.

    I liked Kill Bill too. For all kinds of reasons. But I do think if this Jenn woman wants to talk about appropriation of Asian culture, Tarantino’s a more sensible target than otaku-fanboys. :)

    I also happen to think Tarantino’s doing an okay job in his openly admitted use of Asian cinema tropes and characters and so on. It’s overtly self-conscious, as far as I can tell, which means it’s pretty obviously not meant to be taken as realistic.

    So I’d disagree if she went off about Tarantino, too, but at least I could understand that target. Make sense?

  2. Just kidding. I mean, I did like it (1 and lot more than 2, since it did a better of job of maintaining a consistent tone and atmosphere), but I didn’t like it *that* much. And I certainly agree with the distinction you’re making.

    Although I suspect that I tend to be if anything even more hard-line than you are about the representation/appropriation distinction. (Hal Duncan had a good post about this a while back, but I don’t have the url handy just now.) Cultural appropriation was what ancient Egyptians and later Romans did when they re-named the gods of conquered peoples. What people tend to really mean when they go on about “cultural appropriation” now is the normal, healthy and inevitable process of cultural cross-polination and mutual fascination between different parts of the world. Writing a book or making a movie that depicts something foreign to your cultural background isn’t appropriating that thngs, it’s representing it. The Muse knows no borders.

    If a portrayal of another culture falls into nasty or demeaning stereotypes, that’s bad for the usual reasons that bigotry is bad, but it has nothing to do with cultural appropriation. If a portrayal of another culture is romanticized, so what? Lots of people romanticize their own culture, it’s mythic past, whatever. Some people prefer to romanticize other people’s cultures, the mythic pasts of those other cultures, etc. The latter doesn’t seem to me to be intrinsically worse than the former, and whatever the pro’s and con’s are of that atittude, I have a hard time seeing how the romanticizer is “appropriating” anything.

    (Oh, and my favorite scene in Kill Bill is–um…let’s see…maybe the scene in Volume I where they almost assassinate Beatrix Kiddo in the hospital but Bill has a change of heart. Just for the exuberant silliness of the thing.)

  3. Oh, one other point I wanted to make:

    “So you’ve got mass ignorance, and a few fetishists. Some of whom, as some commenters note, develop into creditable scholars and thinkers on the subject, but others of whom keep consuming Japanese, Chinese, and other Asian cultural exports, but keep on knowing jack shit about the societies from which those exports come.”

    What I wonder about is….is not knowing jack shit about Chinese culture, but liking to order Chinese food (because, presumably, you think it tastes better than pizza) better or worse than knowing jack shit about Chinese culture and not eating Chinese food?

    The implication in the post you’re responding to certainly seems to be that the former is worse than the latter. I don’t get that.

    Now, relative to being in my twenties, American and hanging out in college environments, I’m probably the furthest thing from an “Asiaphile” imaginable. Unlike almost everyone I know, I don’t particularly like most Chinese, Japanese or Korean food. (Although I’ll admit to liking Indian food quite a lot, but in the context of the present discussion “asian” seems to mean “east asian.”) I don’t particularly like or understand the appeal of Kurosawa movies, which seem pretty but don’t particularly hold my attention, and I positively dislike most TV anime I’ve seen. (These last opinions caused several looks of incomprehension when I admitted to them one night this summer to some of my Miyazaki-loving fellow Clarionites.) I’ve never taken a martial arts class. I like some old Samurai flicks, but I like old Western movies better.

    (I do vaguely remember, as a kid, liking “The Karate Kid” and positively loving “The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” As an adult, I loved reading Neuromancer and enjoyed watching Kill Bill. So I guess I have a history of enjoying American-made, English-language cultural products that in various ways employ tropes or settings dervied from Asian contexts, but that’s about as close as I seem to come.)

    Now, all that said, and granting that all else being equal, knowledge about any subject knowledge is better than ignorance, are my friends who like Chinese food and appreciate Miyazaki movies *more* obligated for some reason to learn about Asian history or culture than I am? I have a hard time seeing why.

    It seems like if one is going to export one’s culture a la carte to other countries, one can’t really complain that some people take you up on the offer.

  4. Ben:

    Regarding the previous post, I agree. In fact, I find that Westerners and Asians alike are guilty of romanticizing traditional Asian culture, though for different reasons. Nothing’s absolute, and I definitely know people who contradict this, but it seems to me when Westerners romanticize Asia, they usually imagine it as more mysterious and exotic. When Asians (and Westerners of Asian heritage) romanticize Asia, they tend more often to valorize the Old Country, or argue for its Special Victim Status. Both are annoying tendencies, especially the latter.

    As for your more recent comment:

    Well, I’m not implying that indulging in a taste for Chinese food and not pizza is unacceptable. The post I’m responding to was pretty clearly addressing people who put on airs by fashioning themselves into mavens of Asian-export content.

    The stereotype here was that once, I was discussing Confucius with this guy whose English was pretty good. I said I’d read Confucius a little, but didn’t know anything about the scholars who made up the Confucian tradition. I knew of Mencius and that was that. He looked at me in shock and said, “Do you like ninja movies?”


    “Have you studied karate?”


    “Kung fu? can you read Chinese characters?”


    “Why have you read Confucius?”

    “Have you ever read Plato?”

    “Of course, he’s a philosopher.”

    “There you go.”

    He seemed quite relieved that I wasn’t some Asiaphile, and went on to tell me he didn’t know so much about Mencius either.

    I wouldn’t say that people who consume any particular kind of cultural export are obligated to learn more about the cultures from which they come. After all, as I said, I don’t think the onus is on the consumers but rather the repackagers.

    Bottom line: I’m much more comfortable with someone criticizing Tarantino than someone criticizing the neighbourhood anime-obsessed otaku. As for this:

    So you’ve got mass ignorance, and a few fetishists. Some of whom, as some commenters note, develop into creditable scholars and thinkers on the subject, but others of whom keep consuming Japanese, Chinese, and other Asian cultural exports, but keep on knowing jack shit about the societies from which those exports come.

    Well, I tend to think people who deem themselves “mavens” for something like, say, Japanese comics — people who build identity in part from being an otaku, who consume vast amounts of Japanese comics, who really feel that these things are important to them — ought to educate themselves about the culture, the art, the history of the society, and so on. I personally prefer this, and I personally think people who just consume entertainment, without thinking about how it fits against the contexts of history, culture, and so on, are gonna be ignorant and probably stupider than people who think about these things. But I also think the grounds that Jenn took in her original post — pseudopolitical ones — are wrong, and one should criticize this kind of stupidity on much firmer grounds: that it’s stupid.

    And I think if someone gets angry everytime one witnesses stupidity, one will be out of breath, time, and energy in a very short amount of time.

    BTW: Funny about Kurosawa, I’ve liked what little I’ve seen of his stuff mostly just because of how it looks cool/pretty.

  5. This one’s long.

    Yes, I said “ignore them,” and I would again. Not just because you seem to write your characters as though they were fully human; not only because you have a set of experiences of Korean culture that are authentic to you. In other words, not only because you might “get it right” (which is a complicated concept and set of assumptions to unpack right there). You will at times “get it wrong.” You will get people angry with you for reasons that may be sound or not. You will sometimes screw up. But one thing you won’t be doing is contributing by silence to the continued erasure, devaluing, whatever-you-want-to call it of the lives and experiences of people and communities of colour.

    On the other hand, Jenn is not particularly overstating. (And I’m still of the old-school belief that you can’t divorce politics from anything.) I think you get into a logical fallacy when you equate Korean consumption/appropriation of American culture with American consumption/appropriation of Korean culture. They are similar actions, but their effects usually are not on a par. I talked about this at length in a post on my blog (if you’re curious, do a search on my blog for the phrase “power gradient”), but maybe I can put it more succinctly this way: a cat stepping on an elephant’s toes is not the same thing as an elephant stepping on a cat’s toes. I don’t find “rape” too strong a word, even though, like many people, I’ve been sexually assaulted and have those experiences on which to draw for comparison. Appropriation by a culture that has the power to gut yours does do violence to a culture and to many of the people in it. Its effects can kill. It’s more than just irritating.

    And yeah, I agree with you on this; in talking about relative power and privilege, let’s not binarize it into “Korea = powerless innocent victim and America = big bad bully.” That oversimplification is untrue, and it removes some important pieces of the conundrum.

    It’s complicated. For instance, I think you and Ben are dead right to query what does appropriation mean when you’re exporting your own culture for others to consume. Though it seems to me that “Here are some examples of our cuisine. Please enjoy it, feel free to learn how to make it yourselves, to sell large amounts of it in your department stores” is different than “Here are some examples of our cuisine. Please feel free to rename it, pretend that we had nothing to do with it, use the sheer power of your much vaster propaganda machine to reinforce that belief worldwide, and to patent its ingredients or the method of combining them so that we have to pay you amounts we’re hard-pressed to afford for the privilege of cooking our own dish without fear of legal, economic or, worst-case scenario, military reprise from the (relatively) most powerful nation in the world.”

    I’m still working out for myself just what cultural appropriation is when it comes to writing fiction. Hal Duncan has a point when he asks whether we’re really talking about misrepresentation, which is simply one way of doing bad writing. Maybe. Does that mean that misrepresentation can’t be an aspect of cultural appropriation? I’m not so sure. You’ve just been teaching about the whole mammy/coon stereotype (half an hour browsing ebay under “collectibles” is enough to make me start to see red). That stereotype does not have as common currency as it once did, but it’s still pretty prevalent. It doesn’t steal physical objects from us, but it affects how large numbers of people see people who look like me. That affects how safe it is for us to move about in the world. It can affect — for instance — our ability to find decent jobs, which can affect our earning ability, which can affect our ability to direct our own lives, and our communities’ ability to create and sustain infrastructure. Ever heard of Black Wallstreet? I’ve heard that if you could remove the multiplier effect of that incident alone, Black American infrastructure and community economic clout would today be on par with that of Jewish American communities. If you mask someone else’s culture with stereotypes to the extent that large numbers of people worldwide believe the stereotype and act based on it, are you not stealing from or at least powerfully muffling a certain amount of agency of the people in that culture?

    One example I do have of cultural appropriation in fiction is the type I’ve seen where the writer takes wholesale the cultural practices, clothing, religious beliefs of a community of colour and even the geography and climate of the place where they originated, removes the people of colour from the picture, and grafts white people in to replace them without doing any worldbuilding to make that shift hold together conceptually. Another example from a different artistic discipline is the assertion that jazz is not a black music, but a universal music. Now clearly, anyone with the skill, education, practice and talent can compose and play jazz music well. In that sense, it *is* universal. But people making that comment in that manner are so often doing so as a way of invalidating black people’s claim to jazz music. Is grafting cultures together in fiction in order to imagine new ones automatically cultural appropriation? I don’t think so. I admit I have a vested interest in not thinking so because I write science fiction. There are ways and there are ways to do that kind of grafting, and don’t ask me for clear guidelines about what the “right” and “wrong” ways are. I fret about this as much as anyone else who cares. So much of the “right” and “wrong” of cultural borrowing can only be judged on a case by case basis, and so many of the conclusions are subjective. Should that stop people from writing outside their personal experiences? Hell, no. Should it prevent well-off white guys from admiring and immersing themselves in cultures and practices that are not theirs? Hell, no. Should people use the slipperiness of the problem of cultural appropriation as a reason not to grapple with it? Hell, no.

    Gord, you’re in a somewhat unique situation at the moment because you’re in the minority position by virtue of being a white man who’s living in Korea. You get to experience prejudice as a result of that (whee!), and your experience is perfectly valid. Yet in some ways that is for you a chosen state of affairs, and one that arguably you could change by leaving Korea and moving back to Canada. (Yes, I’m aware of the irony, cause Canada’s not exactly exempt from having its cultures appropriated either. Ever try convincing a someone who doesn’t know it that a Canadian white man invented basketball?) I don’t say that it would be easy for you to change, and I don’t say that your life here would magically be problem-free. Don’t want to binarize that, either. I am saying that it’s probably easier for you to step away from your current minority position than it would be for a person with Korean features. Even were that person to live only in Korea where they would be in the majority, Korea’s power on the world stage is, as far as I know, way lower down in the hierarchy than Canada’s.

    Another thing about fiction writers and cultural appropriation: Writers don’t just write. We live in the world. We can choose to use what relative privilege and access we may have to make some change, to tilt the balance a little. We can lobby our organizations for more inclusive practices. We can introduce our readers to great writing from marginalized cultures. Even if outright activism isn’t someone’s thing, the very act of creating a few characters in our stories who aren’t the usual suspects can make so much difference.

    Ai. 4:38 a.m. I promised myself I’d get to bed before four-day morning at least once this week. Good luck teaching that Spike Lee movie! (The name of which I’m blanking on in my sleepless state.) I’d have a hard time doing that.

  6. Nalo,
    Thanks, that’s great comment and you really made me think. I’ve drafted a response but wanna look at it again. It’s VERY long and I’m thinking to condense it. In a day or two. I have to go make a slideshow for my lecture tomorrow on the Beats. Later!

  7. Nalo!

    Thanks for your comment! I don’t mind the length at all, because you made me think. I’ve been vegetating this weekend, and it’s nice to have the brain turned on again.

    It’s interesting, the idea of “screwing up”. I have just launched into research for the rewrite of one of my Clarion stories, the one I wrote for the week after yours… it was a ghost story set in Korea, and in the first draft had a delicate (explosive, even) political issue floating at the periphery. Except that it doesn’t work at the periphery, and needs to be closer to the heart of the story, and for that to happen, well… it’s hard to write about this. No matter what I say, some people are going to say I have it wrong, and have no right to ask the questions I’m asking. The kind of question I pretty much feel like nobody thinks anybody has the right to ask… much less a foreigner. But it’s nagging me, that question, in the way that questions sometimes do, especially the obvious ones. (Won’t get into it more for now… I’m still researching and trying to get informed about it.)

    Given a climate like that, I don’t even know what “getting it right” or “getting it wrong” would mean, really. Except, well, that researching like mad, writing with compassion and a desire to ask important questions, and a respect for the people whose experiences I am representing. Those are all necessary to this elusive “success” for the story as a piece of writing. I think, though, even with all of that, that if the story were, say, translated into Korean, I’d have a problem on my hands. Does touching a nerve count as success? Not if you’re just trying to touch a nerve, but…

    Woah, tangent. Sort of.

    On the other hand, Jenn is not particularly overstating. (And I’m still of the old-school belief that you can’t divorce politics from anything.)

    Okay, so, I agree — politics is related to everything on some level. Still, I think that sometimes bringing the politics up can work against one’s argument, and can lead one down, well, alleyways that turn out to be dead ends. Calling racism every time is bound to wear out the word, unfortunately, sooner than it will wear out the racist, so even if I believed that Jenn’s politics were astutely applied, I’d still be reticent about it because, really, isn’t the behaviour of these otaku she’s talking about, at base, coming more from outright stupidity and wankerishness than from any malevolent racism? Far be it from me to separate those two things absolutely — they seem to coincide overwhelmingly often — but it seems to me that in the specific case she was discussing, it really was more about loser white boys playing ninja. Those loser white boys have tons of analogues who play cowboy or play hockey or whatever, who are also quite odious and ignorant and annoying. It seems to me that bringing down the full force of political critique isn’t warranted because, well, the behaviours being critiqued by Jenn are coming more clearly from idiocy than anything else. Which is why the words, “How utterly fucking stupid!” seem more forceful and effective than, “How politically objectionable!”

    I think you get into a logical fallacy when you equate Korean consumption/appropriation of American culture with American consumption/appropriation of Korean culture. They are similar actions, but their effects usually are not on a par. I talked about this at length in a post on my blog (if you’re curious, do a search on my blog for the phrase “power gradient?), but maybe I can put it more succinctly this way: a cat stepping on an elephant’s toes is not the same thing as an elephant stepping on a cat’s toes.

    You’re quite right to point out my position in Korea is in many ways different from what, garnered from browsing her site, I imagine Jenn’s to be in the US. I could very well go home, or to some other country where I’d be part of the visible majority again. Being over here is voluntary and is my own choice, I wasn’t born into it, and it’s not like I have no other past to return to. I certainly don’t relate to the culture I grew up in as if I was “strangely grafted” onto it — to steal a phrase from a James Baldwin essay I studied with my class. I sometimes forget that, when I get annoyed or pissed off.

    The whole power gradient thing is weird. I’m aware of how it often works for my benefit in many ways. Being a white male anglo, I’m in the second-best position for good work in Asia. (White female anglos are in higher demand, is all, since they’re rarer here for a variety of reasons, some easy to guess and others less apparent.) But I also have to say that sometimes, that power gradient moves the world is strange and surprising ways. Sometimes it backfires very badly. My first experience of “discrimination” as a systematic, culture-wide thing was in Asia, but I knew what it was like to be in a disliked minority and vulnerable because of it much earlier than that: I learned that many years before, when I lived in Northern Saskatchewan. New white kid, slow white kid. I had a pretty bad few years, and all told it took me until my late 20s to process most of it. I don’t mistake the power gradient there: some of the kids kicking the shit out of me didn’t have running water. The town we lived in is a talking point on how a poor reservation town can turn things around via and have a functioning economy, but I was there years before any of that happened. I mention this not to win victim credibility, or to try to dismiss the idea of the power relationship altogether, but just to, I don’t know, suggest that the power gradient doesn’t really always come into real play in every real situation. Different localities and different situations have different, situationally highly delimited, power gradients. I and my peers certainly had no way of bringing any of the power in our gradient to bear on the situations we found ourselves in at 3:35pm on the walk home from school.

    I don’t dispute that “rape” can be a suitable and accurate word for certain kinds of cultural appropriation. I just dispute that Jenn is actually using it that way in her rant. It seems to me that the dorks in the US who dress in ninja costumes (white or otherwise) — aren’t really affecting anyone in any way I can find. The very few otaku I’ve met in North America didn’t seem to be out to rob Japan of its culture — if anything, they were pretty much xenophilic about Japan, priding themselves in their interest in something outside America, and moreover (more disturbingly) they were apologists for Japan’s right-wing tendencies earlier in the century.

    Of course, the situation is more complex than that. The idea of “affecting” and “not affecting” someone else is very difficult to speak of authoritatively. Still, I have a hard time seeing how nerdy otaku are actually “raping” Japanese culture. They’re “aping” it, sure, so to the degree that Americans get their information from otaku, they’re damaging to a real understanding of Japan. But… well, it’s not as if America was doing all that well to begin with, and it’s not as if this small subculture of geeks is having much effect. Which is why I say the political angle would work much better with, say, Spielberg’s films, or the old Charlie Chan movies did in terms of Western understanding of Asia.

    So while I see your point, but I guess that analogy doesn’t work for me because I don’t see any kitties getting squashed. If Jenn was mostly complaining about big media representations of this or that culture, I’d understand. Big American media (like any Big Media anywhere, really) does seem to me like an elephant, and the offspring of a faraway tiger would be more the analogy I’d be comfortable with, maybe. Not to imply childishness, just scale and relation to something else. What Jenn was complaining about seemed to me to be the annoyance of a small subculture of otaku getting dressed up as ninjas, reading manga, and studying Japanese. She wasn’t even complaining about the idiot guys who walk up to girls in public and try to “use their Japanese to woo them” or things like that… or at least, that’s what it seemed like to me.

    So what I see is some nerds in America who “get into” Japan stuff, and consume the pop-culture exports, and kind of built their identities around it. Again, I don’t see anyone in Japan getting hurt; for that matter, while I see Japanese-Americans being annoyed by it, since these American nerds aren’t even trying to rebrand it as something other than Japanese — in fact, since the root impulse here seems to be some kind of naively romanticized xenophilia — I can’t really see anyone being actually hurt by it. That’s why I think the analogy of “rape” is not warranted for this particular rant of Jenn’s. It feels like she’s pulled out an AK-47 to kill off a few mice under the cupboard, when really, rat poison would do the job. Kind of like pulling out the politics when all it takes it to point out how ridiculously stupid the boys in ninja suits hanging off their dormitory walls look.

    I’ve never been sexually assaulted, but I’ve known people who were very badly messed up by the experience. I take the word very seriously, really, I guess. And really, to me, what Jenn seems to be irked at is not some kind of cultural rape, but just the stupidity of the guys she’s met who are consuming Japanese popular culture exports. The fact is a more basic, universal, human-wide one: there are tons of idiots everywhere who are consuming foreign popular culture exports in the same way. The trends are definitely influenced by specific political trends — the kid in Uzbekistan is likely to watch both American and Bollywood movies naively, the kid in America will blow his xenophilic wad on Japanese movies, and the kid in Japan is gonna be consuming American, or these days, Korean or Japanese or Thai pop culture. (If you google “Yon-sama” you’ll see a bizarre fascination among Japanese women for Korea’s biggest, and most annoying, male romantic lead export… and a whole mythos around the “romantic”, “gentle”, “sensitive” Korean man.)

    To me, this feels kind of like complaining that Americans make bad Chinese food, and like it. Of course they do: they’re Americans. What did anyone expect? Sure, some people know what time it is, and some people have no idea, and most don’t care. I still crave sweet and sour chicken balls once in a while, or the General Tao’s Chicken from the little place near the Guy Metro in Montreal, and that stuff is far from authentic. But barbarian as I am, I don’t see this hurting anyone since this is different from cases such as Monsanto’s move to patent basmati rice, say, or the way that whole countries have had their legislative process hijacked and their industries chained to crops that are, and can only be, export crops, or dangerous monocultures (such as the reengineered soybeans that are supposed to replace lentils, mung beans, and all our other legumes). That, I take very seriously, and it does stand to make the kind of robbery you wrote about, I am assuming as hypothetical example, possible and even likely.

    People who fancy themselves “otaku” and know jack shit about Japan are idiots. People who think jazz was invented by white people are idiots. It sometimes seems to me that the world is full of idiots. Sometimes I look like an idiot to myself, though less often the lower my expectations of the majority of other human beings fall. But I’m not sure about the legitimacy of rants couched in politics against what is, finally, idiocy. They won’t cure it, they don’t even address what I think is the core issue.

    Then again, I coupling racism and idiocy in a dangerous way. Because it makes it harder to admit one’s own failings, for one, and for another, because there have been people in the world who were very intelligent and thoroughly racist… because, I assume, they were just very good at hypocrisy, or at stopping themselves from thinking too hard about certain things. What to do with that knowledge? That complexifies it all for me.

    God, collectibles on ebay. I have never looked there, it never even occurred to me. (Then again, I barely ever look at ebay.)

    I haven’t really followed Duncan’s posting on the subject, if he’s done a lot, but I think I did read one post about it. The dichotomy between misrepresentation and “cultural appropriation” is an important one, even though I don’t feel a wholly negative connotation to the word “appropriation”. There’s some part of me that thinks that while appropriating someone’s physical goods or body is wrong, there is a kind of honorable way in which ideas can be borrowed or begged. There’s a thin line between that and stealing, and I think you’re right that the only way to really determine it is on a case-by-case basis, in part by intuitive sense of authorial intent and context for a work? (I know, we’re supposed to act as if authorial intent is irrelevant now, but I never really bought that. I’m human, the author’s human, when I write I have intentions, however vague and uncertain they are. I can assume the same of other writers. I can’t know them for sure, but I can intuit and figure out at least part of it, for worthwhile writers anyway.)

    I get this sense that not worrying about getting it wrong — literally not worrying, rather than worrying but refusing to be crippled by it — is in fact “getting it wrong”. Details might go wrong in anyone’s writing, but the fundamental failure is not being motivated to even try to get it right. (Assuming that such motivation, when present, motivates research, thought, and the rest of things writers are supposed to do.)

    By the way, I hadn’t heard of Black Wall Street before, and while I’m not really surprised at it, I feel as if something has been confirmed, once again, by hearing about the incident. (Not sure what, but something quite misanthropic.) Thanks for bringing it to my attention, though. Why I didn’t hear about this in all those years of school is beyond me.

    The example of jazz… oh, yeah. Of course, the history of jazz is so bloody complicated. There’s tons of European harmony mixed in with all that non-European stuff, especially the rhythmic complexity that started as collaborative polyrhythm and from which we get swing, the primacy of voice (either as singing voice, or as the solo instrumental line) that carries up to the present, and the loop-structures and so on. I once read some essay that suggested that the European harmony was first conveyed through (and mutated along the way) these series of musicians, along complex hierarchical chains that, of all things, were partly determined by skin color. It was bizarre. As you say, jazz is a universal music, and yet it is also unarguably the creation of African-Americans, to which isolated (but significant) contributions by others were made along the way. I mean, Gil Evans made a singular contribution to jazz arranging when he collaborated with Miles Davis — he ranks with Duke and Strayhorn and Mingus in the field of arranging; Charlie Haden was crucial to what happened to bass playing in the 60s; Jaco Pastorius remade the electric bass into a real instrument. So I guess I have this complex view of jazz, since I see it as kind of symptomatic of what’s unusual about American culture. (It brings to mind the James Baldwin essay I just worked through with my students, “Stranger in the Village”, actually.) It’s literally African-American, but part of that condition is its inability for it to be truly, homogenously so. That doesn’t make it less black music, per se… but the thing is, what that means is kind of difficult to say. What the implications are is difficult to say, I mean. Again, “Stranger in the Village” (the essay I studied with my class) comes to mind, and Baldwin’s comment of being “strangely grafted” upon European/Western culture. Jazz, it seems to me, emerges from the seal-point (or wound) of that grafting, and was nurtured primarily on the black side of the graft.

    But people know that, right? So now, anyone know who asserts old Paul Whiteman’s claim to have invented jazz music will be laughed out into the street. I don’t see how there is much of a political dimension anymore to that question — not to anyone who knows anything about jazz — since it’s just a stupid statement. But what’s more interesting is the fact that what happened in jazz happened because African-American musicians appropriated European musical theory — and they did it over a very long period, since even Bird and Miles and Trane studied the stuff and then quite masterfully, and repeatedly, reformulated it to their own uses. Which may be another sign of a positive form of appropriation — that whatever you’re appropriating, if you’re really doing something worthwhile in the process, it gets transformed into something else by the very act of appropriation.

    I also don’t know of what practical implication is that jazz is an African-American music — especially now that, under the lead of Wynton Marsalis, jazz is fast becoming more like a museum piece, and losing its revolutionary vitality. (I’ve never heard Wynton talk about Ornette Coleman or Eric Dolphy or Don Cherry, for all he talks about Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.) I remember reading a stat in Billboard magazine about how Japan consumed more jazz albums per year than the whole USA combined, and joking that from now on, jazz would have to be considered Japanese music.

    One example I do have of cultural appropriation in fiction is the type I’ve seen where the writer takes wholesale the cultural practices, clothing, religious beliefs of a community of colour and even the geography and climate of the place where they originated, removes the people of colour from the picture, and grafts white people in to replace them without doing any worldbuilding to make that shift hold together conceptually.

    Which, to me, just sounds like really bad writing. I mean, yes, there’s probably political issues we could talk about there, but it seems to me until such a book attains mass popularity, there’s no point in getting into all of that all the same, because it’s just more expedient to note that the book fails at a much deeper level — basic competency of execution.

    Your words on writers not just writing but also living in the world — thanks for the reminder. It struck a chord. I wish people did write SF here more — the genre is still kind of regarded as junk in this culture, it seems. There’s so little of it, and almost nothing exists in translation. And believe me, I suck far too badly to read anything, let alone translate it. But non-usual-suspects characters… that I can do, and like to do.

    That Spike Lee film you mentioned forgetting the name of was Bamboozled, and yeah, it was quite hard to teach, moreso because the students really wanted to understand what was so offensive about the first blackface show in the movie, and I had to explain some of it and some of the assumptions underlying it. It was so deeply layered. It was interesting which stereotyped they already knew, and which ones struck them as alien. “Watermelon? Why? Watermelon is good! I like watermelon too!” said one student. They’re supposed to be looking at English cultures, and since for so many of them, that means pop songs and sit coms, I wanted to show them something else. The underbelly of contemporary global popular culture, where I think it started, which, you know, is at the fusion point of that “strange graft” that happened in America. It was a tough discussion, and an interesting but ultimately rather saddening one. I didn’t teach the whole film, just used a few sections. The class was more on a very basic history of blackface. This week, we looked at the blues form, analyzed a song by Bukka White, and looked at how the blues form underlies a bunch of jazz and rock song forms. (We also went through jazz music, roughly from the Swing Era to Bebop, which is short, but, um, time was short.) Yesterday I lectured them, a little bit, on the Beats, and we looked through Ginsberg’s poem “America”. I used a freaking Powerpoint presentation in class.

    Hey, I hope you got some sleep! Look out for that — I went sleepless a few too many times last semester and it did me in. Here’s to your health!

    My head hurts, so I’m going to stop trying to edit this for clarity and just post it.

  8. It does make one’s head hurt, doesn’t it? There are a lot of balls to keep in the air at the same time when one is considering this stuff.

    What Jenn’s describing *is* racism, whether the white guys doing it know it or not. I’m dead certain that very few of them mean any harm. That doesn’t make them harmless. We’re constantly encouraged to think of racism as being an individual and/or express act of hatred. But racism is also systemic, and that’s more difficult to see, and more difficult to admit that one is complicit in. Kittens *are* being squashed, and certain types of tourism are directly implicated. I learned more about that than I was quite prepared to think about in doing the research for my next novel, which is really mostly about one woman getting older and resenting it. I learned seriously scary shit that really should not have to be happening in order for well-meaning people from one place to go to people from another place to learn about their culture. But it is happening, and we are implicated.

    I can imagine your students trying to figure out why the ever-present image of the darkie eating watermelon is offensive! They don’t have the context. When I first came to Canada, it was years before I would let a white person see me eating watermelon.

    You said, “it seems to me until such a book attains mass popularity, there’s no point in getting into all of that all the same.” What I’m describing is something that one sees all the time in very popular and successful television shows that don’t get criticised on that level. Sure, it’s bad storytelling, but condensing it down to just that erases the specific cause of that particular type of bad storytelling and makes it difficult for people to perceive it for what it is. When a white professor from some country can look at a black colleague visiting from the U.S. and say to her, “Oh, I know about your people. You all have such lovely voices. Sing for me, why don’t you?” the effects of the stereotypes that that white professor has been fed go way beyond bad storytelling. And that’s a mild example. Here’s one from another realm of systemic prejudice; when I call the cops because two girls have just been flashed by an elderly white man in a suit in front of the library where I work (I could see the man when I looked out the window; the girls had described him accurately, and he was still masturbating), and the cops after hearing our description go out and detain a young white guy who seemed like the right type to them because he was wearing jeans and carrying a knapsack, so they assumed he was “itinerant” (1. turned out he was a student. 2. what does being homeless necessarily have to do with being a flasher?, and 3. hello? Matching description of the suspect from three eye witnesses?), “bad storytelling” does not begin to cover the risk to which the poor young man was put. We’re encouraged to put all the blame on that professor and those cops for swallowing the lies, and they do bear some blame. But it’s not always possible to know that they *are* lies. Falling unconsciously into a racist/sexist/you-name-it meme doesn’t make one the devil incarnate; we’ve all done it. We’re soaking in a world full of prejudice, and we gotta inhale sometime. One needs to be able to say, “friend, there’s some shit on your shoe. You might want to shake that off” without it being seen as a mortal insult. (Mixed more metaphors there than I’m going to bother to go back and count.)

    I know what Wynton has said about Japan and jazz music, and he has a point. By describing the current state of affairs, he’s not erasing the connection between black people and jazz. I’ll tell you one practical implication of not forgetting that jazz is an African music (and, if I have the right of it, heavily inspired by First Nations music as well); for the next inevitable time that some ignant mofo comes along and tells you that “your people” are anti-intellectual and have never made any contributions to the arts and sciences. Not that laying down some science on his ass is going to enlighten him any, cause he’ll just claim that white people came along and made it better, that it was “primitive” before that. And a whole hopper-load full of people will nodd their heads and murmur in agreement. I’m not talking about some kind of rare conversation. Shit happens all the time, and people – some of them experts in jazz music or whatever field of endeavour it happens to be — are not laughing the idiot comments away.

    And a resounding “yes” to you; refusing to think about it is the real “getting it wrong.” A toast to thinking about it. (And to sleep!) And to writing, which I must now go and do some of. Not that this wasn’t writing, but you understand.

  9. It does make one’s head hurt, doesn’t it? There are a lot of balls to keep in the air at the same time when one is considering this stuff.

    Definitely. I’ve been thinking about this ever since the last comment you left, off and on…

    I’m going to think this over and then come back to it. I have to prep for a few classes in the next two days, and this afternoon’s the time for that. :)

    More soon!

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