A few weeks ago, a friend and I were browsing a kimono stall. We were looking at some silky kimono-like jackets, beautifully decorated in Japanese patterns. I asked her if she would wear one around her uni, and she joked, “they’d probably call me out on cultural appropriation”.
Apparently the students at her university are really big on calling people out on this. They criticise white people wearing dreadlocks and bindis, listening to rap, or post gap-year students who wander around uni with their South American brightly coloured clothing. This may be okay, or it may not be, and I guess this depends on your social circles and priorities, but that’s a debate for another place. Instead, I want to discuss the use of the word itself.
A few weeks after this conversation, I found myself using the word more and more. Even though I didn’t fully understand the concept, the word kept slipping out of my mouth. I was in one of those fair-trade, ethical, eco-friendly natural clothing shops which smell of incense. I’ve always felt a bit uncomfortable in them and I’ve never really articulated exactly why, but this time I said to my friend, ‘it’s cultural appropriation, eh’. She nodded at my wiseness and agreed that yes, of course it’s cultural appropriation, because it just is. It even popped up in my own thoughts when I was thinking about wearing my big baggy colourful silky harem pants.
Looking back on it, I’m quite surprised at how easily this word became a part of my stock set of phrases, especially when I barely understand the concept. It’s a really complex and interesting topic, and there are loads of articles online which discuss it in more detail.
In the same way, I often say things like, ‘he’s a chauvinistic pig’ when reasoning my dislike for a particularly male character, ‘it’s the establishment, they’re out to get us’, when expressing dislike for the government, or, ‘she’s so liberal and left-wing it’s great’, to describe someone I admire. I stick to a stock set of phrases used in my social group back at university. ‘They’ are the evil politicians, and ‘us’ are the powerless and suppressed – this barely requires explanation. The phrases just come out, and when they are used they earn nods of agreement and quiet admiration.
So the big life-changing-probably-really-obvious thing that I realised is that people react to the usage of these phrases, rather than the meaning. Since coming to Japan and leaving my social circle, I’ve found that I can’t stick to my stock set of phrases any more, and often I have to justify and explain myself and approach conversations from a different angle.
By reacting to the words and phrases rather than the meaning, I think we become numb to the true power and effect and meaning of words. For instance, when my Asian friend described herself as a banana, I asked what she meant. She explained, oh so casually, that she was ‘white on the inside, yellow on the outside’. I was shocked – I had been taught that ‘yellow’ as a descriptor for Asian people is racist and derogatory. I think that she had come from a circle where the term was used with absolutely no racist connotations whatsoever, and she had thus become immune to any kind of negative meaning behind it. Many people here use this term, and once it had been explained to me I kept noticing it more and more. And then one day, as I was cycling into university, a thought popped up into my head, totally out of the blue – ‘maybe I’m a banana too’.
Yes, it happened! I was so super surprised! Like, I was so mind-blown. I actually thought this word so flippantly with no appreciation for the connotations behind it. Whether or not this phrase is bad or non-PC is a debate for another time – instead, I think it’s telling of exactly how powerful and subjective language is – the words and phrases that are used in different social circles really say a lot about the way in which we’re socialised.
We become numb to the words we prioritise and the phrases we respect, and no longer ask the question – ‘what does that actually mean?’ In some respects, this is actually quite humbling. I am forced to question aspects of myself which I feel define my personality, as well as the foundations of the reasons why I like the people I do, because most of the time I’m drawn to people who’s opinion I respect. But if these opinions are mere by-products of their social circle, then what does their opinion actually say about them? Am I too, just a by-product of my socialisation, nothing more? Do I lack in originality? Is individuality impossible? Am a just a standard-mould left-wing minded university student? And I guess, when I describe myself as a ‘free-thinking individual’, ‘free’ is actually limited to the capacity of the box in which I live.
These thoughts can be annoying and irritating and make me feel unstable and like I’m going through some quarter-life crisis (hey may as well be a fifth-life crisis if you wanna be optimistic). But the more I think about it, the more I think it’s actually kinda okay. I guess it’s the only way we can live, because we’re defined by the people we spend our time with, by our upbringing and by our socialisation. So to have the opportunity to step out of this box is special: I have the unique opportunity to see other the boxes which exist, as well as to learn about the box which I came from. Before I came here, I judged other people by the standards which I thought were my own, but were actually the standards of my social circle. By realising this, I guess I become more open to creating relationships with a wider variety of people.
So this is what’s magical and great. Yes, it’s super scary to feel insecure and box-less (well I find sometimes anyway), but I feel liberated in a way. (Although I’m probably just blind to the fact that I am now in a new box, and am limited by a new way of thinking and new stock phrases, but I think I’m okay with that, for now.)
With those thoughts thrown out into the inter-world, have a content new year of the monkey.