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A Global Traveler’s Perspective on Cultural Appropriation

The discussion of cultural appropriation is on the tip of everyone’s tongue nowadays. To preface this article, I must tell you who I am. I am WHITE. Or caucasian to remain PC. I grew up in North Carolina surrounded primarily by black people. I grew up not realizing that I was white for a significant portion of my childhood due to my friends and surroundings. When I did recognize my skin color as different, it made me curious about why I was different from my friends? Where’d my friends come from? It was what prompted my interest in travel and learning about other cultures to begin with as a teenager.

I am a white woman who has lived and worked in numerous countries in Asia. Who has traveled in Kenya and lived in Colombia. I have lived in 20 states in the U.S. and really don’t have a place I call “home.” I move every two years, I travel for months at a time. I switch my time working between employment in the restaurant/bar industry and teaching abroad for money. I truly am a citizen of the world.

Now cultural appropriation is one of the newest buzzwords that has taken hold in the media. Since, no matter what I write comes from a place of “white privilege,” I have very few ways to rebuke this term without sounding like a racist hypocritical asshat. However, I will do my best to address this from a traveler’s perspective because this is where I have beef with the whole shabang.

These words: CULTURAL APPROPRIATION have tainted my enjoyment of travel in a seriously negative way and I am done with it. Why do people travel? For many reasons of course, but I believe many people travel to open their eyes to new places, new cultures, new languages and new people. Why else would you leave your comfort zone, but to try and open your mind by doing something vastly different from what you know?

My first time abroad landed me in Tokyo, Japan at 19 years old. As a typical, curious little American, all I knew about Japan in 1998 was our atrocious history with the Japanese people and sushi. I was about as ignorant as it got when it came to any kind of Asian culture, but my mind was wide open. The very first day, jetlagged as hell, I hopped on my first subway train ride to the middle of downtown Tokyo alone in search of an authentic sushi bar. I found such a bar as was/is common and partook in my first sushi experience in Japan. I was hooked. I was hooked on the idea of doing something that wasn’t American, that wasn’t white and Southern, that wasn’t me! It was fascinating to me to try something so culturally relevant all by myself in the middle of bustling Tokyo. The taste, the smell, the sounds of the restaurant, all of it was foreign, all of it was exciting. For the next two years that I lived in Tokyo, Japan I made a serious effort to integrate into Japanese society as best I could. I started learning Japanese, wearing different clothing, making many Japanese friends and attending Japanese parties. I loved it, I wanted to learn more, I appreciated every, single aspect of this educational life.

Returning to the States in 2000 was a real cultural wake up call for me. I had reverse cultural shock once I arrived. I hated it. I hated being American. I hated living away from all that excited me. America was boring. It had no culture. At least in my eyes. I craved something more. When I finally decided to get my shit together and go to college, it was an easy choice for my major: International Development Studies. Oh, so I can travel the world, help people and learn about other cultures and get paid for it, albeit shitty pay, but paid for it??? SIGN ME UP!! And so I had to choose two regions of the world to study in depth. As a white girl who grew up around mostly black people, I had always had an interest in black people so naturally I chose Sub-Saharan Africa as one of my regions and you’ll never guess my next region? Of course, East Asia. I studied history, language (Mandarin), culture, geography, and policies in both regions of the world in depth. It was a fascinating and humbling time in my life to learn so much about other cultures I was so deeply intrigued by.

I moved to China directly after college to teach English and look for work in a nonprofit. Eventually I was to become the Senior Director of a nonprofit helping with the cultural sustainability of Tibetans. Needless to say, I have a history of curiosity and need to learn about others. I have always thought of this as one of my better attributes, but since this term cultural appropriation has come to the forefront, I have felt this strange sense of shame about it all. Why do I feel shame for loving and learning about others? For wearing bracelets made by indigenous women on the side of the road who desperately need the cash? For participating in a dance not of white origin with villagers in a small town in the middle of India? For learning a language of another so that I may dive further into a culture I have an appreciation for? For wanting to dread my hair? For learning an ancient instrument of Asian descent? Or practicing yoga and meditation? I can’t wear a keffiyeh as I trot through the desert to cover my eyes or mouth from the elements? Have tattoos representing all the places I’ve traveled? I can’t smoke sheesha or make hummus? Where do we draw the line? Where do we say this is cultural appropriation or this is just appreciation?

I am white. I am of Swedish, Turkish, German and Irish descent. I have a rich ancestral history; however, my particular history does not interest me. I have an affinity for other cultures. I love Asia, Africa and Latin America. I cannot help what I love, I cannot help what inspires me. I am a proud traveler who loves learning about other people, customs, traditions, languages, clothing and food. I dance till the wee hours of the morning to salsa music here in Colombia. I wear an anklet from Kenya. I will have dreads again as soon as my hair is long once more. I have tattoos in other languages. I rock earrings from Vietnam and make food from Mexico. I smoke Lebanese tobacco out of pipes and listen to Afrobeat from Nigeria. I celebrate Chinese New Year because it has become New Year’s for me too. I watch football, yes real football (soccer ok Americans) like a crazy fanatic, which comes from England. I am not English.I practice yoga and I am an atheist. How does that work?? I am a walking, talking mish mash of all the things I love and am fascinated by and I will continue to evolve. I will continue to wear these clothes, this hair, listen to that music, rock this jewelry and dance to that music. I do not apologize for it. I do not feel shame for it anymore. As a traveler, I am open to all people and cultures and I will not let some phrase being touted by the media dishonor my experiences traveling. It cannot get in the way of speaking to an 80 year old woman on the side of the road in Peru, who sells me a pair of earrings that I will wear with pride and remember that moment for the rest of my life. I will not let this phrase keep me from the dance floors of Argentina or Angola just because I am white. I will not let this phrase sell me short of experiencing life to the fullest, because as a traveler, that is what I do. I LIVE LIFE.

Comments

  1. Annika

    That is a wonderful and enlightened post and I completely agree with you. However, a lot of people don’t absorb other cultures like you do. They take things of people’s belief systems and religions and turn them into an item of decoration or a fashion accessory. I understand that it rightfully upsets others. Take the fact that a lot of travelers buy Buddha statues as decorations. If you have no clue about Buddhism why would you buy one? I can understand a faithful Buddhist being upset about that. However, if you actually practiced Buddhism, read up on it, etc. (like you seem to do with all things you do and wear), I don’t think there is a problem with it. Just don’t take something that is sacred to someone else, turn it into a piece of pop culture and call yourself a world traveler.

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