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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:

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.

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