Thoughts On The Line Between Cultural Exchange and Cultural Appropriation

It’s time for white, middle-America’s favorite game – IS! IT! RACIST!
Source: Bored Panda

So, a certain story has floated past my news feed multiple times for a while now. It made me ask some powerful questions and I want to share those questions with you.

I’ll save you the time spent reading and sum up the source for you; a mom in Utah gave her little girl a traditional Japanese tea party complete with traditional garb and makeup, photos found their way to Tumblr, people cried racism (because that’s pretty much all Tumblr lives for anymore), and one user from Japan named ‘cheshireinthemiddle’ finally shut the whole argument by basically saying there was nothing wrong with what the girl did and the only racists there were the ones that were denying what they saw as healthy cultural exchange.

So this got me to thinking – Where do we draw the line? When does legitimate cultural exchange and appreciation descend into racist caricature? Is there even such a thing as cultural appropriation?

Well, this wouldn’t be a hot topic of debate if it weren’t loaded with unclear details that everyone interprets differently. That said, I CAN offer my own take on the matter and provide a different way of looking at the issue.

To me, the things that separate cultural exchange and flat-out racism are intent and context. Checked in the dictionary, racism is defined as “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” By that definition, a racist act is any act that insists on the superiority of one race over another by highlighting a segment of another’s heritage or culture as a negative.

Now, let’s go back to our primary story that sparked this discussion. Did the girl make or intend to make any sort of negative statement of Japan as a racial group? No, what she did was demonstrate an interest in another person’s culture and a desire to learn more about it through first-hand experience. It’s literally no different than when white guys were wearing do-rags and gold chains out of an affection for black rap culture.

I feel the issue, in this case, has to do with a cultural barrier that prevents context from flowing freely and clearly between the two parties. A similar issue occurred between Japan and America in the opposite direction back in my day because we mistook the Ganguro fashion scene for racist depictions of black people (not helped by the fact that ‘ganguro’ translated to ‘black face’ in English) instead of a powerful message that challenged and contradicted the feminine beauty standard that Japan held for years. And it’s still an issue today; This is why in Pokèmon, Jinx is recolored for western audiences from black to purple (it didn’t stop them from having Jesse and James dress up as Ganguro Girls in the anime, though).

Honestly, I love learning about other cultures. I’ve often felt cut off from the rest of the world my entire life and sharing in the traditions and habits of other people gives me a chance to expand my understanding of the world. It fact, allow me to give you a first-hand example from a primary source.

When I was in college, I worked closely with a campus’ LGBTQ rights group who, in-turn, cooperated with the campus’ diversity office. As such, I ended up working with a varied spectrum of people with a plethora of different views and insights that I cherish to this very day.

But the most fun I had with them was the semester’s end soul food dinner that we all shared. Almost every culture can relate to bonding over a family meal, after all. I also got to experience culturally influenced dance performances from the students that were legitimately tear-jerking. As for the food itself, it often consisted of things like oxtails, pork jowls, and chitterlings – what foodies like to refer to as offal or  ‘variety meats’ that were often used as a means to ensure that nothing from a meat animal was wasted. As someone with a Scotish-Irish background whose heritage produced haggis (the pluck of a sheep broiled in its own stomach) and black pudding (seasoned pork blood sausage), I can relate.

And that’s why I feel cultural exchange and showing interest in other people heritage is so important. It’s a chance to expand our understanding of the world and the people in it as well as learn that we aren’t as dissimilar as we like to think; We may have different ways of doing things, but we’re all basically after the same thing – a happy, comfortable life where we can celebrate who we are.

So, the next time you find yourself confronted with a cultural sensitivity issue, remember this rule of thumb: if you’re doing it because you’ve experienced or want to experience the culture and share how amazing it is with others, it’s cultural exchange; if you’re doing it because you’re chasing a fashion trend at best or you just want to poke fun at how silly it looks to you at worst, you’re probably just racist.

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3 Foreign Foods I Want To (and You Should) Try At Least once

If I were to settle down and choose a single topic for The Archive to cover, I think I’d want to be a Food Blogger. The only problem is that, without a larger corporation to back me financially, food shopping would become prohibitively expensive.

But I do love food. My parents taught me how to grill and bake at an early age, I enjoy trying new recipes, and eating out with a small group is one of the few social situations that feel comfortable in.

But my fondest food memories come from my college Cultural Anthropology class where our professor brought in foods from all around world for us to try. It was here that I learned that Fried Scorpion isn’t too bad, Vegemite is to be feared, and that Durian Candy is the best thing ever.

That class gave me an itch to find other foreign food stuffs to try that I’ve never been able to scratch due to lack of funds and/or means to produce them myself. So until then, I’ll just have to dream of the day when I can sample…

Chapulines

foodie-fest-mezcal-3-2-2014-2

Even bugs love taco night.
Source: operagirlcooks.com

Originating from Aztec-era Mexico, Chapulines are actually a common breed of Grasshopper that have been baked on a clay cooking slab. You may turn up your nose at the idea, but entomophagy (the human consumption of insects) is widely practiced around the world as the insect bio-mass dwarfs our own. That kinda makes us in the north-western part of the globe the weird ones.

The appeal of Chapulines comes from their ease of harvesting; anyone with a nearby alfalfa field and a net can catch them by the pound late in the day after they’ve exhausted themselves eating. What’s more, most insects are comparable to beef in terms of nutrition.

As stated above, I was surprised that Fried Scorpion was passable. With many people saying that Chapulines are savory and are a good complement to guacamole on tacos, I suspect that these little guys could be better.

Buzz Buttons

No, that’s not the name of a new feature on BuzzFeed.
Source: Amazon

Buzz Buttons or Szechuan Buttons are a fascinating little flower (they’d have to be to trick me into eating my veggies) whose appeal lies in it’s unique taste. When eaten, they cause a tingling, effervescent sensation in the mouth.

An addition to a strange sensation for adventurous foodies, Buzz Buttons also aid digestion by increasing saliva production. It’s also believed that they have anti-septic qualities that are great for cleansing the palate between courses.

Much more of a garnish than an actual food item, Buzz Buttons are still a curious challenge for the culinary thrill seeker.

And speaking of culinary thrill-seeking…

Miracle Berry

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This photo doesn’t convey the magic these little buggers contain.
Source: miraclefruitfarm.com

 

Out of all of the foods listed here, this is the one I absolutely must try once before my demise.

Miracle Berries are the fruit of the plant native to western Africa. There, the berries are used to make sour Palm Wine more palatable, but not by adding them to the liquor.

You see, Miracle Berries contain a unique glycoprotein called Miraculin that can temporarily alter taste by binding to receptors on the tongue and mouth. Long story short, it makes sour things taste sweet.

Imagine it; Grapefruit that doesn’t make you wince. Vinegar that tastes like white wine. You could finally stomach those good foods that are just too sour to handle.

One day, I’m going to get a ton of Miracle Berries and just have a tasting party just to mess with people.

The Kalos Connection: French Culture in Pokémon X and Y

… And so it was done.
Source: Cheezburger.com

Lately, I’ve been playing a ton of Pokémon X when I’m not savagely working on projects for college. Honestly, I had fallen out with Pokémon after the second generation, but this new addition has successfully restored my enthusiasm in the series.

One of the fascinating themes of the new generation is its decision to leave the trappings of Japanese culture to explore that of northwestern Europe; specifically France. But how does it hold up? Is it an accurate depiction of French culture? Let’s see.

Geography and Landmarks

Take a few seconds to think of how much effort went into recreating half a country in a digital environment.
Source: Pokémon Database

One of the places where French influence is most prevalent in Pokémon X and Y is in the lay of the land. This is most clear when you overlay a map of our new setting, the Kalos region, over one of France.

The coastline of Northern France matches up almost perfectly with that of Kalos. What’s more, the mountains forming the eastern side of Kalos seems to be composed of the real life mountainous borders of Belgium, Germany, and Switzerland (indeed, you can find and speak with a character in-game that speaks only in German).

Continuing with the matchups on the map, the largest city in Kalos, Lumiose City, aligns perfectly with France’s capital Paris. Lumiose City’s main attraction is its brightly lit gym which bares an amazing resemblance to the Eiffel Tower. Even the name Lumiose City is a direct reference to Paris’ title as “the City of Light.”

Many people are quick to compare Geosenge Town to Stonehenge with its standing rocks, but this makes little sense as Stonehenge is in Wiltshire, England. It’s far more likely to be a reference to the Carnac Stones in Brittany, France. And yes, its location matches up on the Kalos map as well.

Culture

Chateaus, sidewalk cafés, and an Eiffel Tower. Yeah, I’m SO sure this is New York.
Source: GamesRadar

There are certain cultural elements that we all seem to connect to France naturally and it seems most of them can be found repeated throughout Kalos.

For example, France is one of the leading countries in the fashion industry. As such, one of the heavily touted features in Pokémon X and Y is the series of fashion boutiques and salons dotting Kalos that let you customize your appearance by purchasing new clothes and restyling your hair. Then you can get in costume to film ‘Trainer PR Videos’ to show off your style to other players online in a sort of digital fashion show.

Another recurring theme in Kalos is the appearance of hotels, cafés, and restaurants. The prevalence of these relates to France’s dominance in the tourism trade. After all, when you have huge numbers of people coming in and out of your country, you want them to have nice places to rest and entertain themselves.

Name and Word Etymology

Ladies and gentlemen, the sexiest genius alive.
Source: pokemonxy.com

Many terms and names in Pokémon X and Y are derived from French. For instance, one of the new gameplay features, Pokémon-amie, is a clear play on words of the French term ‘Mon Amie’ meaning ‘My friend.’ In the original Japanese, this feature was called Poké Parler; Parler being French for ‘To speak.’

Speaking of the original Japanese translation of the game, our new Pokémon expert proves quite interesting. Professor Sycamore was originally named Dr. Platane; platanes or plane trees being the French name given to sycamore trees.

Even some of the newly added Pokémon get in on the act. I could never hope to cover them all in one sitting, but we can cover a few like Trevenant who is a portmanteau of Trent, a fantasy race of tree-like creatures, and revenant, an undead ghost or zombie-like monster. The term revenant comes from the French revenir meaning ‘to return.’

Another wholly French Pokémon is Furfrou, who is essentially a poodle that can even be styled in-game. Its name is a pun on the term ‘frou-frou’ meant to describe something extremely fancy but has its origins as a french onomatopoeia for the sound of rustling fabric.

On reflection…

So why is it such a big deal that Pokémon X and Y draw so much from French culture? Because recognizing that is to see a person’s passion and fascination with an entire people and their way of life. Pokémon X and Y’s director Junichi Masuda is a huge fan of French culture and to see that come out in his game is to read a love letter to an entire country that seems to love his country in return.

It’s also a sign of increasing cultural awareness in these polarizing times. By showing a truthful and respectful depiction of another person’s culture, even in a world of fantasy, it shows a person’s understanding of them as well as a desire to share that understanding with others.

There is no way I could cover every connection to France in these games, so I encourage you to play the game and find them for yourself. You may be surprised at what gives you a sense of Déjà Vu.