As a Chinese girl living in the UK, one of my biggest peeves is the lack of appreciation for my culture. With the COVID-19 pandemic making it worse for my entire race, it became increasingly important for me to educate myself, and others about certain areas they may be unaware of. One of these things is the difference between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation. It is a fine line that a lot of people are yet to understand and is why I think it is an extremely important topic to discuss as one slip up could make what you do or say, incredibly offensive.
Cultural appreciation is what I wish I saw more of – when people try to understand and learn about other cultures to create a different perspective they didn’t have before and genuinely appreciate it. Cultural appropriation, however, is when you take that culture, without actually caring about it at all, and use it for your own personal gain. I’ve come across many examples of cultural appropriation over the last year, in which I will use three to explain the difference and why it is a form of cultural appropriation, and not cultural appreciation.
The Mahjong Line
Earlier this year, I wrote a piece about three White women who had the audacity to change an ancient Chinese game due to them not thinking the traditional game was ‘aesthetically pleasing’ in their eyes. This is cultural appropriation as they did not care about the game itself, the tradition it holds in our families or the significance of the game in our culture. The game was created in the 1800s, a way of families bonding through the game and the tiles held meaning to us. It is not appreciating our culture if you decide to change it for them to make money, so it is ‘easier’ for them to learn and not have to understand our language (which is definitely not appreciating it) or to insult it as ‘boring’ and ‘lacked style’
They said they claimed to love the game, yet if they really loved it, they wouldn’t need to change what isn’t theirs to change. What they should have done is learn to play it, understand the history behind it and appreciate it for what it is – a game of strategy and skill.
Little Mix and Pretty Little Thing
In 2019, Little Mix released a collaboration line with Pretty Little Thing, where they fetishized Asian women in their line through a ‘sexy’ version of traditional Chinese clothes. Pretty Little Thing, who branded the clothes ‘oriental’, was very problematic. If they had appreciated our culture, they would have addressed that in our culture, the qipao (which they said the line was loosely based on) was meant to be reserved and not meant to be sexy. The qipao can be found as early as the Qing Dynasty, which evolved since that time and is important in our culture for a lot of reasons, where it can be worn in many festivities, weddings and (more in the olden days), to show status.
By using them as inspiration and making them ‘sexy’, it sexualises the culture and the women that wear them for the right reasons. Using it to make money and using it to ‘be trendy’ only feeds into the history we have where westernised people view Asian women as ‘submissive’ and ‘exotic’, where we are constantly fetishized and hypersexualised. In order to culturally appreciate our clothes, they should wear it how it is, understand the meaning behind it, the roots of where it comes from, rather than changing it to make profits and sexualise us further.
The Self-Dubbed ‘Queen of Congee’
Congee is an incredibly popular dish in Asian countries, where many of them have their own version. One version, however I will never accept to be congee, is one made ‘created’ by a white woman called Karen (yes, she’s actually a Karen) who decided she was the ‘Queen of Congee’, after claiming she had improved the Asian dish.
Her reasoning behind the adaptation was to ‘modernise it for the western-pallet’, so you can ‘eat and find [it] delicious’ and ‘doesn’t seem foreign’. Congee was not made for westernised people, who many seem to think the entire world has to cater towards them. It is meant to ‘taste foreign’ because it is, but you either appreciate its difference (and authenticity) or not.
Asian food has always been used as an insult, where stereotypically our food is seen as ‘disgusting’ and ‘unsanitary’. Karen doing this only continues this stereotype, where our food is ‘too disgusting’ to eat, so must be changed instead of appreciated. Shows like James Corden’s ‘Spill your Guts or Fill your Guts’ is no help, where some of the things they put in there will be eaten by people in their cultures but is seen as disgusting and part of a game in westernised societies. People are constantly claiming to love Chinese food, where it is a very popular choice here of Takeaway. But we have already had to modify our food for your liking, yet it is still not enough for you. You must keep changing and changing it till it meets your standards, until it lacks all authenticity and results in a loss of our culture. Food is food. As soon as something is new, it is suddenly ‘weird’ without any thought. But just try it. You might be surprised – that way you can fully appreciate us and what we do.
One thing I’ve learned through differentiation of the two concepts is that in order to appreciate one’s culture, a lot of the time, you just have to leave it alone. There is no financial gain, there is no ripping off ideas as ‘inspiration’, there is no modification to one’s culture. Instead, you can appreciate other cultures by digging deeper into the history, the heritage, the role of that food, the clothes and how it is part of the culture. You understand that yes, we are different – and it’s an amazing feeling to have our culture (and feelings) feel respected and appreciated.